TORONTO – When Adrien Brody was faced with recreating one of Houdini’s most ambitious stunts — freeing himself from a water torture chamber — the actor found there wasn’t much room for error.
“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,” he said of his first day on the set of the History miniseries “Houdini.” “And it was very challenging.”
This was just one of the ways the legendary escape artist kept his audience spellbound, along with wrangling himself out of a straitjacket while attached to a pole upside down off a building, breaking out of a prison cell and picking a lock to release himself from a bank safe. Practising breathing underwater, hanging from cranes and being shackled in chains in preparation to play the illusionist shed light on the “sheer pain” Houdini endured, said Brody.
“The amount of chains and locks in which he had to be enshrouded with leaves you bruised and aching,” he said. “All the physical aspects were much more painful and challenging than I had anticipated — and that’s only just a fragment of what he was going through.”
Brody — known for his Oscar-winning role in “The Pianist” — had to be in top physical form to shoot the miniseries, but he credits both Houdini’s physical and mental capabilities for what he was able to accomplish as a performer.
“He had the most relentless personality and he overcame tremendous failure as well and hardship,” the 41-year-old actor said from Los Angeles.
Born Ehrich Weiss in 1874, he took the name Harry Houdini as a tribute to the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. His family moved to Appleton, Wis., from Budapest, Hungary, when he was a toddler, his father securing work as a rabbi. Growing up in poverty, Houdini took odd jobs like shoe-shining as a child to help support the family and at 17 began his career as a magician. Shortly afterward he married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner — known on stage as his assistant Bess — played by “House of Cards” actress Kristen Connolly in the miniseries.
“What he overcame, being an impoverished Jew in the time of greater anti-Semitism and Eastern European coming to the United States to become the most revered, iconic American performer and what he represented for America is the epitome of American success story,” said Brody.
“All of his difficulties and flaws and drive and obsessions made him that person. And those aren’t all perfect, great qualities, but they speak to someone that at the end of the day, is remarkable and has left that impact on me and so many people in this world.”
Brody was fascinated by Houdini early in his life, inspiring his own act as a child magician, the Amazing Adrien. “My whole journey into acting actually began from an infatuation with magic and illusion,” said Brody.
Houdini not only knew how to engage audiences as a performer, but he also knew how to keep them coming back. Today, he would have been an Internet sensation, said Brody.
“He was probably the first one to understand viral marketing,” he said.
Houdini scouted his stunt locations strategically. His straitjacket act is a prime example — he would perform hanging off buildings that housed newspapers, including the Vancouver Sun building in 1923.
He also cultivated his talents beyond creating illusions. He was the first pilot to fly over Australia in 1910, he started his own film company and, adding to his mystique, was rumoured to be a spy for the American government.
“From what I’m aware of, that relationship existed. Obviously certain details are not disclosed, so our writer had a bit of creative licence with that,” said Brody. “I mean, it’s a movie in and of itself — the idea of a famous showman becoming a spy.”
Movies are where Brody has spent most of his career, with roles spanning a villainous heir in “The Grant Budapest Hotel,” a substitute teacher in “Detachment” and a punk rocker in “Summer of Sam.” Although the TV miniseries gave him the chance to delve into Houdini’s life over four hours — a time span that film doesn’t allow — playing a regular on a TV series doesn’t interest Brody.
“There are so many interesting characters that I want to play and there’s only so much time that I have to do that,” he said.
“Houdini” airs on the History Channel Monday and Tuesday.