19 Feb 2010
Pierce Brosnan has a unique take on the controversy surrounding Roman Polanski. On the one hand, it’s to be expected: Having played the deposed British prime minister Adam Lang in Polanski’s new thriller The Ghost Writer (opening today in limited release; going wide March 5), Brosnan is a little too close to the man for mere dogma. On the other, his perspective on the director is so refreshingly, infectiously admiring that it transcends judgment — a bracing tonic in an era when even the whisper of the name “Polanski” can instantly polarize a room. Despite a resume boasting four James Bond films, the global blockbuster Mamma Mia! and his recent reinvention as a sort of burnished indie statesman, by the end of 20 minutes with Brosnan you can’t help but wonder if Lang was the role he knows he was born to play. Not that the influential, embattled man under suspicion by everyone from his biographer (Ewan McGregor) to his equally suspicious wife (Olivia Williams) bore any resemblance to himself. But as Brosnan thoughtfully explained this week to Movieline, the timing and meaning of the thing proved an opportunity almost too good — and maybe even too valuable — to be true.
How did this project come to you, and how did you determine that Adam Lang was your guy?
I think if Roman Polanski had asked me to do the phone book, I would have said yes. It was Roman Polanski. It all starts and ends with Roman Polanski. The invitation intrigued me to no end. I was in London doing promotion for Mamma Mia!, and I got this call from my agent to go to Paris and meet Roman for lunch. And so I did. By this time I’d read the book and read the screenplay. The invitation was very intriguing. Of course I said, “Yes.” My first question to him was, “So am I playing Tony Blair?” He said, “No, no, no, no, you’re not playing Tony Blair.” And intellectually I knew I wasn’t. I knew this was an impressionistic interpretation of Tony Blair.
In what ways did your own perception and feelings toward Blair inform that interpretation?
In very little ways. The overall piece does so much for me as the actor. I do very little to perform like Tony Blair, or to sound like Tony Blair. But all roads lead to that one man — in the book, in the screenplay, and on the screen — because of the emblems of weapons of mass destruction or the Iraq War. Then there’s the characterization of Ruth Lang and her relationship to Adam Lang. You just see the echoes and similarities of the Blairs. You know as an actor that Robert Harris was good friends with the Blairs. So with all of this information I began to look at it more closely, and it felt almost like Shakespearean tragedy, or Jacobean tragedy — especially the part of Ruth, who emanates a sort of Lady Macbeth persona.
Robert Harris once explained that all political careers essentially are tragedies — that they’re over very quickly, and after that your life is never the same.
He has such a way with words. Every time we would do press junkets, I’d hear myself as the stuttering actor trying to formulate some intelligent, cohesive answer. But any political questions that came Robert’s way were so beautifully handled. Or, if they came to McGregor or Brosnan, we’d always decline to Mr. Robert Harris, erudite fellow that he is.
[Long pause] The irony is that we find ourselves here opening this movie at the Berlinale. On one side of the curtain is Tony Blair and the Chilcot spotlight, and on the other side is Roman Polanski’s incarceration. So you have this vortex of life, drama and moviemaking sitting there for the whole world to see. Surely it’s a cinematic “what-if” story — a glorious question, beginning, middle and end. What if a British prime minister was inveigled into the CIA? It’s a huge “what if.”
The buzz for this film without Polanski around is so strange, the kind of effect we expect from reclusive filmmakers or maybe a posthumous release. Polanski seems like a ghost himself. How might that affect the way people receive The Ghost Writer?
Well, I’ve only been part of one presentation at Berlin, and that was front-row and center. The world press was there. The press conference was a full-court press. I have never seen the likes of it. Even having played James Bond, in my first introduction to that character all those years ago, I’ve never seen the likes of what we saw in Berlin. I can only go by the reviews and the reception that have been overtured toward the film, and they’ve been very positive. And I do believe the film works in the most glorious Polanski way. All the ingredients and life history and force of him as a storyteller and a cinematic director are quivering at full force here.
What exactly does the “Polanski Way” mean to you — as both an actor and a viewer?
