Pierce Brosnan on How The Greatest Tapped Into a Terrifying Night He'll Never Forget.
In Shana Feste’s new drama The Greatest, Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon play parents who are grieving the car accident death of their teenage son (Aaron Johnson) in wildly different ways: he’s buttoned-up and avoiding the issue, while she lashes out at others, including their younger child (Johnny Simmons) and the woman (Carey Mulligan) who’s pregnant with their late son’s baby. It’s heavy material, and Brosnan was originally reluctant to sign on: the 56-year-old actor has dealt with his own fair share of grief in real life — his first wife Cassandra died of ovarian cancer in 1991, and his son Sean was almost killed in a car accident in 2000 — and Brosnan was unsure if he wanted to go to those emotional places while filming.
In an interview with Movieline, Brosnan discussed how he changed his mind, the guilt he feels over using his personal experiences as an actor, and his take on the evolution of the suddenly white-hot Mulligan.
When I talked to Johnny Simmons about this script, he said he was so excited to delve into a darker role and more emotional story than he usually gets to do…and those were the exact reasons you thought you didn’t want to do the script. Have you gotten to the point where you think, “I’ve done roles like this and I know what they take out of me”? Was that your concern?
Yes, I suppose so. Just knowing that to play a grieving father who’s lost his son…how do I relate to that? Well, I relate to that through my own life’s experiences. To almost lose a son on a dark Malibu night, a feeling I’ll never forget and a night I’ll never forget, you know that you’re gonna go there, that you’re going to have to dig into that hurt. Just that alone is not an area where you get excited and think, “Oh great, I’ll do it!” At the same time, though, there is a want, a desire to do the work. It comes with an ambivalence.
"It comes with a certain amount of guilt of using your own life, but that’s what you do as an actor."
Does reliving those emotions provide any sort of catharsis for you?
You touch on the relevance of your own life. You go to that sense memory. Then, you try to let the text of the story at hand have some marriage with that feeling that you can remember and have some sense of performance. It comes with a certain amount of guilt of using your own life, but that’s what you do as an actor. You use the emotions and experiences in your life, the moments you felt fear or happiness or joy or anger or remorse. It depends on how well you do it.
Your character is very repressed throughout almost the entire movie, but in a quirk of scheduling, you actually shot his cathartic emotional breakdown on the first day of shooting. When something like that happens, are you essentially working backwards from that for the rest of the shoot?
You know, you read the text over and over until it’s clear in your mind. You know that’s the aria, the high C of the character where he’s going to, the transformational moment. You’d rather it wasn’t Day 1, but it had to be. Hopefully, you’ve plotted it out intelligently, and at the same time you don’t know exactly what you’re gonna do. In the moment, you just go for it, and we didn’t say less or more or anything like that — nothing was discussed. It was just what you see there, done in one or two takes.
Your character is able to sort of compartmentalize his grief, while his wife lashes out at him for it, because she’s living with it every moment. Could you recognize those coping mechanisms?
I could sympathize and empathize with both parties as an actor. My character is so emotionally adrift and so fearful of letting the demons come up. I don’t know. I don’t know if I have an answer for that, really.
Carey Mulligan was an unknown when you made this film together, and today, she’s an Oscar-nominated actress in a high-profile relationship with huge films on the way. When you see her now, does it seem like she’s changed at all?
No, she’s still the same Carey. She has a sheen to her, a gloss to her now. She sparkles. It’s been good; she’s a young woman, blossoming. It’s been a joy to see that and be part of that, and to feel some participation in her career. She’s the best, she’s like a daughter, a young woman you’ve discovered. To be there at the beginning of her career is such a gift. You want the best for her, you want to see her walk off with that Oscar next time. I thought she was incredible in An Education.
You were also a producer on the film, alongside your partner Beau St. Clair.
Yes. I mean, the experiences Beau and I have had on our films are always productive and enjoyable, and we set up an atmosphere where people can do their best work. I don’t believe in screaming and shouting and threatening and hollering. I really dislike that enormously. I have seen it, and usually you just stand back and let them have their say until they exhaust themselves.
There was a lot of buzz on this film going into Sundance last year. Did that help or hurt it?
Oh, it helped. Positive remarks like that are welcomed, and you need that when you have so few resources to get the film out into the public. You pray for that, you want it.
And then it met with quite a few obstacles on its way to theaters. It’s taken a long time. As a producer, how do you deal with that?
One is powerless to do anything, really. The company that bought it fell apart at the seams, and thank God for Mark Urban, who’s risen valiantly with this film on his shoulders. The movie will be seen, it will have its day in the sun. We didn’t go into this thinking we were making a blockbuster or anything. It’s a quiet, beautiful chamber-piece production, something that’s really deep and moving and hopefully cathartic for the audience and actors. To weep, to cry, to move people…it’s as simple as that.
You’re reuniting with Greg Kinnear, your costar in The Matador, for your next film Salvation Boulevard.
I play this mega-church preacher who’s building his church on this hill, and Greg’s my disciple. [Laughs]
What will your chemistry be like in this film?
It remains to be seen. It’s an ensemble: Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei, Ciarin Hinds. Anybody could steal thunder in this one, it’s a well-rounded piece.
That and The Greatest are both indie movies. Some film actors aren’t used to those short shoots, but you came from the television world, where you shoot a lot of pages very quickly.
Did that teach you the discipline you needed for films like this, both as an actor and a producer?
No question. Doing episodic TV was a huge training ground. It was like doing repertory theater in the old days, where you do two or three plays a week. In TV, the process of it is that you think on your feet and you’re constantly in motion and constantly learning your lines and making decisions. Some are good, some are crap, some are great, some are different. I love the world of independent filmmaking, and I’ve been part of it for such a long time. Every now and then, a studio gig comes along, which is fruitful, bountiful and lovely.