Town & Country 2003 Brosnan

The Role Of A Lifetime

Town & Country
August 2003

Quietly confident, ruggedly handsome and strong in mind and deed, he's Brosnan. Pierce Brosnan.

Pierce and Keely (Click for larger version) As I zip through the hills of Malibu on my way to the beachfront home of Pierce Brosnan, I envision being in a sleek British roadster, tearing up the cliffs of Monte Carlo. Of course, the other drivers on the road are oblivious to my fantasy and see my rental car for what it really is — a Japanese compact that's thrifty on gas. But that matters not to me. With the James Bond theme resounding in my head, I gear up to meet 007, the world's greatest superspy.

Most of us know better than to imagine that actors are anything like the characters they play on-screen. Nonetheless, in certain instances, it can be fun to ponder where— if at all — the performance ends and the person begins. Could Marilyn Monroe have been so different from the blonde vamp of How to Many a Millionaire or Jimmy Cagney altogether distant from the grapefruit-squashing villain of The Public Enemy? And so it seems with Pierce Brosnan.

From the moment he lit up American TV screens as private detective Remington Steele in 1982,his portrayal seemed lifted straight from the pages of a James Bond script. Steele was suave, born to wear a tuxedo and had a winsome way with women—a trait that he could at least pretend was a burden. 

"Do you think I enjoy this shallow adulation, being flung into the world of hot tubs and saunas, being surrounded by women, subjected to casual, meaningless sex?" he once asked his brainy sidekick Laura Holt (played by Stephanie Zimbalist). As Holt rolled her eyes, the ratings headed skyward as well, mad as viewers were for the charming Irish actor.

On-screen and off, Pierce Brosnan is clearly the same person; I'm certain of it. And thus, as I arrive at his home and the driveway gate glides back to reveal a Range Rover, two BMWs and an Aston Martin Vanquish—each of them a glistening silver—I know that my suspicions are correct.

Casually dressed in jeans and a black zip-front sweater, Brosnan comes outside to welcome me to the home he shares with his wife, former TV journalist Keely Shaye Smith, and their two young sons. He sports the look of a man unwinding on a well-deserved vacation: he's unshaven (several days' worth of growth, I estimate), with a healthy, relaxed glow. And though his coif is perfect down to the last hair, a number of grays have invaded his casual stubble and trademark jet-black locks.

He invites me inside, and I take in our surroundings. Colorful contemporary artwork adds interest to 

the light-colored walls, filling the open-plan home with lively focal points. Sliding glass doors off the cathedral- ceilinged living room lead to a small deck — the access point for what I soon learn are frequent ocean adventures. Meanwhile, a solitary easel braves the wind outside, just waiting for an artist to take his place at the canvas. 

"It might look like I put that out there for effect," says Brosnan, "but I actually planned to do some painting the other day." Apparently, before Brosnan decided to become an actor, he wanted to be an artist. Only when a friend encouraged him to come along to an audition did the teenager shift gears. He honed his acting in theater and film in Britain for twelve years before leaving for Hollywood. Shortly thereafter, he landed the career-making role of Remington Steele. He hasn't looked back since.

I suggest that our setting on the Pacific is a far cry from Navan, Ireland, the rural community where he was born fifty years ago. He agrees. "It's flat, flat land," he recalls of the town on the River Boyne, "but the river had its own wealth of romance and magic for me as a boy." 

Pierce with Dylan (click to enlarge)

Romantic though it may have been, mid-20th-century Ireland was not terribly hospitable to the struggling Brosnan family. Thomas Brosnan, a carpenter, left his wife, May, while their son was just an infant. That left young May — who was in her early twenties—in a precarious spot. "If you were a single mother in Ireland back then, you were ashamed," says Brosnan. "The community let you know that what had happened was not decent, and they would speak of it indirectly from the pulpit." By the time her son was four, May decided that she had little choice but to seek her fortune in London, leaving Pierce in the care of her parents. In a tragic turn of events. his grandparents died two years later, and for the next several years he bounced from relative to relative. At the age of eleven, he finally joined his mother and her soon-to-be new-husband in London.

Much has been made of the difficulty Brosnan faced as an Irish schoolboy attempting to fit in among his English classmates. Though he says those tales have been overplayed, he admits: "They adorned me with the nickname 'Irish,' possibly as an insult in the realms of their young world." In fact, he claims, "They couldn't have given me a better name. It was the essence of who I was at that time." And in many ways, it is the essence of who he is today. No matter that he has built his career playing dripping-with-charm Englishmen. He declares proudly, "I'm an Irish actor."  

Pierce with Paris and man's best friend (click to enlarge) Fittingly, Brosnan and I have what the Irish might call a "soft" day as the backdrop for our conversation. It's overcast, a bit too cold to sit on the deck, but the blaze that crackles in the fireplace more than compensates for the gray skies outside. Over a couple of glasses of wine, we enjoy our lunch: a hearty salad followed by grilled salmon, perfectly prepared by a chef brought in just for the afternoon. Jessie, the family's dutiful Australian heeler mix, settles in next to us.

And then we bond. Or, at least, we talk about Bond. After having to pass up that role in the mid-eighties (his Remington Steele producers steadfastly refused to release him from his contract), Brosnan imagined that the part was gone for good. Yet, ten years later, opportunity knocked again, and he assumed his rightful place with 1995's GoldenEye. That blockbuster was followed by three more: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997); The World Is Not Enough (1999); and Die Another Day (2002).  The venerable series, which was all but washed up after the tenure of Brosnan's predecessor, Timothy Dalton, is now enjoying its best-ever box-office receipts.  (The four latest Bond films are closing in on $1.6 billion worldwide. Not surprisingly, he has recently signed on to do a fifth.)

