Golden Boy


Tatyana Efimenko, a high jumper from Kyrgyzstan, will march into Beijing’s Olympic stadium this month accompanied by her country’s flag, a solid red banner that depicts a yellow sun with six lines intersecting at its center and 40 rays emanating from its circumference. Bob Costas, who will likely have to explain what the 40 rays, six lines, and red background represent while still managing to correctly pronounce both Efimenko and Kyrgyzstan, will also have a flag. But his will be a much simpler design: solid white.

“At the Olympics, there is almost nothing you can say that isn’t going to make someone angry,” says Costas, 56, who has served as host of NBC’s Olympic coverage since 1992 and will continue to serve until at least 2012. “The opening ceremony is the perfect laboratory for discovering what upsets people. There are some people who want the event to be treated as if it were a High Mass. And some aspects of it are. But there are other aspects that are like the Cirque du Soleil. I try to acknowledge both. But does that annoy people at either end of the audience? Absolutely. So, you know what? I wave the white flag. The opening ceremony should be broadcast by Kofi Annan and Mary Hart, because it is half United Nations Security Council meeting and half Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Really, if anybody knows how, exactly, this is supposed to be done, please contact me immediately.”

The thing is, no one knows better than Costas. He’s been criticized, sure. But his work on the Olympics and elsewhere has earned him more cheers than jeers — not to mention 19 Emmys and a pile of other awards. With his current HBO show, Costas Now, he has taken Howard Cosell’s title of America’s most provocative sports broadcaster. In commentary and investigative pieces on that show, Costas regularly takes well-researched shots at big-time athletes and major sporting leagues. And with his work on the Olympics, he has succeeded in redefining a job that was created by the late, legendary Jim McKay — one of Costas’s broadcasting idols. Then there’s his respected play-by-play work for Major League Baseball games, as well as his hosting of National Hockey League contests on NBC, the Kentucky Derby, and the newish Sunday Night Football. He even had a six-year stint as host of the Emmy-winning Later with Bob Costas, a quiet talk show that had little to do with sports and the understated likes of which we may never see again.

All of that has given Costas exactly what the host of the Olympic Games coverage, particularly one who’s

broadcasting the games in Beijing, needs: gravitas.

The games of the 29th Olympiad will be a showcase for sprinters, swimmers, cyclists, and the like, but also for China’s present and its future. Since China’s present and future are not without controversy, Costas will have to be able to present the serious side of the games along with the sports side. And, sure, the silly side too.

“The role of the host is to be a well-informed generalist,” Costas says, “and to also have a really strong foundation in the history of the Olympics, what’s going on in the host city and the host nation — particularly important this time, in Beijing — and to know what are the main broad-stroke stories in the Olympics. I’m not Bill Moyers on PBS, but there has got to be some recognition of the context in which these sporting events are taking place. I hope we strike the right balance.”

As we meet on one warm Manhattan afternoon as Costas prepares to leave for Beijing, he seems ready for the challenge.

In his 16 years of hosting the Olympics, Costas has learned …

“I’ve learned what you don’t have to know. In Barcelona, for the first Olympics for which I was the prime-time host, I was studying every athlete. And then it occurred to me that no one cared if I knew who was the second-best platform diver from Peru. And what’s the point of feigning expertise, anyway? If Rulon Gardner wins Greco- Roman wrestling [which he did in the 2000 games in Sydney], upsetting Aleksandr Karelin, the ‘unbeatable’ Russian wrestler, then the host’s job is to find out some basic nuggets of information about this kid from Wyoming and then ask the question that 99.9 percent of the audience, which knows nothing about this sport either, would want to have asked. Essentially, I’m just like you at home, except that I’m wearing a suit and tie and I have access to this kind of information. That’s the approach.”

One misconception about him is …

“People really think the host is the guy in charge. They’ll say, ‘I was watching the platform diving, and then Bob Costas decided we should go to the swimming.’ I no more decided that than you did. Or they’ll give the host credit … for something he or she had nothing to do with. People have sent me letters thanking me for a particular story that was wonderful. All I did was introduce it.”

