Steamer trunks, handcuffs and even locked, water-filled milk cans were no match for early 20th century escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini.
So it would follow that any actor portraying him would have to have at least some of the physical derring-do as the original.
In the new History miniseries “Houdini,” airing at 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Oscar-winner Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”) proves himself more than game in inhabiting the persona of the legendary performer, allowing himself to be suspended from cables and immersed upside-down in water tanks to re-enact some of his routines.
“It was nerve-racking, to be honest,” Brody says of the film’s stunts. “But at the same time, there is an excitement. And you hope that there is a lot of preparation that goes into the process but there is a lot of risk. You know, when you’re suspended upside-down by your ankles in a straitjacket, there is very little room for mistakes.”
Unlike previous films such as the 1953 biopic with Tony Curtis, this new effort – also starring Kristen Connolly (“House of Cards”), Evan Jones (“Gangster Squad”) and a cast of Hungarian actors (the film was shot in Hungary) – delves into the psyche of the man born Ehrich Weiss in Hungary in 1874 to try to understand what would possess someone to risk his life on a nightly basis, someone who would dive shackled into a freezing river or dislocate both shoulders to escape a straitjacket while submerged in water.
And Brody manages to bring Houdini to life quite ably, portraying him as a charismatic, charming and confident man who loved to be in the spotlight – but who also had somewhat of a dark side.
“I think anybody who’s that driven has to have an underlying quality that propels that drive,” Brody says. “And that I don’t think is necessarily coming from a place of lightness. And if you look at what Houdini, Ehrich Weiss, had overcome, the poverty and all of the things in his life that he surmounted and all of those challenges, I think the sheer will that it took to endure the physical suffering that was required to do that – the contorted positions, teaching yourself to manipulate locks with your toes, enduring freezing temperatures for extended periods of time, the weight of the chains, all of that – that I would feel is fair to say would require an element of something slightly darker within an individual.”
Brody also has a personal interest in the subject matter. As a child in Queens, he was a magician, performing at children’s birthday parties as “The Amazing Adrien.” He was also a Houdini admirer.
“(The film) made me appreciate him even more,” Brody says. “I mean, he was a hero to me and I grew up infatuated with him and his ability to do these unthinkable things. And I think he represents that for so many people. And then to step into someone’s shoes and portray a man that does that … it’s mind-blowing.”