The Flame Still Burns

The Flame Still Burns
After four James Bond films and many subsequent hits, Pierce Brosnan’s career is on fire again with six projects in the pipeline

Pierce Brosnan walks into the Draycott Hotel in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, looking fit in a sleek black sweater and slacks, his neck swaddled in a charcoal linen scarf. For all the world, he could still be James Bond, just on his day off. But with a fire crackling in the hotel’s secluded library to ward off the damp seasonal chill, he quickly sheds the scarf.

Too warm? That makes sense, because Brosnan is positively on fire, career-wise. He’s got five films in the can, either awaiting release or in post-production. 

He’s in London making his sixth, while doing something he has seldom tried in an acting career that has covered almost 40 years: playing an actual bad guy. The film, called Survivor, is a thriller built around the threat of a terrorist attack. Brosnan will plan an assassin in a cast that includes Milla Jovovich and Dylan McDermott.

“Comes the time to play a villain,” Brosnan muses. “I haven’t done it very often.”

The film is part of an impressive skein of work that Brosnan has spun together in the dozen years since his final outing as James Bond, in 2002’s Die Another Day. Since then, he’s made a score of films as an actor, serving as producer on several of them. He has a half-dozen more in various stages of development, including one on which he’d like to make his directing debut.

“I’ve put down a fair bit of work recently,” Brosnan says, marveling a little as he contemplates the list. “This film I’m doing was roughly No. 6 in line. Luckily, I’ve found the space and the place in time in the last year or so to make these.”

Not bad for a guy who is about to turn 61. Not that Brosnan is remotely feeling his age.

“Being 60 never came into my idea of reality when I was young,” he admits. “It seemed a long way down the road. Now that I am 60, it seems like only yesterday that I was 20. But I revel in it—I embrace it. I celebrate it. There’s a sense of time: past, present and future. And there’s still work to be done.”

If anything, Brosnan has even more of the fire to work. He’s appeared in films as different as Roman Polanski’s gripping thriller The Ghost Writer and the movie of the hit musical Mamma Mia. Beside a full slate as an actor, he’s also fully engaged as a producer of films for himself and others. He’s even contemplating the idea of, at some juncture, directing a movie of his own. 

“At this point, I have a script I like and a director of photography, but that’s it,” he admits. “I haven’t done anything about it. It’s just there; it’s blossoming.”

“What he’s doing is slowly turning himself into a top-notch character actor,” says longtime friend Nicholas Meyer, the writer-director of such films as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Time After Time. “And he’s a very suave comedian—there’s no question about that.”

If anything, Brosnan derives even greater satisfaction from his work these days than he did when he was a young actor, eager for whatever job came his way.

“Obviously, I’ve lived a fair bit of life and have had a lovely success,” he says. “But it feels like there’s so much more to do. An actor is always looking for a definitive role, and I’ve had a few. But I want to make more, bigger marks; stronger, deeper work. I love to work. I want to work. I need to work—for hearth, home and sanity. I love the world of movie-making and the company of actors and where my next adventure will take me.”

It’s hard to imagine any role making a deeper mark than playing the iconic James Bond, Agent 007. Brosnan continues to bask in fans’ and critics’ fond remembrance of his four-film run as James Bond, which started with 1995’s GoldenEye and concluded with 2002’s Die Another Day.

“It was all-encompassing to play that role, but it’s the gift that keeps giving,” Brosnan says. “I hold Bond dear to my heart. I’ve traveled the world as an ambassador for that character and I had a bloody great time doing it. You hope to have some longevity as an actor, a handful of films that you’re really proud of, whose entertainment value will give them some years of longevity on the shelf. You can’t ask for more than that as an actor.”

Brosnan took over the role at a critical juncture, when some had given up Bond as a relic, a character driven into the ground by the campy Roger Moore movies and then by a dour Timothy Dalton, as well as by the end of the Cold War. Brosnan resuscitated 007, bringing a smooth veneer to the character, while convincing viewers that his Bond could kill without hesitation. He injected a human quality, and a chilly, controlled anger that he kept in check and deployed at key moments, all while saving the world from one ruthless megalomaniac after another.

