What Dreams May Come: Actor and Artist Adrien Brody Goes Beyond the Wall of Sleep

Why the youngest Best Actor Oscar-winner and 'Manhattan Night' star is currently dreaming of the life aquatic.

Adrien Brody.

Adrien Brody. Matthias Clamer for Observer

How well do you remember your dreams? Do you ever wake up, eyes blurry and heart pounding, unable to remember specifics, but positive that something—be it inspiring, exhilarating, or terrifying—happened while you slept?

Try and hold on to those fleeting images and you’ll know what it’s like to talk to Adrien Brody. “I’ve always had very vivid dreams,” the rail-thin actor tells me, looking vaguely Dylan-esque underneath a black fedora and gray wool scarf. That afternoon, sitting in a suite inside the AKA Wall Street hotel in lower Manhattan, the hat and wardrobe were not the only things between us. Mr. Brody is introspective to the point of guardedness, brusque bordering on a brick wall. He’s a man that communicates partially through deep sighs and thick, heavy silences, with a tendency to trail a sentence off into an “I don’t know,” said in a way that suggests the exact opposite is true. He knows. But does he want to tell you, right now?

But there are ways into Mr. Brody’s head while he’s still awake, subjects that bring him to the surface, if only momentarily. These days, that subject is not the movies he’s appeared in, or the awards he’s garnered. It’s art. “Art can go beyond certain boundaries or blindness that we would have without that,” Mr. Brody says. “Even if you can’t afford to buy a painting you can experience it. You can go see the Mona Lisa and be transported. You can see the discipline and suffering in a van Gogh.”

Mr. Brody becomes most vividly alive—hands gesturing, leaning forward, a rare grin flashing across his half-moon-shaped face—when talking about a related subject: that of dreams. Or, I should say, a dream, because lately, for Mr. Brody, it’s always the same one.

“These dreams of painting are new. And very strange,” Mr. Brody says. “It’s this reoccurring dream of me painting a very certain kind of painting. Unfortunately, when I wake up I’ve forgotten how I was doing it.”

Adrien Brody.

“You can go see the Mona Lisa and be transported. You can see the discipline and suffering in a van Gogh.” Photo: Matthias Clamer for Observer

What could it possibly mean, this half-remembered painting that returns to him night after night? Mr. Brody has his guesses. “Domingo Zapata, a wonderful friend of mine and a big mentor to me, was telling me about his dreams. He told me, ‘Man, I’m just dreaming of painting,’ ” Mr. Brody remembers.

“And I’m like, ‘Wow, that is what it’s like to be an artist.’ He’s literally dreaming of painting, he’s covered in paint all the time. And I’ve become that guy. I can’t escape being that guy. It’s a beautiful thing. A really beautiful thing.”

He pauses, then: “I mean, there are much worse things you can dream of than painting.” The smile slips away just as soon as it came. He lets this hang in the air, doesn’t elaborate or offer examples, once again choosing to illustrate his point with words left unspoken.

***

Where does one head next after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor at 29, as Mr. Brody did in 2003 for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, to this day the youngest person to take home that category? After a brief fling with big-budget effects features in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Mr. Brody has made a career out of playing roles that seem to mirror the actor himself, enigmatic men that communicate through images more than words, obtuse characters that only sometimes live in the waking world around them. Like painter Salvador Dalí in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris; the titular escape artist of History’s Harold Houdini bio-pic; the dreamy and doomed punk Ritchie in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and the three times he’s worked with the quirky auteur Wes Anderson. As of late, Mr. Brody has even used his hyper-artistic nature to great effect, playing himself in Andrew Dice Clay’s Showtime series, Dice.

“He’s a tremendous craftsman,” Rian Johnson, director and writer of the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VIII, tells me via email. Mr. Johnson worked with Mr. Brody on 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, an experience the filmmaker describes as “a crazy, hold-on-for-dear-life adventure.”