One of the hardest parts of his job is …

“Sometimes, you’re in a situation where, because of the realities of television, you’re presenting stuff well after it happens. In Sydney, there was a 15-hour time difference [there’s a 12-hour time difference between Beijing and Eastern time], so we’d be broadcasting things for the first time that had actually happened the preceding night — not just earlier the same day. Now, I don’t care if someone long-jumped 35 feet. By then, the surprise and the initial excitement will have subsided. You can’t honestly have the same reaction you would if it were live. So what I try to do in those situations is be on an even keel. Engaged, interested, appreciative, yes. But it would be dishonest to feign anticipation or initial excitement.”

His responsibilities as host include …

“We have to explain what is going on in a general sense in China right now — the emergence of China’s economy, its influence on a global scale. We have to reference the earthquake. We have to reference not only their growth and the emerging middle class but also that there are still millions and millions of people living in poverty there. This isn’t National Geographic, but there has to be some of that context.”

The Beijing games are unique because …

“What Jim McKay and ABC did in 1968 might seem very different from what NBC will do in 2008. I mean, remember when we were kids and it was like, ‘Wait a minute — is that a live picture from Munich? Wow. And, hey, that’s Mexico City. Live!’ Some of that fascination has worn off because we’ve come to expect such things. But I think Beijing is almost an exception. Because even in this era, where if something happens in Timbuktu, people expect it to be on CNN in 10 seconds, there is still an element of mystery and the unknown about China. Somebody watching in OmahaNebraska, is very curious about what it is like to be living in China in 2008. How many people speak English there? What’s the difference between the Chinese food that you get in Shanghai and the Chinese food that I get at home?”

The quirkiest Olympic sport is …

“Well, curling is kind of an endearing Olympic sport. People think, Wait a minute. I can get an Olympic gold medal — the same medal that they gave Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis — for a sport where they use a broom and drink beer while they’re doing it? Not at the Olympics, of course, but, yes, people can drink beer and still excel at curling. That’s unbelievable. Why don’t they just have Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden show up with their bowling bags and make that an Olympic sport?

Still, on balance, you have to say the weirdest is racewalking. I made a bunch of people mad in 1992 in Barcelona when they showed the racewalking. Look, I know that they are athletes. I know I couldn’t do it. I know it takes training and dedication, and I know that there are pockets of the world where racewalkers are big sports celebrities. But it looks so funny. You know what it really looks like? It looks like a person who has to go really bad. ‘I gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now’ — except they just don’t want to break into a full-scale sprint.

So I say, coming off this racewalking footage in Barcelona, ‘You know, having a contest to see who can walk the fastest is kind of like having a contest to see who can whisper the loudest.’ If you’re really in that much of a hurry, run. And if you really want me to hear you, shout.”

Though frequent American Way contributor JOSEPH GUINTO is a native of Syracuse, New York, he is in no way biased in favor of Bob Costas. Go Orange.

The Bob Costas CV


AGE 56

BIRTHPLACE Queens, New York

WHERE HE HANGS HIS HAT Divides his time between a home in St. Louis and a condo in New York City

EDUCATION Syracuse University, where he studied broadcasting at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications

FIRST BROADCAST JOB During college, for $30 per gameday, he called games for the Syracuse Blazers of the North American Hockey League, a semipro outfit that inspired the Paul Newman movie Slap Shot. “The character Ogie Oglethorpe is based on Bill Harpo Goldthorpe, who played for the Syracuse Blazers,” Costas says. “Goldthorpe was brought aboard because of his ability to fight. He seemed to have little regard for me. I’m sitting on the bus one day … and we’re driving down the road to who knows where, and I’m reading the New York Times. I think that very fact enraged Goldie. So he reaches out from the seat behind me, pulls the paper out of my hands, stands up with great ceremony, rips it to shreds, and lets it fall like confetti to the floor of the bus. I’m 21 years old and stupid, or at least foolish, and I think I’ve got to have some kind of response. So I stand up and say to him, ‘Don’t be jealous, Goldie; I’ll teach you to read.’ He grabs me, yanks me out of the seat, slams me up against the wall of the moving bus, and proceeds to threaten life and limb. Somehow I escaped.”

THE OLYMPICS ARE GREAT AND ALL, BUT RADIO WOULD HAVE WORKED TOO After college, Costas started working at the radio station KMOX, a CBS affiliate in St. Louis. His goal was to land a longtime gig as an announcer for a Major League Baseball team. Instead, at KMOX, he was noticed by CBS TV, where he was then noticed by NBC, which led to the job with Later and, eventually, to hosting the Olympics. “I’ve never been a careerist, which, I guess, is easier to say when you’ve had your career turn out well,” he says. “I can honestly say I have never pursued a single job.”

