Adrien Brody was feted Friday with a lifetime achievement award at the Locarno Film Festival, Europe’s preeminent indie event, where he sat down with Variety and talked about why his 2003 Oscar for “The Pianist” didn’t lead to as many big studio roles as could be expected. He also delved into his ties to China, where he is one of a handful of bankable Western stars; and was cagey about his upcoming roles in TV show “Peaky Blinders” and genre-bending picture “De Niro.” Excerpts.
Of your early films the one that stands out for me is “Bread and Roses” by Ken Loach, who was celebrated here in Locarno last year. It’s still timely, given that it’s about exploited Mexican workers in L.A. Can you talk to me a little about working with Loach. How did it happen?
I don’t recall the audition, but I do recall the nature of the way he works, which was: all the other participants were non-actors. Other than the two lead girls and one or two other people. The rest of them were janitors, some were union organisers; real people. Which was interesting. His approach was to have as many spontaneous things that could happen happen; and that would potentially change the screenplay. He would give us two-thirds of a scene, and I would not know the resolution. It was really interesting even as an exercise for me…Ken is such a genuine, generous soul. He’s such a concerned, kind person. It’s a great quality in a director.
Your career is being celebrated here in Locarno, which is a temple of indie cinema. Of course you’ve worked a lot in the indie world, and with some of the best directors. But you have also made studio pictures such as “King Kong” and “Predators.” I wonder why you haven’t worked more within the studio system. After all, you won an Oscar when you were 29. Is it because you haven’t been offered the right roles?
No. It’s because I carved out my own window. But partially you are right, there hasn’t been the right role. If I had been offered the iconic leading-man roles that studios were making more of at the time; the roles that George Clooney would gravitate to, someone far more established…there still is a hierarchy, and there still are only a handful of really brilliant movies that have been made. I’m very appreciative of the honor that was bestowed to me winning an Academy Award, and being young. And it was very important to me to remain an actor — if that makes sense — and not become what everyone was projecting upon me… I felt that maybe the avalanche of what was coming my way — even with some of those high-caliber films that were coming my way — I wanted to stick to my m.o. which was: find the role that speaks to me first and foremost; filmmakers that are interesting, and don’t be afraid of risky creative choices, because I view the process as something that should be far more artistically motivated. “Predators” is a great example: I didn’t do “Predators” because I was dying to do a studio movie. It is a studio movie. But I did it because I thought: ‘how interesting, how unpredictable, what a wonderful challenge it would be to step into the shoes of a Swartzenegger character; an iconic ’80’s overtly muscular action hero role, and do it with a sense of playfulness but also try and bring my own integrity to it.’
Similarly to Clooney you have your own production company, Fable House. But your company, set up in 2014, has financing from China, where as I understand it, they love you thanks to “Dragon Blade,” which was a big hit in 2015, and before that “Back to 1942.” Can you talk to me about your ties with the Chinese film industry?
My fascination with Chinese cinema starts with my dad. Back in the early ’80’s we would go to Canal Street and watch obscure crazy Kung Fu movies; great strange old films, which I bet influenced Tarantino. RZA from Wu Tang Clan was also inspired by them and created a whole subculture of hip hop infused with this culture. So I’ve always this connection.. I loved all those things as a teen-ager. I studied martial arts. China is a fascinating place. I think [in general] it [the relationship] is a little skewed and jaded now, because Hollywood is clamouring to be part of it and vice-versa. Obviously there are a lot of resources there. My timing was interesting because I was ahead of the curve. To be honest, being a business man doesn’t appeal to me that much. All my motivation was just to create better opportunities for me. China has welcomed that…In the case of “Dragon Blade” I got to do this martial arts character. It’s all heightened, but it was a lot of fun to play a pure villain with all types of insecurities. And Jackie Chan and his producing partners have been very supportive. But I’ve kind of pulled back on developing several projects that are close to the vest because it’s cumbersome to do co-productions. Also, I’m painting very seriously which is a big part of my life and I actually went on hiatus and decided to not do business and not act unless something came along that really moved me. But I’m still passionate about some [Fable House] projects, it’s still in the mix.
You’ve been doing TV lately: “Houdini”; a very well-received episode of Showtime’s “Dice.” And soon you will be playing Thomas Shelby’s biggest threat in the new season of “Peaky Blinders.” Can you reveal anything about your part in “Peaky Blinders,” beyond the fact that you will be a big threat to the family? What kind of preparation did you do to immerse yourself in the role?
I’d rather not delve too much because the production is super secretive, but I love the show. The writing is fantastic, which is a big thrill to me. Steve Knight is very talented, the actors on board are great. All I can tell you is it’s something fun to immerse myself in, and it’s the kind of role I’ve longed to play.
Your next movie to hit the screens is titled “De Niro,” described as a Reservoir Dogs-type thriller. Can you talk to me about that?
We’ve shot that. John Malkovich was wonderful to work with, Rory Culkin is in the film as well; very strong. It’s little premature to talk about, but what attracted me most is it’s a great young writer/director named Paul Solet [“Grace”] and it’s the kind of movie I’d like to go see. It blurs several genres: it’s got a thriller aspect to it; it’s got a contained dramatic element to it; and it has a degree of action. I love the fact that there is a dog, who is a central character, who is named De Niro. I love animals. There is kind of a parallel made about abused animals, or neglected animals, and also people, in society….Even though it’s a pretty commercial film on the surface, it has this undercurrent that I relate to. That’s what was appealing to me about that film, and of course working with John, an actor I’ve always admired. We had a good time…I think Rory is going to be really special in the film, and the dog was wonderful.