Being Brody

In Bangkok this week, The Pianist actor recounts the story of his various movie roles

On Christmas Day last year, Adrien Brody was in Angkor Wat _ on his own. "I had a backpack on, a hat, a beard, I don't walk with the security detail," he gestures at the staff looming near where we're talking.

"Some people recognised me of course _ I'm recognisable, I give you that! But for the most part, people respect the need to be discreet. I appreciate that a lot."

Late last year was also the first time the actor visited Bangkok during his trip to Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, and this week the very recognisable Brody _ lanky, goateed, smouldering, with that unmistakably hooked nose, moody eyes and the way he carries his body as if he were in aquatic slow-motion _ is in town once again as a guest of Siam Center for its grand opening (see back page).

Out of politeness but also of his own recent backpacking experience, the 39-year-old American is full of superlatives for our dear country, with the winning "I love Thai food" opening and a verbal garland of how "welcoming" and "good-natured" we Thais are. We almost blush, but that mightn't be appropriate during a chat with an Oscar-winning personality.

It doesn't feel that long, but The Pianist, in which Brody plays a Polish musician who drags himself through the horror of World War II and for which he won the Academy Award, came out 11 years ago. After that career-defining triumph, he battled the hairy ape in King Kong, did some soul-searching in The Darjeeling Limited, voiced a mouse in Fantastic Mr Fox, hunted aliens in Predators, then waltzed in and stole the scene as Salvador Dali in Midnight In Paris.

In 2011, he played a high-school teacher in a little-seen but noteworthy Detachment and last year he did a Chinese movie called Back To 1942, set during the great famine of the Mao era. So, what's next?

"I'm about to do a film with Wes Anderson [the director of The Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr Fox]. It's a fable, very much along the lines of his style, and it's called The Grand Budapest Hotel," says Brody, adding that despite the fact his mother was born in Hungary, he never speaks the language nor has a real connection with the country. "I also had a cameo role in InAPPropriate Comedy, which was an opportunity for me to be playful. I'm also making a film with Paul Haggis [the director of Crash; the film is called The Third Person], which is a great experience."

Despite the multitude of Brody's post-Oscar characters, what we keep piling superlatives on remains his performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist, which was the role that made this once obscure actor recognisable everywhere _ the beard or the hat or the backpack nevertheless. In retrospect, however, Brody is reflective about what that role has brought him.

"It's an actor's responsibility to do light as well relevant roles. I've done a lot of heavy, demanding, emotional characters, and I think it's important to be playful and to experiment with your work, because that's the joy of being an actor.

"The beauty of The Pianist is that it's such a powerful and evocative film, but the dilemma is that when you become so close and identifiable with one character _ which is not who you are _ it's difficult for people to remove that perception. It's a blessing and a curse _ for a role to resonate with people that way. And it made people surprised to see [me] portray something so different, like in King Kong. I'm drawn to socially relevant roles, but I've also done a wide range of roles intentionally."

A chance to switch to a low gear is also part of the experiment, such as in the upcoming InAPPropriate Comedy, which looks from the trailer like an all-out slapstick role ("I spent just a few days of my life on it, but when it's released, it will be all visible," he says of his cameo). Meanwhile, his deadpan spoof of the surrealism godfather Dali in Midnight In Paris _ a big hit in Bangkok two years ago _ is Brody at his best at being seriously silly. And he reveals that it's not just Midnight's director Woody Allen who noticed his striking resemblance to Dali (OK, with the help of the scimitar-like mustache), because he had considered several projects before in which he would play Dali.

"Allen," Brody says, "wasn't that convinced at first. But he was happy with [what I gave him]. To work with Woody, you have to be prepared. He wanted to heighten things up a bit more in Midnight, but we really didn't have time for that."

Naturally, what Brody likes us to see him in is his meatier roles, and he sounds slightly gloomy when he mentions Detachment, in which he plays a substitute teacher who bonds with his students, a film that has gone under the radar despite some stellar reviews.

"That's one of the most meaningful films I've done, and too bad it won't get the kind of [mass] exposure," says the actor. "It's a reminder of the precariousness that so many children have. It's a small film that really should be watched."

But the film that surprisingly brought Brody back to the wartime calamity of The Pianist is a Mainland Chinese production that has just been released in China. Directed by Feng Xiogang, Back To 1942 deals with the great drought in Henan province that claimed millions of lives. Brody plays a journalist who covers the event, and the film, he says, has an epic scale _ one of the likes of which he hasn't been involved in for a long time.

"The scale of it was so exciting. I would be among 700 extras on a freezing cold mountain with bombs and things. They did it on a level that was very impressive," he says.

"It has some similarities to The Pianist, especially in regards to the loss to the Chinese people and immense helplessness and tremendous suffering at that time.

"Part of what interested me was to gain an understanding of that and to tell that story." Has the film opened here? No, it hasn't, and it may not. "That's another one you should try to catch."

For now, Brody is trying to catch something else _ some downtime, maybe, or a greater exploration of Thailand. This official trip to Bangkok, for just two days, is way too short.

"But I'll probably go to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai to see my friend," he says, pronouncing the names of the provinces pretty accurately. "We'll see."

Thank you Mr Brody. We will look out for a guy with a beard, a hat and a backpack in our northern cities, too.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor