Before Adrien Brody was an actor, he did magic tricks. And on Sept. 1, Brody will return to the screen as the greatest magician of them all: Harry Houdini.
Brody learned the magic trade when he was six years old from one of his mother’s coworkers at The Village Voice who “had all these crazy gadgets and weird tricks and gizmos that he would review and discuss,” Brody said. “He would let me take a coin trick or something and show it to me, and I’d go around and practice on all of my mom’s coworkers and develop a pattern.”
Houdini is a two-part miniseries about the life of the famous illusionist and escape artist on the History channel, with Brody in the starring role. Houdini is most famous as an entertainer, but the series also follows his alleged career in espionage and, later in his life, as a debunker of psychics and spiritualists. Kristin Connolly, of House of Cards fame, plays the magician’s wife.
As Brody puts it, Houdini captured the nation’s attention because he embodied the American dream and brought hope to the American working class.
“He escapes not only the confines of physical chains, but the poverty and the social constraints of being an immigrant,” Brody said. Houdini’s skills as an escapist also worked on a metaphorical level. By doing the impossible, “he provided an escape for the limitations that we have.”
Practicing magic tricks at a young age taught Brody the art of performance. As a teenager, he lost interest in magic, but the monologue and improvisation skills stuck with him. Growing up in New York, Brody absorbed and studied the diverse, complicated people he saw on the streets, injecting elements of what he witnessed into the characters he plays.
“There are elements of a homeless character that come into play,” Brody says. Those elements manifest themselves when he’s “playing a noble composer in The Pianist, who’s been broken down to this kind of emaciated state, and whose lost all of his dexterity,” he said. “These are the frail elements that you see. You see the gnarled, arthritic hands of people who have been through hard lives, and malnourished, and then you incorporate these things into a character.”
While some actors might gravitate toward particular genres or styles, Brody is just as comfortable playing an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type role in Predators as he is playing Salvador Dalí in Midnight in Paris. The divergence is totally intentional.
“I think the beauty of being an actor is to experience all these different lives, and to get to learn about and inhabit people who are vastly different for yourself,” he says. “I like to keep things very unpredictable for myself.”
Fans have taken Brody’s do-anything attitude and run with it. Video artist Neil Cicierega made two much-remixed online videos—Brodyquest and Brodyquest 2—where the actor travels the world, becomes a rock star, and turns into the universe.
Adrien Brody has seen Brodyquest. His dad showed it to him. “I made it my ringtone at one point,” he said. “It’s hilarious.”
If there’s been anything consistent in Brody’s work in the past few years, though, it’s his collaboration with Wes Anderson. Earlier this year, he appeared onscreen in the director’s The Grand Budapest Hotel as Dmitri, a slighted son hell-bent on retrieving a painting stolen from him. Before that, he voiced a character in Fantastic Mr. Fox and traveled across India in The Darjeeling Limited.
Brody says he’d like to form more collaborative relationships like the one he has with Anderson. “He creates a real community. We’re all dining together or living together in some great big house, or a small little complex where the entire cast and crew are together, and eating together, and sharing ideas and stories. That’s so rare, unfortunately.”
It’s not just for fun, though—Brody says that having that kind of community makes the movies better. Once he’s worked with a director, there’s a rapport established for future collaborations. “There’s a shorthand, so you know how to get there a bit faster,” he says.
Given that the so-called Golden Age of Television is in full swing, it’s not much of a surprise to see the youngest-ever Oscar winner for Best Actor starring in a miniseries. But Brody, prolific as ever, continues to make movies, too. By his count, he has half a dozen films slated to finish production by the end of the year, and he’s constantly on the hunt for roles that speak to him. In May, he announced the start of his own production company, Fable House, with more than $50 million in funding for developing and producing features.
“It’s an opportunity for me to push a bit more past the boundaries that I feel actors are confined to,” he said. But what he’d really like to do is direct. “I have a lot of creative aspirations that have not been met. I’ll have a bit more of the resources to pursue them.”