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The Perfectionist / Adrien Brody's dedication in preparing for his role in "The Pianist" resulted in a memorable turn and an unexpected best actor nod

He knows he is the darkest of dark horses in this

year's Academy Awards race for best actor. The only one of the five nominees

who's never won an Oscar, Adrien Brody is also the least-known presence among

what amounts to a virtual Mount Rushmore of acting talent: Nicolas Cage,

Michael Caine, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson. If he should win Sunday

night, Brody, at age 29, will be the youngest ever to win a lead-acting Academy

Award.

The chattering hairdos and professional busybodies who make up the

entertainment press won't let Brody forget for a second what's at stake. And

yet, Brody seems to be riding the whirlwind of pre-Oscar hype with near-glacial

composure compared with the reactions of those around him.

"Everybody's got something to say to me about this situation, whether I'm

standing still or moving around," Brody says one recent evening while awaiting

a quick supper in a lower Manhattan hotel during a daylong marathon of

interviews. "Most people are pretty blown away by it. My family's blown away by

it. When I can stop long enough to think about it, I'm blown away by it. What

can I say? The thing is, this has all happened because of an experience that's

already benefited me in ways I couldn't have imagined."

Brody is referring to his portrayal of classical musician Wladyslaw

Szpilman in Roman Polanski's "The Pianist." It's an intense, rigorously acted

and hauntingly evocative performance that in recent weeks has been perceived by

movie pundits as slowly gaining ground in the Oscar race against such

formidable competition as Day-Lewis' swaggering turn as an antebellum New York

crime boss in "Gangs of New York" and Nicholson's virtuoso depiction of an

existentially bewildered retiree in "About Schmidt." "The Pianist" is also

nominated for best picture, and Polanski, legendary director of such films as

"Knife in the Water" (1962), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "Chinatown" (1974)

who fled Los Angeles for Paris in 1978 after being indicted on a morals charge,

has been nominated for best director with much of the motion picture community

hailing "The Pianist" as his best work in decades.

Based on Szpilman's memoirs, "The Pianist," which won the Palme D'Or at

last May's Cannes Film Festival, chronicles how its eponymous hero, a Polish

Jew, spent six years evading captivity and death while the Nazis occupied

Poland during World War II. Hiding in catacombs, cold-water flats and attics

all over Warsaw during the occupation, Szpilman's real-life experiences were

similar to those of Polanski, who as a child in Poland hid from the German

invaders after his parents were sent to concentration camps.

"A lot of Roman's own experiences and personal stories went into this

[film], which were invaluable to me while I was figuring out how to play this

role," says Brody, whose words flow with the low-boiling intensity and

selective detail of a radio traffic report at rush hour. "He would tell stories

about his father coming home with these kind of dark joking asides about the

latest absurdity committed by the Nazis. Hearing that, you can tell where

Roman's own sense of humor comes from and how he was able to cope with

experiencing so much loss in his life."

Brody, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens' Woodhaven section,

was an unlikely choice for the role of Szpilman. Hundreds of European actors

auditioned for the role, which called for someone dark, slightly built, between

ages 25 and 35 who could seem commanding at the piano on a concert stage yet

vulnerable to unimaginable peril and fear.

Before he was cast, Brody, whose mother is the celebrated Hungarian-born

photojournalist Sylvia Plachy, had collected film credits with an eclectic

assortment of prestigious filmmakers, including Steven Soderbergh, who cast

Brody in his underrated 1993 Depression-era drama, "King of the Hill," and

Spike Lee, whose 1999 period piece about the 1970s, "Summer of Sam," gave Brody

a high-profile role as a punk rocker-neighborhood misfit. He was also cast as

a GI in Terrence Malick's 1998 version of "The Thin Red Line," but most of his

scenes somehow ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

Still, Brody, tall, brooding and sugarcane thin, wanted very badly to work

with Polanski, and once he got the Szpilman role, rewarded the director's

expectations with exacting, all-consuming dedication.

"We shot the film backwards," says Brody, explaining that all "The

Pianist's" climactic scenes in which Szpilman, pale, disheveled and gaunt from

hunger and illness after six years of war, were filmed first. "I had to lose 30

pounds, grow a beard and work on my dialect in the six weeks before we started.