“You believe he can do some of the things that Bond is supposed to do,” says Roger Spottiswoode, who directed Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies. “Sean Connery gave Bond a credibility that Pierce took on as well. But he made Bond his own. It was a combination of English charm, a certain amount of humor, and a kind of grace that makes him absolutely believable.”

Notes Joel Hopkins, who directed Brosnan in the upcoming Love Punch, “Pierce had a good mixture of gravitas and fantasy. He was who you wanted Bond to be. To me, he was born to play that part.”

Meyer, who did uncredited work on the script of Tomorrow Never Dies, admired Brosnan’s lethal quality in the role.

“His James Bond just got better and better,” says Meyer, who’s been friends with Brosnan since Meyer directed him in a 1988 film, The Deceivers. “The trickiest thing I think he accomplished is that you believe that this is a dangerous man. I don’t think that’s something that came easily or naturally to Pierce. By the second movie, he made me forget that I was watching my friend. That’s impressive.”

The differences between the role and the actor, however, are obvious, Meyer says: “Despite his image as James Bond, a man who looks dashing and suave in a tuxedo, it bears little resemblance to the beachcombing, Yeats-quoting, poetic guy I know. I think people would be quite surprised at the gap between the tux and all that other stuff.”

Adds Spottiswoode, “He’s exceedingly nice and smart. These films are long, complicated and difficult to make. The actor sits around all day, waiting to be great for 20 seconds. Pierce was always completely gracious.

“I remember we had an accident one day where a stuntman injured Pierce by accident. He caught Pierce under the eye and cut him; it was pouring blood. The stuntman was mortified. But Pierce wouldn’t hear of it; he was incredibly nice and decent about it.”

Notes Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, his Love Punch co-star, in an e-mail interview, “The Pierce we see on screen has often been more or less pathological. But the one I worked with was one of the kindest and gentlest of men. The candor of his gaze is very appealing and opens one up to him. He really is a wonderful man. I have to stop now or I’ll throw up.”

As much of a sweet spot as the Bond films are in Brosnan’s resume, he admits that the experience was bittersweet, for a couple of reasons: the beginning—and the end.

There are two famous “what-if” casting stories from the early 1980s, both involving actors in hit TV shows who were offered what would have been career-changing movie roles: Tom Selleck and Pierce Brosnan. 

Selleck, the star of the hit series “Magnum, P.I.,” was chosen by Steven Spielberg to play a new character named Indiana Jones in a film called Raiders of the Lost Ark. But Selleck’s TV-shooting schedule in Hawaii prohibited him from taking the role, so Raiders certified Harrison Ford as a movie superstar instead.

When Brosnan was chosen to replace the retiring Roger Moore as James Bond in 1986, his own hit series, “Remington Steele,” looked like it was about to be canceled. At the last minute, NBC changed its mind and exercised its option on the show—and Brosnan. The series’ shooting schedule conflicted with production for 1987’s The Living Daylights—and so the role went to Timothy Dalton instead. It would take another eight years for Brosnan to assume the role of Agent 007.

The stutter at the start of his association with Bond was matched by a train wreck at the end. Die Another Day was released in 2002 and there was speculation that Brosnan, nearing the age of 50, was getting too old for the role. Though there apparently were discussions with the producers about the next Bond film, they went nowhere. In October 2004, Brosnan announced in the press that he considered himself dismissed from the role. A year later, the Bond producers introduced Daniel Craig as the new Bond. 

If Brosnan has any remaining hard feelings a decade later, he’s not showing them.

“You always have to go to higher ground,” he says. “Bond is a real presence in my life. I was lucky enough to make four Bond films. It finished in rather shambolic fashion but I have no bitterness, no resentment. It’s part of the business; sometimes one gets caught in a situation like that. Barbara Broccoli (longtime Bond producer) is still a wonderful presence in my life. She’s been there when it got most difficult for my family. She was a great source of comfort for my children and, for that, I’ll be eternally grateful.”