HE GREW UP IN QUEENS, SO GIANTS OR JETS? “When I was a kid, Giants. Because the Jets didn’t come into existence until the 1960s, and the first time I remember watching pro football was the 1958 championship game with the Giants and the Colts. I’ve always felt about sports — at least for people of my generation — that the stuff that grabs you when you’re younger is the stuff that stays with you.”

YES, HE REALLY CARRIES A 1958 MICKEY MANTLE CARD “The 1958 Mickey Mantle card happens to be the first baseball card that I remember. I was six years old. It cost five cents. You’d get the pack of cards, which had five cards and a piece of chalky, powdery gum that, if you dropped it on the sidewalk, would shatter like glass. The smell of it would adhere to the face of whichever player was on the bottom. In an archaeological dig, if someone like Wes Covington was the last guy in the stack, they would still be able to discover traces of that gum on Covington’s face in, like, the year 2812.

“So, anyway, I tucked the Mantle card into my wallet, and I kept it there. One day, I’m out to dinner with Tony Kubek, back when we’re doing the Saturday-afternoon game of the week. I go to get the tab, and the card spills out of my wallet. Of course, Kubek played with Mantle. So the next day at the game, he tells the story. It also happens that Sports Illustrated is working on a story about me. So they take a picture of the card — it’s in the story. Now, everywhere I go, to ballparks around the country, hundreds of times a week, people want to see it. The thing was getting dog-eared from my showing it so much. But the upside was that once this got out … fans would send these things to me. I have, like, 20 of them now. So finally, I decided to have one laminated. And now it is almost like an obligation to carry it, because the few times I’ve been caught without it, I’ve always felt like I was letting the person down who asked me about it.”

HIS BEST CALL During the 1998 NBA Championship, in Game Six, Michael Jordan shot with five seconds left and scored, winning the game and the series for the Chicago Bulls against the Utah Jazz and sending him into retirement (for a while). Costas’s call: “If that’s the last image of Michael Jordan, how magnificent is it?”

The Brady Brunch

Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady obviously loves his football, but he loves a good meal even more, as we discovered when the Patriots QB huddled up with writer to talk about his favorite places in Boston.

Quarterback Tom Brady and his fellow Patriots own Boston.

tom bredyAfter winning two of the last three Super Bowls, the New England Patriots are the pride of sports-mad and championship-starved Beantown. The Bruins haven’t won a title for more than 30 years. The Celtics haven’t been the same since Larry Bird. And while hope springs eternal for the beloved Red Sox … well, never mind.

Sporting two championship rings and a winning personality has a way of getting you the proverbial keys to the city – even for a former California dude. The still-single Brady was born in 1977 in the Bay Area, but this amiable, down-to-earth, all-around cool guy has taken to New England in a big way. And vice versa. Of course, it helps that he comes from an Irish-American family that loves sports and leisure activities – all the better to live in New England.

It also helps that the 26-year-old quarter­back loves exploring Boston’s myriad attractions, restaurants, bars, and otherwise happening places. Brady, who says he could talk food all day (and just about does), gets jazzed about sampling all sorts of different fare in addition to golf courses, city hot spots, and coastal hideaways.

Heading into his fifth season, Brady says the Patriots’ goal is to take home the title again, and that while he has an “insatiable thirst” to win, he’s totally into the journey of just getting to sports nirvana. He enthusiastically takes up that sense of exploration to give us a tour of Beantown.

American Way: You have a highly structured life during football season. How do you start your day in the off-season?

Tom Brady: I sleep in and enjoy the morning. I live south of Boston in Quincy, near a bay where lots of people house their boats in summertime. I love waking up near the water. There’s a great waterfront scene down there with some terrific restaurants. There’s a path near my place and I love walking along the water. Other mornings, I drive up to New Hampshire. So many places are close. Providence is only 45 miles away. Cape Cod is 45 minutes from me – there are some great bed-and-breakfasts to check out for a long weekend. And Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are just a short boat ride away.

American Way: What other activities do you like to do in the morning?

