What do we mean when we say an actor has "aged well"? That he's discovered a sense of humor, like Alec Baldwin? That—as with Clooney—the glib ease of youthful beauty has receded, revealing some deeper well of talent? Or that he's simply got a knack for keeping on as though nothing's changed at all? (Really only applicable if your name is Jack Nicholson.)
In the case of Pierce Brosnan, the answer is a little of all of these—plus, as he says with a shrug, "good genes, you know." Certainly there can be no doubt of his membership in the club: It's been nearly three decades since he landed in Hollywood from London and was cast as Remington Steele at his first audition. This spring Brosnan, 56, will appear in four films, including Roman Polanski's political thriller The Ghost Writer, a run notable for the fact that none of these roles bear resemblance to the character that's alternately dogged and rewarded Brosnan's whole career. Surely you know him: priapic chap, looks good in a suit, not Don Draper…
But first let's say this: Having tea and cocktails with Pierce Brosnan is one deeply satisfying experience. When in New York, he stays and receives visitors at the very Upper East Side Hôtel Plaza Athénée—has for years, knows the names of every server and busboy working at the lavishly bedraped lobby lounge. Julianne Moore tried to lure him downtown once, to stay someplace a bit more modern and trendy. Brosnan lasted one night in SoHo, and it was back to the marble statues of the Athénée.
"It feels old money, and I like money," he says. "I love the finer things." Surely this is forgivable in a guy who grew up far from the world of 1,000-count sheets. Brosnan's mother was barely out of her teens when he was born, in rural County Meath, Ireland; she soon departed for work in London, leaving Pierce with his grandparents on a small farm. His father, Tom, had taken off soon after his birth and Brosnan met him only once, when Remington Steele was shooting in Ireland and there was a knock on the door of his hotel room.
"I opened the door and there was this flinty-eyed man, hair like this gray snow white, chiseled features, not as tall as me. He walked in and said, 'Ahh you're a good lookin' man,'" says Brosnan, lapsing into a brogue. "I said, 'Well I get it from you, Tom. Like a cup a tea?'"
So, he comes by it honestly, this love of old world luxury that still feels, he says, like seeing "what's over the fence." And needless to say he wears it well. It's frigid outdoors but warm at the Plaza Athénéé. Brosnan is in immaculately pressed slacks and a navy zip-neck pullover; the man practically comes with his own sheepdog and roaring fire. He is also, just as needless to say, immensely charming—warm and engaged and self-deprecating in a winking melancholic way that seems almost cartoonishly Irish. Not for nothing are two of his sons named after Samuel Beckett and Dylan Thomas.
"He has an almost Joycean vibe," says Remember Me director Allen Coulter. "You can imagine sitting around a pub for hours, listening to him tell stories."
All of this seems completely genuine and, at the same time part of a well-practiced, generous performance—a sort of Ur-Brosnan born of an old theater pro's instinctive desire to make his audience happy.
"If they want brown shoes, give 'em brown shoes," he says, sounding like some long-gone vaudevillian.
And of course that brings us back to Him—because the truth is that brown shoes are the last thing the public has wanted from Brosnan. We've wanted shiny black shoes, and the tux to match.
"Bond!" he says, with the tone of someone discussing a beloved but vexing relative. "Yes. I will always be James Bond."
First there was Remington Steele, a Bond manqué. Then, famously, in 1986, Brosnan was set to replace Roger Moore in the role itself when his contract with NBC blocked the deal: Brosnan and his wife had already opened a bottle of champagne to toast his new life as an international movie star when the network decided, at the last minute, to force him to do more Steele shows. (They canceled the series soon after.)
Then, of course, Brosnan did get to play Bond—at precisely the moment when someone so excruciatingly perfect for the part felt all wrong. Brosnan's four films as 007 came just as the character had gotten stuck between Roger Moorean camp and Daniel Craigian nihilism.
"It felt like a middle area. A no-man's land," Brosnan says. "You never felt the killing was harsh enough. You never felt the sex was hard enough. It was all still frothy. And you still had these clunky one liners, which were always embarrassing. And then came The Bourne Identity, which really nailed it. I thought, Okay. They're going to want to get younger. Of course I do wish they'd told me sooner."
He's referring there to the last, contentious, chapter to his official Bond career, in which MGM cut off negotiations for a fifth movie. Craig was introduced soon after. Brosnan has not watched his successor's work, though he tried to once, on a plane.
"I figured 37,000 feet was a good distance to watch it from, but then the machine broke on me—twice. I thought, Fuck it. He's the man now. He owns it. And fair play to him."
What followed was Brosnan's Anti-Bond Period, in which he played various corrupted versions of his former self, most notably the profane, pathos-ridden hit-man of The Matador. And now, it seems, comes yet another period, in which Brosnan is finally allowed to simply act, and in which it's almost possible—almost—to watch him order a vodka martini at the Plaza Athénéé and not be forced to suppress a secret giggle.
This is all to the good because his current performances show that Brosnan brings much more to the table than action-movie chops. In both Remember Me and The Greatest, he plays a father dealing with family tragedy, something with which he has direct experience. In 1991, his first wife, Cassandra, died of cancer. And, in 2000, he was woken up at 4:30 A.M. by a phone call: His 16-year-old son had been in the back seat of a friend's truck when the friend, drunk, drove off a 270-foot cliff in Malibu. Brosnan arrived at the scene in time to see his son carried out on a stretcher. (He survived, and the driver served jail time.)