Adrien Brody Finds his Chill
GQ India|November 2021
Nearly 20 years after winning an Oscar and staking his claim as one of his generation’s most serious actors, Adrien Brody is finding a glorious new gear
Sam Schube

Adrien Brody comes bearing fruit. We meet in the parking lot at the base of a popular Los Angeles hiking trail, and he quickly hands over the bounty he’s prepared for us: a plastic container full of cherries and watermelon, along with a couple of bottles of water, some fresh-squeezed orange juice, and two pieces of buttered toast wrapped in a paper towel. He’s a charmer, no doubt—but also an actor who relishes doing the deep work of preparation, no matter the role. We eat sitting on the curb. It’s not quite nine in the morning. The cherries are terrific.

Brody is 48 now, and has been acting professionally for more than 30 years. In that time, he’s become known for the intensity of his commitment to the job: losing weight or gaining muscle or crawling across the forest floor for a part. “I would do whatever it takes for a role,” he says, “and everybody in my life understands that and respects that.” Like all actors, he’s had highs and lows, but maybe because of that intensity, Brody’s highs have felt higher—and his lows perhaps lower—than many of the actors we think of as his peers, and whom he calls his friends. He is still the youngest best actor winner in Academy Awards history. He also decided, not long ago, to spend a few years doing anything but acting.

This fall marks an unusually prosperous stretch for the actor. He’s in the third season of Succession, in which he’ll play an activist investor butting heads with the Roy family. After that comes The French Dispatch, his fourth film with director Wes Anderson. (Their fifth is already under way.) And sometime next year, he’ll appear as two legendary figures: the playwright Arthur Miller, in Blonde, the Netflix film about Miller’s wife Marilyn Monroe, and the basketball coach Pat Riley, in Adam McKay’s HBO series about the 1980s “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers. Keenly aware of how often these things are left to chance, he’s excited that so much is happening at once. “I did a lot of fun stuff, but now we’re catching it at a good moment,” he says. Brody has always applied his maximum-effort Method approach, no matter the quality of the material. And oftentimes, his work was the best thing about the films in which he appeared. Now, though, he’s got a run of parts in projects with auteurlevel creators that finally seems properly calibrated to his abilities—and that seems likely to show audiences a different kind of Adrien Brody.

When we meet, the Lakers series is still in production, and as we set off on our walk, Brody—in hiking boots, a Yankees cap, and aviators—explains that something a little strange is happening with the Riley role. Brody didn’t know much about the coach prior to preparing for the part, but he quickly learned that Riley’s story was more complex than he realized. Before Riley became a Hall of Fame coach, he had been a college hoops star, Brody learned, and then a reserve on a title-winning Lakers squad. After a nine-year pro career, Riley hung it up at 30 and, as Brody says, “found himself out in L.A. trying to figure out what his place was within the sport, and not really being able to accept early retirement”. After the Lakers’ then head coach suffered a horrific cycling accident, and the assistant coach who replaced him was subsequently fired, Riley wound up in charge of what would become the signature team of the 1980s. “One man’s misfortune, essentially, created an opportunity,” Brody explains. When McKay was casting the show, he and Max Borenstein, the series writer, needed an actor who could reflect the coach’s duality of spirit. Brody seemed perfect, “because he is a unique mixture of stylish confidence and vulnerability”, McKay tells me in an email. “And that’s a perfect description of Riley. Although Riley obviously doesn’t advertise or isn’t quite as comfortable with the vulnerability as much as Adrien is. But it’s clearly there.”

That’s the Riley he’s been thinking about: not the swaggering, Armani-suited icon but a young man worried that his best years are behind him, baffled by the circumstances that have landed him in what should be an ideal position.

It’s funny, Brody says, just how much Riley’s story seems to echo his own. Living with the comparison these last few months has given him ample reason to think back on the strange storm that seemed to settle over his life and career after he won his Oscar, in 2003, for his work in The Pianist. Back then, Brody struggled with the same sort of contradiction Riley faced when he was handed the reins of the Lakers: He was ostensibly on top of the world and yet felt unable to control the trajectory of a career that might have peaked terrifyingly early. In Brody’s case, the rush of fame and work that followed the film provided a measure of security, but the experience also left him depressed and with an eating disorder, and it permanently reordered the expectations—his own and the industry’s—about how his career should go, about what success might look like.