“My main memory of Adrien is how much he was invested in the part,” Mr. Johnson says. “How much he cared about it. I didn’t feel like he was an actor working on the movie; I felt like we were a filmmaking team building something we cared about together.”

Mr. Brody’s latest film, Manhattan Night, from filmmaker Brian DeCubellis, is more Bogart than blockbuster, a stylized New York tale with all the film noir trappings of the ’40s and ’50s. Mr. Brody plays Porter Wren, an “endangered species” going the way of the dinosaur, also known as a columnist for a print newspaper with three deadlines a week, tasked with finding the parts of New York un-gentrified and still with a story worth telling.

It’s a universe in which Mr. Brody, a Queens native and son of well-known Village Voice photographer Sylvia Plachy, felt almost at home. “What resonated with me on Manhattan Night was how it was a throwback to a style of filmmaking I really love that is just lost now,” Mr. Brody says. “And a kind of a New York City that I loved that is a little in the past now. To play a man in that world, still clinging to his roots as a writer. Feeling that pressure.”

“Somehow the state of independent films,” he continues, “is the same way. You have to fight, really fight, to make the ones that are meaningful to you.”

For Mr. Brody, the causes behind the decline in independent film and print journalism, that make the Porter Wrens of the world near obsolete as both characters and ideas, are intertwined. Rooted in a demand for immediate, social-media-driven satisfaction. Big effects, familiar brands, all with a peek behind the curtain included. “If we’re being honest, the whole world has become more cynical. And in a way more jaded,” Mr. Brody says.

“It’s a style these days—a style of interest, and a style of journalism—feeding an appetite that has certainly been cultivated,” he continued. “Which is a shame. Because the beauty, the mystery, of film is an actor transforming. You go to a theater, you’re in a darkened room, and you watch someone that you don’t really know how many children they have, or what their father’s nickname might be, you don’t have references and databases and rumors and half-truths, you’re just transported by their storytelling.”

“I find it interesting, the mermaid.” Matthias Clamer for Observer

Off-camera, too, Mr. Brody is a different person from the 29-year-old who planted a kiss on Halle Berry before accepting his golden statue, tears in his eyes. He’s less drawn to the lights—of cameras, of the public eye—and like Porter Wren, has with age become more observer than subject. “Not that I would prefer to be a struggling actor who is completely anonymous. But one of the things that affords you is the ability to be a fly on the wall, notice the nuances and qualities of people that change when all of a sudden they are looking at you.”

As of late this newfound interest in isolation has often led Mr. Brody out of his native New York, replacing the freneticism of Manhattan nights with something quieter. More serene. “I’ve been taking a lot of time to paint, and be in nature. I would say I’m happier as a person. More centered,” he says. “More free.”

Just this May, Mr. Brody hosted his own exhibition of paintings at the Art New York fair titled “Hooked,” a series of works showcasing fish. I wonder how Mr. Brody, raised in the concrete jungle of Queens, found his muse under the sea. “Well, fish are beautiful,” he replies. “Part of painting, part of art in general, is to tap into something beautiful.”

But there is a deeper meaning, he says, an interpretation that, once again, can only be found under the surface.

“I saw this fragility of fish, which we are dumping on in many ways,” Mr. Brody says. “They are bright and super-delicate, yet they live in the darkest places of this earth. Our spirit is kind of like that, in a way. It has the ability to shine through even under the darkest circumstances.”

At the very forefront of “Hooked” was a take on the classic Starbucks logo, the green and white mermaid that adorns every cup, with one alteration: two pistols, pointed at each side of her head. “I find it interesting, the mermaid,” Mr. Brody says.

“That an amphibious creature that does not exist essentially represents extinction. The mermaid is distraught in both the land and the sea,” he says, as if he can somehow relate.

