30 Mar 2010
Losing Bond was a blow, but Pierce Brosnan has been through worse. Much worse. The natural-born smoothie talks about grief, faith and being ‘messed with’ by Roman Polanski on The Ghost.
For a chap once voted Sexiest Man in the World, Pierce Brosnan fights pleasingly shy of narcissism: certainly, he takes one look at the hotel room in which we’re meeting and moves his chair so that it sits beneath a large, gilt-framed mirror rather than facing it. ‘I don’t want to talk about myself and look at myself at the same time,’ he says, his voice affably tinged with Irishness.
His loss, really: what he would have gazed upon is a handsome, bronzed 56 year-old, a few flecks of grey at the temple, wearing a black Tom Ford jacket with silver buttons, a black Tom Ford shirt, black Ralph Lauren trousers and a pair of brown suede brogues from Gucci. Around his left wrist is a plaited leather bracelet given to him by his wife, Keely, a former environmental journalist, and around his neck is a string of wooden beads; his teeth shimmer.
It’s a pretty soigné look and one befitting a man whose global fame has revolved around his portrayal of suave and dashing types – James Bond, Thomas Crown, Remington Steele, Sam, the overpoweringly good-looking architect-cum-Casanova of Mamma Mia! But it’s also a look that seems to speak of an old-fashioned film star rather than an actor. Which is he?
Brosnan chuckles lightly, perhaps nervously – he certainly chews at the inside of his mouth a lot and frequently pushes the tip of his tongue firmly into his left cheek.
‘Well,’ he answers, that tongue in overdrive, ‘I think the pendulum is swinging back to being an actor once more. I’ve done my bit in the limelight as a movie star.’
But did he like being a movie star? ‘Oh, I liked it all. Because I wished it, I wanted it, I desired it. And I revelled in it, in my own way. But then…’ He trails off, reflects. ‘Then how do you get out of that corner? How long does it last? These are questions I never really ask myself in too much detail.’
Maybe. Or maybe this amiable fellow just has a sensibly solid take on the way the movie world works. He has, for instance, just shot a film, Remember Me, with Robert Pattinson, currently the world’s teen heart-throb.
‘Lovely lad, lovely lad,’ Brosnan says. ‘Just caught up in the vortex of fame. There we’d be, on the streets of New York, and I'd come out of my trailer and there’d be hundreds and hundreds of young girls. And I’d get a lovely round of applause and waves and photographs and I’d trip up the steps of the Plaza [Hotel, where they were shooting], feeling chuffed that I still had the juice. And then – then Robert would appear and I’d hear this bedlam of beauties, this monstrous, monstrous cacophony of screams and shouts.’
He shakes his head, wryly. ‘And the circle grows,’ he says, portentously, ‘the circle grows. And you move on.’
Brosnan does have a tendency to invoke fate and say, sonorously, that things just weren’t meant to be. And indeed to remind me that the first film he saw in England was Goldfinger and say of the time Shirley Bassey came upon him, smoking a cigarette, at the premiere of Goldeneye: ‘Ah! The old Jungian synchronicity! It happens time and time again. And you hope to have more of it before there’s less of it, especially the good stuff’ – which ranks high in the league of opaque utterances.It’s an opacity that’s eminently suitable for a politician, which is what Brosnan plays – very well – in Roman Polanski’s excellent thriller, The Ghost.
Brosnan plays Adam Lang, a former British prime minister, reviled at home yet feted in the United States, under legal pursuit for his part in prosecuting an unpopular war and trying to knock his memoirs into shape with the help of a ghostwriter, played by Ewan McGregor.
The film’s adapted from a novel by Robert Harris, who was once a great friend of Tony Blair. ‘This man Lang’s a rock star, he's a craze – it’s all Tony Blair. All roads lead to one man,’ Brosnan says. ‘So I began to play tapes of Tony Blair as PM.’
The result, he says, is ‘a sketch of what it was, a light brush.’ A brush he’s applied acutely: as one reviewer put it, Brosnan plays the part with ‘toothy insincerity’.
Polanski affected to see things differently. Brosnan was ‘intrigued beyond words’ as to why Polanski wanted him for the part. ‘But I never asked the question. I just asked: “Where do I stand in regards to playing Tony Blair?”’ To which, he says, Polanski replied – and here Brosnan adopts a nasal, whiny mittel-European accent – ‘“No, no, no, no, you’re not playing Tony Blair. Don’t worry about that.” So we got that out of the way, fairly quickly. And then we talked about life, children, love.’
He takes a beat, thinks, I presume, about the death of his first wife, Cassie, and continues, ‘and losing wives. He spoke briefly and tenderly about Sharon [Tate, Polanski’s murdered wife], and that she was the light of his life.’
Which doesn’t alter the fact that on Brosnan’s first day of shooting Polanski was a pain. As a director, Brosnan says, Polanski's ‘all-encompassing’. ‘The actors, the way the camera moves, the props, the make-up, how the blood was going on when I have my brains blown out. He was futzing,’ he says. Futzing?