As he’s explaining all this, pausing for winding digressions about the nature of luck and the vagaries of independent film production, we’re stopped in the middle of the trail by a leather-skinned hiker with a thick New York accent. He recognizes the famous actor and introduces himself as Jack. He tells us that he used to know Gerald Gordon, an acting teacher with whom Brody took some classes when he first moved to Los Angeles. Jack explains that Gordon once prepared him for just this moment, having instructed him to send along Gordon’s best wishes should Jack ever happen to run into Adrien Brody. Which sounds improbable, only it’s exactly what has just happened. Jack seems as confused as we are. Brody offers his appreciation and elegantly ends the conversation.

Perhaps thanks to Brody’s open-to-the-moment training as an actor, or maybe just his congenital sensitivity, humdrum events like these—a hike, a chat with a friend of an old teacher, a discussion about what he’s working on these days—have a way, in his life, of feeling freighted with a special charge. Metaphors, I learn over the course of our time together, tend to follow him around—some days like a litter of puppies, others like a colony of angry wasps.

He’s spent his career pouring every ounce of himself into his roles. But right now, with the Riley job and everything else around it, he seems ready to learn from the work. Helpful lessons abound, if we’re ready for them. “I’m just trying to live openly and fearlessly,” he’ll tell me later.

As we make our way up the hill, Brody pushes the pace. He turns back to me. We’ve been hiking for maybe 15 minutes. “So, anyhow,” he says, “that’s how, if you’re lucky enough, you can find new chapters opening up for you.”

Brody spent the summer shooting the Lakers show in various locations across Los Angeles. Every morning, he’d fold his lanky frame down into his blacked-out, souped-up, stick shift Fiat, and pilot it from his home in the Hills to wherever the production was based that day. He quickly came to love his commute—or maybe less the specific commute than the small joy of finally getting to have one. Much of his work as an actor has taken place in less comfortable climes. He long ago noticed that his friend Owen Wilson somehow managed to always wind up acting in movies that shot in town. Brody wasn’t so lucky. “Owen would live in Santa Monica and have a movie in Santa Monica,” he says. “I’d be in Bulgaria in wintertime, and Owen would go down to Santa Monica, like five blocks, and probably be allowed to go home for lunch. It’s an amazing thing,” he says, having a job he can drive to.

It is true that if you were making a movie set in Santa Monica, you might not cast Adrien Brody. If, however, you were making a film that needed a face easily contorted into Eastern European–inflected despair, or that required the sort of actor who might regard a low-budget indie production in the Balkans as a kind of glorious adventure, Brody would be your guy.

Some of this is plain anatomy. He’s got the ski-slope nose, and the wide, deep-set green eyes, and a pair of eyebrows tilted up in permanent expectation. He looks wry but also a little sad. His voice—raspy, nasal, flecked with wiseguy—feels out of time. Wes Anderson appreciates this quality. “A rare thing with Adrien is that, if it became necessary for him to suddenly have to work in about 1935, rather than 2021, he could do it,” he tells me in a drolly narrated voice memo composed in response to my questions.

Brody comes by it all honestly. His mother, the photographer Sylvia Plachy, left Budapest for Vienna as a teenager, around the time of the Hungarian Revolution, and eventually arrived with her family in New York, where she would later begin shooting for the Village Voice. His mom’s life and work gave her an ability to “see the complexity that most people miss, everywhere around them, and catch it. And immortalize it. And through that lens, I’ve seen the world,” he says. He was a sensitive kid, upset about that quality in himself until he realized that it could be a gift too. Performing opened up a new way of relating with the world, he says: “Fortunately, there were these outlets: There were wonderfully complex human beings to step into, that I could relate to in one way or another. And purge, I guess, or, participate in another human being’s suffering, and not feel alone in my own. And then understand the universality of all of our suffering and joy, but embrace the moments of joy and honour the vast suffering that unfortunately is the pervasive underlayer.”

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