Adrien Brody On Accessing His Rage In ‘Clean’ And Playing Pat Riley In HBO’s ‘Winning Time’

In IFC’s new film Clean, Adrien Brody‘s character (also named Clean) walks through life in the margins, literally cleaning up the streets as a garbage man and through acts of kindness and care for his neighbors and neighborhood while quietly reeling from the consequences of addiction and loss that pushed him into retreat. In the corner of his eye, he sees it, though: a reason to free his rage and capacity for destructive violence on the gangster (a tremendous Glenn Fleshler) who is poisoning that neighborhood from within. A clash is inevitable and explosive when it finally does happen.

For Brody, this is a story years in the making. A passion project in the fullest sense for all the ways he influences the finished product — co-writing the script (with director and previous Bullet Head collaborator Paul Solet), producing a project that was independently financed, creating a hip-hop-centric score with myriad influences, and getting into peak shape to play a reluctant vigilante who would have preferred to stay on a path of peace.

Uproxx spoke with Brody about the years-long journey to get Clean (and his music) in front of you (it’s in theaters and available to stream on VOD now), accessing his own untapped rage, influences and homages, and playing people who overcome hardship both in this film and in his upcoming work as former LA Lakers coach and icon Pat Riley in HBO’s Winning Time.

This is more than just you on camera. This is you producing and shepherding it to life, co-writing it, doing the score. Why this film specifically [for those firsts]?

First of all, it’s a genre that I just love so much. And I haven’t found a role quite like this, where I just wanted to create a character that had complexity and was heroic in spite of being so deeply flawed. And those feelings of being a failure that crush your self-esteem and that so many of us endure and yet have to prevail… I feel like those are the real heroes. There’s so much injustice in the world. There’s so much inequality. And I wanted to tell a story that honored what’s going on around us that would still be entertaining and still fit this revenge saga vibe and be rewarding to the kind of audience that appreciates that. [It’s something] that I grew up appreciating. The kind of audience that appreciates a more character-driven artistic piece. And I feel I haven’t seen a lot of that. I wanted to create something that I guess honored all of that and all of those creative yearnings. And then the music has been another component in my life that has kind of been underserved.

I’ve worked with all these wonderful creative people in my lifetime. And I grew up in a very creative household, and I grew up in a pretty rough urban environment. And so, it’s an amalgamation of all of these influences. And I had to put it into something. It’s kind of an art project. It’s like the whole thing is really sculpting together all of these things and bringing in collaborators who I admire and appreciate, and wonderful actors like RZA and Mykelti Williamson, who I’ve worked with. It was such a painful journey, but wonderful. And it’s been a very long haul. And so, I’m really grateful.

This is such a wonderfully positive week for me, because first of all, it’s the first time anyone beyond me blasting out a couple of things on Instagram or with my boys has heard any original music from me. And I feel like it’s such a part of this world. It is a character. I get to create another character, another element of the storytelling. And that’s just really exciting creatively.

You say this is a very painful, very long process. Are you already thinking about what’s next? And also is it a package deal? If you do this again, does it have to be you doing the score, doing the music, as well as acting?

No, no, there’s no prerequisite. I don’t have any mandates for how I work or choose to work. I’m very experimental in the process. There are things I’ve learned that I’ve definitely learned the hard way, and we all do. And I’ll be a better filmmaker moving forward from those experiences. Work on the ground is the best film school you could ever have. I’m steeped in independent filmmaking. So I’ve spent a lifetime problem-solving with all the collaborators I’ve been working with whether I’m just an actor on it or not. Effects aren’t working that day, the crane doesn’t operate, the camera’s frozen, the location sucks, there’s no light? How do we pivot and keep telling that story and honor the script and honor the audience and honor all the hard work that we’re immersed in and keep going in a creative way? It’s all about problem-solving and storytelling. So yeah. I mean, I feel like if I can offer up something that I feel is an asset, I will offer it up, and I’ll do the work.

