As I watched Adrien Brody's portrayal of the title character in Houdini, I thought to myself, “Harry Houdini was an addict.” Not with substances. But what was he addicted to? Fame? Adrenaline? Danger?
“It's a great observation,” Brody said. “I would definitely agree with you that there is an intense yearning within him. I think it was a number of those things.
“Eventually at some point the desire to attain that level and maintain that level of notoriety was definitely something he was very conscious of. Houdini was one of the smartest self-promoters in the world and he was very ambitious. He was probably the first one to understand viral marketing.
“There was tremendous risk involved, but it was very calculated. And he came up with all of that on his own. Coming up with these daring stunts and illusions at that time, which were really cutting-edge, applying his skill as a locksmith and all of that to become an escape artist, is remarkable. But then his other drive, putting it to work effectively, is miraculous.”
There will be no escaping Houdini when the two-part mini-series airs Monday, Sept. 1 and Tuesday, Sept. 2 on History. Brody, of course, won an Academy Award for his role in The Pianist, but he has been fascinated by illusion in general, and Houdini in particular, since he was a small kid.
“I began my love of Houdini at six years old, five years old,” recalled Brody, 41. “As a boy I found the idea of creating something that may or may not exist, but capturing the attention of others - not just entertaining them, but involving them, getting their hearts and minds into that - was very moving, somehow, and exciting. And mischievous, in a way.
“What's most compelling to me is his drive. He had the most relentless personality and he overcame tremendous failure and hardship. From what life was like for an impoverished Eastern European immigrant, to what he accomplished, came from such tenacity. He's a major inspiration to me. But he was also very mischievous. I mean, he would do all kinds of things to stir up trouble.”
From circus sideshows to sold-out concert halls, Ehrich Weiss - a.k.a. Harry Houdini - rose to global fame in the early 1900s. Brody's performance showcases Houdini's ups and downs as he encounters the most powerful people of the era, engages in espionage, battles spiritualists, and tries to cope with the ever-changing tastes and demands of the fickle ticket-buying public.
Joining Brody in Houdini is Kristen Connolly (House of Cards) as Harry's wife Bess, and Evan Jones (A Million Ways to Die in the West) as Jim Collins, Harry’s assistant and confidant.
Of course, any time an actor is playing Houdini, there are going to be some unconventional demands.
“There were the illusions and the stunts that had to be performed, many by myself,” Brody said. “There's a physical side that needs to be met, which, you know, I've done in the past, so it's a less complex process. But it takes a tremendous amount of discipline. The key was to align that with what I could do to convey his driven nature thoughtfully and effectively.
“The first day on set, I had to basically practice the water torture chamber. There's not really much room for error. There is an escape route, obviously, at a certain point. But the key is to learn breath control. You're in this confined space with additional pressure because it's a very narrow chamber and you're submerged upside down and bolted in. So turning around even to figure out how to get out, it's very disorienting.
“Houdini had a fearlessness that very few people really possess and that is what the world became enamoured with. It's what makes him relevant today, because not many people go to the length that he's gone.”
At least Harry Houdini's addictions were crowd-pleasing ones. We all should be so lucky.