It’s finally my turn to share with the world all of the things that have shaped me—good and bad.
Adrien Brody was once the darkest of dark horses. In 2003, in the Academy Awards race for Best Actor, he was the only one out of the five nominees to have not picked up that trophy previously. He was also the least-known presence amongst what amounted to a virtual Mount Rushmore of talent, pitted against Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson. The toast of the film world, the then 29-year-old was also the youngest ever to be crowned the honor. And little did we know, Eminem wasn’t the only musically inclined to score an Oscar that night. The Queens-native, winning for his role as a Jewish musician who eluded the Nazis in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, was as serious about making beats as he was about acting. Evidently, his not-so-secret admissions had been floating around in the media for quite some time.
Throughout the years, Brody remained outspoken about his dreams of taking time away from the movies to release his own record—a lede that would be buried by other life things like winning an Oscar, for instance. “I think it’s interesting to people because it’s incongruous with the guy who did The Pianist,” he illuminated to The Scotsman in 2010. “I understand people’s surprise, but many things are interesting to me.” Then in 2014, he dropped a beat bombshell to The Guardian: “I think there was a period in my life where had I met the right people to help me figure out how to pursue it, I would have loved to transition into producing an album. I’m still friends with RZA and we’ve talked about doing some things. I have a lot of ammo. It’s just stockpiled.”
The vindication train was a long time coming and it arrives in Paul Solet’s Clean, in which Brody not only stars but also co-wrote, produced and composed. Equal parts meditative and operatic, Clean sets the stage for Brody’s music credentials on his turf of filmmaking—an impassioned reconciliation between his day job and beatmaking allegiance a decade in the making. Interestingly, RZA is there alongside him in a supporting role, not to mention literal ammo—stockpiles of them—in a movie that culminates in a shoot-out that is as inspired as it is hyperviolent. In Clean, Brody plays the titular garbage man, who drives around in solitude collecting other people’s trash while philosophizing about his city’s continued degradation and downward spiral. Scrubbing up the neighborhood means atonement for our troubled protagonist. But when the rescue attempt of a neighborhood girl makes him the target of a local crime boss, Clean careens back to his former self wherein redemption hangs by a thread.
Anthem recently spoke to Brody about his latest role and his contributions to music.
Clean arrives in select theaters and on VOD on January 28.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview was first published on June 19, 2021.]
It’s great to connect with you again, Adrien. We haven’t spoken since Detachment.
And we’re back at Tribeca!
Right? I loved Clean. And the thing that’s so honest about making these discoveries at film festivals is that you’re not influenced by outside opinions—there isn’t any to speak of yet. So you’re really walking in with blinders on and I was pleasantly surprised by this.
Oh thank you so much. You’re one of the first feedbacks I’ve had. We really kept this close to the vest so I’ve only shared it with a handful of people thus far. It’s really great to hear that. I’m very, very excited I have to say. This is a dream project for me in so many ways. To be able to bring together a lifetime of influences into one cohesive project is such a challenging endeavor, but also a rewarding one. I’m so grateful to finally share this at Tribeca this year. As you know, so much of me is a part of this movie and I’d never really had the opportunity to do that before. I’ve devoted my life to this journey and I’ve finally found the courage I guess to fuse all of these other creative parts of my life and a creative understanding beyond the scope of just being an actor.
Where did this story come from?
I had been yearning to tell a story of this nature and mulling this over for over a decade. What’s exciting about Clean is that he’s a complex protagonist in an action-thriller genre. That’s something I not only wanna see as the audience because I love the genre, but because it’s such a rewarding experience when you can be connected in this grounded, realistic, dark-gritty world with a man who’s so tormented by his failures and his mistakes and his own anger within. I think that’s a very relatable thing for many people, men and women. In spite of all of his failings, he is ultimately pushed to a place where he’s really living now: He’s trying to make amends for his wrongs in that phase of his life. Ultimately, he’s pushed over the edge. So thematically, that’s all been there. Paul [Solet], our director and my co-writer on this, is just a wonderful filmmaker. We had worked together on Bullet Head. He’s such an eloquent writer who understands truth and character. I pitched him the idea of doing this together and he loved it. We worked very hard and it was an amazing process. It allowed me to have probably the most personal story and a character that I understood so implicitly that I don’t need to say anything, you know? It’s all within me. I composed the score for the film and produced a bunch of original music. I’ve been making music for 25 years now and maybe more. To finally merge all of these creative forms of expression and have the music further tell the story and the emotions of the character that I’m portraying in the world we’ve created is a remarkable thing. It’s a real gift for me to be able to harness all of that. It’s also something very unique for an audience because it’s normally a group of people that find inspiration from one thing or another. Normally, your composer is being inspired by your script or the visuals—it’s not coming from within that composer originally. And an actor is often interpreting the lines of a writer—it’s not really dialogue coming from within the soul of the individual saying it.
A decade in the making—I believe it. I don’t know if you remember this, but in 2014, you told The Guardian that you were talking to RZA about working together. You also said in that interview: “I have a lot of ammo.”
