Sunday Times 1995: Brosnan

Sunday Times Magazine
Nov 5, 1995

Piercing Brosnan's Icy Calm

He drinks, he womanises, he shoots to kill. Now the unstoppable sexist hero has been reinvented for the 1990s. Can James Bond truly operate as a New Man? Georgina Howell penetrates 007's cool exterior.  Main photographs by Terry O'Neill

So close is Pierce Brosnan to James Bond this morning that United Artists might be holding him there at pistol-point. In a scene remarkably similar to one of the opening sequences of the new Bond movie, Goldeneye, I sit in the Miss Moneypenny seat of the gleaming ebony Porsche 911 Carrera — registration ICYCALM — and clutch at the burr-wood dashboard as the black bullet burns up the Pacific Coast Highway and swerves over the Ventura County line. The driver smiles and settles back into the blond leather upholstery, handling the car as lightly as though he were flying a kite. 

"The moment I was given Bond," he says, "two things happened. Madame Tussaud's came to make an effigy of me — and I got this."

The small radar device on the dashboard shrills continually as we bust the speed limit, interrupting Tina Turner's scorching rendition of the Goldeneye theme song.  A handful of small change in the pocket between the seats jumps like popcorn on the stove, and on the back seat a Donegal sweater and tennis racket slide to and fro as we take the curves.

The 42-year-old driver has navy blue eyes, dark brown hair that falls over his right eyebrow, a stubbly chin and a gentle manner. He wears narrow black cotton pants, sand suede lace-ups, a thread of tiny, shell-coloured beads around his sun-tanned neck and a print shirt James Bond would not be seen dead in. He turns to laugh, and as his teeth flash white his eyes narrow to slits: "I'm having fun being Bond right now."

The car takes a dip towards the ocean past Malibu houses jutting over ruffs of oleander and frangipani, skirts a beach of trodden dunes and lifeguard huts, and comes to rest at Zuma Point. We open the doors to warm, hazy air and the sigh of the surf. Down on the waterline an occasional jogger runs, keeping to the firm, wet sand.

"So Bond comes into your life, and suddenly you are the role," Brosnan says. His voice is very quiet, with musical Kerry undertones. "You find yourself saying, 'The name's Bond, James Bond,' and, 'Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred,' and it's a hoot!”

"But there's me and there's him. The other night I went to a formal night at the LA opera with Keely" — his girlfriend, Keely Shaye Smith, the journalist he met at a conservation conference in Mexico — "and I noticed Bond was there. The man in a tuxedo. Me, I'm a single parent with a job. And I need to keep him under control."

Bond broke out only a few weeks after United Artists made its announcement that the most famous movie role of all time would go to an Irishman who was chiefly remembered as the star of a popular miniseries called Remington Steele.

"I was finishing up a movie as Robinson Crusoe in Papua New Guinea, and right at the end the producer wanted an extra two, three days." Brosnan said, "No way," because he had promised his 11-year-old son, Sean, that they would go off together for a break.

"The producer said, 'Hold on — this is business.' I said, 'I don't want more money. I'll just have to hand it over to the tax man.' He said, 'Well, what do you want?'

That was when James Bond made his move.

"I said, 'I want a Porsche.' And that's how the beast came into my life."

007 is back with us again after a gap of six years, and Goldeneye is a classic. Presented by Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, the venerable film-maker who has been initiating the Bond movies for 33 years, and produced by his daughter, Barbara, with Michael Wilson, it deftly updates the Bond ethos yet retains all the much-loved traditional ingredients to bring back the faithful. There is a heart-stopping opening sequence, followed by exotic locations, fab stunts, beautiful women, fantastic fights, epic destruction and detonating gadgetry.

Pierce Brosnan, as the secret-service agent licensed to kill, is the best news of all. Unlike any previous Bond, he brings a new depth and sense of reality to the fantasy without losing any of the brash, facetious fun. Beyond the demands of 1990s political correctness, he is a more convincing screen lover, bringing fleeting moments of real intimacy and tenderness quite different from the cynical manipulations of Bond as played by Sean Connery and Roger Moore. So pleased is United Artists with the outcome of its £30m gamble that Brosnan has been signed up way past the year 2000, to make at least four more Bond pictures.