In terms of honoring the genre, how do you decide when to lean into it and when do you try to change things up a little bit? Because there are moments in some of the fight scenes where I see some definite inventiveness, but there are also moments that feel very much steeped in that genre and feel very much like a nod to some of the things that have come before. And I’m going all the way back, like Death Wish all the way to John Wick.

That’s all intentional.

Yeah, of course.

That’s all intentional. Paul Solet is just a wonderful writer, our director of the film, and I brought him on because I love his sensibilities and his understanding of the craft of screenwriting. I have yearned to do this for a long time and didn’t quite have the confidence to fully manage all of that responsibility structurally. And so, it’s both of our influences that are infused in the storytelling. We both love films from the ’70s and both grew up loving movies, like Death Wish as well. I feel like it’s really fun to create someone new and work within that space. I grew up seeing martial arts movies, my whole childhood. My dad used to take me to Canal Street in Chinatown, and we’d go see wonderful martial arts films regularly in the theater. And it was such a big influence on me. I wanted those sequences. I wanted to have a bit of creativity within that brutality. And I found them really entertaining. I still find them entertaining. But when I was young, it was so exhilarating to see your hero prevail and have these skills and someone that you don’t anticipate. It’s like, he’s the wrong guy to mess with. And he’s just the guy in the neighborhood. He’s trying to do right. He keeps his head down. He’s picking up trash, but you do not want to cross this guy.

I love that oh shit moment in the movie. I just love it so much because these guys who are so used to exerting their power and influence over their community and dominating the people in their community for their own means… He puts them all to the test, and we all want that. That’s fun and that’s rewarding. And we all need that. Frankly, we need someone to go out and clean up the streets because they’re filthy. And we live with that in our society. And in a fictional world, you can do that.

When you’re in some of these really heavy violent scenes, how do you get into that headspace? Are you channeling any kind of pushed-down rage within yourself? How do you get there to do a scene like that, where you’re just covered in blood and there’s so much physicality, so much choreography involved?

I have no shortage of … I have a deep well to dig into for lots of stuff, put it that way. And that’s the beauty of being an actor… finding a creative place for that, and for your own anger or frustrations of what’s wrong in the world around you and your own helplessness. And you can channel that. And I think lots of people can. It’s something that is an emotional technique that I’ve had a great deal of training in my lifetime and applying it. A lot of people have what it takes from their life experiences to draw from, to express real emotion. They just have to learn to suppress their inhibitions and their feelings of being self-conscious in that moment. And that’s all acting really is, is finding those truths and doing the work to get to those truths. And there’s a lot to be angry about in the world, and there’s a lot of positive solutions, but both of those need to be at your disposal in life and as a character

Totally offtopic, you’re in the upcoming Lakers show, Winning Time. And you’re playing Pat Riley. I know you can’t say a lot about that, but I’m curious what you’re tapping into to find Pat Riley.

Well, Pat had a lot of hardship and a lot to overcome as well. Pat is an amazing, inspiring human being to me and to many people and a very complex person as well. And when the show picks up, he’s not the Pat Riley that you know yet. He’s far from it. And I too understand that burning desire to, I guess, be able to apply all that I know and all that I want to share and all that I have to give to the game in my own respect and I identify [with] what he’s felt. He’s a veteran, he had a ring, he played for the Lakers, and then he had to kind of start again from a pretty humble place. And a lot of luck and perseverance and mental fortitude got him to that leadership position that he’s in now. And it’s been a long road for him.

It was very exciting to also learn about him and who I’ve always seen with the perspective that he’s got… He’s got it, but I didn’t know all that he had gone through until I did a lot of that research. And that’s all of us. That’s everybody that you see, that you feel, “Hey, they must have it great,” or, “They’re shining,” or, “They’re doing such great work.” It’s such a journey to get there. And that makes for the best characters. And that makes for people who have an understanding and from their life experiences and a sense of gratitude when they’ve overcome those obstacles or [when] they’re not facing them currently.

‘Clean’ is in select theaters and on VOD.