***

“Can you hear me O.K.?” The voice on the line, belonging to psychologist Ian Wallace, comes through muddled and low, occasionally in fragments, like the bits and pieces of a vivid dream only half-remembered as you rub the sleep from your eyes. But in thinking of Mr. Brody, it’s the subject of dreams we kept returning to that warranted a call to Mr. Wallace, author of The Complete A to Z Dictionary of Dreams, thousands of miles away in a remote part of the U.K. “Everyone has two worlds,” the psychologist tells me, speaking from a world where cellphone service is all but nonexistent. “The inner world, and the outer world. As soon as you start talking about dreams, you get through the boundaries of the inner and outer worlds, and start to see the real person underneath.”

But what about, specifically, the dreams of painting? “There’s a misconception that dreams happen to us, but we actually happen to dreams. We shape them, using our waking life as a vocabulary,” Mr. Wallace says, his Edinburgh-accented voice still coming and going in fits and bursts. “That’s what Adrien is doing when he dreams; assembling fragments of his experience in the waking world. Working to resolve tension.”

‘You can feel a part of humanity at any given hour [in New York City]. I think in a lot of other cities, certainly in L.A., you end up feeling more lonesome because you’re isolated.’

‘You can feel a part of humanity at any given hour [in New York City]. I think in a lot of other cities, certainly in L.A., you end up feeling more lonesome because you’re isolated.’ Matthias Clamer for Observer

A portrait composed from the tensions in Mr. Brody’s waking life would paint an eclectic picture indeed. Twenty-four hours before we spoke, the actor was in Guatemala alongside Mr. Zapata delivering artwork to Fundacion G&T, the charity branch of G&T Continental bank. He’s a traveler, mixing pleasure cruises with philanthropy in equal measure. He’s backpacked in Vietnam, he says, as well as through Cambodia. All fuel for his art, yes, a foundation for his acting as well, but also a constant, integral reminder of life outside a city where “everyone always has a paper or Styrofoam cup in their hand.”

“That looks different when I just came back from witnessing complete deforestation in the Sumatran rainforests, or in Borneo,” he says. “They burn these rainforests, destroy the natural habitat for the orangutan, and the rhinoceros, and the tigers and the poor elephants. And then that carbon emission ends up polluting the world. There is all this stuff that we’re oblivious to as we sip on our instantly accessible, delicious cup of coffee and toss two and a half cups away.”

He’s quick to clarify, “I’m guilty of it as well, to a certain extent.” And that’s an important point, for him. That everything—his art, his imagery, his choice of roles—is not a judgment.

That’s part of what makes Mr. Brody such a mystery to ponder, that juxtaposition, a man of both city and nature, quiet and loud. Dream and reality. It keeps him coming back to New York City, to a Manhattan that has changed, but still has its pockets of mystery to uncover, art that hasn’t been Instagrammed. A city where, despite the fact people hold a paper cup in their hand, at least they do so together. “You can feel a part of humanity at any given hour here. I think in a lot of other cities, certainly in L.A., you end up feeling more lonesome because you’re isolated.” A pause, then: “People…are isolated.”

Re-listening to our interview through recorder and headphones, this last statement brings to mind again Mr. Wallace, the dream psychologist. Specifically, the last thing he said over the phone from Europe, before we lost connection for good. “It’s possible Adrien is sketching out an idea when he dreams of painting, an idea he really wants to share with the world. But he might not know how just yet.”

It’s an unofficial diagnosis that doesn’t quite paint the complete picture of Adrien Brody—like in his dream, I’m not sure anything could—but it might shade in a significant part. The idea that the less one gives in conversation—be it interview, the media, or conversation—the more vivid your dreams may be. That maybe, after all, it isn’t that Mr. Brody is guarded, or rude, or particularly weary. He just spends a lot of time somewhere else, in the same room but as far from you as possible, only coming back in fits and bursts. Maybe under a deep, dark ocean, somewhere for the fish and the mermaids. Or with a blank canvas painted anew every night, an image you forget the moment you wake up.

What Dreams May Come: Actor and Artist Adrien Brody Goes Beyond the Wall of Sleep