NEW YORK — Over a colorful career that's included an Oscar win for a Roman Polanski film, collaborations with unconventional directors such as Rian Johnson and Wes Anderson and — of course — that Halle Berry kiss seen 'round the world, Adrien Brody has pulled rabbits out of many hats.
On Monday he will attempt one of his most interesting tricks, debuting as Harry Houdini in "Houdini," the History Channel's two-night miniseries about the legendary escape artist. "Houdini" offers the challenge of portraying an icon in all his complexity — of playing on the small screen, really, one of the entertainment world's most larger-than-life figures.
"I wanted to convey the truth of an illusion, an understanding of the man, the complexity of the motivations behind him, the youthful sincerity he possessed and the cynical exhausted state that he subjected himself to," Brody said of his approach to the role. "And make the magic tricks work."
Born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, before immigrating with his family to Appleton, Wis., the boy who would become Harry Houdini was not a simple figure, in love with illusions and attention equally and willing to undertake risky acts to pursue them both. After early struggles, he found success in the U.S. and Europe with improbable escapes. When audiences tired of the novelty he moved on to increasingly dangerous feats — plunging off bridges into icy water, for instance.
Written by Nicholas Meyer and executive produced by the TV veteran Gerald W. Abrams ("Nuremberg"), "Houdini" packs in plenty about its subject's life over four hours. (The last half will debut Tuesday.) Shot in Budapest, the miniseries covers Houdini's invention as a magician upon leaving home, a fraught relationship with wife and assistant Bess (Kristen Connolly), a battle against spiritualists with whom he strongly disagreed and even his (not quite historically accurate) recruitment into Western espionage circles in the days leading to World War I. A disclaimer at the start of the miniseries offers that what we're about to see is a mix of fact and fiction, and producers "defy you to tell the difference."
"I wanted to do justice to the spectacular character of this man's life while at the same time feathering in some attempts to psychologically interpret what his motives were," said Meyer, who counts a diverse roster of movies including "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan" and "The Seven-Percent Solution" among his credits.
A lot of those motives, Meyer's script suggests, had to do with Houdini's father, a failed rabbi who died young and whose disappointing life fueled his son's need for success and adoration. Those elements came from research conducted by Meyer's late father, whose book on the subject Meyer relied on and that History Channel bought as source material.
There is also a strong element of the first modern celebrity in Houdini, who understood marketing and self-promotion in ways that seem eerily prescient.
"This," Abrams said, "is really the story of America,"
He added that he wanted the full effect of the tricks to come across (director Uli Edel shows classics like the milk-can escape in intimate and revealing detail), even visiting a shop of Houdini paraphernalia near downtown Los Angeles to better understand the tricks.
Brody said those feats of magic resonated with him too. By now the story of him as "The Amazing Adrien," a persona he invented in his childhood as he performed magic tricks for family, is well told, and, he said, indeed spurred his interest to take his first major television role.
But there were other aspects that appealed, he said. After winning the lead actor Oscar for 2002's "The Pianist," when he planted that kiss on Berry, Brody has sometimes baffled fans and Hollywood with choices in indie dramas and other genres well outside the mainstream. But he said he saw in Houdini's own tricks — particularly the death-defying ones — an echo of his own process.
"There are a lot of reasons to be safe as an entertainer. It helps you avoid the risk of not making a blunder," he said as he nursed an iced tea in a downtown hotel in New York, the city where as a child he first practiced those tricks as the Amazing Adrien and where Houdini also made an early mark. "That's especially true when you reach a certain level of visibility and you can be easily knocked for a misstep. But taking a risk is the best way to stumble on to something interesting."
Houdini has enjoyed a pop-cultural renaissance of sorts lately. Johnny Depp is attached to star in a planned feature film, and a Broadway show is in the works.
Some of the popularity may stem from how different Houdini's brand of entertainment seems from that of the modern era. Houdini created spectacular illusions in ways that were practical and immediate, a contrast to a modern moment when most dazzling effects are created by people huddling over computers in dark rooms.
But Brody's costars — Connolly and Evan Jones, who plays assistant Jim Collins, a composite character — said Houdini also fits snugly into this era.
"He was a global celebrity in a time before television, before Twitter, before any of that stuff, which is astonishing," Connolly said.
Added Jones: "He was such a rock star in a time before rock stars. When you dig into it you realize that Houdini is really where modern performance comes from."