Brady: I practice yoga at Baptiste Power Yoga, which has studios around town. It’s great for flexibility, it’s therapeutic, and great for your attitude. And it gets you some silence during your day. During the season, I use videotapes and do it on my own. A lot of my teammates have tried it. When you get to this elite physical level, everyone’s trying something – acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, whatever. Also, two of my sisters live close and they’re really competitive, so they always try to drag me down to The Sports Club/LA, where we play some one-on-one basketball. I was brought up in a very competitive family.

American Way: We know golf is one of your hobbies. What’s your handicap and where do you like to play around town?

Brady: I’m probably about a 7-handicap. I’ve been playing since I was two, when my dad took me out, and like most people, I’d like to play more. During the season, I’ll play on an off day, or we might sneak out for a day on our bye week. But mostly, it’s in the off-season. If we have all day, my buddies and I will travel down to the Cape, where Sandwich Hollows, Waverly Oaks, and Willowbend [the latter is a private course] are my three favorites. The setting is very serene, yet you kind of get a little of everything – some water, some trees, a little bit of sand, some challenging courses. It’s a great getaway.

American Way: Where do you like to play in the city?

Brady: Closer to me, the TPC, designed by Arnold Palmer, is a fun new course. They’ve already played a PGA tournament there. It’s challenging, with some nice length and a solid layout. And it will get better as it matures. It also has a bit of land, so when you’re on the 9th hole, you’re not falling on top of another hole. Brookline, probably four miles outside the city, is one of the more popular courses. It has so much tradition to it, with so many stories.

American Way: When you’re done playing 18 holes, where do you go to chow down with the fellas?

Brady: There are great pizza places all over the city, but there’s a very good one, Omega Pizza, over by Gillette Stadium. Everything I’ve ever had there, I love. The East Coast has a lot of these small pizza places that specialize in “grinders” or hoagies, along with stuff like chicken tenders and fries. When you hang with a bunch of 300-pound linemen, you tend to find the places that are the greasiest and serve the most food.

There’s another place nearby called Fresh Catch, a great seafood spot. Another one the guys know is Kelly’s Roast Beef. They make the best roast beef sandwiches. Those are some places where the big boys want to go eat. There’s also a great lunch spot, Fat Belly Deli, near my place. They put so much meat on the sandwiches. They’ve got a great little menu, too. The steak and lamb tips are out of this world.

American Way: Do you get recognized every­where you go in Boston?
Bra­dy: I used to walk around pretty anonymously after our first Super Bowl win. Now it’s definitely tougher.

The Killer App – Bar None

WHAT The bar code and scanning device
WHEN Invented in 1949; patented in 1952; first used commercially in 1974
WHERE South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida
WHO Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver

The format for the bar code came to Joe Woodland while he was at the beach in 1949. Woodland, who is now 80, had spent World War II working on the Manhattan Project. After the war, he returned to Drexel University to teach mechanical engineering. While there, Woodland’s colleague, Bernard Silver, overheard the president of the Food Fair grocery stores appealing to a Drexel dean for help automating the grocery checkout process. So Woodland and Silver started brainstorming ideas.

Months later, Woodland was relaxing at the beach, considering how Morse code might be used to solve the problem. He idly stuck his fingers in the sand and raked a set of parallel lines that represented a kind of “long form” of dots and dashes. Those lines inspired the bar-code design that he and Silver ultimately patented.

Today, more than a million companies worldwide use the familiar UPC (Universal Product Code) symbols to identify consumer products. The Uniform Code Council, which issues the codes, estimates that UPC symbols are scanned some 5 billion times a day — and that represents only half of the total bar-code universe.

The equipment and software used to print, scan, and program bar codes is a $16-billion-a-year business. Even Woodland is amazed at how widespread the bar code has become. “Fifty years ago, we didn’t even imagine all of the ways that it would be used in the grocery store.”

The American Dream (girl)

Image about Mila Kunis

By the time you read this, you will likely have Halloween plans. Or maybe you’re finalizing them now. Or maybe you’re going to just sit at home, like many of us, and hand out mini Snickers. By most accounts, this would be normal. What’s not normal is planning your Halloween by July, which is exactly what Mila Kunis has done.

The actress, whose first name is short for Milena, and I are speaking on a sweltering day in midsummer, a day so steamy I can’t imagine contemplating ghosts and jack-o’- lanterns or inhaling my kids’ candy stashes, which I would inevitably regret doing the next morning. But Halloween might just be Kunis’s favorite day of the year, so of course she has plans, she tells me, as if this were the most normal thing in the world.

