Coming for three nights:
a ‘Roots’ based in Ireland
Mr. Brosnan plays O’Manion at 19 as he fights the “great hunger” —the potato famine that devastated Ireland between 1846 and 1849 -as well as the British, who at the tinm had been Ireland’s less-than-loving overlords for some 200 years. And he plays Rory as he ships out for America, finds for tune and adventure in Philadelphia and the West, and finally returns to Ireland at 50 to fight some more.
It’s a bit of an Irish “Starsky and Hutch”, says Mr. Brosnan. “It’s very fast.” That, he adds, it’s also the more subtle story of “a man in exile in a foreign land”, a man who “all the time wants to go back to Ireland and liberate his people.”
How does it end, this saga? Neither Mr. Brosnan nor ABC will give away the details, but both hint of heavy irony - an element not exactly unknown in Irish history and literature and one easily detectable in Pierce Brosnan’s own story.
Like Rory O’Manion, Mr. Brosnan is Irish, possessed of natural charm, natural flair. Also like Rory, he has found his opportunities away from his homeland. The two even share a landscape. Much of “The Manions” was shot in and around Navan, Mr. Brosnan’s hometown in county Meath.
But there’s an essential difference between the actor and the man he plays. All through his “exile”, Rory O’Manion is obsessed with going hone to Ireland and rallying the ghosts he left behind. Mr. Brosnan isn’t. For him, in fact, going back meant confrontation with a ghost he thought he’d exorcised long before.
Be tells the story of his early years, the Irish ones, in shorthand. “Only child. Father and mother didn’t get on. Never saw my father, in fact.” When he was small, his mother left for England to train as a nurse and he “lived with various relatives, et cetera, et cetera.”
Filled in the details aren’t much more pleasant than the sketch-particularly the ones to do with school. Mr. Brosnan’s school was “very small, Christian Brothers, seven classrooms,” and when he talks about it, it sounds very like the one that made Stephen Deadalus so miserable in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
Then Mr. Brosnan’s mother sent for him from England and everything changed. At 11, he found himself one of 2,000 children at a “comprehensive school.”
Was it there that his interest in acting was awakened?
“There were plays and things. And I was asked to be in them. But I ran a mile, I never in my wildest dreams thought of being an actor.”
So he took cooking classes. “I did a good bread-and-butter pudding. I was onto a good thing. Lots of nice girls. I was discovering life at that time.”
And, at the end, “without a clue” about what to do next, he became a commercial artist trainee. But then came that morning at the office when a few people were standing around, talking about a local amateur drama group. “It was just one of those flukes really. Anyway, I went along to a workshop that night and from there it just escalated. I went on Tuesday night. Then on Thursday and Wednesday. Then on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Then Saturday. Then, lo and behold, I skipped mass and went on Sunday. A whole new world opened. I felt a freedom.
For the next two years Mr. Brosnan kept up his new interest in one of London’s “fringe theater” projects. The troupe performed in the streets, even in the subways with skits that were “very surreal, kind of Dadaist.”
Once, all the actors ended up with their faces slathered in cream-bun filling. Despite the slapstick overtones it was all becoming serious stuff Mr. Brosnan. “It reached a point actually, where I thought, "Well, I‘ve got to make a decision. Do I want to carry on and do this?’ I called myself an actor then, but I wasn’t.”
So I attended the London Drama Centre for three years, trained to be an actor and, with the exception of one lean six month stretch early on, has acted steadily for the five years since. First there was a stint in repertory. Then came a good part in a bad Tennessee Williams play-— “I auditioned for the man himself.” Franco Zefferelli caught a performance of it, and that led to a long run in the West End hit “Filumena”. “The Manions” came soon after.
“I’d been away from Ireland 16, 17 years when, suddenly, there I was portraying the troubles of 1846.”
What was it like going back? Exciting? Wrenching?
“I thought it was going to get emotional when I was in Navan, but I didn’t. It was just... That was it, there in front of me.”
Had it changed?
“Oh, yes it had changed considerably. It’s a mining town now, over- run by Canadians. It used to be a farming town. Smallish, but I suppose, big enough to get lost in. I recognized my school, that was still standing, I thought they would have pulled it down, actually.”
“The house I used to live in hadn’t changed very such. But another house that I lived in had changed considerably. It used to be a beautiful white bungalow, but it’s owned by an architect now and he doesn’t take care of it.”
No personal ghosts then. What about the essence of the place though? The Irishness? Ireland’s air is charged these days. Sometimes the bitterness of the North sweeps below the border. And there are those, especially in America, who will see Rory O'Manion’s story as a metaphor for today’s strife, whether they should or not.
“I didn’t relate what was happening then to what’s happening now in Ireland. I just took what was given to me in the script as an actor and played a part. I mean, I didn’t try to make any historical motivations for my character. The ‘Troubles’ are something else, a completely different story, in fact.”
“No rebel ghosts either. None at all."
But one ghost wouldn’t be put down quite so easily.
One evening, near the end of filming, Mr. Brosnan was in a hotel restaurant when he was called to the telephone. A man, a stranger was on the line
“Your father’s here”, said the man. “He’d like to talk to you.” Mr. Brosnan had thought such a thing might happen. He’d fantasized it. There had been publicity about him in the local press. If his father were still in the area, he might see it and surface. Surface, after 27 years. Still, thinking about it happening and having it happen was different. Nothing could have made the moment easy.
He paused. Then Pierce Brosnan, a.k.a. Rory O’Manion, the exile burning to return to his roots, said “No.”
“I just couldn’t open that door,” he says.
Recently, there’s been “Nancy Astor,” a BBC dramatization of the life of the American who became the first woman member of Parliament. Mr. Brosnan plays Robert Gould-Shaw, Lady Astor’s handsome and well-meaning, but weak, polo-playing, first husband. (“Nancy Astor,” parts of which were shot on location in Virginia, will air in Britain next spring, and in the United States in the fall.) It’s Mr. Brosnan’s first BBC job, and it should seal what “The Manions” starts.
And that brings with it the matter of stardom.
“I look forward to it very much,” Mr. Brosnan says, straight faced. Then, laughing, “I’ve waited a long time.”
Serious again: “We shall see. I’ve heard so much rubbish talked about other actors. You know, they become the face of the year, for a year, then you don’t see them again. I take it all with a pinch of salt, really I hope it will lead to other work. If it’s better work, then fantastic.”
“That’s all I can hope for . Stardom and things like that, well yes you think about things like that. But, at the end of the day, it all boils down to just working really.”
Just working? On a “lush sweeping saga” with the likes David Soul, Kate Mulgrew, Anthony Quayle, Linda Purl?
Sounds like more irony- the nicest possible kind.
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