"People ask, 'What is different about Bond?' and I answer, a certain vulnerability.' It's a dangerous word to use where Bond is concerned, but I need to make him human and real and accessible. On the other hand, this man has to look as if he can handle himself. He has to look like somebody who can take a life. I think that is the aspect that the director, Martin Campbell, and I worked on more than anything else."

Half the human race has seen an 007 movie at some time. This bizarre fact from the United Artists dossier came home to Brosnan very soon after his introduction to the press. On his early morning runs in Papua New Guinea, jogging through the tiny villages of grass huts on stilts, he was mobbed by children shouting, "James Bond! James Bond!"

The role is a cinematic icon. Only one other fictional movie character spans three generations of actors and audiences and matches Bond with a pose, a mode of dress and a phrase to add to the vernacular. Where Sherlock Holmes stoops over his magnifying glass with deerstalker and pipe, uttering the immortal "Elementary, my dear Watson " Bond presses an uplifted gun to his left cheek, remains shaken but not stirred, and wears a dinner jacket so fundamental to the image that Brosnan's contract forbids him to wear one in any other movie. Both are British, both cold fish, but there the resemblance ends. One lives in monastic seclusion away from women. One does not.

It seems that Brosnan was fated to play this role. Bond has intervened in his life three times. "When I was 11, I left my aunts in Ireland and flew to join my mother in England. I came to London with a bottle of holy water in one hand and my rosary in the other, and the first movie I saw was Goldfinger."

He moves his seat back and stretches his legs our across the sand as he describes his catharsis. "I had been an altar boy in a small Kerry town, brought up on guilt and pressure. All the films I had ever seen were Norman Wisdom movies shown by the Christian Brothers. I looked up at the big screen for the first time and I saw a naked lady and a cool man who could get out of any situation. I was captivated, magicked, blown away. It stirred things in my loins I had never known before!"

In 1986, while he was filming The Fourth Protocol and playing a Soviet agent opposite Michael Caine, he was offered the Bond role for the first time. On the 60th day of their 60-day option, MTM moved to secure him for a further series of Remington Steele. His big chance slipped away at 6pm that summer Thursday evening, and the next day Timothy Dalton was signed up for The Living Daylights and License To Kill.

"When it came around again, I didn't think twice," says Brosnan. "It was unfinished business." There was an opinion poll, and the short list of would-be Bonds included Hugh Grant. "I was a little cautious this time," Brosnan adds. "When I got that call, I didn't jump up and down. I swore the family to secrecy."

He remained in ICYCALM mode until the moment he faced the world's press in London in January. "I got out of the car at the Regent Palace Hotel and two bodyguards whisked me backstairs. I was taken into an antechamber divided from the ballroom by screens, and behind them were 350 reporters and photographers. They said, "When the music comes on, we'll announce you, then just walk in.' I was cool. Then on came the Bond music and this tremendous voice said, 'Ladies and gentlemen... Mr. Pierce Brosnan.' 

"And suddenly everything went into slow motion. It was, 'Oh...'" — his voice takes a dive to the floor— "'s---.  This is for real."' That night, he was not elated. He went back to his Sloane Street apartment, joined his three children and a couple of friends, and went to the quietest restaurant they could find. "I felt, 'Hmm.' And I felt, 'What have I done?'"

Almost at once he found out. He was due to make one more film after Robinson Crusoe, but United Artists wanted him to start on Goldeneye instead. He talked to the suits at British Lion, explained his predicament and expressed his regret. In time-honoured LA fashion, they were understanding, courteous, sympathetic — and then they slapped him with a lawsuit. It was a graphic reminder of his new status. A couple of years previously they would have released him, hut now he was red-hot property, a name that could sell any movie around the world. "The financiers said, 'We'll sue the pants off everyone we have to. Now he's Bond, don't let him get away.”