“You have no idea what Halloween is in my family,” she says. “We do murder-mystery dinners at our house with a group of 10 to 20 people. It’s been a ritual for the past couple of years. Our parents come, but they don’t always participate; they think it’s crazy. We make a whole feast of food, and you dress up in your character … ”

“So it’s like Clue?” I ask.

“It is exactly, because we love Clue,” she says. “We think Clue is amazing. So it’s very similar to Clue. And [there are] different ways of playing the games, but it takes about four hours. And you know, we have mai tais and Ghoulish Goulash and crazy, stupid food, and we just sit around and play murder-mystery games.”

“Goulash?” I interrupt again.

“Yes, Martha Stewart’s recipe. I’ll make it, or my boyfriend or my mom will. And the house is decorated — there are, like, fog machines everywhere,” she continues, words rushing out over themselves. “And we have a Halloween tree. We start decorating in September!”

Image about Mila KunisEven though it’s months away, Kunis can’t stop talking about this holiday, one that most of us gave up in mid-adolescence. Her effervescence is palpable, and suddenly, I want in on the party, even though I haven’t dressed up for Halloween since I donned a regrettable biker-chick outfit in college.

When I hang up the phone, I realize that Kunis’s Halloween anecdote, if you pay close attention, reveals just about everything you need to know about her:

• The “we” in the story is Kunis and her boyfriend of six years, Macaulay Culkin, of Home Alone fame. She refers to him often during the interview but never by name.

  • That she doesn’t shill for their relationship conveys how much she guards her privacy.
  • The house where she and Culkin host the party is just down the street from that of her Ukrainian parents, who brought seven-year-old Kunis and her older brother to the United States to live some 18 years ago.
  • Her Halloween planning — both whimsical and precise — reflects the impression you’re left with after chatting with the star: She is that effortless blend of funny and bitingly smart.
  • The life she leads — robust, informed, a celebration of everything her parents hoped for when they came to the States — is the epitome of what our nation makes possible.

“Yeah,” she concurs at one point during our chat. “It’s 100 percent the American dream.”

TO understand how far Kunis has come, you have to rewind a bit to see where she’s been. She’s hesitant to exploit her parents’ background — “That’s their story, not mine,” she says — but she just as quickly concedes that it’s impossible to ignore how much their history has shaped her. “What my family went through in 1991 when we came to the States absolutely molded me into the person I am today,” she says.

Indeed, the mere fact that her life is the way it is today — with her hosting elaborate Halloween parties, tucked away in her Los Angeles home with her famous boyfriend, and poised to become an even bigger star than she already is with this month’s Max Payne — is somewhat of a small miracle.

“No parent — no adult — whom I’ve met who is Russian came here for themselves,” acknowledges Kunis. “They only came for their children. We were really well off, but we left everything behind because at that time, we were only allowed to come to the States with $250.” Her parents took odd jobs to pay the bills — her mother, a former teacher in the Ukraine, worked behind the counter at a drugstore; her father, previously a mechanical engineer, did everything from sell toilets to deliver pizzas — while Kunis went about the task of assimilating as best she could.

“I had my first hamburger,” she remembers. “I’d never had soda before in my life. I’d never had a Coca-Cola — I had only had juice and water. I’d never seen anybody of color or any ethnicity. I grew up in a town where all I saw were white people. Just white people; blond and brunette, but not even a redhead. I met my first African- American. I met my first Asian person. I saw palm trees …”

She pauses and then, trying to sum up the experience, says, “The opening statement of my essay for my college application was, ‘Imagine being blind and deaf at the age of seven.’ ”

Kunis means this only half metaphorically. She didn’t speak a word of English when her family immigrated. In fact, she says she’s blocked the second grade from her memory because the experience was so difficult. “If I talk to my parents, [they say that] I cried every day. I remember my mom telling me that my grandmother would come to school with me and bring kids chocolate to try to make them be friends with me. If a seven-year-old can go through a sort of depression, that’s probably what I went through for a year. But because I was so young, I was able to get out of it very fast.”

