- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

It's a cold, rainy day in early December, perfect weather for a talk about hunger and humiliation in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II that is, about Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," which opens today.

As the actor Adrien Brody, who plays the pianist in question, settles into a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, it's clear he thinks his life has changed because of his brush with suffering.

One example: A sound malfunction caused the cancellation of an entire screening in Los Angeles. Not a problem.

"I was able to take it far more calmly than I might have before playing this role," says Mr. Brody, 34.

He plays the late Wladyslaw Szpilman, a classical pianist who survived in Warsaw against formidable odds during World War II. A popular radio performer noted for his mastery of Chopin pieces, Mr. Szipilman, a Jew, was herded into the Warsaw ghetto during the German occupation and persecution of the Jewish population. The other members of his family perished after being transported to the death camps in the summer of 1942.

Derived from Mr. Szpilman's memoirs, published in 1946, the film was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival and won the ultimate prize for best picture, the Golden Palm, in May. It will be eligible for Academy Award consideration for 2002.

"I've been exposed to a greater understanding of real, irreparable loss," says Mr. Brody, clad in a black jogging outfit. "Things people have suffered on a level I hadn't connected with before. I felt much more well, as if I'd been exposed to things like hunger on a more personal level."

He was though optional starvation can't be compared with involuntary or forced hunger. To play Mr. Szpilman at his most undernourished, in the final months of the war, Mr. Brody had to get down from about 160 pounds to 130.

He had a cup of green tea and two boiled eggs in the morning, "under 200 grams" of chicken in the middle of the day and small portions of chicken or fish augmented by steamed vegetables in the evening.

"That was it," Mr. Brody muses. "For six weeks straight, I didn't waver. That was the most difficult period, reaching the 130 target. When I started working, I needed more energy and felt really low on some days. I did permit myself an energy boost with glasses of soy milk. This was above and beyond anything I had ever attempted in order to get physically prepared for a role.

"It was pretty extreme, but they needed me to get ready fast, and it's hard to know how to pace such a thing. Your body reacts in ways you don't anticipate. I had an insatiable appetite at certain times. But ultimately you know that it's an optional kind of deprivation and a mere glimpse of what real hunger is like. I don't want to be misinterpreted."

• • •

Mr. Brody is persuaded that starvation prompts a change in thought patterns.

"You focus not only on your lingering sense of hunger," he says. "The focus is intensified because you don't have the comfort of caffeine, of snacks, of sugars. You just live with a feeling of emptiness and start to go further into that. It seemed to me that you could be very effective, as an actor, when forced into that corner.

"But there were a lot of things to torment you about this role. Scenes of extreme brutality and humiliation hurt you to the core while thinking about them or trying to enact them. Even walking around Warsaw every day to and from work with a Star of David on my arm was difficult. Imagine what you would feel in the time frame of the story."

He trained himself away from more than food. "I starved myself of not only food, but the things that I love," Mr. Brody says.

For example, Mr. Brody, who for 10 years has composed his own hip-hop music with a keyboard and a music sequencer, stopped listening to all modern music for the duration of his starvation diet and then the production itself.

"I could steep myself in classical music, Chopin especially," he says. "That was one thing I was permitted in abundance. I had to learn portions of two pieces, the Nocturne in C-flat minor and the Ballad No. 1 in G minor. So there was that technical aspect to deal with as well.

"I listened to Szpilman's recordings. There isn't much in the way of film or video footage to guide you. What impressed me most was his stillness at the keyboard. I tried to use that. I wanted him to be quite sophisticated and dignified, then slowly surrender much of that assurance. Not wholly, but certainly enough to look broken and damaged."

Mr. Szpilman died in 2000 at the age of 88. Mr. Polanski had not cast the role at that time, so Mr. Brody never met Mr. Szpilman. He was able to meet the pianist's children, and he regards director Polanski, who survived the war years as a fugitive Jewish child and refugee from Warsaw, as an essential source of inspiration.

"I think Roman shares some of the strengths Szpilman must have possessed," Mr. Brody says. "Probably different because he was so young. The experience would be just as terrifying and intense, but your grasp of reality is quite different. I don't know how you weigh such a difference, but I do feel that Roman has a genuine understanding of loss from a lot of things in his life. He shared a great many very specific memories and sense impressions."

• • •

A native New Yorker, Mr. Brody was raised in Manhattan and Queens. He was a 12-year-old recruit to acting programs at the American Academy of Dramatic Art and attended the High School of the Performing Arts.

Now a resident of Lower Manhattan, he won his first principal movie credit in Steven Soderbergh's "King of the Hill" a decade ago. A fixture of independent features in recent years, he also has played principal roles in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" and Terrence Malick's remake of James Jones' World War II novel "The Thin Red Line."

His father is a retired schoolteacher. His mother, Sylvia Plachy, is a professional photographer associated for many years with the Village Voice. Mr. Brody also makes photography an active sidelight and added a considerable portfolio of images while on location in Warsaw and Berlin for "The Pianist."

Perhaps the most curious aspect of his self-starvation regimen was that it had to be timed to a reverse chronology.

"I learned the piano pieces," he explains, "then lost the weight and grew a beard so we could shoot the final episodes in the first weeks. You watch Szpilman get weaker, but I was actually getting healthier as the production stretched out. A lot of the dieting was concentrated in France, in a period that overlapped with the holidays. It was OK to start gaining some weight back after we shifted to Warsaw and shot the scenes in the earlier years of the war."

Mr. Brody took about six months to recuperate from the rigors of "The Pianist" before signing for another role, in Keith Gordon's upcoming remake of the Dennis Potter miniseries "The Singing Detective," which co-stars Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr.

"That gave me an opportunity to shake off all the preoccupations," Mr. Brody says. "I play one of the hoods in the mind of Robert Downey's character. I come to life and torment him. But it gave me free rein, because my guy is a tormenter who doesn't really exist. He doesn't quite know where he is. I saw immediately it would be a great chance for something playful.

"I expect it may be a long time before anything as profoundly involving as 'The Pianist' comes around. And I think it will be a while before I play another pianist of any description. But if you were reading most of the scripts I've been reading in the past year, you'd probably decide that it was just as wise to take a break."

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