By the time Adrien Brody arrives as Arthur Miller in Andrew Dominik’s nearly three-hour Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde, the audience is apt to be relieved when the famous writer betrays the Hollywood icon by breaking a cherished promise — only because virtually everyone else in the film has already abused and exploited the actress vastly more horribly. As the split movie’s critical response indicates, Blonde is a tough and divisive watch. But it’s hard to imagine that wasn’t Dominik’s intention.
The director’s first narrative film since his 2012 Brad Pitt crime thriller Killing Them Softly, Blonde is based on Joyce Carol Oates’ acclaimed, 700-page novel of the same name, which The New Yorker once dubbed “the definitive study of American celebrity.”
Dominik spent 11 years developing the film and trying to bring it to fruition. With a fully committed and convincing performance by Ana de Armas in the lead, the movie examines the whole sweep of the Hollywood icon’s life, from her troubled childhood as Norma Jeane to her career climb to superstardom as Marilyn Monroe. Throughout Blonde’s lengthy runtime, Dominik holds close to an intimate, first-person perspective, giving the audience no escape from Monroe’s many agonies, including sexual abuses, traumatic abortions, domestic violence at the hands of her first husband (Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio) — and, most of all, the lurid, rapacious creation and pursuit of her hyper-sexualized celebrity image by the media and America at large.
Brody’s arrival in the film comes as something of a respite. In a delicate, often tender turn as the great American playwright, the actor inhabits one of the few men in the movie (perhaps the only one) who acknowledges that Monroe is an intelligent, talented artist in her own right, and their marriage together in Connecticut serves as a pastoral escape from the hordes and explosive flashbulbs (albeit, all too brief…).
Blonde made its rapturous world premiere earlier this month at the Venice Film Festival ahead of a limited theatrical release on Sept. 16 and its Netflix launch on Wednesday. The movie is produced by Brad Pitt’s production banner Plan B, with Pitt as a producer.
sat down with Brody earlier this month at Venice’s Hotel Excelsior shortly before the biopic’s premiere to discuss his transformation into Arthur Miller and his thoughts on the film’s messages — plus a few anecdotes from the set of Succession, which earned him a recent Emmy nomination.
Congratulations on the film. I just caught a press screening and I was pretty bowled over by it all, but I can’t say I have a fixed interpretation yet.
Yeah, I can imagine. (Laughs.)
I really enjoyed your performance. It’s beautifully nuanced, and your character, Arthur Miller, seems to be the only major figure in the whole sweep of the Marilyn Monroe story, as it’s portrayed, who isn’t overtly horrible towards her.
It’s good to hear that. Andrew screened a version of the film for me ages ago, but I haven’t seen the final version yet. I’m sure it’s quite similar. I was hoping for that reaction, because I understand the necessity of the storytelling, and telling it from her perspective, but I also did a tremendous amount of research on someone whom I deeply admire and have to represent. And even though aspects of the relationship are fictionalized, they had a real relationship. And he was obviously a complex, thoughtful, intelligent individual — and I wanted to convey a high degree of thoughtfulness within that. Andrew and I had many conversations about this. I’m happy to follow my orders, but I also like to stand up for things that I feel are important. So that makes me really happy that you say that.
I’m curious to get your take on the movie itself. It’s a very big, ambitious swing at telling the story of Marilyn’s life. On one level, it feels like a viscerally empathetic portrayal of the traumas she lived through, and one that shines a harsh light on all the different individuals and institutions that exploited her — even the way America itself exploited her. But then there are other times when it feels as if the methods of the filmmaking and the exclusive focus on the trauma become so extreme that the movie nudges up against the exploitation horror genre — and if that’s the case, the film is sort of using Marilyn’s story all over again to advance its own bold agenda, which is rather ironic. What’s your take?
That’s a wonderfully astute interpretation. I think Andrew is a beautifully brave director, and he’s someone I’ve longed to work with for many years. And I love what he’s done. I think it’s a remarkable achievement, and he’s done it hand-in-hand with Joyce Carol Oates’ work, honoring the novel with this amazing adaptation that she endorses. And Ana’s work here is just brilliant. You know, the novel and the film are both rife with themes of exploitation and trauma. And Marilyn’s life, unfortunately, was full of that. I think that since it’s told in this first-person perspective, it works somehow for the film to be a traumatic experience, because you’re inside of her — her journey and her longings and her isolation — amidst all of this adulation. It’s brave and it takes a while to digest. And I think it’s in conflict with what the public’s perception of her life is. And I think that’s where the film triumphs, because — whether it’s an extreme depiction or not — it’s honoring the extreme chasm between the public’s perception of the fame and the glory of Hollywood’s most famous, iconic actor, and the reality of that individual — the loneliness and emptiness and mental turmoil and abuse of that individual. And so, therefore, I find that those two interpretations you laid out are all part of the storytelling, and I see where Andrew is going with it. It’s fearless filmmaking.
You mentioned your admiration for Arthur Miller. What was your research process like as you prepared to play him in this phase of his life?
