Adrien Brody Shoots And Scores As He Takes On Legendary Lakers Coach Pat Riley In HBO’s “Winning Time”

Adrien Brody

Photo Credit: Scott McDermott



Adrien Brody
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Photo Credit: Scott McDermott

Adrien Brody has built his career around his ability to wear characters like second skins, but even he seems surprised by his latest look: a beard.

“I don’t know if I look like Adrien anymore!” the typically clean-shaven Oscar winner declares, stroking the aforementioned lion’s mane of facial hair while also peering at the bearded image of himself in the poster for his new film, Clean, at the beginning of our Zoom interview. Yet, he’s smiling when he says, “I look pretty rough” (he doesn’t), explaining that commitment to his craft was the initial reason for his poetic lumberjack appearance but, that the look, much like the facial hair itself, grew on him.

And thus, what started off as a request from director John Trengove became a part of him “for life — for the moment. I just did a film [Manodrome] prior that wrapped before Christmas, and the director wanted me to grow out the beard a bit. It was much shorter, and I would have cut it, but I [was doing press for my January release, Clean], and I look like that in the film, basically, so I’m going to just embrace it and represent my character. Plus, it’s been so long since I had a full beard  and it’s good for the winter in New York!”

All solid excuses to keep the bristles going strong, though I already know they’ll be gone come March. Dedication to his craft demands that he become his latest “character” — legendary basketball coach Pat Riley — ­­complete with a perfectly coiffed, slicked-back ‘do and Armani power suits aplenty to boot.

March 6 marks the beginning of HBO Max’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, a fast-break series based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers, that chronicles the professional and personal lives of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers. The 10-episode comedy, executive produced by Adam McKay (Succession, Q: Into the Storm), who also directed the pilot, deep-dives into one of sports’ most revered and dominant dynasties, a team that defined the “Showtime” era. The major players here are beloved names in the basketball universe: John C. Reilly as team owner Jerry Buss, Hadley Robinson as his daughter and current Lakers owner Jeannie Buss, Jason Clarke as former player and head coach Jerry West, Jason Segel as assistant coach Paul Westhead, Quincy Isaiah and Dr. Solomon Hughes as iconic players Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, respectively, and Brody as Riley, who led the Lakers to four NBA championships and unprecedented superstardom, a man known for his iconic style, confidence, and fast-break offense.

At 48, (a clean-shaven) Brody does have the look of a young Pat Riley who, today, at 76 and as the current president of the Miami Heat, has a white beard that rivals the length of interview-time Adrien. And there’s a poetic sort of license in that, while attending Lakers games as a kid, it was Riley, not the players, that made an ingrained impression on him.

Adrien Brody
Adrien Brody as Pat Riley in “Winning Time”

Photo Credit: Warrick Page/HBO
“It’s funny: From that era of watching basketball and watching Lakers games, I don’t remember many details other than him. It’s the craziest thing. I had this real, indelible image of Pat in those days, way, way before I was doing any research for the role. It’s remarkable that a coach could have that kind of impact on a spectator. He’s memorable. I feel like he exuded a sense of control, swagger, and mastery of the game. He had what it took, and it was noticeable even to a kid, so to step into Mr. Riley’s shoes a bit is fun,” he says.

Brody admits that he’s attended more in-person Lakers games than those of the Knicks — which technically should have been his ride or die as a born and bred New Yorker — but while he understands the need to show team loyalty, even more so he can be objective and has “a real appreciation in watching anyone excel, in anything, but especially in athletic sports. When someone impresses me, it goes beyond that kind of allegiance. And Pat Riley is really impressive; he had something truly unique.”

But, says Brody, his job was not to become the real Pat Riley, but to play an adaptation of the man as he was written by Max Borenstein (Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island), who also serves as showrunner, executive producer, and co-creator. “It’s complicated. The writing dictates the adaptation, right? So, as an actor you are interpreting a character, depicting a character that is written for you. What I’m able to do is draw upon what information I have, what I see, and what I envision, and then I have to conform that to a very descriptive interpretation of the character.”

On that note, he did not actually meet Riley, though he does often frequent Heat games when he’s in Miami (he marks one courtside outing sat next to Lil Wayne as his most memorable, but methinks he isn’t sharing the entire story of why this one particular game sticks out so specifically). “I’d love to meet Pat, and I’m sure we’ll cross paths one day, but I wasn’t able to before we started shooting this, but he knows I’m a big fan — and I hope he still likes me after [he sees the series]!” he says with a laugh.

Adrien Brody
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Photo Credit: Scott McDermott
Regardless, “when [Adam McKay’s Hyperobject Industries] said they wanted me to play Pat, I was initially jumping all in. I was like, ‘It’s the iconic Pat Riley, the guy I’ve known and loved watching growing up.’ I was so excited about it, but it’s pretty daunting to step into his shoes. But this precedes all of that at a time in his life where he was very different, from where he was in his life to how he looked.” The Pat Riley he becomes, says Brody, “had a big mustache and sideburns, and he was bopping around in California on the beach, in between being a ball star and trying to find his path after retirement. Where the show picks up, it’s the birth of the Lakers as we know it.”