By the third grade, Kunis spoke English well enough to fit in. This was thanks in part to Bob Barker on The Price Is Right, whose manner of speaking helped her hone her language skills. By the fourth grade, she was fluent. (That she now does flawless voice-over work on Family Guy and Robot Chicken is all the more remarkable.)

That same year, her life shifted in another dramatic way. Her father enrolled her in acting classes. “To keep me preoccupied,” she says. “I talked a lot and had a lot of energy. My parents never wanted me to do this. They never pushed me, even when I was working. They were like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ”

In that very first acting class, Kunis met the woman who remains her manager to this day. “My parents told her, ‘Listen, we can’t afford head shots; we can’t afford anything. We can’t take her to auditions because we work full-time. And we can’t do this and we can’t do that.’ For one reason or another, being the crazy woman that she is, [my manager] said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll fix everything,’ and she did. I ended up getting the first thing I went out for, which was a Barbie commercial. All my parents said was, ‘You can do whatever you want to do as long as you get A’s and stay in school.’ ”

Barbie commercials were just the launching pad. At 14, Kunis auditioned for That ’70s Show. Actors had to be at least 18 to be eligible for casting. She omitted the truth to the casting directors (lied is such a strong word), declaring that she’d be 18 on her birthday but neglecting to specify which year. Though they eventually picked up on the fib, the producers still thought Kunis was the best fit for the brash, sassy, and sexy role of Jackie. Over the next eight years, Kunis grew up in front of the eyes of millions.

But while we watched her on TV week after week, we know surprisingly little about her personal life. It’s no accident. “Every ounce of me tries not to be in the public eye,” she says. “My private life is superimportant to my family and me, and it’s not something that I want to ever jeopardize. But you know what? Everybody makes mistakes, whether you’re famous or not. I’ve made mistakes. It’s just that I think I’m better at making them in private.”

IN last April’s megahit Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Kunis managed an unthinkable feat — stealing the movie out from under the feet of Judd Apatow’s veteran band of comic players. This month, she tackles a very different kind of role, headlining Max Payne — based on the video game of the same name — opposite megastar Mark Wahlberg. “It’s slightly intentional,” she says of how she’s navigated her way through Hollywood. “I’m not Julia Roberts, with offers being thrown my way left and right, so you fight for the projects you think are right for you. I wanted to do Max Payne because after Sarah Marshall, working with Judd [Apatow] and Jonah [Hill] and Jason [Segel] and [director] Nick [Stoller] and everybody, how are you going to go make another comedy after that? When Max Payne came along, I was super-stoked to end up doing something where I got to kill people.” That’s right: As if the male population of the world didn’t need another reason to drool, in Payne, Kunis plays a billy-club-carrying tough chick.

So does Kunis fancy herself the next female action star, à la Jennifer Garner in Alias? “I wish,” she says. “I’m not out of shape per se, but no, I’m not in Jennifer Garner shape. But it was really fun to be a [tough] chick. The problem became being [tough] in five-inch heels. It’s not quite the same as kicking [butt] in sneakers. Your balance is off, and all of a sudden, you feel like an idiot walking up stairs. I’m barely coordinated on my two feet as it is, let alone with a 10-pound gun, a two-pound coat, and five-inch heels.

“I hope I pulled it off,” she says.

Even if she doesn’t (doubtful), I suspect she’ll still land on her feet, five-inch stilettos or not. That’s what’s remarkable about Kunis and her story. Not that it’s been a charmed life, or even a moderately easy one, but that as she makes her way through it — from the Ukraine to L.A., from unknown to celebrity — her foundation hasn’t shifted. She still keeps her family close, she proves herself loyal and asks the same in return from others, and she works hard and doesn’t take the life she’s earned for granted. Most importantly, she’s smart enough to trust herself and her instincts as she goes.

In an industry in which so much is measured by superficial, ephemeral factors, Kunis has chosen to live her life by her own measures of success. And that, truly, is the American dream her parents hoped for.

Wellington New Zealand Peter Jackson Adrien Brody

Oscar winner Adrien Brody battles amnesia in The Jacket, fights a giant ape in King Kong, and takes down bacon-and-banana pancakes in New Zealand.

