Hubert Burda Media

CHASING THE DRAGON

Having starred in everything from Hollywood blockbusters to indie flicks, ADRIEN BRODY is turning to the Chinese film industry

CHASING THE DRAGON

"GETTING THE CHANCE to play a martial-arts bad guy and fight against Jackie Chan, that’s a real childhood dream of mine, I’m not kidding,” Adrien Brody confesses with a laugh. “I grew up seeing martial-arts films with my father, going to Chinatown in New York even before I was exposed to most Hollywood films. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s my dad would take me to Canal Street in New York and we’d watch these movies in the cinema.”
Brody’s outpouring of affection for the hyper-stylised genre of martial-arts films comes as something of a surprise, especially since he’s known as one of the more cerebral actors working in Hollywood. This is a man who doesn’t think twice about either starving himself or bulking up for roles, who took one movie so seriously that he moved alone into the Hawaiian jungle, and who won an Oscar at the age of just 29 for his harrowing performance in Roman Polanski’s Holocaust drama The Pianist.
That film was released 12 years ago, though the now-42-year-old hasn’t aged in any dramatic fashion. Brody is still lean and wiry, with a mane of slicked-back dark hair sitting atop his angular face. He’s thoughtful and seems quite serious-minded, though this hasn’t stopped him trying his hand at playing more comic characters. In recent years he’s appeared in three films by the whimsical director Wes Anderson, had a scene-stealing turn as Salvador Dali in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and starred in the caper comedy The Brothers Bloom.
Now the genre-hopping actor can also add a martial-arts movie to this eclectic roster, as he has fulfilled his childhood dream and acted alongside Jackie Chan in the recently released Dragon Blade. This latest performance has earned Brody another statuette for his trophy cabinet, the Huading Award for Best Supporting Actor, which he was here in Hong Kong to accept at the end of May.
The Chinese-financed Dragon Blade is rumoured to have had a budget of US$65 million, making it a big change from the string of low-cost independent films in which Brody has recently appeared. “The beauty of having more resources is you have more time, a little bit of room for error, and you have the scale to create an epic, to tell a story of epic proportions – and that’s exciting,” Brody admits in his meandering drawl.
“But ultimately the process [of making a film] is the same and it doesn’t really vary. I’m not drawn to films based on budget, size, or commercial viability as an actor. In my work as an actor, I’ve really tried to be motivated by artistic reasons – to find roles that are different and dissimilar to characters I’ve portrayed and that challenge me.”
Shooting Dragon Blade was beset with all sorts of challenges, as much of it was filmed in the Gobi Desert. “I think the heat was the hardest element to do the action sequences with armour and fur,” says Brody.
“But I think it was more challenging for the extras. You know, the extras on most films tend to have a bigger burden, it’s an unseen thing, but when you look at a big period war epic or something and there’s hundreds of people on set devoting their time and not given a trailer to retreat to between [takes], so it’s a bigger burden. The more interesting challenge was coming from an entirely different character mind-set and emotional state of being, to jump into playing Tiberius, because the shift was tremendous.”
This emotional “shift” began when Brody wrapped up the filming of the upcoming Septembers of Shiraz, then flew to China to play the army-leading Tiberius in Dragon Blade. The former is set in Iran and is “about a family man who’s taken from his family and sort of abducted and tortured by the revolutionary guard”, explains Brody.
“I was reeling from the effects of the emotional distress that my character was experiencing in that, which had a physiological effect on me, and then I had to kind of shirk that in portraying someone who was super proficient with weaponry and battles.”
Brody is famously consumed by his work. He shed nearly 14kg and moved to Europe for his role in The Pianist, giving up his phone, his car and his girlfriend in the process. More recently, he voluntarily wet himself on the set of Septembers in Shiraz (“They gave me an apparatus to fake it, but I said, ‘No, I will do it,’” he told The New York Times).
But Brody is so intense even off-screen, with his deep-set eyes constantly scanning the room, that it’s easy to imagine how he immerses himself in his characters.
“I strive to be a chameleon in my work,” Brody confides. “I strive always to do something that should be perceived as a bit odd. I think that is the beauty of being an actor, to be so unpredictable. The whole journey is about challenging and taking risks and learning in the process as well. So not only do I hope to keep it interesting for the audience but for myself, for my own path.”
Someone who seems to be one of Brody’s closest companions on this rather rocky road is the eccentric director Wes Anderson, who cast him in The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox and, last year, as a murderous millionaire in the Oscar-winning The Grand Budapest Hotel.
“In reading The Grand Budapest Hotel I could see myself playing the character,” Brody says. “Wes has surpassed himself in this one, I mean, he’s just done such a remarkable job and the film is so accessible to so many people and finally I think the world has caught on; the public has caught on to an appreciation that many people have had for Wes.
“I think he has such a great intellect and peculiar sense of humour, and can clearly tell it in a visual way. It’s a blessing to be a recurring element in someone that creative’s body of work. It’s really special to me.”
Brody himself is venturing behind the camera more and more, and last year founded his own production company, Fable House.
“I’ve reached a place in my career where I have a lot to offer beyond my services as an actor,” he says, adding that Fable House is planning to work on films in China. “I’ve been travelling to China many times – prior to even working here professionally. I’m attracted to eastern philosophies, eastern medicines – a lot of the influences in the architecture of my home [are from China].
“I’d gravitated to China before Hollywood was trying to make movies that work here. I feel like now I have an opportunity to actually help Chinese cinema expand beyond its own borders, which I would like to do. I think the interesting thing would be to create Chinese films that are catered to a Chinese audience but that really work abroad.”
But Brody has no plans to completely give up acting. “The exciting thing is now there are these opportunities to do a real wide range of material that I’ve always pushed for, so I can play the action martial-arts character, I can play the quirky comedic role, I can do the heavy dramatic material that I am deeply moved by and that I hope has some social relevance. I think that the combination of all that is most interesting.”