To portray the Holocaust-era pianist Wladislaw Szpilman, actor Adrien Brody had to lose a lot of weight, so he starved himself. Slim to begin with, he lost about 30 pounds in six weeks, leaving him gaunt, weak, sad, vulnerable.
He hasn't entirely recovered from a lot of those feelings, especially the intense hunger. Even now, more than a year later, dressed in a three-piece Dolce & Gabbana tweed suit and silver tie in the draped, dripping luxury of a Los Angeles hotel room, Brody is shoveling fried eggs and chopped broccoli into his mouth with the desperate energy of someone who hasn't seen much food of late.
Silver fork tines click and scratch as hand moves impatiently to mouth, then back again. As a human being, Brody learned how hunger can focus the mind; as an actor, he learned how its raw, unrelenting emptiness can loosen the emotions.
Hunger "immediately provided me with a level of insight I wouldn't have had," says the 29-year-old actor, looking up only briefly before diving back into his meal. At 6 feet 1 and just 130 pounds, Brody still hasn't gained back much weight from the shoot. His cheekbones are vast hollows; his prominent nose slopes down to two cavernous nostrils in a pale, narrow face. In his dandified outfit -- with cuff links and mussed brown bangs -- this looks like Gucci chic; in a tattered overcoat and ragged beard, during the filming, it looked very much like a desperate swoon on the edge of life itself.
Directed by Roman Polanski, "The Pianist" (which opens tomorrow in Washington) is a simple story of the survival of Szpilman, a prominent Warsaw composer and pianist who, like all Polish Jews, was slated for extermination during Hitler's rampage across Europe.
Szpilman was one of the very few who survived. Based on the musician's memoir, the film begins with his playing calmly for broadcast on Polish radio as German bombs fell all around. It recounts the rapid shrinking of his universe, of his cultured family's attempt to survive in the Warsaw ghetto until their deportation to the death camps. Szpilman alone eludes the dragnet, finding a hiding place outside the ghetto where he continues to waste away, sustained by strangers and then, unexpectedly, by a German officer who shares a love of music.
The film is a truth-telling exercise on several levels, offering a portrait of the time shorn of melodrama. String instruments do not swell over images of families lined up for deportation; there are decent Poles and selfish Jews as part of the story's backdrop. Most affecting, perhaps, is the sense of ordinariness of the war's horrifying daily reality -- Szpilman stepping around corpses lying in the ghetto street on his way to play at a Jews-only cafe, his family of five carefully -- daintily -- sharing a single caramel as they await transfer to their doom.
One reason for the lack of melodrama may be that Szpilman wrote the memoir immediately after the war, when events were still new. Another may be the special insight of the director, who lived as a child in Poland's Krakow ghetto before escaping at age 7. Polanski lost his mother to the death camps, but -- like Szpilman -- continued to live in Poland after the war.
Polanski attended film school and made his early movies there before setting out for an eventful career (and life) in Hollywood and later Europe. The director waited 40 years to return to his native country to make another film.
It may have been worth the wait. "The Pianist" has resounded among audiences with unexpected power, the first Polanski film to do so in a long, long time. "The Pianist" won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and received standing ovations at film festivals across Europe and in Israel.
For Brody, the warm response is especially gratifying, since the role of Szpilman (whose name, in one of those oddities, translates in Yiddish as "the man who plays") represented a real turning point in his own emotional life. His performance has been nominated for a Golden Globe and he was named best actor by the Boston Film Critics Awards. He's considered a front-runner for an Oscar nomination.
If the performance had a rare power, hunger was one of the reasons, and Brody still dwells on the topic. "There is a level of desperation, loneliness that comes with starvation," he says. "You feel a sense of emptiness that's unimaginable. It's a total psychological shift. It's not something I could have done [otherwise], no matter how good an actor I was."
That wasn't all Brody was willing to endure to inhabit the role, though it was the hardest. To become Szpilman he put his life on hold, giving up an apartment in New York, selling his car and moving to Europe with no forwarding address.
"I just left," he says simply. "I became this guy." He did not want, as he puts it, "a base," a support system to which he could retreat. He stopped listening to hip-hop, electronica or any other music past 1940. He immersed himself in piano lessons, playing three and four hours of classical music a day, before filming and throughout the shoot. The opening scene of Brody playing as bombs fall really is the actor playing.
It helped, too, that the six-month shoot took place in Warsaw, its war-era streets re-created with heart-rending verisimilitude. At night, after shooting wrapped, Brody stayed on his own, and did not go out or hang around with other cast members.