This month, Adrien Brody stars in The Jacket, a George Clooney-produced drama about an amnesiac Gulf War veteran who returns home to Vermont. But when Brody phones me from a time zone 19 hours ahead of my own, he’s not calling from Vermont, but rather New Zealand, the faraway land the New York-born and Broadway-bred actor dreamed of as a child. He was there to film the December release King Kong, also starring Naomi Watts and Jack Black and directed by Lord of the Rings wizard and native New Zealander Peter Jackson.

Chasing a giant ape for 12 hours a day, five days a week doesn’t give a guy a lot of downtime, but Brody filled his breaks with all the best that Wellington, Queenstown, and the lush hinterlands in between have to offer. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his director, and, more importantly, unofficial guide, was none other than Jackson.

“I’ve always wanted to come here,” says Brody. “New Zealand always seemed like the other end of the earth to me. Like as far away as you could go would be New Zealand.”

After a career that began as a six-year-old dwarf in a summer camp production of Snow White and culminated when he became the youngest male actor ever to win an Oscar in the Leading Actor category (for his performance in 2002’s The Pianist), Brody snagged the role of Jack Driscoll, the former fighter pilot who tracks the great ape and his gorgeous captive (played by Watts). And before he knew it, he was on his way to the land he once dreamed about.

King Kong, Peter Jackson, and New Zealand, huh? That’s a powerful combination.

Wellington New Zealand Peter Jackson Adrien Brody
First of all, King Kong is one of the greatest­ fables and epic stories you can tell, and ­Peter is a genius, to put it mildly.

Where have you been filming?

In Wellington, in a town called Miramar. It’s a sea town 10 minutes outside of the city center. Peter has a house here, and the movie studio is here, but it’s more of a residential area.

Where have they put you up?

I’m camping out in [a movie trailer in] a parking lot at the moment, but technically I’m staying in Wellington. I have done some traveling since I’ve been here, though, mostly inland, farther north. South becomes colder, because it’s actually toward the South Pole. I’ve also been up north to a region called Martinborough. I stayed up there in a cottage, and Peter Jackson has a lovely home up there, too, where he’s building a castle with a moat. It’s a fantastic place to go.

Before we get too far off course, tell us more about Wellington, where you are now.

Well, it’s windy. But it’s actually a lovely place, where you’re pretty much surrounded by water and the bay. The city itself is quite small, but the surrounding areas are very reminiscent of the hills up in northern California, like Marin County near San Francisco and the Bay Area climate and some of the architecture. Kind of a cross between that and Hawaii.

Any place you regularly frequent in the city?

Yeah, the Chocolate Fish, which is a great outdoor/indoor cafe. They have great breakfast fare, including bacon-and-banana pancakes, which are basically a tower of pancakes with a layer of sliced banana in between a layer of bacon, a layer of pancake, another layer of banana, another layer of pancake, etc. They have bacon-and-banana pancakes everywhere in New Zealand.

What about other restaurants? Where have you eaten?

Chow is a good Asian restaurant. It’s simple as far as interior and just your basic Asian fusion dishes. The same owners run a bar called Motel that operates later on at night. You basically go through the restaurant and up the stairs and you’re in an area that’s kind of hidden and has dim lights and a cool bar and lounge area. Another cool place to eat and drink is the Matterhorn. It’s a happening weekend nightspot. There’s another great restaurant down the block from me called The White House. It’s more upscale and romantic.

What kind of food do they serve?

I don’t know how to describe it. It isn’t necessarily Italian and isn’t necessarily mainstream. They have fantastic mushroom risotto and lamb dishes. New Zealand is known for great lamb. There are a lot of them here, that’s for sure. New Zealand has a lot of space, and I guess the lamb is fresher because there’s so much land. The Logan Brown is another pretty cool restaurant. They have a bar with an aquarium built into it, so when you’re sitting at the bar, you’re looking into an aquarium. There are a lot of cool cafes in Wellington. Cuba Street is the main street in the center of town, and a lot of young people go there to hang out. It’s pretty much a walking street. It’s kind of closed off, so it has cafes and little stores on both sides.

What other landmarks have you come to know in Wellington?

There’s a fault line nearby. I believe Miramar was born from a major earthquake in the 1800s. The edge of town where we’re at, and where the studio is, was basically a swamp and where a new land was born some 100 years ago. They actually had an earthquake while we were here, but it wasn’t very noticeable.

Are there any sights you always go to when you’re visiting a new place?

