"My dad told me, 'It takes 15 years to be an overnight success,' and it took me 17 and a half years," says Adrien Brody.
The actor has performed in 21 films — playing everything from a punk rocker in "Summer of Sam," a union organizer in "Bread and Roses," a juvenile delinquent in "King of the Hill," a Jewish boy from Baltimore in "Liberty Heights, and psycho killer in "Oxygen."
But it is his haunting portrayal of Holocaust survivor, Wladyslaw Szpilman in the film "The Pianist" that has made him a star and got him an Academy award nomination for best actor.
"I was thrilled … it's still kind of hard to grasp, but it's beautiful," says Brody of his Oscar nomination.
The film, directed by Roman Polanski, traces composer and classical pianist Szpilman's harrowing struggle to survive unspeakable loss, isolation and famine during the Nazi occupation and decimation of Warsaw, Poland.
"I spent 12 to 17 hours a day, trying to inhabit a man who has not had any contact with anyone, who is deprived of everything — his loved ones and food and nurturing and his art and music and anything that would make him comfortable," says Brody. "And I tried to do that to myself. It becomes your reality."
Preparing for the role, Brody lost 30 pounds during the six weeks before production began. And he gave up many materials possessions, such as his apartment and his car. Brody even isolated himself from his family and friends.
"There's no comparison to what Wladyslaw Szpilman went through and the suffering that people during the Holocaust, or people/nations afflicted with famine are going through," says Brody. "But it gave me a much greater understanding of that. And you can't act that. I take the work very seriously."
He says director Roman Polanski, himself a Polish Jew, provided inspiration. Polanski's mother died in a concentration camp in Auschwitz, leaving him alone at the age of seven. He later escaped Nazi-occupied Krakow, Poland.
"He wasn't easy on me ever," recalls Brody. "He wasn't particularly kind to me, but he wasn't … he was never disrespectful regarding the work. I grew. I'm stronger, I'm tougher from Roman. I'm tougher, I'm not harder, I'm just tougher."
Brody says he remembers one incident when Polanski challenged him.
"We were shooting a scene and he's like: 'Adrien, I need you to climb up the building. And I want you to go up to the roof and I want you to climb out the window. And I want you to hang and they're going to shoot at you. And I want you to slide off the building and hold on to the gutter and then you're going to fall,'" says Brody. "And I said, 'Has anyone tried this before?' And he said, 'Hollywood actors … Come on I show you, I show you.' And he runs up the building, 68 years old, climbs out the window and hangs from the window, slides down the roof of the building, hangs from the gutter, jumps down to the ground, brushes himself off and he said, 'There, somebody did it. Now do it.'"
Brody, a 29-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, wasn't always a Hollywood kid. He has fond memories of his New York City roots where he attended aGuardia High School of Performance Arts.
"I broke my leg in high school and I had to take a train with crutches," says Brody. "The only train that goes to my neighborhood is the 'J,' which is like the most ghetto train."
He grew up in Queens, N.Y., as the only child of acclaimed photojournalist Sylvia Plachy and Elliot Brody, a public school history teacher.
"There is something wonderful about having your mother and father there for you," says Brody. "It's a fairytale. They met at summer camp. My dad was a fencing instructor. My mom was the arts and crafts counselor … I'm lucky. I knock wood every half-hour."
He says he is inspired by his father's love of history and, as a frequent subject of his mother's photographs, he has grown comfortable in front of the camera. (To view some of Sylvia Plachy's work, click here.)
His parents accompanied him to the Cannes film festival where "The Pianist" won the Palme D'or.
"My parents saw it for the first time in Cannes," says Brody. "It the first time I saw it with an audience and it was my mother's birthday. And there were 2,000 people and we got a 20-minute standing ovation. I was crying, my mom was crying, my dad was crying and I looked around and almost everyone else was crying. It was one of those incredible, incredible moments."
A moment magnified in part because Plachy's own life shares common themes with Wladyslaw Szpilman's life. She escaped the Hungarian revolution, buried under corn in the back of a truck. She and her parents left everything behind and lived as refugees in Vienna until they made it to America.
"She is a real survivor and she is tremendously gifted and talented as an artist," says Brody. "She is the hardest working person I know."
Brody says he now understands more about what his mother had to go through as a girl.
"Only being able to take her little stuffed animal, and the only reason [Plachy] was able to take her stuffed animal is because her parents put the jewelry in the stuffed animal," says Brody.
Knowing intense hardship as a child, Brody's mother encouraged creativity, imagination and fantasy in her young son. Perhaps, it may be the reason why, at the age of five, he proclaimed himself a magician.
"I was an amazing Adrien. I may still be at times," says Brody. "In retrospect, I see that was my first performance. And you know a lot about magic is not just the trick, it's the pattern. It's the delivery. It's the presentation. And this is why you're going to be amazed.
At the age of 10, Brody was performing for birthday parties, and he made pretty good money — $50 a gig. His price may be a bit pricier today, however.
Since his days as a teen, Brody has pursued his other love, Hip Hop, wherever he could.
"I did a track on the soundtrack of, "Restaurant," says an excited Brody. "It's the last track on the album. It's hot."
Brody says he relishes immersing himself in characters that are passionate about any music.
"I didn't grow up listening to punk rock music," he says. "I was a Hip Hop junkie, fanatic."
In Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, he plays punk rocker, Ritchie.
"I didn't know anything about punk rock music and I learned about it," Brody says. "I learned about the culture. I had guitar lessons every night. [I] Went home, practiced my guitar, learned my lines, played a little guitar."
And to understand Wladyslaw Szpilman, he had to understand his music. He says he loves classical music because his father listened to it at home.
"I think probably one of the first albums I had was Tchaikovsky and then the next one was Pink Floyd, The Wall, and then it was Kiss and then it was Run DMC," remembers Brody. "It was a pretty eclectic mix."
For "The Pianist," while on his starvation diet and becoming weaker everyday, Brody mastered the Polish dialect and took intensive piano lessons to learn the parts of the pieces filmed.
"I learned to play Chopin," says Brody. "I don't read music, really."
He says he can't believe it is him playing the piano, but it is one of his favorite moments in the film. These days, Brody says he wants to try his hand at producing music.
"I would like to collaborate with artists and I'm finding myself in a better position to do that on a daily basis," says Brody. "I've met a lot of really great people within the music industry who have been very encouraging and who really responded to my music, which is wonderful."
In the meantime, he's focused on acting and next week's Academy Awards. And his date will be his mom and dad.
"They should share it because they've been there for me more than anyone else has," says Brody.
And with his newfound star status in Hollywood, he's looking to play a new kind of role.
"I would love to do a love story," laughs Brody. "A great love story with a great actress. I'd like to go off and do something in a warm place … I am due."
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