"Even before all that," he adds, "I was cutting myself away from material

things in my own life. By the time I came [to Berlin and Poland] to shoot, I'd

sold my car, got rid of my cell phones, gave up my New York apartment. I

stopped listening to hip-hop and contemporary music. I didn't socialize, I

didn't go out to drink or eat. I was cutting myself off deliberately to get

that sense of total isolation. In comparison to what [Szpilman] went through,

it's nothing. But it affected me very deeply."

During those chilly, emotionally challenging weeks of filming, Brody says

Polanski's direction was at its most intense. "And I really loved that kind of

attention. At the same time, it forced me, forced both of us, really, to remain

honest and not add unnecessary business to what we were doing. It takes a

great deal of discipline on both our parts to restrain from adding or

magnifying emotions."

Almost as daunting for Brody was learning how to play - or, at least, mime

- classical pieces on the piano. It wasn't the first such crash course in music

for Brody, who learned how to play guitar licks for "Summer of Sam." The

piano, he concedes, was much more difficult.

"I had to match playback recordings, most of them of Chopin, like the

'Ballade No. 1' that [Szpilman] plays for the German officer at the end," Brody

says. "I had to do all that in the same six weeks that I was doing all the

other stuff. They show close-ups of my hands playing those pieces, so I knew I

had to get them right. Also, I wouldn't have been able to feel the force this

music has on my character unless I let this music flow through me."

Brody's absorption into the music also offered insight into Polanski's

theme of finding solace from despair through art. "While I was learning to play

that Chopin, I was starving myself. Not fasting so much as eating very little.

No carbohydrates, no fats, no sugars, no alcohol, nothing. And as you go

through withdrawal, a deep craving sets in that's beyond just craving for food.

It manifests itself into your thoughts.

"So I practiced piano incessantly at that time, playing Chopin in my hotel

room on my keyboard. And this proved to be a wonderful distraction, an outlet.

The discipline of remembering notes and melodies helped fill this profound

emptiness I was feeling. So I understand even more personally what Roman means

when he says art can give you hope even while you're suffering."

Brody shaved his beard and slowly retrieved his lost weight and robustness

to perform in the film's earlier sequences showing Szpilman losing his

privileges, his freedom of movement and his family to the onrushing Holocaust.

Inside, Brody confesses, "It took me a long time to recover from all the

preparation, all the isolation. Probably a year or so went by after filming

before I could go out and have fun again."

Brody's rigorous physical and emotional investment in "The Pianist" already

has been rewarded with acclaim so widespread it even includes critics who

weren't entirely enamored with the film. "Brody," writes the Village Voice's J.

Hoberman, "carries the film with his refined looks and thin, beaky elegance."

Salon.com's Charles Taylor calls Brody's Szpilman "a largely wordless, almost

completely interior performance, a compendium of eloquent silences and a

bottomless humanity."

Such notices mark the considerable distance that Brody, a graduate of

Manhattan's LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts, has come from his

childhood days of performing magic tricks for family and friends. ("One of my

mom's friends at the Village Voice, Howard Smith, got me into magic," he

recalls.) Did his mother's artistic background make his own life decisions

inevitable? "Well, put it this way: I was very imaginative and expressive as a

boy, and it was her insight and my dad's as well that whatever I did with

performing would be a good, creative outlet for me rather than hanging out with

the guys in the neighborhood and getting into trouble."

Parents, neighborhood friends and colleagues will doubtless be rooting for

Brody Sunday night. With or without the Oscar, his stature among actors of his

generation already has been enlarged. But for Brody, the rewards from his toil

on "The Pianist" are deeper and richer.

"I've been looking my whole life for roles with as much meaning as this

one," he says, passion overcoming his self-possession for the moment. "I mean,

the scripts I get ... I read crap all day long! Just ... crap! Scripts I don't

even want to read because they're asking me to be a clown. I don't want to be a

clown! I mean, I can do something funny if it's realistic. But everybody's

dumbing themselves down and they're making actors dumb down.

"I've killed myself to audition for things that are a cinch to do compared

with ['Pianist']. And I didn't have to audition for a role that was the hardest

thing I've done. Roman just had this faith in me and that was that. Who knows

why these things happen? They just do!"

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