For those who haven’t followed franchise history faithfully, Riley played professionally for the Lakers as well as the San Diego Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, and Phoenix Suns from 1967 to 1976, retiring from the sport with an average of 7.4 points per game over nine seasons. In 1977, he returned to the NBA as a broadcaster for the Lakers. In 1979 — the same year the late Jerry Buss purchased the team — the team’s then-head coach, Jack McKinney, had a near-fatal bicycle accident. Paul Westhead took over his duties and hired Riley as an assistant coach. When Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals, they also scored a major win for Westhead and Riley, who earned championship rings in their first year of coaching.

This is the history that Brody, too, discovered in his research. “I learned so much about his journey before he was the Pat Riley that we all know and love. When the story takes off, Riley wasn’t even in the building at the time. He was coming in to get a job as an assistant announcer, just to be part of the sport. From what I’ve learned, his triumphs are even more remarkable, because he had to find his way back in, and a number of incredible things happened along the way to enable him to open those doors. His journey is truly amazing, but it’s vastly different from what you or I think or expect of Pat early on. I can’t wait for [the show’s] depiction of Pat to evolve so that I can get into that space where he has a bit more control. I think very early on in his involvement with the Lakers, he was far from being the one to call any shots.”

Those who are familiar with Riley’s story will already know his history, and those who are not will distinctly see his trajectory to the top in Winning Time. There are several moments throughout the series’ later episodes where Brody, as Riley, looks in the mirror and sees himself not as the man who had to begin again — a guy with a bushy mustache, shaggy, ill-kempt hair, and baggy, oversize plaid sports jackets — but the man he is today at 76 —white-haired lion in winter, distinguished, an icon. Viewers, too, will witness this journey as the series progresses and as he gains confidence: a haircut, a shave, slick, streamlined clothing. He will not, in these cinematic moments, see struggle; they will see how he defied the odds.

Pat’s journey deeply and personally resonates with Brody, who says, “I understand the drive within him. I understood what it took for him to get to where he is, and I relate to that. I have a similar tenacity and ambition, and I also want to get to that place. So I have to learn that, just as he did.”

And he won’t even need to shave to do so.

Adrien Brody
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WHEN WE’RE DONE TALKING BASKETBALL, we move on to his most recent project, Clean, the reason behind this winter’s beard. Brody co-wrote, produced, scored, and stars in the dramatic thriller that revolves around ‘Clean’, a garbageman with a haunted past, who returns to a life of violence and darkness but seeks redemption when his young neighbor’s life is jeopardized. The IFC release is definitely a passion project — the type of role he’s been dying to play for more than a decade, but which had never come his way. So, with that very tenacity he mentioned, he created it for himself.

“The complexity of the character in this genre is hard to find for any actor: You’re either given an opportunity to play a wonderfully nuanced character in a dramatic film or one in a pretty straightforward action revenge thriller — there’s less room for nuance there somehow. What I tried to do is balance the two, find a compelling flawed antihero and create a story around somebody that’s really pretty broken. He’s far from heroic, but really, he’s on a quest for redemption, far from heroic, but has to resort to what he’s trying to put behind him to overcome the nastiness and oppressive forces all around him. Clean is trying to help this young girl escape some of the pitfalls that surround her. She reminds him of his daughter, and how he had failed her in the past. I feel like [our film] has a lot of heart, and at the same time, it fulfills this yearning. I loved these kinds of movies growing up. It’s always been kind of an adolescent fantasy of mine to find a role that enables me to run around and stomp out the obstacles and bad people, in a way that you can’t really do in real life. Clean came from me — it’s a voice from within; the sound and feel of the score came from within me. Both affected by the many influences and things that I’ve witnessed in my life growing up in New York. It’s amazing to be able to weave them into something cohesively creative in the film.”

Living out his adolescent fantasies of playing an antihero aside, he also used the film as an opportunity to showcase one of his hidden skills: composing. Brody says he’s been making music for almost 30 years, but thus far, hadn’t found a way to showcase this particular talent. “I scored a bunch of original music that really enhanced the storytelling, the character, the emotional feel of the film. I’ve been making music coming on 30 years now, and I never really did anything with that, either. With [Clean] I was finally able to break past whatever was holding me back. I also learned a lot about filmmaking. Basically, it feels like I’ve been in film school for years. I know everything there is to know, what to do and what not to do.”

It’s humbling to hear that someone who’s been acting for the majority of his life still has the ability and need to keep learning. He started early, taking acting classes as a child, and by age 13, had appeared in both an Off-Broadway play and a PBS film. Appearances in films like The Thin Red Line and Restaurant, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination, paved the way to his Oscar win playing Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, which, in addition to the 2003 Academy Award, made him the second male American actor to receive a César Award for Best Actor. His reign of supremacy has carried on with a variety of successful projects, including King Kong, Predators, and Midnight in Paris as well as Wes Anderson films such as The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and last year’s The French Dispatch, which he followed up with a plum part on HBO’s smash hit series, Succession.

