Adrien Brody might have already won an Oscar at 29 for his work in The Pianist, but for the actor, playing the legendary magician Harry Houdini for History's latest miniseries was a real bucket list moment.
"He was a very heroic person to me as a boy," Brody tells TVGuide.com. Much like the magician he idolized, Brody grew up in New York City the child of a Hungarian-Jewish mother and took up magic at an early age, performing at children's birthday parties as The Amazing Adrien. "What he represented to me then was a real bravery and a fearlessness," Brody says. "I think what magic represents is this ability to kind of defy the laws of nature."
His love of magic soon transformed into a love of acting, solidifying Houdini as one of "the greatest influences" in Brody's life and making Houdini a personal project for the star. "I spent a lifetime poring over magic books and loving magicians," Brody says. "My mother's a photographer and she's photographed Penn and Teller at Houdini's grave. I've visited his grave, it's in my neighborhood. He's been present somehow in my life."
Though getting to become Houdini is Brody's childhood dream come true, the two-night event is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of the magician's life. Based on the controversial biography Houdini: A Mind in Chains (not so coincidentally penned by the Houdini screenwriter's father), the series draws heavily on Bernard C. Meyer's psychoanalytical theories of Houdini and presents his possible work as an American spy as pure fact. But Brody takes no issue with History taking creative license.
"I feel like I was given a remarkable opportunity to delve very deeply into the man's life and the element of him working as a government agent in some capacity is very intriguing," Brody says. "The concept of the government having the insight to take a performer who has proficiency for foreign language and access to czars and rulers of other nations in an intimate way is pretty interesting stuff. I think people will get a real kick out of that."
The four-hour event manages to cram in as much of the illusionist's life as possible, from his childhood discovery of magic to his painstaking success as an escape artist and eventually his grief-ridden mission to debunk spiritualism. Leading us through all the twists and turns of Houdini's journey is Brody's all-knowing voiceover, which at points provides insight into Houdini's state of mind ("The one thing I can't seem to escape from is me") but at times does no more than gratingly foreshadow his eventual death in 1926 ("Some things can hit you in the gut more than any punch").
But more so than anything, Houdini paints a portrait of a man overcome by insecurities as well as Houdini's drive to escape the social constraints and stigma of immigrant — and Jewish — life in the 20th Century. "I think it's a personality type. It's relentlessness. I can relate to pushing against things that are intimidating," Brody says. "I try to take roles that are very challenging and very different in an effort to push the limits, and I think that's something that he always tried to do — to keep pushing his own boundaries and be innovative."
Houdini was a pioneer in not only the field of magic, but marketing. Rather than paying for advertising, he would invite the press to witness his over-the-top stunts or even take the acts directly to them, performing his infamous upside-down straitjacket escapes while suspended in front of newspaper buildings. And while it's fascinating to watch Houdini's ferocious grassroots publicity campaign, History knows that what everyone really wants to see is how he accomplished his tricks.
From simple handcuff escapes to the Chinese Water Torture Cell, Houdini breaks the magician's code and gives viewers an inside look at the tricks behind Houdini's trade. "It's definitely an interesting aspect for the viewer and I think it's part of a storytelling approach that works," Brody says. "Sure, I feel a responsibility also being a magician at one point that I have an oath to abide by, and I'm not so sure Houdini, who've I've been asked to represent, would necessarily want secrets to his illusions to be revealed. But I can understand the curiosity."
Houdini airs Monday and Tuesday at 9/8c on History.