[laughs] That’s great. That’s so me. I mean, it is! It is ammo, and it’s necessary, you know? It’s used in building, not destroying. That’s the beauty of acting as well. You can find a home for all the hurt that you see around the world that you can’t come to terms with and put yourself in the shoes of other people whose lives are challenging in ways you don’t personally know and then represent those people and give a voice to that suffering. That’s part of the journey. That’s part of what was exciting about this. I love action-thriller dramas. They’re great fun. And what they need to have is the soul and a sense of complexity for that character to really earn that term, to not be built up as a hero throughout the movie and have everything be perfectly set up so that we just like him and root for him. You have to root for him in spite of his tremendous failures. That is a great challenge. That’s what we have to do in life. Nobody’s perfect!
That implicit understanding is what allows for Clean to work dynamically I think in that it feels like film noir, a revenge thriller and a superhero movie. A hip-hop movie. A parable. Yet, it’s all cohesive, knowing that films can so easily get muddled when your intentions aren’t true.
I love that you see all of that. I mean, it is all of those things. Uniquely in its own way, it can stand alone if you’re a lover of hip-hop and that genre of music and that vibe, for example. In a way, I look at this and that imagery is amazing: The stuff that Paul shot and the storytelling with the drug dealers and the darkness that is just consuming the lives of the youth of America and the fear that they have to live in and all those challenges that young people in our wonderful nation have to overcome to become the future of this country. The movie speaks to that and it’s very exciting. The pace and the thoughtfulness of it and then the ferocious violence that erupts, these are all things that Paul and I love. They’re all my influences. That’s the beauty of producing and co-writing and creating on a level like this. It’s finally my turn to share with the world all of the things that have shaped me—good and bad. And all of the things that I’ve witnessed growing up in Queens and New York. To be able to share that with people is very exciting.
Tell me more about the music, which is woven so deeply into the fabric of this movie.
I made a lot of the beats while filming. I would come home at night and train. I ate a diet that was Clean’s diet, which was really unglamorous: Basically chicken breasts and steamed vegetables. I was trying to live that austerity. Then I would make beats. I don’t really play video games much so when I stay home, I make music and work on equipment that enables me to play all of these different instruments to arrange and layer tracks. I came up with the theme for Clean where things get heavy. I came up with that on my iPad. I remember calling Paul up and saying “What do you think about this?” I think it was challenging for him because I only brought this to an orchestra at a finalized stage to replay with live instruments—strings and pianos and French horns. So I’m playing this mourning, emotional, longing melody on a synthesized thing for someone who’s not a hip-hop head necessarily, or at the level I am. And not that it’s hip-hop either. My music always had this fusion of melancholic longing with the grating, grinding hardness of the city around us, which is how I fit in. That’s the emotional space of this man: A constantly grinding, knocking down and a burning within him and a longing to find salvation and forgiveness for his mistakes. Think about what it’s like to have made his mistakes and fallen victim to that lifestyle—the loss of a father. The failings of a father are too hard to grasp and very hard to overcome.
Is this marriage between music and film something we can expect more of moving forward?
I would love that, you know? But I think this was a unique opportunity. It took a lot for me to invest all of the time, decades of my life, to pull into one little block of things to share, which is a remarkable thing. So the way I look at it, even though this is a pretty overtly commercial film, it is a very intimate creative project. As you know, I also paint. Painting, music, acting and hopefully directing—these are all forms of expression that I understand and love and yearn to churn out. If I can bring them together in new ways and in innovative ways, that’s really exciting. That’s what I love to do. Either way, in an individual capacity, I’ll be doing all of this for as long as I can.
It’s a beautiful thing that you’re able to premiere this movie to a live audience.
It’s a very exciting time! All of us have been desperate to get back into gear with our lives. Beyond actors and people within the film industry, the moviegoing experience is such a part of American culture. It’s so heartbreaking that theaters were shut down. The industry had already shifted gears and there’s so much on streaming. It just kind of further took away the ability for people to experience a wider breadth of movies in a cinematic experience. That’s a shame, you know? Right now, I think things can come back quite a bit. I’d really love for audiences to be able to share that communal experience in a darkened room and feel good together sharing that moment with strangers. That’s part of what making movies really is. So I think it’s wonderful that festivals are coming back. We’re having an in-person screening and I’ll be there. I believe most of the cast is able to attend. Our director will be there. We’re all very excited about this. RZA is amazing in this movie and it was great to finally collaborate with him. Glenn Fleshler and Richie Merritt and Chandler DuPont—they all brought such heart to this story. I’m so grateful to them. It’s an opportunity for us to share in a theatrical environment and I’m gonna champion all of their hard work. So I’ll be there.
Are you also heading out to Cannes for The French Dispatch?
I’m gonna go to Cannes as well, I believe. I’m working right now so we’re working out the dates. I’m very excited to continue to come play with Wes [Anderson] and his gang of wonderful people.