Since winning his Best Actor Oscar ten years ago—at 29, he’s still the youngest to do it—Adrien Brody’s career has toggled back and forth, with the now 38-year-old actor seemingly choosing parts using the well-tested, one-for-me-one-for-them formula. One day he’s blowing away space creatures in Predators, and the next he’s slowly coming apart in the little-seen drama Wrecked. Brody’s latest is definitely not one for them, although it probably should be. Detachment, directed by the controversial filmmaker Tony Kaye (American History X) is a warts-and-all look at this country’s busted up school system through the weary eyes of substitute teacher Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody. We recently spoke to the actor about preparing to play a teacher, remaining self-aware, and that time he walked for Prada.
BULLETT: Did you have any preconceived notions of Tony Kaye coming into this project, and if so, were those reinforced or upended?
That’s a good question. I really try not to fall into that awful habit that we are so tempted to, by judging people based on what people say about them. Someone had told me that he has a bad reputation, and that was precisely one of the reasons I wanted to do the movie, because I really hate that and I like to form my own opinion. Sometimes people are right, sometimes they do have a bad reputation. Tony unfortunately pissed off the wrong people, and is too honest and a real artist. I think unfortunately in my profession, it’s not always tolerated because you can’t expect someone to be a pure creative genius and then also follow all the rules and answer you in the way that you want him to answer. Of course they’re going to fight for what they believe in. So there was bound to be conflict. And if the people who are in power want to exert their power, you end up with conflict.
He’s remorseful about the way he behaved back then.
Yeah, and we all make mistakes. We grow from them. I really wanted to be an ally to him, and part of my responsibility even as a producer was to protect his vision.
In the past, you said that Roman Polanski made you a tougher person. How did Tony change you?
Not just tougher—but he did toughen me up for sure—but more accountable and responsible, and more aware of my ability to take more punishment, or whatever I thought I could necessarily handle psychologically or physically.
Did this movie change you? Or does every movie change you in a way?
Every movie affects me, for sure. I don’t pick easy journeys. But something like this definitely affects you, and reminds me of how important it is to help young people find their own voice and their creativity and their uniqueness. I’m psyched that we put this together and people are going to see it and that’s really a remarkable thing because it’s hard to make movies like this.
You’re famous for your preparation for roles. You tend to go all out. How did you prepare for this?
I went to public school in New York, that’s the most training you can get. And I also am the son of a public school teacher, a great teacher and a very thoughtful father. I attribute a lot of my personal success to his guidance and patience.
Is it true that when you were younger and when you were in school you were a bit of a troublemaker?
Yeah, I don’t like to tout being a troublemaker, but I was a little bit of a punk, yeah.
Did you relate to any of the kids in the movie?
Oh yeah, completely. I mean, the line that I say to the kid when he’s kind of throwing a little fit in the classroom, “I understand your anger,” I added that. It felt authentic to express that to him because I can totally relate.
Where do you think that anger comes from?
Anger is a defense mechanism that a lot of young people resort to from frustration and powerlessness. When you feel powerless, you fight against it. And the easiest way is through physical violence. This is why we resort to war. Because, at the end of the day, people cannot help but resort to beating each other because they can’t find a thoughtful way to meet their minds and resolve conflict, and that only perpetuates more violence. Once someone beats you or someone you love, you have to beat them. It’s the whole thing with war, a never-ending cycle of suffering.
Your character also attributes the anger to a lack of self-awareness as well. Are you always self-aware, or is that something you constantly have to work at?
I have to work at it for sure, but I’m better than I used to be. It’s partially a result of separating myself from emotion and learning a kind of technique in which I have to analyze and embrace emotions that may be my own, but are not something that I’m feeling in that moment. I think that’s been valuable.
You’ve been acting for a long time, but do you ever have self doubt when you start a project?
I’m a professional, and part of being a professional is channeling moments that you’re not the most secure about, and using that as a fuel. The key to being good, or great, as an actor is to not be self-conscious. As long as you do the homework and let go of your own self-awareness as much as possible, you thrive. Certain environments are less conducive to allowing that, so you have to find your way. Tony created a really great environment, and it was safe to be vulnerable in that sense.
What’s your most underrated film?
Oh boy. I’ve done a lot of movies. A lot, a lot, a lot.
Is there one that you wish found a bigger audience?
Love the Hard Way is a really good movie, have you seen that?
No, I haven’t, so there you go.
Yeah, see that. It’s a really good movie. I did that probably a year or so before The Pianist, and I was with this great young actress, her name is Charlotte Ayanna. It spoke to me kind of with this street life crew. I knew a lot of guys who were hustling kind of guys, and this character was a real jerk, but you liked him. And it was dark, and it was a love story and it’s worth seeing.
You recently walked the runway for Prada. Did that take any convincing?
Oh no, they didn’t have to convince me. I’ve never done that, so I thought, that’d be pretty exciting. And then when I got there it was actually even more exciting because I was with Gary Oldman and who else was in front me?
It was Willem Defoe and then myself and then Gary Oldman. It was this method acting kind of thing. They were playing this serious music and everything was about exuding power and dominating and red carpets. I had this crazy red outfit on and it was like a character. I went out there totally like a character. It was over before I knew it, but I got to hang out in Italy.
The New York Times said you were the most natural of all the actors.
Oh really? That’s nice. I don’t read my reviews, but a good review in the Times of my runway modeling! That’s pretty fun. It’s nice to be asked to model, and good to wear some cool gear once in a while.