"I was exhausted day one," Brody recently told reporters in New York. "Day one, I had to climb over that wall and witness the destruction of Warsaw, and I had been confined to my room and was just working... I had no energy. I hadn't eaten much. I hadn't eaten that day. I hadn't eaten much for the last six weeks, and I had no energy and I told Roman, 'I have no energy,' and he said, 'What do you need energy for, you just do it.'"
To prepare for the role of a real-life pianist who avoids being sent to the Nazi concentration camps by living and hiding in the Warsaw ghetto and focusing on his music to cope with the horror he witnesses, the "Summer of Sam" and "Liberty Heights" actor dropped 30 pounds and dined on nothing but eggs, fish, chicken and steamed veggies during production to give his character, Wladyslaw Szpilman, the emaciated frame appropriate for someone living in extreme poverty.
Brody explained that even though Szpilman died in 2000 at the age of 89, his character was based on a real person and he felt a keen responsibility to portray him as honestly as possible; Brody even sacrificed most of his personal luxuries to do so.
"That was ideal because... I connected immediately, psychologically to this state of isolation and deprivation that my character had," Brody emphasized. "Before I left home, I gave up my apartment in New York and I sold my car and I got rid of my phones because I thought: 'Hey, this character loses everything. Why don't I be very dedicated and do this,' and when I got there, I was like: 'That was really stupid. I didn't need to do that,' because I'm already going to go through hell here, and it would be nice to have a place to think about like that. I thought that I shouldn't have a place to call home. At that point, I... had changed already, from day one, and I could barely climb over that wall. They were doing a complicated crane shot and I had to do it a few times. It was freezing and I could barely make it over this wall. My muscles were gone. That's what Roman wanted, and in retrospect, I'm okay. I made it through it. It could've been harmful, but I'm fine today."
Since music saves his character, both literally and figuratively, Brody also thought it essential to learn how to play the piano well and did his best to master the instrument in a short period of time. Although he had studied piano off and on for a number of years, Brody is the first to admit he is no concert pianist and approached his lessons with enthusiasm before shooting on the film began.
"I had to learn to play... 'Ballad Number One' and really complex works of Chopin in a very short period of time," Brody recalled. "I think that it was important that I knew to play because it was important to Roman that he could actually [film] me playing, so it's not just a cut to me, a cut to the hands, but he wanted, I think, first and foremost, to know that I would be very dedicated and disciplined and I had to be. There were no options, and within those six weeks, I had to lose a tremendous amount of weight, I had to grow that beard, I had to work on a dialect and I had to learn to play the piano, and I had six- month movie in front of me and I was starving myself and having four hours of piano a day. I was immersed in it. So, it was a lot. It was a lot, it was more than I've ever had to do and I had to stay in this space for a really long time."
It all started about three years ago when Brody was filming the period drama, "The Affair of the Necklace," with Hilary Swank in Paris and got a phone call "out of the blue" from Polanski, the controversial "Chinatown" filmmaker, who had been living in exile in France since 1978 when he was charged with having sex with a 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson's house. Brody said that when Polanski invited him to meet for coffee, he jumped at the chance to talk with him.
"We met and I had coffee with him and talked about the script," Brody noted. The next time the actor saw Polanski it was at a screening of Brody's film, "Harrison's Flowers," after which the two men went out for a beer.
"I took that as a good sign," he remembered. "Then, we talked about the script and what my intentions would be and what level I was committed and if I had some knowledge of music. It was a long process, but he never made me audition and I really appreciate that because the role that I would die for to get an opportunity to audition for, and I know he saw a lot of people for it and I know that there were incentives to hire a European actor and for some reason, he chose me, and it's kind of the break that I have been looking for a really long time, and he gave it to me. So, I love the guy for that, and he gave me a lot of respect... He had some faith in me, which is really, really wonderful."
According to Brody, Polanski is an excellent director who demonstrates a "very clear vision in his work."
"I have faith in him and trust in him to guide me and he also strives for subtlety and so do I, and if you have a director who strives to guide you in a similar direction... that's a real luxury. It was a fascinating process because he's experienced a lot of similarities and a lot of suffering in his life, and he survived Krakow through that time, and not only do I have a director who I admire and that I'm confident in, but also he knows. He knows what my character went through and he also possesses a strength that I thought that my character had to have had in order to survive all that. So, I think that it's a phenomenal opportunity for me to have a director that I admire and the guidance of someone who has shared parallels with the person that I was actually portraying."
A Deeper Appreciation for Life
So does Brody appreciate life more now that he sees what it is like to be somebody less fortunate?
"Absolutely, absolutely," he insisted. "It put so much into perspective for me that I can't even tell you how I would feel today without this experience, and hopefully, it'll do that for people who see the film, just getting a glimpse of what kind of suffering one individual endures and how fortunate you are not to go through that, and that that has existed for many, many people and even on a simple level, it just made me appreciate being able to eat, being able to eat with friends, having shelter. These are things that I have taken for granted and that we all kind of take for granted, and I think that it's human nature to complain and it's legitimate because we all want to
strive to have better things and be better people and grow, but you have to remember your own good fortune, and be aware of other people's misfortune."
"The Pianist," which is based on Szpilman's autobiography of the same name, is in theaters now. It has already won the Palme d'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival; Best Cinematography at the 2002 European Film Awards; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Brody), Best Screenplay Awards from the National Society of Film Critics; Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Brody) from the Boston Society of Film Critics; and was named Film of the Year by the National Board of Review and Best Film by the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. It has also earned several Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Actor and Best Director.