Click for larger version "Bond's become such a big franchise," Brosnan says. "It's a responsibility because of all the audiences that have grown up with this character. You take on a ton of history and you have to be respectful about the role. Sean [Connery] had it easy!"

It takes a robust leading actor to steer Goldeneye through the minefield of changed attitudes and sexual politics of the nervous 1990s. Born on celluloid in the confident 1960s — an exuberant decade of safe sex described by the playwright Alan Bennett as "the days of dear old VD" — Bond has had to evolve without depleting the power of a fantasy figure so compelling that even Jack Kennedy kept a pile of the Ian Fleming books by his bed. Created for the movies by the flinty Connery, the first-generation Bond survived for six films. Following George Lazenby's one-shot, Roger Moore brought wit and a subversive sense of parody to seven more Bond adventures up to the mid-1980s and Timothy Dalton's two misfires. 

Connery and Moore had to face the battlefront of women's lib and deflect it with humour, which they were well equipped to do. Brosnan's battle with womanpower comes from within the movie. When the head of MIS is Stella Rimington, it should be no shock to find that M in Goldeneye is a woman, played in splendidly spiky fashion by Dame Judi Dench. 

She's quick to slap Bond down. "If I want sarcasm, I'll speak to my children," she bristles. "I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur." Then, when he's about to leave, there is a ghost of a twinkle: "Come back alive." When Bond routinely romances Miss Moneypenny, played by the wholesome Samantha Bond, she pulls him up sharp too. 

"What would I do without you?" he murmurs. "As far as I can remember," she says, and she speaks for all of us, "you never had me." When she accuses him of sexual harassment, he asks, "What's the penalty for that?" "Some day," she says, "you will have to make good on your innuendos."

Bond may be the top of the ladder for a mainstream movie actor, but the role carries an unwelcome legacy. Although it is many years since Connery made it an absolute rule never to talk about Bond again, this very week in September Brosnan attended Sean's 65th birthday party) — and guess what they talked about.

"If you ask, 'Did Sean make Bond or Bond make Sean?', I'd have to say Connery made Bond. He brought irony and a lightness of touch to the role, and if you read the books, that's missing. By the time you get to Goldfinger, the third film, it's hard to separate the actor from the role. Connery became a major sex symbol, but as an actor he had a hell of a time dealing with it, trying to establish his own identity thereafter."

While Brosnan talks about being true to the script and honouring the role, Moore played it for 13 years without believing in Bond at all. "I didn't believe that sort of person existed," he explains. "I used to ask, 'What kind of spy is he, if he's recognised in every bar in the world?' I looked on it as a regular job once every two years for six months. It was a damn good job, but Bond is seen by so many hundreds of millions of people that you can never shake it off.  It happened to Sean Connery and it happened to me."

Encouragingly for Pierce Brosnan, when he met Roger Moore after he was shown a couple of early reels of Goldeneye, Moore told him: "You are so good that when it comes out everyone will forget about Sean Connery and me."

As we move on towards a lunch stop at Neptune's Net, a roadside beer and lobster shack just off the highway and a notorious gathering point for Hell's Angels, Brosnan suggests a diversion. We head instead for the whale-viewing station at Bluff Park, a windy point with a wide blue view and a whale-tail bench. We park the car and walk across an open green to the platform, with its row of telescopes and a brass plaque that reads: 

In Loving Memory of 

Cassie Brosnan 

For the children and families 

of Malibu and the dolphins 

and whales of the world 

October 16, 1994

Click for larger version

He nursed his wife through four years of cancer, and when she died they had been married nearly 11 years. She left three children: besides Sean, there are Charlotte and Christopher, by her former partnership with Dermot Harris, the brother of Richard.

