Given that Adam Lang, the disgraced former British Prime Minister of Robert Harris's bestselling political thriller THE GHOST, bears a rather uncomplimentary resemblance to one Mr. Tony Blair, it's unlikely the real-life former British Prime Minister was at all interested in who might play the thinly-veiled him in Roman Polanski's big-screen adaptation, THE GHOST WRITER. However, when he found out his fictional counterpart would be played by ex-007 Pierce Brosnan, one can't help but wonder if Blair didn't at least let out a tiny squeal of delight. The film might take him for a cuckolded buffoon, but at least he'd be a suave cuckolded buffoon.
While Lang's alleged misdeeds mirror those of Blair's, Brosnan thought it best the resemblance not extend to Lang's physical appearance: ergo, rather than don a comically large pair of prosthetic ears, he gives Lang the ol' movie star sheen. It's a wise decision; anything on the nose would've launched the film into spoof territory. It is, however, worth noting that when the crowds and the cameras aren't around, Lang throws tantrums that are downright Bush-like in their sense of entitlement. As Brosnan says in the below interview, Lang is a man who's used to being loved and getting his way; now that he's in exile, dodging charges that he illegally extradited British citizens to Guantanamo Bay, he's turned into a petulant child. So, for this American at least, it's enticing to view Polanski's film as something of a double indictment.
Since THE GHOST WRITER is told exclusively from the perspective of the young writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to take down and shape the Prime Minister's memoirs, we're never allowed access to Lang's thoughts (or lack thereof). Is he a cipher or a brilliant statesman who got drunk on power during a time of war? Every time we think we know the answer, Polanski and Harris (who's nimbly adapted his own novel) throw us for a loop. But what really confounds us - and what helps make the film an enormous amount of fun - is that behind Brosnan's carefully constructed facade, there's the potential for both.
This is my favorite Brosnan performance since his underrated turn in Richard Shepard's THE MATADOR, so I was delighted to sit down and chat with him a few weeks ago during an eerily quiet Los Angeles press day. With nearly everyone out of town for the Sundance Film Festival, the vibe was unusually relaxed at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. Neither of us felt rushed, so, after a couple of minutes of small talk, we just casually worked our way into talking about the movie. All interviews should go this smoothly.
Pierce Brosnan: Well, I'm proud of the movie. I've been a big fan of Mr. Roman Polanski's since ROSEMARY'S BABY. I've always held him in high esteem as a moviemaker. When I got the call, I was in London, and was asked if I'd like to meet with him. So I hopped on the train to Paris, had a bit of lunch with him, talked about the movie, and established that I wasn't doing an imitation of [Tony] Blair. I would just play it as if I was an actor playing the Prime Minister! That's what my job entailed. Within it is the tragedy of this man's lost life, mangled by [spoiler] and his own stupidity. He's caught in the crosshairs.
Mr. Beaks: Because of his theater background, I imagine Adam Lang came into office envisioning himself as one of Shakespeare's kings.
Brosnan: It's wildly Monty Python-ish if you take it those extremes. (Laughs) He got so carried away and enamored of his performance on stage, and applauded by his peers of the day, he thought he could be a politician - and did become one! He was very good with the written word and speeches, but his intellectual drive was somewhat lacking.
Beaks: Do you think it's a lack of life experience or education that is his ultimate undoing?
Brosnan: It's his ego that gets in the way. He's not paying attention. And before he knows it, [spoiler again]. It's so shocking. As a grown man, he's so weak. And getting to play that is rather enjoyable and funny.
Beaks: Do you think he's aware of how weak he looks to everyone around him?
Brosnan: I think he does at this point in the story. He's cornered by his ego, his lack of awareness and his fallibility as a politician. I think he's very aware that life has slipped him by, and he doesn't know how to get out of it. He's caught in this vortex: he signed off on papers between the Americas that he shouldn't have signed off on; he's walked into issues that were way over his head. He's a tragic fellow, really.
Beaks: So he's hoping his memoirs will restore his good name and resuscitate his political career.
Brosnan: But that's even hollow for him as well because he has nothing to say. The book is a whole front. (Pauses and smiles.) I knew the story, and yet it held me to the end. I think the film jumps out the track really fast and furious, then slows and loses its way, and then kicks back at the end. There's always, because of the Polanski touch, that claustrophobic camera. And I think the ending is brilliant.
Beaks: The film is unmistakably Polanski, but he never made a paranoid political thriller during his '70s prime. So, in a way, it feels like his nod to the movies of Alan J. Pakula or Sydney Pollack.
