became the youngest person ever to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, at age 29. He’s a household name for that role, as Polish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist
. And he has since gone on to star in films such as Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited
(2007) and The Grand Budapest Hotel
(2014), Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong
(2005), and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris
(2011). But two years ago, Brody decided it was time to devote himself to a passion he had long neglected: painting.
It happened by chance. A friend of Brody’s, a French artist, had promised to paint him a piece. After four years, and a period spent out of touch, they finally settled on a time for the work to be completed. “I built him a large canvas, measured it for the wall,” recalls Brody. “And I bought some additional canvases in case he wanted to do some additional work and play around. I thought I might help him. And so while he was painting, I started painting some stuff too.” Brody’s friend was adamant that the actor had to continue.
It’s November, and we’re sitting in Shanghai at ART021
art fair as Brody recounts this return to a dormant creativity he had often thought about picking back up but never got around to independently. “Painting was something that I loved and dreamt of coming back to one day but never did. I think a lot of people have that: maybe they were talented at guitar or they used to sing or they used to draw,” says the 43-year-old actor, glancing at the works he was presenting at the fair in a collaboration with the nonprofit organization Teach for China. Brody had donated one of the pieces—a lacquered painting of a fish, covered in drips of paint à la
—to the charity, which sends Chinese and American graduates to teach in schools in rural China. This week, similar work is featured as part of David Benrimon
’s booth at Art Miami
Painting was something that Brody initially attempted to pursue professionally. “I had applied to art school and was rejected,” he recounts. Like so many people who neglect or abandon creative passions, the young Brody was impacted by being turned away. “It’s discouraging in a way when the establishment or teachers criticize your work or dismiss your abilities. Inevitably you take it personally, especially in your adolescence. You’re at a young age where you are dreaming but you’re naturally insecure. Your ideas and your sense of self, none of those are there.”
The actor’s spontaneous painting session came at a particularly opportune time. “I had been working a lot as an actor and producer, and had just been really immersed in all that,” he says. But rewarding as this work was, it left him with another urge: “I was bursting with desire to express myself independently. Painting lets me do that without the burden of having a screenwriter, a conversation about a script to make it suit me a bit more, finding a filmmaker that elevates me, and having an editor, and the producers, and the marketing team change the work that I go into doing and then it becoming something else, yet with my name on it. This is my doing.”
Much like when he famously lost 30 pounds and cut ties with his personal life in preparation for his role as a Polish-Jewish musician fleeing the Nazis in The Pianist, Brody has leapt into his artistic career with gusto. And he has been prolific. In Shanghai, the fish we’re sitting amidst reflect the degradation of our ecosystem and the way in which our fast-paced, technology-consumed lives have led us to neglect our inner spiritual consciousness. In previous bodies of work, Brody has created installations out of stuffed animals dressed up like gangbangers to comment on the how the degradation of the nuclear family in urban contexts has contributed to a perpetual cycle of violence and he’s painted burgers and hot dogs in a nod to the ways fast food culture reflects a more overarching shortsightedness when it comes to quality of life, health, and the environment. Ultimately, his work is about self-fulfillment more than it is public acclaim. “Whether someone appreciates it or not, it’s fine, it’s subjective. But it’s coming from me. And it’s wonderful. The process in and of itself is so exciting and fun.”
Brody credits his artistic adventurousness to his parents. “I come from a family of artists,” he says. “My mother [
] is a photographer and on an artistic and a spiritual level she’s really a guiding light for me. And my father is a very talented painter.” Brody’s father took up painting in earnest after retiring from his job as a public school teacher. The actor recalls his dad retreating to the attic of their Queens home to spend time with his easel and oils. “My dedication to a lifetime of pursuing creative output is something that came from my parents. They nurtured me and approved of me doing something that was never going to be easy. They’ve given me the courage to take risks creatively and pursue something without there being a goal of success.”
The intention Brody brings to his work is unimpeachable—especially the way in which he’s marshalled it to raise significant funds for charities. “I should exceed a million dollars in donations this past year,” says Brody. “That’s not something I could have done had I not taken this on.” Aside from his contributions to Teach for China, he’s helped benefit environmental initiatives, AIDs research, and other youth organizations, working with fellow actor and art collector Leonardo DiCaprio this summer for DiCaprio’s annual auction in St. Tropez. “I’m thrilled. You know, all of it is part of the bigger picture,” he says.
That’s not to say that putting acting somewhat to the side in order to pursue his art work hasn’t come without sacrifice. “I obviously put down a lot of earning potential for two years to work on what I do creatively and to pursue a greater understanding of myself and a commitment to guiding myself,” he says. But Brody also notes that the emotional openness and deeper inner consciousness that both acting and painting create each fertilize the other. Acting, says Brody, will always come first for him. “I am an actor and I’m destined to be an actor. I was already an actor when I was rejected from art school.” But with painting, he’s revived a dream once put on hold—and set a powerful example for others who may similarly be harboring unfulfilled creative passions.