I always like to check out the museums and get a sense of the culture. I know they usually have things about the indigenous people. In Wellington, there’s Te Papa, The Museum of New Zealand. It’s a lovely place. They have a lot of stuff about the local culture, and a natural history section as well. I’ve also been to the zoo here. I’m not normally a fan of zoos, because the animals often don’t have enough space. But for the most part, the animals here are happy and have space to roam around. They’ve got an especially good chimp section that I’ve been checking out.

That makes sense, considering the movie you’re doing.

Yeah. Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is King Kong in this movie. Andy’s gone to Rwanda to study the gorillas in the wild, but I was recently in Sydney, and I got a pass to go in the morning before the zoo opened, when they fed the silverback gorilla there. The Wellington Zoo doesn’t have a gorilla population, but they do have a decent array of animals. It’s just a nice, kind of meandering zoo.

What else are you doing with your time off? Any shopping?

Yeah. There’s the Sheepskin Warehouse, between Miramar and Wellington. It’s basically just a warehouse with everything from sheepskin boots to Murano wool, which is kind of a blend. It’s a good spot, a good place for gifts. I don’t wear much sheepskin, but they do make nice boots. I also went to this fantastic chocolate shop up north, about an hour and a half from Wellington. It’s in a neighboring town called Greytown, near Martinborough, and it’s called Schoc. They have every kind of rare spiced chocolate and all kinds of exotic things.

You’ve talked about the food, but what about the wine you can get? New Zealand is famous for its wine.

There are several wine regions, but Martinborough is an area that you can actually go to and have wine tastings, which I did. You roll up into Martinborough and there will be vineyards with signs out saying they’re open for tasting. I bought an interesting sparkling wine at one of them. I don’t remember where it was from, but it was quite nice. I like the Hawkes Bay region. There’s a wine from there called Gunn Estate. It’s pretty inexpensive, but quite good. It’s a Cabernet/Merlot. Someone brought it around and I had a bottle of it, and I’ve bought a bottle of it since.

What about beyond Wellington and Martinborough? Where else have you gone?

Queenstown. It’s lush, it’s green, it’s awe-

inspiring. There are places you can go backpacking there and you don’t need a lot of money. There’s every kind of adventure you can imagine there: trail riding, mountain biking, sky diving, cliff jumping, bungee jumping, lugeing, you name it. Some of The Lord of the Rings was shot in Queenstown. Peter Jackson and his production company, Camperdown Studios, did it. When I was in Queenstown, there were moments when I felt like it was something out of The Lord of the Rings.

Explain, please.

Not only is Queenstown probably one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever come across, it’s like something from another planet. It has the most jagged mountaintops and snowcaps, and yet at the base of them are these beautiful bodies of water. It’s just amazing. The easiest way to describe it is if you got in a car and drove, you’d come across every kind of terrain imaginable. And there’s an immense sheep population. There are more sheep than people. So you’ll come across wonderful farmlands with sheep and cattle and you’ll end up at beautiful coastlines and hilly valley regions. It’s about an hour’s plane ride or a long ferry ride and drive from Auckland, which you fly into. I don’t know Auckland, but I hear it’s a pretty cool city.

You mentioned quite a few outdoor activ­ities. Have you done any of the stuff you talked about?

I did a bit down on the south island, where there are all kinds of crazy activities to do. I don’t know if I can discuss it, though, because I’m not supposed to be doing certain things, so I don’t want to incriminate myself. There are some things [contractually] I shouldn’t be doing.

Any great hotel experiences?

Yeah, we stayed at a lovely cottage called the Rose Cottage. It’s a little country house in between Martinborough and Greytown. It’s very inexpensive, not more than a few hundred dollars for the house. I will probably go back again at some point. I also had a wonderful time in Martinborough at a French restaurant called The French Bistro, a quaint little place run by a husband and wife named Jim and Wendy Campbell. I got to know them. The food and wine were fantastic, but they were the highlight. I showed up at The French Bistro one day after it had closed, and the owners cooked my girlfriend and me a lovely dinner with drinks and stuff off the menu. They were just incredibly generous and ended up joining us and dining with us. I brought a bottle of champagne and we all had a lovely time.

It sounds like Peter Jackson was a pretty generous host as well. What was it like having him as your guide?

Pretty great. Jack Black and I and Peter’s son were sitting in the back of Peter’s car being driven around all the south island. We had a wonderful time.