"Everything fueled the intensity and the reality" of the role, he says. "Six months of this -- you rarely get that opportunity. It was probably the most difficult experience of my life."
It changed him, "profoundly," he says, "as a human being. It changed me as an actor. It gave me a taste of what it could be like. How fortunate we are as young people in America not to experience that level of destruction and suffering on our soil."
It seems a little odd to hear Brody express these sentiments dressed the way he is, in such an opulent setting. The actor has about him the brash egoism of youth and talent. He grew up in New York with artsy-literati parents; his mother, Sylvia Plachy, is a well-known photographer, his father a teacher and now painter. Brody began acting from the age of 12, and attended New York's prestigious High School for the Performing Arts, emerging with lofty expectations for himself and his career.
He has found complex character roles in small, sometimes excellent films, among them Steven Soderbergh's "King of the Hill," Elie Chouraqui's "Harrison's Flowers," in which he plays a photojournalist in the midst of the Bosnian war, and Terrence Malick's war epic "The Thin Red Line," in which he had a principal role that ended up largely on the cutting room floor (though Brody was not alone in this fate).
The role in "The Pianist" is by far the most important, most acclaimed performance of his career. But it was not a role he sought, or expected.
Polanski had been determined to find an unknown for the role of Szpilman, and issued a general casting call in London, reportedly auditioning all 1,400 actors and non-actors who answered. None of them was right for the role. Brody, meanwhile, was in Paris shooting "The Affair of the Necklace" starring Hilary Swank (a swiftly forgotten period drama) when he got a phone call from the famous director, who'd decided to consider Americans.
"I wasn't looking for a physical resemblance," the director writes in production notes for the film. "I wanted a young actor who could slip into the skin of the character as I imagined him. . . . When I saw Adrien Brody's work, I didn't hesitate; he was the Pianist."
They met at Polanski's house and discussed Szpilman's story. They met for a beer. They met again, and Polanski gave him a script. Brody then heard nothing for weeks, and returned to New York. Only then did the director call and offer the role, giving Brody the opportunity to change his life.
For many years Polanski had been looking for material that could speak to his own experiences as a youth. He'd met Szpilman in the 1970s during a musical tour in Los Angeles and again in 1990 in Warsaw. But not until 1999 did the director happen to read a new edition of Szpilman's memoirs. He immediately decided to make it into a film. Szpilman gave his blessing to the project but died in July 2000 at age 88, just a few months before filming began.
The filming was as personal as moviemaking gets, and Brody was not alone in feeling the weight of the experience. During shooting, locals would stand by in surprise and watch the reenactment of the brutality of the war, watch Brody walk down the street with a Star of David on his arm, a Nazi mark of shame. (Brody's own father is Jewish, his mother Catholic, but the actor grew up without a strong connection to either religion.)
Polanski was reliving the events of his youth. Though he had declined to shoot in Krakow because the memories were too painful, he did visit his home town, taking his leading actor by the hand to show him where the ghetto once was, the spot where he'd slipped through the wall to the Polish side at age 7. The young Polanski had gone looking for his father, who had been sent to a concentration camp; instead he ended up in the countryside, living with peasants. (His father survived nearly four years in concentration and labor camps, and returned after the war to claim his son.)
Polanski has not spoken of these matters in detail, not even in an autobiography he wrote more than a decade ago; he spoke of them to Brody. "He told me many, many, many things," says the actor quietly. "He's lived more tragedy than most people."
The knowledge and the experience gave Brody what can only be called maturity. In the making of the film, the young actor grew up.
"There's no way I could have connected to the level of sadness that exists in this world. It goes beyond the war -- it's, you feel for people who are hungry, or homeless," he says. "I always have, but it's become very clear to me, and it doesn't go away. It's been over a year, and it hasn't gone away."
The experience also changed him as an actor. Already bigger opportunities are coming Brody's way, and he finally feels ripe to take them on. "Now I'm ready for those roles I always wanted, those powerful leading roles," he says. "I'm there -- emotionally, physically, psychologically. I hadn't grown into myself as a man. Now it's what I'm ready for. Now is when it can all start, in a sense."
But even as he says this, Brody circles back to the singularity of playing a pianist in Warsaw, on the blood-soaked earth of Poland. "Roman possesses the same thing that Szpilman possessed, a superhuman will to survive," the actor reflects. "I could look into my director's eyes and see the guidance I needed for my portrayal. I don't know if I'll ever find that again. I don't know how much could be that personal, that meaningful, on a larger scale."