I think he ingests so much of his own legend and turmoil of life into the choice of each film that he makes. That he can examine what it’s like to be on the run, to be an outsider. What it’s like to be in close quarters with relationships with people. The somewhat perverse observation of characters on the landscape. You always come up against the claustrophobic world in a Roman Polanski movie. There seems to be no air left in the room. There’s no road left for these characters. Yet they’re always on the road, on a passage in life, going from one dramatic moment in their lives to the next.
When I did the movie, I’d never seen Knife in the Water or Repulsion. So I went back and saw them, sitting there in my hotel room on cold winter evenings. They were staggeringly potent pieces of film by this young man. The other one I watched was Tess. I’d seen it when it first came out. It was just gorgeous — the prevalence of weather and how he uses it. How he uses the slight gesture of minor characters, and the repetition of their presence in scenes that are absolutely the high sea of the main character’s life. What I mean by that is, as in Tess, you see them man clipping the hedge, clipping the hedge. The clipping — the sound of clippers — on the hedge becomes this subtext of anxiety for the character. You see the man sweeping the leaves in The Ghost Writer — constantly sweeping the leaves, trying to put them in the wheelbarrow, and they keep blowing away. They keep blowing away! And these rather mild observations by this central character become this foreboding presence.
Even the location — this angular, exiled beach house in winter — speaks a lot to the public figure Polanski has become.
I read the book and I read the screenplay, and I had this image of the house. But the shock of seeing it was something else. Going to Babelsberg sound stage that day to enter into that set was like going into this Bauhaus bunker of meaningless art. The staircase comes out of the wall like knives. You could fall off the precipice at any time. It was a dangerous stage to be on. There wasn’t even a banister.
Right? It’s supposed to Lang’s safe haven, yet there’s peril in every room, around every corner.
There’s no joy or love. There’s no sense of the human heart there. There’s just desolation. And at the end of the movie, it’s on a par with Chinatown. That desolation of character and landscape is something he does brilliantly. And certainly the two endings in the street have similar echoes.
Of course, by the end of the film, your character is long gone. Having not been there to observe those last few incredible set-ups, what was your reaction seeing that ending for the first time?
I just couldn’t breathe. The passing of that note is just an exquisitely executed piece of drama. Olivia’s close-up and that whole conclusion of what “the beginnings” mean was spellbinding. Utterly spellbinding. You think he gets away, and even though I’d read the script, I thought he got away. Then the eyes of the hunter are upon him. Then there’s the image of Adam Lang — the overseeing, all-prevailing eye of Adam Lang is throughout, on all the books and behind her shoulder. [Laughs] It was brilliant. Just brilliant. As you know, the book doesn’t finish that way particularly, and my character’s demise doesn’t finish that way. The letter-like intensity with which I go out and with which the piece crescendos is… I don’t know. It’s Polanski. They keep saying Hitchcock, but it’s Polanski.
The Ghost Writer and Remember Me cap a pretty prolific and very eclectic streak of roles for you, I guess starting with The Matador (right) and going through Married Life, Mamma Mia!, The Greatest, Percy Jackson, and now this. How do you choose roles? What are you looking for?
It’s just… I want to do as much as I can with the time I’ve got. I want to explore the world of performance and acting. Bond gave me so much of my life as a salable commodity and an international name, and that is to be valued — to give one at least some longevity as an actor, and the opportunity to make eclectic choices and play characters where you can be an unexpected surprise.
You can often trace a thematic continuity in actors’ choices. Would “surprise” be yours?
Well, I have to work. I want to work. I love to work. I mean, I don’t want to go back to workshops. I don’t want to go try out my chops. I’d rather find a piece like The Greatest, which is well-founded by a young woman like [writer-director] Shana Feste, and bring in Susan Sarandon and Carey Mulligan and go out there and work. I’d rather explore my place as an actor rather than wait for someone to come give it to me. Nobody would have given me The Matador if someone else had had it. [Brosnan co-produced both The Greatest and The Matador. - Ed.] So having my own company — and having a partnership with someone like Beaumarie St. Clair, who really thinks and works like a producer — allows me to go and explore other avenues of myself. I was trained as an actor and taught to believe at a very young age that I could be anything and do anything, and then you find yourself painted into a corner by your own image or persona. Now’s the time to challenge myself and go do some acting