The way it’s going now, 2022 is going to be one of his busiest to date. In addition to Clean and Winning Time, he’ll star in Netflix’s Joyce Carol Oates adaptation Blonde, co-starring Ana De Armas as Marilyn Monroe; the whodunit See How They Run with Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan; and yet another, still-to-be-titled Wes Anderson film alongside Tom Hanks, Margot Robbie, Scarlett Johannsson, Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton.

“They’ve all been really exciting, to be honest,” he says of his recent work. “To keep collaborating with Wes [Anderson] after all these years and for him to keep calling me back, is such a wonderful thing. I’ve loved [Blonde director] Andrew Dominik’s work — he’s such a fascinating person and a wonderful filmmaker and I feel like we’ve developed a friendship since then — and [to work with] Ana De Armas, who is amazing in that film, I’m grateful.”

He doesn’t take these opportunities — or that he’s so fulfilled by each — for granted, because it wasn’t always the case. “There are different phases in one’s lifetime, and sometimes you’re struggling to find the opportunities that are meaningful for you and therefore, you pursue other things that are creative,” he says, referencing his first Haute Living cover and accompanying first art show in 2015. “At that point in time, I had basically taken almost a two-year hiatus from acting to paint, because I found great inspiration in the painting and was finding less meaningful roles. Now, I feel most fortunate that I’m getting a lot of inspiring work and inspiring people asking me to come work with them at this point in my life. At the same time, I still paint every day; I was up late last night painting, in fact. I feel that I have no shortage of creative drive, so if I can apply that and I have the space to apply it, I will. There is always growth when you can find new opportunities.”

Adrien Brody
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He paints, he makes music, he acts, he produces, he writes. As a creative, Adrien Brody is the full package. So I wonder what he thinks of the phrase ‘Renaissance Man,’ whether it applies, or if he finds it too limiting.

“I’ve been called worse things, so that’s not the worst label someone could give me!” he says with a laugh. “But [truthfully] I don’t look at life like that. I’m just clamoring to be creative. Artwork proceeded acting, and music preceded any success as an actor. I was making beats and home tracking out beats since I was 19 or 20, so it just took me a long time.” He references his parents, photographer Sylvia Plachy, and Elliot Brody, a retired history teacher-turned-painter, and how they inspired him and pushed him to be his true self. “I grew up in a very creative house. My parents encouraged me to follow that path, and I’m here [in life] because of that. I’ve had an acting career because of that. I have good instincts as an artist because of that. There will be different phases in my life, and who knows what will be my priority in the future? But I hope to always strive to remain creative.”

Let’s call this phase ‘knowledge’ — or maybe, simply, it’s maturity. He’s come into his own as an artist, as a person, someone who knows what he wants and is determined, just two years shy of 50, to get it. Though will it ever be within his grasp? Likely not, but that’s life. When you stop growing, you stop living. He says as much, noting, “I have much more clarity than I’ve had in my youth, I’ll put it that way. I think I have a greater understanding of many things. I don’t know much, but I do know more than I did, and I’ve had a lot of time to process many changes in my life and career — both positive and negative — and I know what my priorities are. I know what fulfills me, and that is doing the work. I won’t stop. It can be exhausting, but it’s so rewarding that it’s worth it.”

Case in point: his circuitous journey from becoming the youngest Best Actor Oscar winner in history up until now. After all, 2022 marks 20 years since he appeared in The Pianist, a role that has, in many ways, defined his career. But for Brody, though, it propelled him to a different echelon of fame, it’s still just part of the overall ride. In fact, he expresses surprise when I mention the anniversary of his milestone; he hadn’t registered that it had come on so quickly. He says, “It’s a great achievement and I’m grateful for it, but you’ve just got to keep finding things that feed you. That work is done and I’m grateful for the accolades and the recognition — the visibility that it’s created has been very helpful for me but that doesn’t change or end the journey of a creative path. It’s helped in many ways, but it doesn’t take away the need to keep moving forward.”

Brody then brings it back to our previous discussion, correlating Pat Riley’s course with his own. “There’s a basketball analogy here!” he declares, unprompted. “[Riley] had so many monumental achievements in his life — he even had a championship ring — but he had to take steps to slowly eke his way back into the game [after he retired], working as Chick Hearn’s color man instead of being the star he was. I’m sure it took great humility on his part to start over at the bottom and have the drive to get to the top. It was a long transition before he became ‘the man’ again. It was amazing for me to witness someone that I’ve admired — and interestingly enough, only saw in that kind of pure, successful form, which is how, sometimes, people may see me — You’re an Academy Award-winning actor and why are you striving to do all these other things? — to see his journey, study him, see where he came from, and what he had to overcome time and time again to get to those peaks. I identify with a lot of that.”

The phrase “winning time,” and the power behind it, is something he relates to as well. “Time is the greatest luxury,” he proclaims. “I think we’ve all realized with the pandemic how much of what we’ve taken for granted, [and which] frankly, can be taken away from us. And I took it for granted, too, but that’s why I’m working so hard at the moment. Now, more than ever, I’m conscious of how valuable my time really is.”

Sounds like a win to me.

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