Adrien Brody takes on Chopin, Polanski and the burden of history

Special to The Times

Adrien Brody doesn’t have a movie-star swagger or an ingratiating smile for strangers, and that served him well at the Cannes Film Festival last summer. He could stride past the gawking pen- and pad-toting fans gathered outside the Hotel Carlton and breeze through the lobby without a barrage of popping flashbulbs.

After the world premiere of director Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” in which Brody plays the lead role, an audience of more than 3,500 rose to its feet for an emotional 20-minute ovation. The film later won the festival’s Palme d’Or. The film opens Dec. 27.

Tall and lanky, dressed in a cream-colored suit with his dark hair slicked back, Brody plays up his convincing resemblance to the somber, real-life character he portrays, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew and virtuoso pianist who escaped deportation and survived in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto during the German occupation.


Based on Szpilman’s bestselling memoirs, the film recounts the musician’s tormented years of isolation from 1939 -- when a bomb is dropped on Warsaw in the middle of his radio broadcast of Chopin’s Nocturne in D minor -- to 1945, just prior to Poland’s liberation, when a compassionate German officer comes to his rescue.

“I felt that I had a great deal of responsibility in portraying an actual historic figure, especially someone who survived the Holocaust in hiding,” Brody explains. “Wladyslaw Szpilman was 88 when he died in July 2000. I never met him but Polanski met him several times. We watched documentaries and I was supplied with a lot of literature. And Roman told me stories from his own childhood about the bombing of Warsaw and surviving the Krakow ghetto.”

The actor talks slowly and deliberately, his long, articulate sentences punctuated by reflective pauses. At 29, Brody has already worked with an impressive list of directors -- Steven Soderbergh (“King of the Hill”), Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”), Spike Lee (“Summer of Sam”), Barry Levinson (“Liberty Heights”) and Ken Loach (“Bread and Roses”). But the part in Polanski’s film wasn’t intended for an American actor. More than 1,400 European auditioners turned up for the casting call for a man between 25 and 35 of “slight build, dark coloring” who was “sensitive, vulnerable and charismatic,” but apparently none was right for it.

“My ancestors on my father’s side are Polish Jewish, so I could relate,” Brody says. “I also think I possess a kind of European quality, even though I’m definitely a product of a very urban environment in Brooklyn where I was born.” Mastering a Polish accent was one of the least daunting challenges.

“I’m the kind of actor who likes to connect as much as I can to the state of mind of the character. In an effort to play Szpilman, a man who loses everything, I eliminated a lot of things in my own life before I left for Berlin and Warsaw for eight months. I sold my car, dropped my apartment, put everything in storage, got rid of my cell phone, and fired some people ...” his voice trails off.

Brody also lost a tremendous amount of weight, and had to follow a specific diet before and during the shoot. “When I was my thinnest and most destroyed I just sat around and existed,” he sighs. “I didn’t talk to anyone for days. It was a pretty sad place to be and I was probably as unhappy as I’ve ever been in my life.”

The actor is quick to add that despite the harsh conditions -- bitter cold, long hours on the set, no stand-ins, no stuntmen and little rest between scenes -- he feels privileged to be part of such a serious film and able to explore a character in such depth. “Besides, when you work with Polanski, there’s no point in complaining because it doesn’t get you anywhere,” he declares with a wry smile.

“There’s a scene where I’m climbing a fence and can barely make it over -- I wasn’t acting! We’d done it so many times with a crane shot and I didn’t have any strength left. I weighed about 130 pounds and all my muscles were gone. I told Roman I had no energy and he answered” -- Brody pauses and mimics a Polish accent -- “ ‘Ach, you actors! What do you need energy for? Just do it !’ ”

“Roman is such a tough guy -- tough in the best sense of the word, because he’s so good at doing so many things. In one scene, people are shooting at me and I was supposed to slide headfirst off a clay-tile roof, then fall and jump through the veranda. I asked if someone had done it already, if I could see how it worked.” Polanski himself scrambled up to the roof and gracefully slid down. “He hung onto the edge and jumped better than Harrison Ford could have done. It blew me away,” Brody recalls.

Though he was never trained as a classical pianist, Brody felt compelled to learn how to play Chopin, and is now glad he did. “Had I just acted like I was playing the piano, I wouldn’t have understood the story within Chopin’s music, which is an extremely powerful force for my character.” Brody composes his own hip-hop sequences on the synthesizer, and his keyboard was one of the few things he brought with him. “It’s kind of dark, slow New York-style bass accompaniment, but it’s become more melodic since Chopin. Now I can throw in some fancy key work.”

“My father actually played Chopin in a different way than in the film,” states Andrzej Szpilman, the pianist’s 46-year-old son, in a phone interview. “But that’s not important. Obviously, I am very close to the story, and I was very moved by Adrien’s performance.

“Polanski definitely made the right choice for the role, as my father knew he would,” Andrzej Szpilman says. “He said to me, ‘We can trust Polanski, first because he’s a survivor and he’s lived long enough in Poland to understand, and also because he’s a great artist.’ ”

After his work on “The Pianist,” Brody said, “I remember saying to my father, who is a history teacher, that young Americans are extremely fortunate not to have experienced war on their soil, because the repercussions of World War II are still very visible in Warsaw. Then the World Trade Center was attacked. I went down there with my mom, who is a photojournalist, and took pictures. The emotions I felt -- the sadness, anger and the fear from this destructive inhumanity -- were very similar to what I’d been experiencing playing Szpilman.

“I didn’t work after ‘The Pianist’ for almost a year,” he nearly whispers, looking down. “Not that there weren’t opportunities. Nothing really inspired me, or the roles seemed too superficial. I had done three or four movies in a row and I was exhausted. I became a vegetarian for six months, went to Hawaii, took care of myself.”

Brody takes a deep breath. “I’m much more disciplined. I’ve grown up, I’m more ready for life and its obstacles. And,” he smiles, “I complain a little less.”