On a bitterly cold day in February 2001, actor Adrien Brody struggled to scramble over a wall into a nightmarish moonscape of a destroyed city.
It was the first day of production of Roman Polanski's powerful Holocaust drama, "The Pianist," based on Wladyslaw Szpilman's 1946 memoir, but 30-year-old Brody wasn't acting.
Previously slender at 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds, he'd dieted to 130 by subsisting for weeks on scraps of eggs, chicken and fish. By the time he arrived on the set in an abandoned Soviet army barracks dynamited into rubble, he felt he was becoming the Jewish virtuoso who eluded the Nazis by hiding in and around the Warsaw ghetto. When Polanski -- himself a Polish Holocaust survivor -- ordered him to scale a wall for a complex crane shot, Brody could hardly clamber over. "My muscles had wasted away," he said softly, looking like the dapper, pre-war Szpilman in an elegant tweed suit and gray silk tie.
The radical weight loss was just one example of the lengths to which he went to shoot "The Pianist," which won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 2002 Cannes International Film Festival and is generating Oscar buzz for Brody.
To empathize with a character who loses everything, the actor also let go of his Manhattan apartment, sold his car, got rid of his cell phone, put his belongings into storage and didn't see friends for six months. "My intention was to feel a longing for these things and not to have a safe place to call home," he said, an earnest expression on his angular face.
The drastic measures worked. The success of "The Pianist" hinges largely on Brody's haunting portrayal of Szpilman from a dapper, collected musician to a disheveled skeleton cowering alone in bombed-out ruins.
"It was mesmerizing to see the little gestures he would make as his character was becoming hungrier and lonelier," said "Pianist" co-producer Gene Gutowski, a Polish Holocaust survivor who produced some of Polanski's earliest films. "I remember his mouth moving at one point as if he were chewing on his own tongue. During another sequence, he was so compelling that the entire crew was crying."
His performance is the centerpiece of a drama that stands out amid the Holocaust-themed fare that has emerged since the 1993 hit "Schindler's List" -- everything from Tim Blake Nelson's grittily realistic independent film, "The Grey Zone" (2002) to the schmaltzy NBC Warsaw Ghetto miniseries, "Uprising." What sets "The Pianist" apart is its lushly gorgeous depiction of shockingly direct, brutal violence and its dispassionate point of view, which matches Szpilman's memoir. "Roman was always telling me he wanted less," Brody recalled of the shoot. "He wanted me to refrain from any sentimentality."&'9;
While sipping green tea on a recent evening at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Century City, the actor said he related to the subject matter partly because of the Polish-Jewish heritage of his father, Elliot, a retired public school teacher ("Brody" comes from the name of his ancestral town). His Hungarian-Catholic mother, photojournalist Sylvia Plachy, also had Jewish relatives who suffered in the Holocaust.
Plachy, who fled the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 at age 13, made her only child the subject of many of her photographs during his youth in Queens, N.Y. The teenage Brody felt comfortable enough in front of the camera to pursue a film career, landing a starring role in the 1988 PBS pioneer drama, "Home at Last." He went on to play a Depression-era delinquent in Steven Soderberg's "King of the Hill," a mohawked punk rocker in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" and a terrified soldier in Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" -- although he was devastated when his role was all but cut out of that film. To portray a naive Jewish teenager in Barry Levinson's 1950s drama, "Liberty Heights," he stopped listening to modern music and watching television.
While Brody had worked with a half-dozen prominent directors by 2000, he was shocked when the call came from Polanski ("Chinatown," "Rosemary's Baby"), out of the blue. Over coffee in the director's Paris office, he learned that Polanski had long hoped to make a Holocaust film, but found his subject only after reading a recent republication of Szpilman's stunning memoir.
The filmmaker, who at 7 escaped the Krakow ghetto through a hole in a barbed wire fence, had already auditioned 1,400 actors for the Szpilman role. He suggested he was considering Brody because the actor had a vulnerable, charismatic screen presence and aristocratic looks, but was still relatively unknown. The job was his if Brody agreed to lose weight, learn some Polish and perform classical piano reasonably well.
Brody had played electronic keyboard, but had only rudimentary musical training, so he immediately began practicing four hours a day. On location in Germany, France and Poland, he had a piano in every hotel room and a teacher on every set, yet he continued to diet between takes.
Actor Thomas Kretschmann, who plays the compassionate Nazi officer who helps Szpilman, recalled that a restaurant outing with Brody "meant that I would eat dinner and he would sip Evian."
Brody told The Journal that starving helped him connect with his character's feelings of loss and emptiness. "When I was at my thinnest and most isolated, playing the piano was my distraction from hunger and loneliness," he said.
The actor -- who actually performs Chopin in key sequences -- also found Polanski to be a valuable resource. "He shared many of his wartime memories, little moments and anecdotes, which meant everything to me," Brody said. "At one point, we were in Krakow and he took me by the hand and showed me the place where ... a Polish soldier had allowed him to sneak out of the area where they were holding people for transport to the camps. It was like Szpilman's experience of encountering a German officer who helped save his life."
But Polanski -- who would lie down in the dirt to show an extra how to fake death -- didn't make many allowances for his weak, gaunt leading man. When Brody and another actor removed some encyclopedias from a heavy box they had to carry in one sequence, the director caught them and put the books back. "Then he scolded us for half an hour," Brody said with a laugh.
Polanski also didn't flinch when his star claimed he had no energy to repeatedly scale that wall back in February 2001. He told me, "'What do you need energy for, just do it!'" the actor said, perfectly mimicking a Polish accent.
The grueling experience toughened Brody up, though the melancholy he felt as Szpilman lingers. "My friendships have suffered, and unfortunately my relationship with my girlfriend did not survive the movie," he said with a sigh. "I also haven't worked for a year, because many projects seem superficial compared to 'The Pianist.'"
"Actually it torments me to see myself in the film, because physically and emotionally, I was destroyed," he said. "Of course, any suffering I endured was minuscule compared to Szpilman's. But I felt a tremendous responsibility to go to extremes in Szpilman's memory and because I knew how personal the film was to Roman."
"The Pianist" opens Dec. 27 in Los Angeles.