The Sunday Times: Culture: Hanging Loose?

Pierce Brosnan on his life and career after 007

The name’s not Bond...

For his role in The Matador, Pierce Brosnan has undergone a remarkable transformation, says Neil Norman

January 29, 2006

Caught in the grip of a biblical hangover and dressed only in a pair of black briefs and unzipped Cuban-heeled boots, Pierce Brosnan totters through a crowded hotel lobby clutching his first drink of the morning after the night before. Ignoring the open-mouthed stares of the other guests, he finally makes it to the swimming pool, kicks off his boots and jumps in. He comes up for air, shakes water from his eyes and takes a slug of his now somewhat diluted drink. Contrary to reports, this is not the way Brosnan responded to the news he had been ousted finally and irrevocably as James Bond by a younger, blonder model. Rather, it is a scene from his latest movie, The Matador, in which he plays a hit man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Brosnan might be forgiven had he indeed got howling drunk after the news about Daniel Craig. The Irish actor had made little secret of his desire to play Bond one more time, having developed the role from his relatively Roger Mooreish debut in Goldeneye to the darker regions of his final outing in Die Another Day

It was reported he was "gutted" at being prevented from taking the character into fiftysomething maturity. It was he, after all, who restored the credibility of the character and the fortunes of Eon Productions, headed by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, heirs to the Bond movies' creative godfather, Cubby Broccoli.

"It's unfinished business," said Brosnan before the announcement of his replacement, "I would be very happy to come back as Bond, and if such a scenario arose I would jump at it. A fifth, and no more. It takes a lot of stamina to go out for six months and save the world. But I think Barbara and Michael had a crisis of confidence. And there is strong competition - The Bourne Identity, for example. The trouble is, you have these great action sequences, and then you have to have this one-liner - and they're not all that funny. And I wasn't very good at doing them. My idea was to go right back to the foundation of the character and make it palpable, reveal the desires and wants of the man.

"Anyway, it's all behind me' now. It was painful for them and painful for us all. It was a business decision, and painful business decisions have to be made. It's been a bit of an awkward time all round. I wish them well, and I wish the next man well." Now the next man has been revealed, Brosnan bites the bullet with typical graciousness and generosity. "I wish Daniel the greatest happiness and success," he says. "He's a fantastic actor and he's given superb performances. I think we're all going to be really happily surprised."

As if to redefine his status as "just another working actor" once more, Brosnan has undergone a remarkable transformation and is allowing himself to show his age with a kind of gleeful challenge. His figure remains enviably trim and elegant, but there is no attempt to conceal the silver in his facial hair, grown for his role in the civil-war western Seraphim Falls. Today he is dressed from head to toe in black; his deeply tanned features and neatly trimmed beard lend him the distinguished appearance of a 19th-century fencing master. In an odd reversal I have never been able to fathom, he is taller in the flesh than he appears on the screen.
Brosnan will still be picking up a gun for The Matador, albeit in a role far removed from the predictably structured antics of 007. He plays Julian Noble, a professional assassin or "facilitator of fatalities", as he puts it. A black comedy that shares celluloid DNA with Prizzi's Honor and Grosse Point Blank, The Matador is an odd-couple movie, charged with an unusual level of emotional depth. It's set largely in Mexico City, where Noble has been sent to perform a "facilitation", and explores the unlikely relationship between this crisis-ridden assassin and an innocent and desperate American businessman, Danny (Greg Kinnear), following their first disagreeable encounter in a hotel bar. Drunk and virtually incapable of normal human intercourse, Noble is by turns aggressive, pathetic, uncaring, pitiful and insulting; Danny is bewildered, intrigued and horrified at his would-be companion's capriciousness. They part in acrimony but, like gum on a shoe, Noble just won't go away. Soon, they become sort of friends. Then the problems start.

Brosnan is alarmingly good at portraying the lonely, pathetic guy who just happens to be a professional killer. Subsisting on a diet of alcohol and casual sex with the nearest available stranger, Noble is an unlovable creature, even when he starts to fall apart. Brosnan relished the script, sent to his film company, Irish DreamTime, by the writer/director Richard Shepard, though he did, he reveals, have second thoughts about playing Noble. "I thought it was wildly Pythonesque," he says of the screenplay. "Like Hunter S Thompson meets Pinter. Richard was thrown by the comedic element we found in it. He thought he'd written something very dark. I saw the more surreal side. But when it was clear we were actually going to make the movie, I freaked out. I didn't know if I could do it. There was a lot of sex, and it was a bit more violent, so I shied away. I went back to the text. The sexuality was relentless, and the bisexuality was a bit too much. I realised my image was on the line, so I changed things, tweaked it. Everyone was pissed off with me for a while." Needless to say, Brosnan got his way and the script was toned down. In Shepherd's original, Noble was even less sexually discriminating, bedding men as well as women. Brosnan insisted overt homosexual acts were excluded, though the implication remains, particularly in Noble's first encounter with Danny. And now, though Noble is still a drunk, he doesn't do drugs.

