Phase9 Entertainment


Movie Interview by Anwar Brett

You could surely have chosen a much easier job if you'd wanted, how much of a challenge was the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman in THE PIANIST for you?

I certainly wasn't looking for an easy job. I like to be stretched and challenged and tested, although I didn't know to what extent this would be a challenge. But part of the beauty of what I do is that it gives you the opportunity to go off and give up who you are and really attempt to understand someone else - another person another time, and their struggles and emotions. If you're successful you can really experience a lot. It's very rewarding when you can connect with them.

What was the specific appeal here?

In this case I wanted to feel that I was being honest with myself, and if I feel connected there's a better chance that the audience will feel connected. Sometimes I see something that I've done that I didn't necessarily feel that I'd nailed in the way I wanted to, or didn't interpret it in the way I meant to, or couldn't get what I'd envisioned. And I see it later and it's really good, and I'm surprised because it didn't move me necessarily. But what's important is that I move me, the journey would be less interesting for me if I didn't. I felt that I had a real responsibility in this case more than with most roles because I was playing an actual historical figure, and of course because of the personal historical nature of the film for Roman Polanski, the director.

He has a reputation for being quite a hard taskmaster, did he live up to it here?

He did give us a rough ride, but I don't think it was unfair. I think he expects a lot from everyone, and I expect a lot from myself too so I identified with that. I can also understand how he would have expected a lot from me in particular in this film because, as he has said, this is the most personal film he's made. It was a huge honour for me, and I felt a great deal of pressure but at the same time he treated me with respect with regard to my work. He's a person who will say he doesn't like you or what you're doing, he has no problem with that. He never criticised my work as an actor, he may have criticised my character but he really appreciated what I was giving him and that encouraged me. It was an interesting ride, and also he has a wonderful persuasive quality. Perhaps if he didn't have that I might not have been able to give him everything that he asked for.

What particular qualities did you identify in him?

He's very charismatic. I admire his strength, I admire his honesty and enthusiasm for things, and his curiosity in spite of all the suffering that he's endured in his life. It hasn't shut him off.

Given the subject matter, and the losses his own family suffered during the war, there must have been times when his emotions were very close to the surface...

Sure. Mine too, because it was very difficult and painful. I was immersed in this state of mind and really tried to embrace this level of loneliness and isolation. It was difficult, as it was for him too because I'm sure it brought up a lot of unpleasant memories. But he also has a great sense of humour. I think he has a similar way of dealing with things that have happened where he's able to detach himself a bit and relay the information as he's telling the story without being overly heavy. You grasp the intensity and the seriousness yet he's not forcing you to feel something in that conversation. He taught me a lot. Complaining was useless with him, I tried that but it didn't go anywhere so ultimately I stopped complaining, which is a good lesson. You should stand up for what you believe in, but it put a great deal into perspective and allowed me to realise that I had less to complain about that.

How much research did you do for the role?

Quite a bit. Roman was very helpful in that his office lent me a lot of documentary footage and I had some literature that I had read. And Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoirs were very helpful as it was first hand information. But at the same time I was given a lot of leeway with the physicality of the character, because although he was known he was no so known that people remember how he looked and behaved. Therefore what was important was his state of mind and obviously connecting to him, and learning to play the piano was also very important. Being able to play was something that Roman insisted upon.

Was playing the piano a crucial component to the character for you, too?

It helped my connection with the character, which I wouldn't have known prior to doing the work, prior to practising the piano up to four hours a day when I had the time - as opposed to acting as if I was playing the piano. I started to not only know the notes but control the levels of emotion and the subtlety within the music which gave me a greater understanding of the story within the music. And of the relationship between the pianist and the piece.

Does Szpilman's artistry also inform your view of the character, a man of great self discipline who is able to endure this terrible hardship?

It's probably in his nature, the same dedication that it took to be able to become that great a pianist. So I would see a correlation between that inner strength and that level of focus but I think they are very different things. Finding something you love and wanting to give it your all, and having the discipline to do it is very different from being able to endure a level of torment and sadness that would seem so overwhelming. To stay and continue to hang onto life takes a tremendous amount of strength under those circumstances. I guess it helped him.

You must have felt at times that your own discomfort was as nothing compared to what the characters in the story went through.

It was minuscule compared to the level of real suffering that exists in this world currently, and has obviously existed in the past. I felt that I owed that much, at least, to go there. It was awful really, there were really excruciating times. here's an emptiness and a longing that you experience when you're really starving that I hadn't experienced until now. I couldn't have acted that without knowing, it's different. As an actor you can call upon similar emotions and try and conjure up these past feelings and torment yourself into re-experiencing them in a sense. But in this case, I've experienced loss and sadness in my life but not like this. I wanted to know the desperation that comes with hunger, and also it was very important to Roman that there was a very clear difference in my physical appearance. I lost 30 pounds in six weeks.

Was the diet closely supervised?

Well they supplied me with someone who was supposedly knowledgeable in the field but part of it was telling me not to drink too much water, which I agreed to, but I'm sure that's not too healthy. It looked good. It felt terrible, but it looked good. And in doing that it became very real. I had no energy for anything else but that, for piano lessons, dialect lessons, rehearsal and thinking about food. Missing everyone and everything good. At that time I was also immersed in the memoirs. It put me right in the character. I wanted to feel that I was experiencing him, I wanted to feel the journey and I did feel it. There were times when I was concerned that I might not be able to get out of that state of mind because I didn't realise how far it had taken me.

Were you never concerned about putting your own health at risk?

I have mixed feelings about risking my health, because I hadn't really done that before. I didn't realise at the time what a great story it was that I had lost 30 pounds for the role, at the time I was just doing it out of necessity, I was in it and I'd see Roman and he'd tell me I was getting there. I didn't see far ahead, I tried to take each day and do all I could for that day and then go to sleep and wake up the next day and see what I could do. In this case it was worth it, on a number of levels. Aside from anything else it's made me see things clearer, and also made me very aware of how much pain and suffering exists for so many people. I really appreciate the simpler things. It's very easy to complain, and I still do, but less. I'm more aware of my good fortune and simple things like my sanity, and food, having some bread, shelter, family.

How easy was it to put the weight back on when you needed to?

It was strange because it totally screwed up my eating habits. I was so consumed with thoughts of food for so long that I had this insatiable appetite. I had to slowly start eating a bit because it was supposed to be very unhealthy to eat a lot, but within the first week I had to do a scene where I had to devour all this sausage, and he kept shooting the scene because he wanted something different. With each take I had to eat a tremendous amount of this sausage, and I was literally sick because my body couldn't metabolise it. Then, when I was able to eat more I couldn't stop.

Wasn't that a little worrying?

It concerned me at first because it changed the way I metabolised food and my body reacted differently for a while. I looked different, in my face and my body, I gained the weight differently and I thought I'd completely screwed up my metabolism because it re-set me into a kind of storage mode. I'm fortunate in that I have a pretty fast metabolism and can eat what I want to eat. I was concerned but I'm 160 pounds now, or probably 155. I'm a little under what I normally am.

After all these serious roles are you looking to lighten up with something in the future?

Yeah, I need a break, I need a little lighter journey at some point. I'd like some romance at some point, if it was well written. That would be great. It's a different process, but it's somehow less fulfilling. I don't like to suffer but somehow I find some kind of greater connection to the work when I do."

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