This interview originally appeared in The Independent on April 21, 2001. Interview by James Mottram. Copyright of The Independent.
Adrien Brody doesn't really look like a movie star. He's tall and awkward-looking, gangly even, with a wedge of black hair, that seems shocked to attention. But his appearance belies the fact that, at just 27, the Manhattan-born Brody is one of the most mature actors of his generation.
Notching up an already impressive list of directors worked with - including Barry Levinson, Terrence Malick, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh - his performances are astute, meticulous and spirited. Brody has had his disappointments - he was touted incorrectly, much to his disappointment, as the hot newcomer to emerge from Malick's The Thin Red Line in 1998 - but he still remains willing to take risks with his roles. Take his latest picture, Ken Loach's Bread and Roses: it. features Brody as an LA union organiser fighting in the recent Justice for Janitors campaign. Offering a typically committed performance, Brody says he was attracted initially by the lack of safety net. "I took the job because it was so different: no script, no make-up, no trailer. It was a bit of an adventure, and I didn't know what I would be required to do," he says. "I didn't dislike it, but I didn't prefer it, because I'm an actor and ... I like to guide my performance; I don't like it to just happen, and then me to go home at night and go 'Shit, I wish I'd done that!'" Brody, as he often does, took to the shoot a wealth of research and preparation. He had Spanish lessons, and went undercover in a union to learn the techniques of an organiser, even participating in a picket outside a hotel. "It was good to get a taste of a whole new side of LA, and spend some time downtown. I even considered moving there. It's cheap! In New York, the neighbourhoods aren't so removed. Poor people, wealthy people, every kind of race and cultural background, it's all intermingled. If you have to live in LA, you want to be by the beach - and you have to be wealthy to do that." Brody, who adds that LA's exploited service-industry employees "live in the shadows of the town", claims most Angelinos - himself included - felt inconvenienced by the Justice for Janitors campaign.
"It was an inconvenience to me ... I was pissed off. I had a major audition for (Elizabeth director) Shekhar Kapur, which was very difficult for me to get. Most casting directors say I'm too urban, too ethnic, and this was to play a very English soldier. It was an incredible role. I studied very hard for it. Didn't get it. These janitors were outside making a racket, picketing Paramount. It sounded like a game show was going on." Brody is now "bi-coastal", with homes in both LA and his native New York. It was his mother who sent him to a Saturday class at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts which led to his first off-Broadway acting gig; his father, a teacher, went so far as to take a sabbatical to live in LA while Brody played Mary Tyler Moore's stepson in a CBS series shot there.
After he won his supporting role in Soderbergh's King of the Hill in 1993, Brody's career accelerated, though much of his work went un-noticed. It wasn't until Terrence Malick chose him to star in his lyrical World War Two epic, The Thin Red Line, that Hollywood found Brody.
"The pressure on that film was that I had to carry the movie with a cast of stars that I truly admired," he recalls. "Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in particular. You hear horror stories about Sean Penn, that he can be a real bastard if he doesn't admire your work." Having endured boot-camp and a protracted six-month shoot in the Australian outback, wearing "a filthy costume which they wouldn't wash," Brody returned to the US to discover his role as Corporal Fife had been drastically trimmed. Understandably, he remains bitter.
"I was so focused and professional, I gave everything to it, and then to not receive everything ... in terms of witnessing my own work. It was extremely unpleasant because I'd already begun the press for a film that I wasn't really in. Terry obviously changed the entire concept of the film. I had never experienced anything like that." Brody had initially been touted as the lead, based on the size of the role in the James Jones source novel - he learnt a valuable, if painful, Hollywood lesson. "You know the expression 'Don't believe the hype'? Well, you shouldn't." Since that time, Brody has chosen projects - Spike Lee's Summer of Sam aside - that will not resubmit him to media scrutiny. Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights, in which Brody played a Fifties Jewish Baltimore boy, came and went, while crime thriller Oxygen was restricted to US TV.
But, just maybe, Brody is ready for a second assault on the big-time. With four films on the way, he will next be seen as a war photographer in Harrison's Flowers, with Andie MacDowell - a chance, as he puts it, to "reclaim what I lost" on The Thin Red Line. His performance as a painfully shy ventriloquist in Dummy follows, and then a period swashbuckler with Hilary Swank and Christopher Walken. The latter meant learning to fence and ride. "I get to be a French 17th-century scoundrel," he grins.
Currently shooting in Germany, Brody also has the lead in Roman Polanski's The Pianist, a Warsaw ghetto-set story as personal to Polanski as Liberty Heights was to Levinson. A diverse slate by anyone's standards - I wonder whether he sees these as provocative choices. "Yes I do, actually," he says. "It's good to be able to be playful, a bit of a smart ass - it's fun. It would be terribly boring to be earnest."Back to The Thin Red Line Interviews Page