Well, Brosnan’s first day was a Monday and his first scene was one of his longest, most psychologically complex. ‘And I’m: “S--- me; this is not good. I’m walking into the lair” – and, you know, this man is mischievous.’
The scene takes place on a plane: ‘So we run through it, and I’m ready, seconds out. And Roman begins to talk about what sort of computer my secretary [in the film] should be using, and he begins to futz with the luggage, and he begins to futz about the gun my security man has, he begins to do anything but point the camera and shoot.
‘But the energy’s still going and at five minutes to one, he gets out his viewfinder – he always has this viewfinder, burnished with age, he’s obviously had it since Knife in the Water – and he’s looking through it and he says: “Ah, this is good. The camera goes right here, we do a 27 lens on Pierce – after lunch.” And I thought: “Is he messing with me? Is this something to throw me off?” And I look at Ewan and I say: “Has it been like this all the time?” And Ewan says: “Oh, yeah. I’m so glad you’re here – I’ve had three weeks of this.”’
In due course, the scene is shot, and Polanski says how marvellous it is – save for one thing. Brosnan has to laugh and Polanski tells him he has to laugh ‘from a certain part of my anatomy. From beneath. From the lower regions. From the top of my groin. And I think: “Oh, b----- me! I don’t care! Bring it on, man!” And we did it again, and I laughed from my groin. And I said: “Will that be OK?” And thereafter, we got on.’
Brosnan has spoken to Polanski since ‘the troubles’, most recently via conference call to the Swiss house where he’s under arrest. ‘And his spirit is indomitable. His humour never leaves him. He said: “Just speak to the press about me as the man you know. Tell them I’m a genius!’”
Does Brosnan think Polanski should be taken back to Los Angeles for trial? There’s a long pause. ‘It looks like he could be taken back.’ He sighs. ‘And, er, I think it would be good to see closure for this man and his family, and this woman. For this man, 76, that’s a long road to hoe. Oh, it was wrong in every way, what happened, but I think he’s done his time, in many regards.’Polanski had lost his wife, to a murderous Charles Manson; Brosnan lost his, to cancer. Does Brosnan feel grief can lead to a certain madness?
He clears his throat, chooses his words carefully: ‘I can see where there could be a deep fragility of the spirit and mind. And a time when everything was possible, and the revolution in sexuality was in full bloom, next to the intoxication of drugs and music, and the shiny, glittering claws of that town [Hollywood].
'So I think there was a certain breakdown in his judgment. A deep, deep grief in his life, so brutally played out in the media.’ He pauses. ‘I don’t know. It’s none of my business – except that he’s a magnificent director.’
Brosnan has had a hard road to hoe himself. His father abandoned him and his mother, May, when he was two; May soon left Navan, County Meath, to train as a nurse in London.
Brosnan was brought up first by his grandparents and then by other family members. At six, he fell into the hands of the Christian Brothers. ‘Oh,’ says Brosnan, puffing the air out from his cheeks.
‘Oh, the Christian Brothers were fairly mangled fellows in Navan. Some men speak highly of them; unfortunately, I never saw that. I just remember the brutality: the paddy-bats, the straps that would fly out of the soutane like vipers’ tongues, the beatings amidst the prayers – whack! Or some boy standing at the blackboard trying to remember the Psalms and being hit across the calves as the s--- ran down his legs. I remember that. I remember that.’
It certainly toughened him up for his next oh-so-sensitive school: a comprehensive in Putney, to which he went after arriving in England on August 12, 1964 – ‘the same day Ian Fleming passed on’ – to join his mother and her new husband.His accent was thick, his nickname ‘Irish’ – ‘I wore it as a badge of pride’. He ‘jumped school’ at 16, worked as a commercial artist (he still paints) and got involved with fringe theatre, where he learnt to breathe fire, a stunt he pulled off on The Muppet Show when he was Bond.
At 19 he went to the Drama Centre, and then moved into film, television and stage work – an appearance in a duff Tennessee Williams play elicited a telegram from Williams that read: ‘Thank God for you, my dear boy.’
He fell in love with an Australian actress, Cassie Harris, – she already had two children, whom he adopted after their father died.
In 1982, on a ‘wing, a prayer and Freddie Laker’, they decamped for Hollywood, he yearning to be in the next Scorsese movie. Instead he landed the part of Remington Steele, a roguishly charming former con man.
The show ran on television for five years; he became, he says with a chortle, ‘Smooth Git No 1’. But is it a chortling matter? Doesn’t he regret the indelible immersion in the soup of suavity? ‘I don’t regret it. I certainly fell hook, line and sinker into that whole world. But I knew I was going to have a hard time getting out of it.’