Part of that sense of perspective may come from Brosnan’s acquaintance with personal tragedy. Even as he began to start his movie career after “Remington Steele” went off the air, he was caring for wife Cassandra Harris, who succumbed to ovarian cancer in 1991. (He remarried, to journalist and TV correspondent Keely Shaye Smith in 2001, and has two children with her.) More recently, he had to deal with the death of his adoptive daughter Charlotte Harris, who died at 41 last year of the same disease as her mother.

Brosnan goes silent for a moment, then says, “You have to go on. I have young sons and a wife who need me. I have good faith, good friends and good work to turn to. You endure and you go on because you have to. It’s essential.”

He works hard, but also values the time to unwind, including with fine cigars. The leisure time he allows himself is spent with his family, or being active, playing tennis and golf: “Golf is a delightful pastime and yet it just pisses me off in so many different ways,” he says with a smile. “You have to stand there alone and try to find your swing. I’m a struggling fellow with it all, but I do love it.”

He also enjoys stand-up paddleboarding (“An elegant way to spend an hour or two”), but reserves some spare time for painting, a passion he has pursued for years. Put a paintbrush in one hand, he says, and you often will find a lit cigar in the other.

“If I’m painting, I will have a good old stogie there sitting in the ashtray,” says Brosnan, a veteran connoisseur of fine tobacco who first appeared on the cover of this magazine 17 years ago. “When I’m with good friends who smoke, we’ll sit out at the beach, have a cigar and watch the sun go down.”

Meyer fondly recalls times when he and Brosnan would “light up and kick back, usually with no shoes on and a glass of something single malt, or a cognac. He’s a generous, gentleman friend—he’s great company.”

In both Love Punch and his other film of the spring, A Long Way Down, Brosnan plays characters who are shown enjoying cigars. Having a cigar to work with on-screen imparts a variety of intangible qualities to the role, he says: “Confidence, bonhomie, wealth—just the whole bravado of maleness.”

In life, cigars signal “a celebration of some kind,” he adds. “You know, ‘Let’s have a cigar and play a game of pool. We’ll crack another beer and put another bet on No. 7.’ ”

Brosnan says he smokes semi-regularly: “I guess I don’t have a go-to cigar. Occasionally, when I’m at home, I’ll go to a nice mild Dominican. Arturo Fuente is a cigar I used to like. My wife likes the smell; her grand-daddy used to smoke them. You can’t beat a full smooth cigar for
contentment. It’s a small luxury, not to be abused.”

The Irish-born Brosnan’s early story has been recounted many times: Born in Navan in County Meath, Ireland, abandoned by his father as an infant, left behind by his mother at age 4 while she went to London to study to become a nurse. He lived with grandparents, an aunt and uncle, even at a boarding house, until he was 11, then moved to Scotland and eventually London with his mother and her new husband. 

“It’s always with me, my Irishness,” he says. “It’s in me as an actor, as a performer, as a father. Although it’s funny: I feel more Irish when I’m away from Ireland than when I’m in Ireland. When I’m there, I realize how far I’ve traveled. But it’s just part of me, the way I was brought up, the 11 years I lived there. It’s the backbone of who I am, the template of who I became: that rural Irish Catholic upbringing. The Church and the faith still continue on. They’ve kept me in good stead. We’re a mystical race, the Irish. It’s great to come from such a landscape of poetry, literature and history.”

Brosnan left school at 16 and scrambled his way through a variety of jobs before making the decision to become an actor. He recalls seeing a theatrical production of Sophocles’ Antigone when he was a young actor, which lit the fuse on his acting ambition.

“It was the most electrifying experience I’d ever had,” he says. “It was mind-blowing.”

He plunged into the acting world and, by the mid-1970s, was working regularly as an actor, eventually appearing onstage in London’s West End, as well as in British films and television.