Brosnan: Very much so. It's really a throwback to old-style filmmaking and storytelling. As you say, he never made a political thriller, so for him to go back to the thriller genre... you're aware, as an actor, that you're in the hands of one of the great conductors. When I was working with him, he just loved the camera so much. He was always beside the camera, never on the monitor; he was always right there looking at you. So you have this interconnect, this rapport with the fellow. His viewfinder was ever at the ready. (Laughs) I was sitting on the dolly one day watching him do a close-up with an actor, and I looked in his bag of tricks beside the camera and saw his viewfinder. It's old, worn, and burnished with time; all the numbers have been rubbed off, and there's all this gaffer's tape. You look through it, and it's like looking through some ancient dark glass. He's obviously had this for many years. It's always with him. And he's always at that camera trying to heighten the experience for the audience.
Beaks: It seems like every director needs to be on monitor nowadays. Have you ever worked with another director who wasn't?
Brosnan: No. Every director I've worked with is on monitor. Very rarely, they sit beside the camera to say "Action". But they're usually in the other room watching the monitor. I mean, there's no right or wrong way; at the end of the day, if the thing works, that's it. Roman just loves making films. I suppose if there's any lesson, it's just that of living a very long, very complicated, very tragic life - but still being very passionate about films. Physically, he was like a young boy at times, a child. He was just so eager to get the job done that he'd physically shake his hands and get so impatient. It could be off-putting to people, but I found him very challenging. You're on your mettle with him as an actor; you want to work hard for him. As long as you don't mind line readings...
Beaks: (Laughs) Really?
Brosnan: Yes. He's an actor, so he loves to give you line readings.
Beaks: Would you take his line readings?
Brosnan: At the beginning he gave me line readings. Then he left me alone. I mean, the first day's work was the scene on the Gulfstream. That's a six-and-a-half-page scene. It wasn't meant to be the first scene; the first week was supposed to be little bits and pieces. But I left L.A. on a Friday, got into Berlin, started work that Monday, and he asked if I was ready to do this scene. Luckily, I knew my lines, so I said, "Let's do it." We rehearsed at seven o'clock in the morning; Ewan knew his lines, I knew my lines, so we got on the Gulfstream. We were seated, and it looked like it was going to be on me first. I think, "Okay, the camera will probably be up there. We're going to do a master [shot] this way. Then we'll come down tighter and tighter." Well, Roman proceeded to talk about the luggage, and sort out the props - the laptops, the guys' guns and so on. The morning went on, we rehearsed all of that, and then at about five minutes until one, he came up to me and said, "Alright, Pierce. After lunch, 27 lens!" And I was like, "Fuck me, you've got to be kidding! I was ready to go at seven o'clock in the morning! Now I've got to wait through lunch?" So I went back to my trailer, worried some more, came out, and... I wasn't sure if he was messing with me. Everything was in order, really; he could've done [that shot] straight away. I think he just had his way of letting the morning go.
Beaks: Perhaps he wanted you back on your heels. At that point in the movie, your character is backed into a corner and then lashes out.
Brosnan: Yeah, he might've wanted that. I mean, I knew what he was doing. He was messing. But at that time, I just threw it away, and I had a good day. That was my first day: straight into the movie on a 27 lens. (Laughs)
Beaks: You mentioned that you didn't use Tony Blair as a reference for your character. That's apparent in the film. But it does seem like the character - particularly in how he's written and presented - is perhaps a Tony Blair/George W. Bush hybrid. You demeanor is very often petulant, and that's something we often saw out of Bush.
Brosnan: I didn't go towards George W. Bush. I just looked at Blair and Cameron, watched various films and interviews of them - never to replicate who they were or what they were, but just to see who they were in tone of voice and posture. And Lang is rather childlike. He's definitely petulant. He's used to getting his own way. And when he doesn't get his own way, he loses it.
Beaks: I'll use my last question to ask about the status of the THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR sequel. The first film has endured; it's really a terrific little movie. Is the sequel moving forward? Is it still called THE TOPKAPI AFFAIR?
Brosnan: It won't be called THE TOPKAPI AFFAIR. At the moment it's just THOMAS CROWN. Or THOMAS CROWN 2. TC2. That's what's on the scripts - and there have been a few. (Laughs) We'll do it. We must do it. It wasn't my idea to do it, but I'm going to do it. No names mentioned of who wanted us to do it, but studio heads have such bright ideas. Yes, the character has endured; it seems to have created its own life. So to see this man ten years down the line still doing what he does - living the life, doing a bit of thievery, and a love affair with some beautiful woman - why not? We're making our best effort to do it. It's not easy, but our best effort. Dear old MGM is... dear old MGM, you know? (Laughs) It's just trying to sort itself out again.