Now that Charlotte, 23, is launched as an actress and has found a new apartment with her boyfriend, and Christopher, 22, is in New York at film school, Pierce and Sean, who is now 12, live together on their own. "Through the children," Brosnan says, "you carry that person with you for ever and see life on a bigger scale."

He talks of his wife's death with a complete absence of self-pity: "Cancer shakes you to the core. Two things got me through: the children and work. During the four last years of her life I watched Sean coming to grips with her death. It's a difficult thing for a child to understand this abstract concept, and especially to understand that a person can be so ravaged by the cure that she is going to die anyway. He's pretty stoical."

He was introduced to his wife in 1977 by her cousin, Aaron Harris, who was with Pierce in the class of 1973 at the Drama Centre in London.  "Cassie was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, met or been in the presence of," says Brosnan. "I'd been playing a plumber on stage, and I had a terrible short-back-and-sides haircut." She had been filming in Greece and was tanned and golden-haired, "The relationship progressed rather slowly because I couldn't believe she'd have eyes for me. And somehow she did. I was rather slow on the uptake. She was one of those women who just lent herself to the room she was in and the people she was with, whoever they were, She moved through the fayre in the most glorious way." 

Aaron Harris says that in 22 years he has never known Brosnan to have had more than one girlfriend at a time. "He is a really nice guy, especially where  women are concerned. That is why I introduced him to  Cassie, because she had had a rough time. Between the jigs and the reels, I arranged a meeting. And he fell madly in love, and they got married, and he brought up Charlotte and Christopher as his own. Until Cassie got cancer, it was a fairy tale."

Pierce and Cassie at the premiere of For Your Eyes Only -1981 Cassie, by coincidence, once played a Bond woman opposite Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only. When I ask if they had discussed the ethics of playing a Bond woman, he laughs through his nose, "No! My God, not at all! It was not an issue. When she got that part we were just about hanging in there financially. I had been in Filumena for 18 months, with Joan Plowright, for Franco Zeffirelli. Then I was out of work for nearly six months. So it was a wonderful job to get, and when Cassie went off to Corfu to film, the children and I followed her and we gave them a holiday."

As an acting student he had been the poorest of the poor, so skint that they called him Brassy Glint. He had given up a job as a commercial artist to go to the Drama Centre, and he paid his way as a barman, a minicab driver and a labourer.

"The moment I began the drama exercises, the veil of inhibition lifted. I felt I had come home. I loved saying I was an actor, but I was just an exhibitionist."

They remember him at the Drama Centre as one of the hardest workers they ever enrolled, "He worked like a Trojan," says the distinguished Swedish teacher, Yat Malmgren. "He never missed a day." By another of the strange coincidences in Pierce Brosnan's life, Yat Malmgren was the teacher who had coached Sean Connery for the Bond auditions and told him how to get the part in 1961. "There is an enormous difference in psychological type between the two," Malmgren explains. "Sean Connery is intuitive and very Scottish. He will never come out as a lover in front of an audience.  Pierce Brosnan’s feminine qualities are much more developed and he has great emotional depth. He is a  romantic classical actor, wonderful on stage.  He could have been a Laurence Olivier.”

Malmgrem is well placed to warn Brosnan of the sacrifices an actor might have to make to play Bond.”  “When I worked at the National Theater, Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith discussed giving the lead male role in Strindberg’s Miss Julie to Sean Connery, but they decided they could not have 007 on the stage at the National Theater.”

Malgrem told me something else I didn’t know.  “The day it was announced Pierce had got Bond, he sent the Drama Centre an enormous cheque, a really enormous cheque.”

As we walk back toward the car, Brosnan pauses to give a smile and an autograph to a young woman waiting beside the Porsche, then tries to explain the importance in his life of a family to look after.  “It’s the thing that makes me tick.  It nourishes me, being able to provide for them and watch them grow.”

He describes his own childhood as “missing many pieces of the jigsaw.  I was born in Kerry, into this small claustrophobic Catholic community.  My mother had me when she was very young. My father, Tom, was a carpenter, a wonderful character, but I didn't meet him until I was 33.  Their marriage didn't work, and one night he ran out of the door and did not come back"  His mother decided to go to England to be a nurse, an event he describes with characteristic selflessness as “a big sacrifice for her.”