Yeah, well, he’s one of our greatest playwrights ever, obviously, and his work is so nuanced. The irony is that so many of his plays revolve around family structure, family drama and tragedy — and his place in this piece of storytelling is a tumultuous family tragedy. But, you know, he lived a very big life, and so much of it is not touched upon in this film. For example, his experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee. I did a ton of research on his life and their relationship. Andrew informed me of many details that were pretty fascinating, even though the film doesn’t even really touch on any of those things directly. But we tried to get a close understanding of where he was at in his career during the time he spent with Marilyn. I just felt a profound responsibility to honor him, you know. That’s basically what it comes down to.
One funny detail I’ll share with you. As I was doing my research, I was watching a lot of video. There’s film footage of Arthur Miller giving various interviews and discussions during the end of his career. And I had kind of been aligning with that. But when I met with Andrew, he showed me some other footage I hadn’t seen, which was from a time much closer to his marriage to Marilyn. And I was like, “Oh, no…” Because in the footage I was watching, he was a lot older and his voice had changed quite drastically. It was much more gravelly. We were pretty close to starting shooting, but the stuff Andrew showed me helped me adjust a lot, thankfully. It’s interesting how a matter of years can bring an entirely different weight and a shift in a person’s presentation. And all of those years were post-Marilyn, which is also interesting. Anyways, I feel really privileged to have been a part of this film. Both Andrew and Ana’s work here is extraordinary.
I also wanted to talk briefly about your guest appearance in Succession, which recently earned you an Emmy nomination. To be honest, as a huge fan of that show, initially, when you came on screen, I was like, “Oh, Adrien Brody, really? Ugh.“
Because you’re so recognizable! And that initially kind of took me out of the Succession world. But then you win us right back, because the way you play that guy has such nuance and detail. It’s really great. What were the details that were important to you for that character, and how did you put him together?
I love the question. Because all of the characters on that show have a lot of complexity, so to come on board and have a moment with them, it had to feel like I wasn’t just coming in to do some bit. It had to feel like you’re getting a glimpse of someone who is also really complicated — and to do that, everything has to ring true.
You know, working in this business as long as I have, I’ve met a vast array of people in my life. Many friends, many acquaintances, many encounters. And I like to think that I’m pretty perceptive. So there are qualities in that character that are kind of an amalgamation of certain people I’ve met from that world. Some people have really responded to it — and I think the people who enjoyed it the most are people who have come up against real people who are similar to that guy. Because I had people write to me who I haven’t been in touch with for like a decade, just to say, “Wow, you really captured it.” This role was a relatively short stint for me, in the big picture of my work over the years, but I’ve gotten so much love for it. I didn’t expect that, which has been interesting.
As for putting the character together, you know, there are a lot of layers, and a lot of beliefs in how you are and what you think you’re about. It’s about capturing the perceptiveness of a very complex person, but conveying it all in those few moments that we see him.
Even with the layering of his clothing, I wanted him to be so calculated that he was all suited up for this encounter — to kind of decipher where their business stood and if it was a “fixable situation,” as he puts it, whatever that means. He knew they would come anticipating having a sit-down — have a coffee; have a bite to eat; let’s talk this out. They’re gonna win me over. I’m a schmuck. And then we’re gonna get back to business.
But instead, he plans to take them on this walk. And he’s prepared for inclement weather. It’s going to be cold by the sea, so he’s buttoned up — he’s got his hat and his jacket that he can take off. But he knows they’re going to be in loafers, getting blisters and getting uncomfortable, but trying to play it cool. And all of that was all intentional. It’s all kind of a little tip into the mind of this guy. Having met people like that, you know, they are incredibly intelligent, but very calculated, because they play in games where a lot is at stake. They can be very charming, but fundamentally they’re very ruthless. Sorry, that’s all rather long-winded, but that was what I was trying to express.
A lot has been made in the media discussion around Succession of the two different methods of the actors you faced off against in those scenes. Brian Cox employs a more traditional, classically trained approach, where he has a lot of technique that has been honed over his long career that allows him to switch it on when the cameras are rolling, and then leave the work at work when the day is done. And then there is Jeremy Strong, who has become famous for his extreme method acting approach. From your perspective stepping into the ensemble, what it was like to engage with those two approaches, and where does your acting method fit within those two poles?
Well, thank you for also asking where I stand. I feel I’m supportive of any approach as long as it’s not really disruptive to anyone. I think everyone has a responsibility to be malleable to other people’s approaches. That’s part of the job. It’s not an exact science. I’ve studied for many years as an actor — Stanislavski and Method. I use a lot of things — sense memory and emotional recall — and they’re all built in. Like Brian, it’s more of a technical thing at times, because you’ve done it for so long. So you have an innate understanding, and it’s really about listening and doing the work ahead of time — being connected to that character, listening, being present and responding accordingly. It’s all still fascinating to me. I think the hard part comes when an actor disrupts the flow. That can come from many reasons: insecurity about where they’re at in that moment, whether they’re connecting or not, or from ego. Or some other thing.
I didn’t experience any of that on Succession though. I thought Jeremy was a wonderful scene partner and very thoughtful. He reached out to me prior to coming on board, and we got together. I did notice that he was keeping his distance from Brian on set, but I just thought it was all really interesting. I think Brian could probably care less, but it was obviously working for Jeremy. I just remember thinking, “Wow, this is so fun to step into this.” And it all went without a hitch. I just wanted there to be more. I really loved interacting with them. So that was my experience with it. I thought it was great. You know, whatever works — and what they are doing on that show is clearly working.
Interview edited for length and clarity.