As it turned out, shooting in Mexico City provided enough excitement to satisfy even the most terminal thrillseeker. Halfway through filming, the unit's chief driver was kidnapped by an armed man and forced to surrender his ATM card. "Luckily," Brosnan recalls, "he let him go."

Brosnan might have been condemned to playing variants on Remington Steele had it not been for Bond, and he knows it. But he has been clever enough to further his own ends via his film company. The Matador is just one of several projects it is developing. There is a sequel to The Thomas Crown Affair (The Topkapi Affair) in the works, plus a kidnap thriller, Mexicali. Irish DreamTime has already produced the undervalued Evelyn and the underwhelming Laws of Attraction; and although he tends to star in all the productions, it is less a vanity project for Brosnan than a kind of insurance against future unemployment.

"I might have been waiting for the phone to ring," he says. "I have the company in order to have the choices. It's up to you to redefine your career. And it keeps you on your toes. I was taught and led to believe I could do transformation. I was trained as a character actor. But the leading-man thing came easily, and I went to America as a leading man. But I kept looking back over here with envy at other actors who were doing down-and-dirty stuff. And I still have to work out every day. You've got to stay in shape. It's a pain in the arse. But what are you gonna do? Just fall off the twig?"

That Brosnan did not work for a year after the last Bond movie was as much his choice as anything else. The scripts that came through the door were largely variations on a dogeared theme. He spent the time with his family, bought a place in Hawaii and travelled the world promoting the various charities with which he is connected - notably the Prince's Trust, Unicef Ireland, the Irish Cancer Society, Down's Syndrome Ireland, Make-A-Wish (for terminally ill children) and the animal charities IFAW and the Jane Goodall Institute. Then one morning he awoke with a "bellyful of fear". "Well, not quite a bellyful of fear," he corrects himself, "but a tickle of anxiety. I wondered if I'd ever act again. I wondered if I could still do it."

I remind him of an observation he had made about his early childhood - the deprivations of which he claims have been exaggerated ("It wasn't as bleak as it sounds") regarding his loneliness and sense of abandonment. "Maybe that's where acting comes from," he said. "From spending so much time alone and with your thoughts." So how does a father of five (two from his wife, Keely Shaye Smith, one from his late wife, Cassandra Harris, and two adopted from her previous marriage), movie star, producer and benefactor find the time to be alone these days? "I'm not sure I want to be alone any more," he says quietly. "When you are alone, you are so ..." he drifts off into a silence before hauling himself back. "I enjoy my own company. I like being alone as long as I know there is somebody close by."

There is a darkness buried in Brosnan I have sensed more than once before, which the dazzling smile, the playfulness and self-effacement cannot quite conceal. Whether this is due to the incontrovertible trials of his childhood (an absentee father, a working mother who left him in the care of grandparents and aunts, the terrifying Christian Brothers school), the untimely death of his first wife from ovarian cancer, the near-death of his son Sean in a horrific car crash in 2000 and Sean's subsequent illness two years later, or just plain old Irish melancholy is difficult to determine. But it's there in some of his performances: his last 007, the deranged scientist in The Lawnmower Man, the glacial Russian KGB bomber in The Fourth Protocol, and now Noble.

Aware that aspects of his childhood and life have been slightly mythologised, he has become less permeable in conversation, although he will play the fool when required mugging for Jonathan Ross on television, downing a pint of Guinness in one go at the GQ Man of the Year awards. But the suspicion is that he has become increasingly protective of himself and his family, and certainly more meditative. ''The year off was about not rushing into another movie," he says. "Not having to be in fighting mode. It was a time for reflection. To look back at what I'd achieved, and to ask questions about the future: how do you keep going and stay passionate about it? It was also turning 52. You look in the mirror and say, 'Wow. How did I get here so fast?'"

Interview transcription and photos courtesy of Ellen

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