“But I always wanted to do movies,” he says. “I did a lot of theater. I had celebrity and achievement, an affirmation that I was on the right course. But I loved movies. There was something captivating about being in the cinema and watching an actor like Marlon Brando. There was such a romance to the life and to the work. I was fascinated that they could create that sensation in me of happiness and joy. I would come out of the theater and just be transported. On the bus home, I would feel I was Steve McQueen or Warren Beatty or Clint Eastwood.”

He got his first chance to visit the United States after starring in a miniseries for American television, “The Manions of America,” in 1981. He and his late wife, Cassandra, borrowed money for their plane fare after “Manions” aired, figuring he’d take a crack at Hollywood.

“I loved it instantly,” he says of the U.S. “As soon as we got off the plane, I felt lucky to be here. I’d borrowed two grand-—and I got an agent and slept on people’s floors. The first audition I had was for ‘Remington Steele.’ And I got the job.

“It was closer to heaven than I ever thought I’d be. I was in Hollywood and I got the job. It was the gold ring. I went there thinking I wanted to be in Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese movies. Instead, they offered me a television show. And I thought, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.’ ”

Still, he recalls that, after he agreed to do “Remington Steele,” he had a moment of pause: He’d left his home behind and was now a stranger in the strange land, about to become the handsome face of a prime-time series on a major American television network. Was he out of his depth? How would he fit into this unfamiliar landscape? Did he even belong?

“By then, of course, it was too late,” he says with a chuckle. “Before I knew it, I was well-ensconced. Now I love California. It’s my home. I love the beautiful coastline. It’s a magnificent part of the world. I have three American sons. And I have an American passport alongside my Irish one. The grounding of me as an actor and a man happened in London, in English theater. So there’s been this cross-pollination of cultures and that’s a good gift to have. All three of them—Irish, English, American— they’re all meaningful to who I am and are what makes me me.”

Since finishing his run as James Bond, Brosnan has made a regular point of sending up his own image in some of the films he’s acted in. Two will reach theaters this spring: Love Punch, a comedy-caper that pairs him with Thompson, and A Long Way Down, a darker comedy-drama based on a novel by Nick Hornby.

“They’re like bookends on a shelf,” Brosnan says of the films. “They each feature a quartet of players—and I had the most glorious time making them. It was criminal how much fun we had.”

In Love Punch, Brosnan and Thompson play ex-spouses, thrown back together by a sudden financial crisis. Brosnan, the head of a company purchased in a corporate takeover, discovers that the new owners have dismantled the company and looted its assets, costing Brosnan and all his employees their pensions. So Brosnan and Thompson team up with their longtime friends (played by Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie) to plan a heist to retrieve the money.

As an aging businessman with a bad back, Brosnan suddenly finds himself involved in car chases (he drives too slowly so his ex-wife gets behind the wheel), gunplay, false identities and other secret-agentish activities. The joke was not lost on Brosnan.

“That was part of the charm of it,” he says. “Joel had a field day spoofing my days of Bond and every other character I’m known for.”

Says Hopkins, “I was nervous that he’d bristle at that. But he understood that I was ribbing the fact that he was once James Bond and was game to do it. His character is a suburbanite, a sort of anti-Bond. So I was all the more pleased with how Pierce played it. His sense of humor was something I wasn’t expecting. He’s a lot funnier than I imagined.”

It’s not the first time Brosnan has made sport of his image. In 2008’s Mamma Mia, he took aim at his own suave persona by belting songs by ABBA. In 2005’s The Matador, he played a professional killer undergoing a black-comedy crisis of confidence; at one point, potbellied and hungover, he walks through a hotel lobby in a skimpy Speedo and boots and steps off the edge into the deep end of a swimming pool. 

“I think an audience likes to see an actor play with his own image and what he’s best known for,” Brosnan says. “One hopes it will be entertaining. The Matador allowed me to bust open the restrictions I found myself in when playing a character like Bond.”

For Love Punch, Hopkins says, he always had Brosnan in mind as a counter to Thompson: “It was about Emma’s smarts and Pierce’s charm,” he notes. “Even before I wrote it, I had Pierce and Emma in my head. And it was a happy day from day one that they clicked.”