"I was brought up by my grandparents until they died, one after the other. After that I went to an uncle and aunt. Then when I was 11 I joined my mother and new stepfather in London — he's a marvellous man."

I ask if he sees his mother now.

“I just put her on a plane back to Wimbledon! What happened, happened. That's all water under the bridge. We're still filling in the gaps, but she's an amazing woman. We've found..." — he searches for the appropriate phrase — "a really nice space for ourselves with each other."

He climbs into the car and switches on the music. Sophie B. Hawkins sings California and I brace myself against the door as he puts his foot down hard and we surge into the midday traffic:

"Go west, Paradise is there.
You'll be the brightest star
The world has ever seen.
For a magazine..."


To get to Pierce and Sean Brosnan's house, you take a turn off the highway and climb a winding road past houses belonging to the most famous names in the movie business. Glancing up driveways to right and left you glimpse white pillars, clapboard porches, verandahs hidden behind bottlebrush trees and electric gates. Until recently, Barbra Streisand lived here, a stone's throw from Olivia Newton-John, Johnny Carson, Sly Stallone and Ali MacGraw. Steven Spielberg and Rod Steiger live nearby.

At the point where you start to see blue water over the treetops, where there are horses in well-kept fields behind impossibly white picket fencing, I take a steep curve up to a sprawling, tiled house half-hidden in trees and flowering bushes, the $5m, six-acre property that Cassie bought for the family with Remington Steele money. Four dogs come running down the steps, Baskerville-sized but ridiculously friendly. Brosnan follows in a soft white shirt and beige chinos. He has spent the morning with Richard Attenborough, discussing a movie and had lunch with the ex-director of the Open Space Theater, who wants his help in starting a Malibu community theatre.

Today is Sean's 12th birthday, and as we talk he runs into the house, a well built, tanned, good-looking bout with a crew cut and eyes like his father's. Sean has a dirt bike, a guitar that he plays well, and a band called Joined At The Head. He pauses to say a very American "Hi!" and has a friendly exchange with his father before running upstairs to the telephone.  Last week his father trawled through the family photographs and filled a pinboard of pictured with Cassie and her son, from his birth to her final days. He didn't say anything to Sean, and Sean didn't say anything to him. "But I saw him looking at it.”

"I had a party for him on Saturday. I had a full house, 10 boys, five girls. Sean and his buddy Jacob sprayed the field with water to make a lot of mud for the  bikes, then they rushed from the mud bath to the swimming pool and back. The dogs joined in. Consequently the pool is brown and there is mud all over the house." He sighs, like any housewife, "Come Sunday I was exhausted."

We sit in a large, cool room with plastered beams and terracotta floors and windowsills. French windows open onto stone steps and a fountain half-hidden in greenery. All the surfaces in this room, including the white piano, are covered with family photographs, and some hand has filled a large blue and white Chinese vase with an armful of white oleander. Up a few steps in the comfortable, friendly kitchen, Maria, the helper, and Laura, the assistant, chat as they work.

Charlotte's English boyfriend, Alex, comes and goes across the terrace to the furniture van, pausing to ask, "Can we take this?" and finally departs with a double hug for Brosnan.

“They’re taking some furniture to their new apartment," explains Pierce, pouring coffee. "I'm giving them everything that's broken." He looks round the room, which is the size of a small bungalow, and says: "This is all too big for Sean and me. I'm thinking of moving. LA is just a town where I work. I would like to have a house in Ireland."

The day he finished work on Goldeneye he took off with Keely Shaye Smith to the Kildare Country Club, where he fished the Liffey and summoned a family gathering.

"Buying this house seven years ago was a testament to Cassie’s courage and her confidence in me," he explains. "But now there’s nothing much to keep us here.”

