Adrien Brody is not claustrophobic. But when manacled and hung upside down in a chamber filled with water, the actor fought a rising panic.
“It’s very disorienting when you’re upside down and submerged, because you can’t tell how to right yourself,” Brody says, matter-of-factly. “The tank was only wide enough to right myself in one direction or else I’d get stuck.”
Shooting that stunt was just another day on the set for History’s Houdini, a four-hour drama premiering this month on the network, that chronicles the magician’s early days and his rise to stardom through extraordinary feats of daring. Brody, who rarely works in television, says he was drawn to the project by a lifelong fascination.
“At one point in my life I had dreams of becoming a magician,” he says. “Houdini was the greatest stage performer ever. He was a superhero before there were such things.”
While the two men bear little resemblance to each other — at a lanky 6'1", Brody would seem an unlikely pick to play the stocky 5'6" escape artist who locked himself in crates, water-filled milk cans, even the belly of a dead whale — they do share an intense self-discipline.
After all, one was willing to be buried alive under six feet of dirt (a stunt that nearly cost Houdini his life) and the other to go into seclusion, lose 30 pounds and learn to play Chopin (for The Pianist, for which Brody won an Oscar).
“Every degree of discomfort on Houdini was only a glimpse of his pain and suffering and discipline,” Brody says. “The difference was, I had a team of people there to keep me safe and alive — he didn’t.”
As a boy, Brody was an outgoing sort who tinkered with magic, performing for friends and relatives as The Amazing Adrien. But he lost interest when the fantasy he was creating was no longer magical to him. “I think what first attracted me was the idea that I could create an illusion and captivate adults who were older, smarter and wiser.”
He attended New York’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School (celebrated in Fame) and was appearing Off-Broadway by age 13.
“What I found to be magical about acting is the elusive, deep connection I can have with feelings that are not my own,” he says. “Part of the experience is to not just share something with an audience, but to actually pull myself out of my own emotional state and honestly go as far as I can go with a role.”
When he won the Oscar, he was only 29 — and to this day remains the youngest man to win the best actor award. The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski, was based on the true story of a Polish-Jewish musician and composer whose family was sent by the Nazis to the Treblinka extermination camp.
“That has been my most meaningful role,” he says, “because of what it informed me about life, loss and the ability of the human spirit to survive and to triumph.”
His new role also carries special meaning, given that Houdini escaped poverty and the prejudice related to his Jewish ancestry to become a world-renowned icon, one who still fascinates to this day.
“I’m always drawn to characters that surmount challenges most people can barely even imagine,” Brody says.
And he’s willing to go the distance for such a role — even if means being strapped into a straitjacket and dangled upside down over the streets of Budapest.