We met Pierce Brosnan

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Pierce Brosnan

06 April 2010
PIERCE BROSNAN doesn't always have the best of luck.
That may seem like an odd observation to make about a man who has played one of the most iconic film characters of all time, been voted the sexiest man alive (People magazine, circa 2001) and is currently sitting before me looking every inch the old-school movie star (dark suit, dark shirt, dark, grey-fleck hair, not a molecule out of place). But he really doesn't.

Just look at his CV. Years spent toiling away in plays (among them appearances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Glasgow Citizens Theatre); bit parts on TV; anonymous roles in feature films – he clearly worked hard to get to the top. But his biggest successes tend to get tarnished by unseen forces.A lucrative series commitment to his breakthrough American TV show Remington Steel, for instance, torpedoed his initial chances of playing James Bond.

When he did eventually get the gig (eight years later), he was unceremoniously dropped after four outings, despite each film becoming the most successful of the series at the time. Even his involvement in the phenomenon that was Mamma Mia! (£400 million at the global box office) was accompanied by the humiliation of being the only cast member to be singled out with a Razzie nomination – which he subsequently won, for worst supporting actor. The luck of his native Irish countrymen appears to desert him on a regular basis.
Brosnan's new film, The Ghost, is no exception. Based on a novel by Robert Harris and directed by Roman Polanski, it's a contemporary political thriller that provides Brosnan with perhaps his juiciest and most entertaining role to date.He plays Adam Lang, a not-so-fictional former Labour prime minister accused of war crimes after sanctioning his government's involvement in CIA-backed extraordinary renditions programmes to aid the US's War on Terror.

Though the plot revolves around a hack writer (played by Ewan McGregor) unravelling a sinister and menacing conspiracy after he is hired to ghost-write Lang's memoirs, it is Brosnan who dominates the film with a wonderfully pompous, charmingly insincere and arrogantly self-regarding performance that carries more than a few echoes of our own former leader. "Well, I read it as Tony Blair," admits Brosnan.

"All the emblems were there, but when I met with Roman the first thing I asked him was, 'Do you want me to play Tony Blair?' And he said, 'No, it's not Tony Blair.' But everything points to Blair, and how could it not?

"Lang was an actor in his student days at Cambridge," continues Brosnan, "so I played him as an actor playing an actor playing a role."

It's a measure of how well Brosnan captures the essence of the performance aspect of politics that there are moments in The Ghost in which Lang's insincere smiles and burst of righteous defiance seem eerily redolent of the way Blair subsequently performed in front of the Chilcot Inquiry.

Did Brosnan watch any of it? "The Chilcot Inquiry, I didn't watch, no. But I watched him in other discussions and one-on-ones and in interviews. and I would just to look at him, just to see some thought process. But again, I didn't have to do the shadow moves that he did as the character. So I was very liberated from that."

By rights, these parallels and Brosnan's performance should dominate discussion of the film when it goes on release here later this month, but if its relatively low-key American release earlier this year is anything to go by, his work is likely to be overshadowed by the baggage his director brings with him.The Ghost, after all, is the film the film Roman Polanski was in the process of editing when he was arrested last September in Switzerland, 31 years after fleeing the United States to avoid facing sentencing for having 'unlawful sex' with a 13-year-old girl.The lurid details of that crime and the complex circumstances surrounding the director's arrest would have been contentious and controversial enough to mar the film's release, but the fact that a major aspect of the plot revolves around Lang facing extradition from a safe haven to answer crimes from his past almost feels like Polanski was arrogantly tempting fate.

Naturally, then, I'm fully expecting him to be the elephant in the room when I meet Brosnan, but it's actually Brosnan who starts drawing parallels between his character's predicament and that of his director. "I think the film is fascinating because you have two avenues of fascination: the Blair/ex-prime minister Adam Lang character and then, over here, a man incarcerated for a crime that's 30 years old. The film sits right in the centre of these two men's lives."

Did he discuss this with Polanski? "We never discussed it. We really didn't. There were very few discussions about motivations of character, political motivations or…" He pauses to think of how best to phrase his answer. "…psychological motivations. He just let me get on with it."

Though Polanski's victim, Samantha Geimer, has requested the charges against the now 76-year-old director be dropped, with the details of the case once again coming under such intense scrutiny, I wonder if Brosnan has had to re-examine his own motivations for working with him.
"Oh, I worked with him because he's a great director, an absolutely magnificent filmmaker," says the actor.
"I think we were all aware of what had gone on in his life, but the text and the characters were so inviting, I didn't give it a second thought to work with this man. He has lived a very family-oriented life. He is a family man who adores his children."

Polanksi's arrest did leave him speechless. "You just think, 'Why now?' If the powers that be have the powers they have, why did they take this long? Why did they choose his entrance into Switzerland to make it happen there? I don't have the answer to that, but one hopes for closure. It has been enough time now. The victim has generously given her forgiveness, and I'm sure she and her family want to have closure on the issue.

"And Roman's family…" he sighs wearily, "you want closure for his children and for justice to be done as justly and as compassionately as it can be done. Let's close the case and let him get on with living the rest of his life."