Not that he wanted to then: in fact, in 1986 he was tapped to succeed Roger Moore as Bond. ‘I thought: “I’ve become a TV star. It’s time to be a movie star.” And I did the wardrobe fittings, went to Pinewood, sat with Cubby Broccoli [the Bond producer], took photos outside by his Rolls-Royce – and years go by, and somebody gave me those photos. And I look like such a boy. Such a pretty, moptop lad.’
A lad whose hopes were dashed; he was still, contractually, bound to Remington Steele. ‘Greed’ won and he was forced to do a paltry six more shows. Broccoli wasn’t prepared to have his Bond smarming it up elsewhere: Timothy Dalton got the gig. It was, he says, ‘powerfully gut wrenching’.
‘But it was more devastating for Cassie, God bless her, because she really hung her hat on the whole thing. And we moved the children into private schools here – we set up this infrastructure. But it wasn’t meant to be. When catastrophe strikes like that, you just have to let it go. Fast.’
But catastrophe kept coming. In 1991, Cassie died. Brosnan was inconsolable. He tried grief counselling, but ‘it just didn’t fly with me. I went to my religion.’
Despite the Christian Brothers? ‘Despite the Christian Brothers. I have a strong faith in my God.’ He had, too, the children, Charlotte, Christopher and Sean, the son he and Cassie had in 1983.
‘I tried as best I could to counsel them but it didn’t seem to be working.’ He looks away, his mouth working powerfully. ‘A very dark, painful time. Just as any man or woman who’s suffered. And we all…’ he pulls himself together. ‘It’s just part of life.’
And work helped enormously: ‘I just kept the foot on the pedal.’ And, at length, got Bond.
Critics liked him; so did the box office. In between his four Bond outings, he made the self-produced The Thomas Crown Affair and Mars Attacks!, directed by Tim Burton. ‘There’s a wonderful stable of directors I’ve worked with,’ he says, ‘and work I’ve done that has dignity and meaningfulness.’
Brosnan was keen to do a fifth Bond and was full of ideas for making the sex dirtier, the violence more real. He wanted, he said, to get back to the spirit of the original Casino Royale. Did it annoy him when the Bond people did just that, without him? ‘Yeah! Oh yeah!’ He flings his arms wide, fizzes with angst.
‘Quentin Tarantino wanted to direct it! Quentin Tarantino! Quentin and I had cocktails one night, and he said: “You’re the best f------ Bond! I want to do it with you!” But they would have nothing to do with me or he.’
He sighs, then laughs a meaningful laugh. ‘It’s funny because on Goldeneye Barbara [Broccoli] gave me a first edition of Casino Royale, with “Here’s to New Beginnings” on it. Delightful present.’
It’s what Brosnan did next that so endears him to me: make a very funny, dark movie called The Matador, in which he played a hitman going mad. In one scene, he strode through a hotel lobby dressed only in well-packed black underpants and boots. It could have been even more subversive, save that the original script was ‘too on the nose’.
He honks with laughter. ‘There’s quite enough ambivalence about my character’s sexuality: I thought me bonking bellhops would be a little too much.’ He honks, again. ‘Yes, The Matador was a sharp left turn. At this point in the career, anything goes.’He took another sharp left with Mamma Mia!, which, despite featuring Brosnan singing ‘like a water buffalo’ (according to one US critic), has brought him an entirely new, Bond-averse generation of fans.
Brosnan is now an American citizen – he voted for Obama, for whom he has high hopes – and has homes in Malibu and Hawaii. With his wife Keely, he’s had two further sons, Dylan Thomas Brosnan, who’s 13, and Paris Beckett, who’s nine. He does a lot of charity work, worries about the environment and has been awarded an OBE for services to the film industry.
Whether that includes casting Aaron Johnson and Carey Mulligan in his latest, rather mawkish production, The Greatest, I’m not sure, anyway, they’re there, as are Brosnan and Susan Sarandon. The film is about parents’ grief for a dead son, killed in a car accident.Brosnan nearly lost Sean to such an accident, off the Pacific Coast Highway. ‘The phone rings at 4.30am and there’s a man going: “Pierce, Pierce, Pierce – please, we’re really f----- up. We’ve had an accident, we’ve gone off the mountain.” And I was mega miles an hour up the PCH and there’s a helicopter in the sky and an ambulance, and this man saying: “We’ve got six victims, one critical.” And up came my son, on a backboard, straight into the helicopter, and I’m holding his hand, hoping it’s not his last breath.’
Sean recovered after a six-month stay in hospital, and is now acting. Brosnan laughs, forcedly. ‘So yeah. No acting required. I love the film. It’s not for everyone, but I don’t care. You make the pictures for yourself.’
And, if you’re Pierce Brosnan, you recall the happy, hippy days when you performed in Puckaree, an Irish rock musical, at the Edinburgh Festival and had to prance around the stage, wearing ‘this mighty, mighty codpiece of a phallus’. He chortles: ‘I could have laughed from the top of my codpiece!’