Brosnan and Thompson knew each other only slightly prior to Love Punch: “We’d met several times and always felt we should work on something together,” Thompson says. “You do feel that with some actors—I don’t know what it is. Chemistry is the shorthand, but you just know. I had the same feeling about Tony Hopkins and Dustin Hoffman.”

“I got jealous of them,” Joel Hopkins says. “They hit it off and became this pair—and I was excluded. And even though the script was quite tight, when it was just the two of them in action sequences, things happened. Pierce is very good at physical comedy.”

A Long Way Down is a darker film, veined with humor that is alternately rueful and silly. Brosnan plays Martin Sharp, a London TV-morning-show host whose life and career have been so shattered by a sex scandal that, as the film opens, he’s on his way to kill himself. But his suicide attempt is interrupted by three other people with similar plans for the same rooftop: Aaron Paul, Toni Collette and Imogen Poots. They band together in mutual support, even as the Brosnan character’s notoriety brings them unwanted media attention.

On the film’s set, as part of an unlikely band of depressive or otherwise deeply unhappy characters, Brosnan knew the film’s tone would be a tough balancing act.

“I think we were all aware and sensitive to the task at hand, dealing with the dark area of suicide,” he says. “There had to be humor; otherwise, it would be a bleak 90 minutes. But suicide is just the starting-off point of these four lost souls adrift in their own despair.”

While Brosnan plays a celebrity crucified by the media in the film, he’s never had to experience the media-mob-mentality from that particular angle in real life. But he’s aware that it’s potentially just a stumble away.

“I have thought about it: If something were to go wrong, how would I deal with it?” he says. “I could identify with this character, having lived with that kind of scrutiny myself. Once the media get you in their sights, they can really nail you to the wall. Not a day goes by where you don’t see someone pulled asunder by the media. Having too much fun, too much exuberance in public can be a dangerous thing these days.

“But as far as committing suicide? No. I’ve felt my share of sadness, desperation, sorrow—but never to the point where I was bereft of hope or faith in who I was and how to move on.”

A Long Way Down made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Brosnan took the opportunity to share the event with his mother, who accompanied him to the festival and the screenings.

“There’s something wonderful about sharing something like that with one’s mother, especially if one is an only child,” he says. “She’s very entertaining, a very beautiful, energetic and vibrant woman who is very much present in my life. And there is only me.

“I remember when I was shooting The Ghost Writer in Berlin and I had her come over to celebrate her birthday. It was the day my character was going to be shot in a scene on the tarmac at an airport. Mr. Polanski celebrated her by having the crew sing ‘Happy Birthday’ while we stood around a Gulfstream 5.”

The late winter London chill makes his home in Malibu seem far away; his home on the north shore of Kauai, one of the greener, less developed of Hawaii’s islands, seems farther still.

“That is a wonderful luxury to have in one’s life,” he says of his Hawaiian getaway. “We’ve had that place for 14 years. If my darling wife has her way, we’ll end up living there. It’s a quiet life and I love Hawaiian culture. I feel a certain kinship with Hawaii, being Irish and living in that landscape. It’s like Ireland—but with the heat turned up. But Malibu is home. It’s where I hang my hat at the end of the day.”

Brosnan remains hungry to work, always on the lookout for a role that will challenge and delight him. His perspective on acting has changed, as has his perspective on life, now that he’s started his seventh decade.

“What do I look for in a role? I want to be engaged emotionally,” he says. “It has to be something I can go to sleep with at night and dream about, something I’m excited about. 

“I’ve got a certain ease with life now. I’m an actor—I’m a good actor. I’ve been blessed with good fortune in life. I’ve managed to traverse the sorrow and I’m still at the table. I try to keep it as simple as possible, not get too carried away and just try to keep up. 

“It’s so fragile, so fleeting. It goes by with the speed of a flame, this life. There’s a certain grace under pressure that comes with living your life and letting go of the nonsense you dwell in at times in this business.”

 

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, hollywoodandfine.com. Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.