"For his role as a classical musician who survived the Holocaust by hiding alone in Warsaw ghettos, Adrien Brody gave up possessions like his car. The 6-foot-2, 160-pound actor also shed 30 pounds and isolated himself so he could understand the loneliness and deprivation his character felt.
He found comfort by playing the same instrument his character loved: the piano.
In "The Pianist," opening today in New York and Los Angeles, Brody stars as Wladyslaw Szpilman, a prominent composer and pianist from Poland who escaped deportation to a Nazi death camp. Szpilman played the last live music heard over Polish radio before Germans invaded. He later faced starvation and freezing temperatures while hiding from Nazis.
To prepare for his Golden Globe-nominated role, Brody needed to improve his piano-playing skills. He worked with four piano teachers over several months and practiced for hours each day.
"I found [the piano] to be a wonderful distraction from not only the hunger but the loneliness," Brody says. "And music has this wonderful power to transport us to better places. I think that's what gave [Szpilman] a tremendous amount of encouragement."
Brody plays the instrument in several scenes, including one in which he is confronted in the ghetto by a German officer, who asks him to perform. The starving, shivering character plays with passion and brilliance, thinking this is his last chance to finger the keys.
Based on Szpilman's 1946 memoirs, "The Pianist" won the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and is directed by Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor and director of such films as "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby."
Brody spent months preparing physically and psychologically for the role.
"I felt a responsibility to have this connection to ... the sense of deprivation that I haven't experienced in my own life," he says as he doodles his name on a piece of paper with his long hands. Brody has a Jewish and Hungarian background but says any personal connections he may have to the Holocaust are irrelevant.
The movie was shot in reverse chronological order, so Brody was emaciated when he began filming in February 2001 near Berlin. For months prior, he was put on a starvation-protein diet. He found it especially challenging to stick to in France.
"I would have loved a croissant while I was there," he says. "For that to be the place where you can't have bread is probably the worst. Then I had to force the weight back on in Warsaw. I got to eat plenty of perogies."
One of the most challenging sequences for him was during the six weeks he filmed in Eastern Europe, with no other actors, for scenes when Szpilman was hiding alone in the ghetto.
" 'The Pianist' was all about these solitary, silent moments ... It was very introspective.... I was alone all day on the set and then at night would go home alone. I even went to Auschwitz on [my day off]."
The emotional demands of the role also took a toll on his personal life. A long-term relationship with his girlfriend ended. But Brody says he has no regrets because the experience stretched his acting abilities and gave him a greater appreciation for family and friends. "It's just made it very clear what's really important."
Brody says he has also become less wasteful, particularly with food. For example, earlier this month in Chicago at a steak dinner thrown by Focus Features, he had the leftovers wrapped and given to homeless people.
Brody credits Polanski for pushing him in the role "further than I would have gone on my own," and says he is grateful for the attention Polanski gave him.
"I've given this much before, and it's gone unappreciated," he says, referring to the 1999 Vietnam War-era film "The Thin Red Line." At the first screening, Brody learned that what had been a starring role had been cut to just a few lines.
The Pianist" is the first film Polanski has made in his homeland of Poland in 40 years. The director escaped the ghetto when he was 7, and Roman Catholic families cared for him until the war ended. Most of Polanski's family died in concentration camps.
"It was very hard for him," Brody says. "He's a strong person though, and this gave him an opportunity to tell something that was very personal."
Polanski shared stories about the Holocaust with Brody that Brody says gave him insight into Szpilman's character. "Roman possesses this wonderful strength and enthusiasm ... and a sense of humor in spite of all the loss that he has experienced. And that's the quality that I felt that Szpilman would possess."