It's easy enough to see why, from a purely professional perspective, the opportunity was too good for Brosnan to pass up. Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby and Knife in the Water are among his favourite films. "They're part of the ribbon of my life as an actor." So it's only natural he should want some first-hand experience of Polanski as a director.

Of course the other upshot is that the film is likely to earn him some critical kudos, something that has not exactly been forthcoming in his career. Though he's well enough liked by critics (and certainly adored by audiences), assessments of his dramatic abilities tend to take a back seat to descriptions of his more debonair qualities. This can make him seem quite humble and self-deprecating in person.

Of The Ghost Write, he admits that he's "probably the last person you expect to see in such a role" – a reference, I think, to the perception of him as something of a lightweight movie star.

But he's not lacking in self-belief either. Having just worked with 24-year-old teen-heartthrob Robert Pattinson in Remember Me and 25-year-old Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan in The Greatest, I ask him if he would have liked, or could have handled, their level of stardom and success at such a young age. "Well, I like to think I could have easily handled that, so yes."

What turned him on to acting? "Oh, just the power to escape the self," he says, wistfully. "To go off and have an adventure with complete and utter strangers and have such camaraderie and family and life, and the hope and expectation that at the end of that journey, that odyssey, you have something that is memorable, meaningful and an unexpected surprise. And then to do it all over again and again. Yes, I think just that."

I get the sense there's a level of frustration that, having paid his dues, Brosnan is never really given his due as an actor, especially in relation to Bond. It's easy to forget, after all, that the longest running film franchise in the world was in a fairly sorry state before Brosnan took over the role from Timothy Dalton in 1995's GoldenEye.

The producers' decision to ratchet up the preposterous storylines, cornball dialogue and silly effects with each successive film may have quickly blunted the edge he brought to the character, but that was hardly his fault, and the films were ludicrously successful. His final outing, Die Another Day, grossed close to £350 million at the box office. How does he feel now about the way things ended? "Eh, I'm very happy that it ended," he says, diplomatically.

"I'm very proud of the work that I did in the movies. I loved playing the role of James Bond; it was a mighty time in my life and career. It has allowed me to carry on and travel through the world and to make the movies that I've made."

The most galling thing for Brosnan seems to be that he was never given the chance to show what he could really do in the role. "It was a short, sharp shock, the phone call that came. We had already set sail to do the fifth Bond film, and I thought that would be it then. I didn't want to overstay my welcome. But the decision was made for me. The only regret was that it was made after an emotional investment of time. To get the call was unexpected, but you get on. You take the blow and move on. You say, 'Okay, that's business.'"

Luckily Brosnan understands the business and was shrewd enough to use his Bond profile as leverage to set up his own production company, Irish Dreamtime. As he says, he knew he would eventually have to find out if being identified with this brand name and iconic role and, as he adroitly points out, having a production company "in this place and time, is the only way you're going to get work that you like to do and have some say in the movies that you make".

It was through Irish Dreamtime, for instance, that he remade The Thomas Crown Affair, playing on his own suave image and transforming the film into a decent-sized box-office hit back in 1999 – enough of a hit to warrant rumours of a belated sequel. "Yes, that's still on the cards," chuckles Brosnan. "That's something that was prematurely spoken of and, of course, we live with the consequences of that and the expectations. But we have the structure of a script that makes sense. We just have to do some more embroidery on it."

He also produced The Matador, in which he starred as a deranged hitman, and memorably strutted through a hotel lobby wearing only his pants and a pair of cowboy boots, a scene that seemed to take a flamethrower to Bond.

Brosnan has two sons, Dylan Thomas, 13, and Paris Becket, nine, from his second marriage, to Keely, as well as two adopted children and a 27-year-old son, Sean, from his first marriage, to the late actress Cassie Harris. That marriage ended tragically when Cassie died from ovarian cancer in 1991, and Brosnan has been very open about the grief he experienced after her death. He has been similarly open about the happiness he has subsequently found with Keely. Family stability, then, is clearly important to him, perhaps because his own father walked out on him when he was two, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents in Naven, County Meath, while his mother went to London to train as a nurse. He later joined her and her new husband, and was raised in Putney, though spent some time in the early 1960s in Glasgow, the birthplace of his beloved stepfather.

Interestingly, he seems to have reached a stage in his career where he feels a need to reflect on these experiences in his work. Both Remember Me and The Greatest (which he also produced through Irish Dreamtime) are about families struggling to stay together after experiencing great loss. "Yeah, they are bookends to each other. Both are about grieving fathers, so they sit there as a little diptych."

Aside from that, Brosnan seems to have a fairly open approach to roles, though I still can't help feeling he would appreciate a little more credit for the work he does, even on something as frivolous as Mamma Mia!. When I tactfully suggest that, despite the critical ribbing he took for his singing, the film's success meant he had the last laugh, he talks about how it was a leap of faith – one partly based on the knowledge that Abba have sold more records than The Beatles, but mainly on the credibility shield he felt Meryl Streep's involvement would provide. "That was the mantra I carried with me: 'Meryl's doing it.' I felt I could bravely test the waters with my singing. You know, in some quarters, people think I sound like Bruce Springsteen." I laugh, before realising that he's being serious. "Or Bruce Forsyth," he adds quickly.

"I didn't look too closely at the reviews," he says. "I could hear the jeers, I heard the noises, but what fun, and why not?"

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