Brosnan looks back with deliberate maturity on the circuitous journey that finally brought him the part of a lifetime: "I certainly hadn't waited for the role; I was getting on with my career." It's true. After Remington Steele ended its five-year run, Brosnan showed his range in crowd pleasers like the sci-fi cult-fave Lawnmower Man (1992) and the comic Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). He also acted in several smaller films, including one of his personal favorites, Bruce Beresford's Mister Johnson (1990). But grabbing the golden ring that was Golden-Eye was a very happy moment indeed. "There was a satisfaction that the part was mine, that it had come back," he says.  

Rightful though it may have been, Brosnan admits that playing 007 did not come naturally. "It took time for me to believe I could be this character, because I don't identify with him." As the afternoon wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that the man in front of me is quite different from his famous alter ego. Though they do share the steely-blue eyes and dusky lilt, Brosnan is vastly more introspective. He ponders each of my questions carefully, pursing his lips and inverting his brows before replying, as if lost in thought somewhere far away. When he does respond, he frequently refers to himself in the second person, as if to distance himself from his answers. And though he says that he wouldn't mind having Bond's "sheer bravado, confidence and ability to be so utterly in control," Brosnan boasts that he's "far happier" with his life than he would be with 007's.

Fueling that happiness is fatherhood. I consider this as his six-year-old son, Dylan Thomas, blue dinosaur in hand, nestles under his dad's arm and loses himself in a prehistoric daydream. And from inside the kitchen, two-year-old Paris Beckett is giggling with delight.

Pierce and Paris

Perhaps because he didn't meet his own father until he was in his thirties, parenting is something that Brosnan takes very seriously. It's also an arena in which he's had plenty of practice. He has a nineteen-year-old son (Sean) and two adopted stepchildren (Christopher and Charlotte, both in their early thirties) from his marriage to his first wife, the late actress Cassandra Harris. He became a father all over again when Smith, with whom he has been for nine years, gave birth to their two sons. Summoning a palpable sense of pride, he says, "I'm having the time of my life being a father again. Dylan and Paris have just filled my life with the greatest glory."

Pierce, Dylan and Keely If Brosnan feels blessed to be a father, he also counts himself very fortunate to have met and married two wonderful women, the loves of his life. His eleven-year marriage to Harris ended in 1991, when she lost a long battle with ovarian cancer. Three years later, while attending a fundraising event sponsored by the American Oceans Campaign, Brosnan met Smith, now thirty-nine. (The California-born beauty was there on assignment for the Today show.) "It was a delightful encounter in life when we least expected it," he recalls.

That chance meeting, which culminated in their exchanging vows at Ireland's Ballintubber Abbey in 2001, also marked Brosnan's birth as an environmental activist. Together with his wife, whose passion for the environment seems to know no bounds, Brosnan played a crucial role in a five-year campaign to prevent Mitsubishi from putting the world's largest salt factory in Baja California. That victory, in 2000, helped preserve the mating waters of the Pacific gray whale (see "Traveler's Notebook," page 65).  "I think the project planners felt as if they were taking on James Bond," says a clearly satisfied Smith.

"Pierce is the one who always shows up, who makes the calls, who goes to a press conference or flies to meet with the officials," she says, not concealing her disdain for celebrities who sign on to promote a cause but do none of the work. "You have to have someone who puts a face to the cause."

"And a woman like you," her spouse adds. The couple's current mission is to lobby Congress not to relax the "dolphin safe" label standards imposed on tuna companies in 1990.

Doting father, loving husband, ardent environmentalist. Okay, maybe Brosnan is not at all like the man who has a license to kill. In fact, he's quite happy to dispel that myth. "I don't want to be shot at — or to shoot at people," he says. Perhaps he wouldn't want the gun, but I ask him about the one MI5 gadget he wouldn't mind having. "The jet pack," he says. "Not the X-ray sunglasses?" needles Smith.

"I don't need them," he answers, a hint of a smile coming to his face.

In the 2002 film Evelyn, the barmaid played by Julianna Margulies makes an astute observation about Brosnan's character, Desmond Doyle: "You know what your problem is?" she asks. "You think all you have to do is smile with that cheeky twinkle in your eye and everything will be grand." That may appear to be the case with Brosnan, but his success has come more as a result of talent than twinkle. (Anyone who doubts that should see the 2001 movie The Tailor of Panama.) Demonstrating his passion for the business, he's even created his own film-production company. To date, Irish DreamTime has produced three pictures: The Nephew (1998), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and Evelyn. Next up is Laws of Attraction, a romantic comedy in which he costars with Julianne Moore. Following that, he goes before the cameras in Matador, his company's fifth film, set in Mexico City. 

All of DreamTime's features have been made "with heart, love and hard work," Brosnan says. "They also have a beginning, a middle and an end. That always helps in a story, but sometimes gets forgotten in this foolish business."

Looking around him, Pierce Brosnan is thankful for his blessings. "I've found heaven many times over," he says, "and certainly at this moment in life I am sitting at a heavenly place." Being so content, he doesn't spend too much time dwelling on the past or thinking about the future. "The here and now and what I'm doing as an actor, as just a guy in life, it ain't bad," he says.

Pierce, Dylan, Paris and Keely

As we head out to the driveway I and  say my farewells, I cast an envious last glance at the V-12 Vanquish. "Why don't you take Tom out for a ride?" Smith prods. My heart skips a beat. "Oh, I couldn't," says Brosnan. "I've had a couple of glasses of wine." I'm half tempted to suggest that I take it out for a spin myself, but I resist, instead climbing back into my white-as-snow econocar.

As I exit the rarefied Malibu hills, I realize that art doesn't always imitate life. And that life itself—with or with out a fancy sports car—can be immensely richer than art.


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