Pierce Brosnan is cool even when he's exhausted.
The Ghost Writer
With four movies opening in as many weeks, including director Roman Polanski's latest "The Ghost Writer," Brosnan has been on a non-stop promotional tour, and one would think that the veteran actor would have no time to relax."You're my last interview today," the actor said in a soft, tired voice. "After this, I can go downstairs to the hotel bar and have a lovely, stiff martini."
"Gin or vodka?" we asked of the man who played James Bond, a fictional devotee of the vodka school of martini-drinking. "Vodka, of course," he said without hesitation. We waited futilely for "shaken, not stirred," but then remembered that Brosnan only played 007 in four films; he wasn't actually a British secret agent. Those Bond days are long gone – the last one that he starred in was "Die Another Day" in 2002 – and the 56-year-old Irish-born actor has settled into a surprisingly comfortable niche as a character actor. Brosnan, who holds dual Irish and American citizenship, plays important roles in all four new films, but he is clearly not the handsome young lead in any of them. Well, he's still quite handsome, but he's not playing the role he would have a couple of decades ago, and that suits him just fine.
In Polanski's thriller, which opens Friday, Brosnan plays a Tony Blair-like former British prime minister under fire for his controversial decisions (and support of a certain American president) during the war in Iraq. Ewan McGregor is a ghost writer hired to pen the prime minister's autobiography. It is based on the 2007 novel "The Ghost" by Robert Harris, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski.
See photos from "The Ghost Writer" and Pierce Brosnan through the years
Brosnan also appears in a movie called "The Greatest," in which he plays the patriarch of a family dealing with the death of a teenage son. He shares top billing with Susan Sarandon and Carey Mulligan, who is nominated for an Oscar this year for "An Education."
A third film role is in "Remember Me," playing the father of "Twilight" heartthrob Robert Pattinson, and he also co-stars in the family fantasy film "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," which made nearly $130 million worldwide in its first 10 days of release. In this interview, Brosnan discusses the new character-actor phase of his career, why he doesn't miss the Bond movies and how much he liked his own singing in "Mamma Mia!". He also explains how the death of first wife Cassandra Harris to cancer in 1991 led to the political activism that he and second wife Keely Shaye Smith have undertaken in recent years.
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER: How do four of your films end up coming out at the same time?
PIERCE BROSNAN: Well, one of them, "The Greatest," was made two years ago. It went to Sundance, the company that bought it fell apart financially and then it got re-sold to a new company. I believe they held it until now because they knew I had these other films opening.
Q. Still, isn't that a lot of work?
A. Honestly, they're all character roles, so I get to pack my bags, go away for a couple of weeks and then come home.
Q. Do you like this new stage of your career?
A. It's absolutely delightful. It allows me to spend time with my family (he has two small children from his second marriage, and three grown children from his first), and it allows me opportunities to work with great directors like Roman Polanski.
Q. Had you ever met Polanski before this?
A. No, but I have always been fascinated and enthralled with his work. It all starts and end with Roman Polanski.
Q. Could you describe your first meeting with him?
A. I was in London promoting "Mamma Mia!" and my agent said Mr. Polanski had an offer for "The Ghost." I found those words beguiling and intriguing, so I hopped on a train to Paris and had lunch with him.
Q. What was that like?
A. I felt like I already knew the man. I knew what he looked like, I knew what his voice sounded like and I knew so much about his life. He's such a controversial legend in his own space and time.
Q. Did the legend live up to your expectations?
A. He was so charming and soft-spoken. We talked about our lives, and about the losses in our lives. He talked briefly about Sharon (Polanski's wife Sharon Tate was one of five people murdered in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson).
Q. How does that come up in a conversation?
A. I can't really remember. We were just two men speaking openly about our families and children. I talked about the loss of my first wife to cancer, and then he spoke of Sharon.
Q. Did the movie role come up at that lunch?
A. Ever so briefly. I asked him if I was playing Tony Blair, and he said I wasn't playing Tony Blair, although all roads lead to one man, and that man is Tony Blair. We didn't dwell on how I was going to play the role, or even the political aspects of the role.
Q. How did he sell you on the role?
A. Oh, he didn't have to sell it. The book was such a page-turner, he didn't have to sell anything. But it's interesting that the book is so Robert Harris, and the screenplay is so Roman Polanski.
Q. In what way?
A. In every way – from the opening shot to the tonality to the gestures to the description of the weather. His imagination is so fertile.
Q. Is it possible to go into a project like this without thinking about what he's going through in his personal life (Polanski is fighting extradition to the United States after his arrest in September more than 31 years after he fled the country to avoid imprisonment for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor)?
A. I respond to the story on the page, and the man as a director. Although one is aware of his life, and the tragedies that have befallen him, that does not impact the work.
Q. Did you ever discuss his extradition fight?
A. In fact, he was arrested after my involvement in the film so it would have been impossible.
Q. Let's get back to these four films opening at about the same time. Does it fill you with dread, or does it excite you about the prospect of having so many films in theaters at once?
A. It is an embarrassment of riches, but it doesn't have an effect on me at all because it is out of my hands. I wish them all well. I did the best I could, and I did my part in the selling of the movies, but it's not my call.
Q. Of the four, the most unlikely for you seems to be the "Percy Jackson" family film. What's the back story on that?
A. I did that one so that my 8-year-old boy could see his daddy in a movie. He doesn't get to see a lot of my movies because they're too adult.
Q. And you really don't mind giving up the leading-man roles for character roles? You have been a leading man since the TV show "Remington Steele."
A. When I started out as an actor, I saw myself as a character actor, but the leading-man roles came to me, and I ran with that. Now, it's time for a new phase, and as long as the roles are good, it doesn't matter. If you want a lengthy career in this business, you have to be flexible.
Q. And you don't miss Bond at all?
A. No, not at all. It all fell into place in its own time. I have nothing but gratitude for my time as Bond. It allowed me to do other kinds of work, and created a special life for me.
Q. And did you have any idea that "Mamma Mia!" would have such an impact?
A. None of us did. We had a strong feeling that it would find an audience because of ABBA's many fans, but it became an avalanche of joy and celebration.
Q. Did you enjoy singing?
A. You have to have broad shoulders to stand up there and sing an old war horse like "SOS," but I assumed that people would get the joke of having an old James Bond singing these songs. I had the time of my life doing that movie, and the last laugh was on the naysayers.
Q. My wife and mother-in-law thought you were great.
A. (laughing) I'm sorry you had to be dragged along for the ride.
Q. You and Keely seem to find so much time to be active in various political and environmental causes. What started you on this life of activism?
A. The activism, particularly for the environment, had been there quietly for many years, and that had to do with Ted Danson and the wonderful work he does. Then, when my wife was stricken with ovarian cancer, I began working on other related causes.
Q. Many actors have been criticized over their political activism. Has that ever concerned you?
A. I never see myself as a political activist. I see myself as a man concerned about certain issues. When you dip your toe into causes such as clean air, clean water or the burning of fossil fuels, you're going to bump into the jagged edge of politics, and people will try to shut you down, but ultimately, you have a responsibility to follow your heart as a father and a citizen.