"Cassie had a great sense of adventure or we would never have come here.  We’d just put every penny into a house in Wimbledon, and one day she said, 'Let's go to Hollywood,' So we raised a second mortgage and hopped over on Freddie Laker, telling the bank manager that I had a job to go to, which I did not have.”

She wanted to lift her husband out of the BBC costume dramas where it seemed that he would stick forever, winning an occasional award but never making it to the big time.

Her instinct served them well. Within a few weeks of arriving in Los Angeles, Brosnan had won the lead in the mini-series Remington Steele, playing a charmingly inept private investigator. Their lives changed. Brosnan was now working five days a week, from 7am until 9 or 10 at night.  Between that, and on location, the family stayed together as much as possible. "We had to. Otherwise we'd have had no life, no family unit, no marriage. “ 

He lights a large cigar with a minimum of fuss, takes a deep breath and blows the smoke away. "You know, Cassie would have loved all this. She took it on the chin when it didn't happen in 1986."

He says women like to see their husbands and lovers win and get to the top of their professions. "I think every male gets turned on by the Fight, whether it's physical or intellectual, but you don't need to beat the crap out of someone. I'm not that kind of man, though I like a sense of danger. What makes you a man, anyway? Is it seeing your child born? Is it seeing your wife die? As you go through life you meet these moments that cut you to the centre of your being.”

"I think I'm a better actor because of the last few years. I think I'm a better Bond for going through that."

I say I wonder if compatibility, affection or sex is the most important ingredient in a marriage, thinking what a strange question this is to be asking James Bond.

"Compatibility," Brosnan says, then laughs. "But sexuality is good! Sexuality is wonderful.

"When you're talking about marriage, you have a long way to go, and your sexual appetite changes." His voice becomes lyrical. "It's wonderful to have lust and that incredible sex drive, no matter where, no matter when… but then that goes away.  You can be with someone you adore, and the sexual plateau is fine, is adequate.  You have to be very strong and acknowledge you both can be weak. Because in marriage, just when you reach a level of contentment and financial stability, just when you've sorted out the in-laws, the house, your past lives and insecurities, that’s precisely when a new problem will crop up. You're left with bigger questions. What are you? What mark do you want to leave behind? Then, if you're with someone who has different sensibilities from you, you’re lost.”

Click for larger version of photo There is a crash from the kitchen. He comes out of his reverie and taps ash into a saucer. "I can't sum it up. It's what is so difficult about a role like this. Here I am pontificating, but I'm as lost as the next guy, because as a man you fantasise. I'm playing this movie icon who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em, and it can create quite a void. You find yourself substituting, trying to replace, and you cannot."

Since Cassie died, his name has been linked with two or three girlfriends, including the supermodel Tatjana Patitz.  Keely, a svelte brunette of 30, lives in her own house in Los Angeles and is writing a book on gardening. Enviable as it may seem to be Pierce Brosnan's girlfriend, there is a price to pay. How can you compete with a woman who is not only perfect, but dead? At some point in the afternoon Keely rings but says that she will ring back.

"At the moment I am with a partner who turns me on sexually, creatively... but I don't know if I will ever be married again. I enjoyed being married. I would like to be again, but I don’t wish to be married right now." He waves his cigar, laughing, "... And the quest goes on!”

Next he will make The Mirror Has Two Faces for Barbra Streisand, then possibly Grey Owl for Richard Attenborough. "I’m excited. There's such a rich tapestry of possibilities before me."

"Did you know," he says as I am leaving, "that Bond was a widower? In On Her Majesty's    Secret Service, which George Lazenby did and which didn’t work for whatever reason, Bond marries and his wife dies in his arms, taking the bullet that was meant for him. I’d love to do a remake of that one day because it’s Ian Fleming’s best story.  Thereafter you see this man adrift, seeking  new pastures, going through women, woman after woman., looking for the woman that’s gone.”

Life has a way of giving you one thing and taking another away. 

  • By: Georgina Howell 
  • Main photographs by Terry O'Neill

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