November 16, 2007, The Daily Mail
When he’s not hacking though the jungle of the film industry, Adrien Brody indulges in his passion for the muscle car. Not exactly the image of the sad-eyed, sensitive musician he portrayed in the melancholy Holocaust movie The Pianist
Drag racing in super-fast cars, equally racy model girlfriends and thrill rides on 1,000cc motorbikes are not images that immediately come to mind when thinking of the sad-eyed, sensitive musician Adrien Brody portrayed in the melancholy Holocaust movie The Pianist. But in real life Brody is a much tougher character than you might imagine.
Before winning a Best Actor Oscar for The Pianist at 29, he spent a childhood in a working-class neighbourhood of New York. He ran with the daredevil gangs, built and raced sports cars and was frequently up to his armpits in engine oil like Steve McQueen in Le Mans.
Then, when he was 19, his passion for speed almost killed him – the motorbike he was riding hit a car and flew through the air, sending Brody crashing feet-first into the pavement and headfirst into hospital .
Fifteen years later, after 34 movies, he very nearly did it again. On a bike. In India. But this time it wasn’t the pavement that was about to break his fall. It was a cow.
“I almost died,” says the 34-year-old. “I was behind a tuk-tuk, one of those little motorised rickshaws, when the driver suddenly pulled to the side and revealed a cow walking away from me on the road. I jammed on the brakes, skidded and nearly slammed straight into it.”
“I was laughing because it seemed so absurd. I was thinking, ‘This is going to be the way I’ll be remembered: rear-ending a cow – all the years of hard work, and this is it.'”
Brody was in the country filming The Darjeeling Limited. And the experience with the cow wasn’t the only time he ran into trouble off set. Last Christmas he was with his stunning Spanish girlfriend, actress Elsa Pataky, when the Reaper tried again.
“I’d just had a wonderful dinner with the cast and crew of The Darjeeling and I hopped a ride home on the back of a pick-up truck with Elsa. It was such a beautiful, wonderful night and I was looking into her eyes, standing on the back of the truck when a low-hanging power line caught me in the neck. I had a North Face jacket on and the padding saved my life. But it was so profound, the moment was really beautiful. I survived it and that was a gift.”
Brody co-stars with Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman in The Darjeeling Limited, which is directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums). The actors play three wealthy brothers who can’t stand each other but reunite after the death of their father to take a train ride across India on a spiritual quest.
Next up is Manolete, in which he stars opposite Penélope Cruz as legendary Spanish bullfighter Manuel Rodriguez Sanchez, who died in the ring in 1947 when he was just 30.
That’s the kind of live-fast-die-young attitude that the young Brody would have approved of.
“As a teenager I would spend all my money on muscle cars,” he says. “I would do the mechanical work and the bodywork, install stereos and even repair the engine and transmission myself with the help of friends. I would buy something, fix it up, try and sell it and then look for something else.”
“I’ve had a Mustang Mach 1, a ’68 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible, a ’68 Dodge Charger [the Dukes Of Hazzard car] and a ’70 Dodge Challenger. I used to race [Mazda] RX7s, which have rotary engines.”
“There was a heritage of drag racing in my community; that’s part of our culture. We would hang out on the weekend, eat pizza and go and watch the races. I think most young guys are attracted to beautiful cars.”
Brody used to look at newspaper adverts with his father and dream about which cars he’d like to own. The difference now, of course, is that they are well within his reach.
“My favourite car now is my Z06 Corvette,” he says. “It’s an amazing vehicle – 505bhp, machine silver. I actually went to Detroit to help build my own engine for it. It’s fun to do custom stuff but when I was drag racing in New York with bad cars it was very dangerous. They wouldn’t stop properly, as I couldn’t make the brakes work. My priorities have changed with age and success – I now realise that braking is important.”
It’s not just four-wheeled muscle cars that catch Brody’s interest. Despite his experiences on two wheels, he’s not averse to a little fun with motorbikes.
“Riding clears the mind,’ he says. “An ideal day is to wake up early, put on my leathers, get on my Yamaha R1 and ride all day – I shoot up the canyons in Malibu and take it as it comes.”
“In India, I bought a Royal Enfield with a sidecar and Elsa and I just rode around Jaipur, Rajasthan and out into the desert region. There are a million obstacles coming at you – people driving the wrong way, trucks coming up the highway into your lane, smoke and dust in your face… It’s dangerous but exhilarating.”
“I was hoping to take the bike back home, thinking it would be really cool to drive around with my girlfriend, me wearing my little helmet and goggles and her with a pashmina from India trailing in the breeze. But it turned out that the bike wasn’t an export model so I had to sell it.”
If Brody comes across as frivolous, nothing could be further from the truth. He likes to play with his motorised toys, but that’s in his downtime. When it comes to acting, he’s one of the more serious players in Hollywood.
“I lost 30lb for The Pianist and I had no personal life for half a year,” he says. “I lost contact with a number of people because it was too difficult to work out problems in relationships. But it was really powerful. I even sold my car – I didn’t want to think about possessions I could go home to.”
Brody’s seriousness comes from knowing that had it not been for his far-sighted mother, he could have ended up on Skid Row.
“The idea of being an actor in my working-class neighbourhood was absurd. Kids where I lived either became electricians or car mechanics or got into business or accounting. But I had a safe place to go as a kid, whereas a lot of my friends didn’t.”
“Having parents who were together where I grew up was rare. My friends had a much harder time avoiding the pitfalls of an urban upbringing and crime.” “Acting saved me. My local high school was pretty run down and there was a lot of gang violence. It had one of the highest dropout rates in the borough. But I went to the LaGuardia High School For The Performing Arts (known as the school from the film and television series Fame).”
“My mum thought acting would be better for me than hanging out on the street with the kids on the block. Some of them are dead now, so I feel grateful every day of my life.”
For The Pianist, he didn’t have to fake his love of music. “I grew up in New York very influenced by hip-hop music but I have a pretty broad taste. I love jazz and reggae.”
“Recently I’ve been listening to John Frusciante [from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers] who has some solo albums that I admire, and I have Public Enemy’s new album in my CD player right now.”
“I make my own music. I create a collage of sound and noises and drum patterns, all programmed on a PC. And I still play a little piano. My music was probably enhanced after I even learned to play some Chopin pieces for The Pianist, because Chopin is incredibly melodic and has this wonderful, melancholy expressiveness that I kind of possess anyway as an actor.”
Brody’s dedicated approach to acting also applied when filming Manolete, during which he managed to get run over by a Spanish bull.
“I was out training with calves, basically sparring, but they are very powerful, even when they are young. I moved the capote [the cape] and the bull ran into me instead of the cape. I got whacked on my right side. Then I flew over the bull and went through the air and fell hard, ending up on my left shoulder.”
“It was a while before I could get back into the ring, but I had to earn the respect of the bullfighters who were training me. That is what I love about my job – here I am, a guy from New York and I end up living in Spain with the celebrated bullfighter Espartaco, running with the bulls and trying to prove I’m man enough to handle it.”
Some people are just made for danger, it seems. But, he adds, “Quitting is not in my personality. I’ve had many experiences when I’ve been close to death but I don’t think that’s unusual.”
“The bullfighting was tough and dangerous but it was good for me because I had to play a guy who was facing death every day. If you want to understand what they go through, you’ve got much more to connect to if you actually experience the fear.”
“The Darjeeling Limited” is released on November 23