Harry Houdini may be one of the more quintessentially American heroes. He was a Hungarian immigrant who invented a new kind of a career for himself in America on his way to fame and fortune – the term “escape artist” didn’t exist until he created it. It’s this triumph over odds that drew Oscar-winner Adrien Brody to take on the role of Houdini in the History channel miniseries biopic “Houdini.” Of course, it helped that Brody had a childhood fascination with the man.
“I had aspirations to be a magician as a boy and was in awe of magic and Houdini,” admits Brody. As an adult, his appreciation of the man is a little more nuanced, as Brody points out that Houdini represents quite a lot to people in terms of “escaping the confines of poverty and the social constraints of being an immigrant and overcoming anti-Semitism and becoming this heroic, all American celebrity.” But as a kid, and for a lot of kids during Houdini’s heyday, Houdini was simply a very brave man, proving “you could defy the laws of nature,” as Brody puts it.
That said, Houdini’s drive and ambition are nearly obsessive to an adult viewer, something that is on full display in the miniseries. Asked whether there is any parallel between his own drive as an actor and Houdini’s endless quest to create bigger and better illusions, Brody says, “I share the drive to a certain extent, but not to impress others.” Brody says he thinks Houdini was constantly searching for validation in his work, but said he’d been very fortunate to get that validation at a young age. (Winning an Oscar at 29 will do that for you.)
Brody says he admires Houdini’s tenacity in pursuit of his goals, but says it might not be “the most admirable quality.” Instead, he thinks “being able to triumph over adversity and fickle years and to be ingenious in discovering new ways of overcoming those obstacles, that’s really admirable.”
Art imitating life
Brody did his best to learn as much as he could about Houdini, saying he consulted with magicians David Copperfield and David Blaine to get their input, and even saw Copperfield’s collection of writings and memorabilia about Houdini. He was already partway on the path to being Houdini: “I had a lock pick set as a kid. I know how to breach a lot of devices and articulate locks.” But one of Houdini’s skills eluded him. The man could apparently manipulate locks with his toes, something Brody attempted but was unable to do successfully.
One way he did manage to mimic the man was in the distinctive nearly horizontal hairdo that Houdini sports in almost all his pictures. “Most of it was my real hair,” says Brody. However, “There was a lot of curling going on.”