Where do we stand on Pierce Brosnan? Opinion, well, the little of it I canvassed before meeting him, seems divided. Men are unexpectedly harsh. He’s too smug, they say. Too knowing of his good looks. Clearly spends a couple of hours a day working on his hair. Women are kinder, their theme being not just that Brosnan is good-looking but that he has been a good father to his five children (two adopted) as well as a good husband to both his wives (his first having died of cancer). That’s three goods.
My impression of him, when we meet in Soho, is that he does not seem particularly comfortable in his skin. Though he has a crusher handshake, there is a primness to him, a preciousness. He is immaculately groomed in black suit, black shirt and black scarf flicked over his shoulder, just so. His hair is (suspiciously) black too, as well as neatly cut and blow-dried, and all this blackness makes the vivid blueness of his eyes the more startling.
He’s had his teeth fixed, which may be a sign of vanity. Then again, if you look out for him in his full screen debut – he plays ‘first Irishman’ in The Long Good Friday – you’ll see he had teeth like Victorian gravestones, so this seems fair enough. Unless he has had his face fixed as well, which he claims he hasn’t: he has indecently smooth and young-looking skin. Perhaps it’s the L’Oréal moisturiser. There is an ad campaign running at the moment showing his face next to a pot of the stuff.
He may not look his age, but does he feel it? ‘No, it’s good Irish genes,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel 54, but I do see the age creeping in. You do change little by little.’ He saw his Spotlight photograph the other day, the one that appeared in the official casting directory when he first started acting in 1975, after training at the London Drama Centre.
‘This young kid in the production office said, “F— me, is that you?” So he thought I’d changed. Perhaps it’s a matter of perception. I don’t think my mother looks her age. She has a sharp disposition in her 76th year. And the old man that I never knew had a spry, chiselled look to him. Snow-white hair. Flinty, squinty eyes. I look a bit like him.’
Thomas Brosnan was an alcoholic who earned a living as a carpenter in County Meath and who abandoned his family when Pierce was two. The young Brosnan’s mother left Ireland for London to train as a nurse, leaving her son to be brought up by her parents. He followed her over when he was 11, only to be picked on at school for being Irish. He fought back and soon learnt to conceal his Irishness. He has described his childhood as full of ‘loneliness’.
As an adult he has been compared to an expensively elegant yet tightly furled umbrella, and that’s about right. But the unease you notice is also partly to do with the way he talks himself up, partly with his convoluted, overly wrought speech patterns – they are almost stream-of-consciousness at times, with him asking and answering his own questions. It is also to do with his mid-Atlantic voice. It seems self-consciously smooth, whispery and polished, tortured almost, as if he is still a teenage boy trying on various voices to see which one seems the most impressive, rather as schoolchildren try out different signatures before settling on one. There’s an obvious explanation for this: an identity crisis. He’s an Irishman who has taken American citizenship, but has made his name playing a well-spoken Englishman. ‘It’s only confusing if I let it be,’ he says. ‘Intrinsically, I’m the same person I was as a young lad and I think I still have the optimism of life, still the same wants and desires to be good and great about what I do. I have asked myself that question. When I went to America I spoke so much about who I was and gave so much away in a confessional, Irish, story-telling way that I suddenly realised I had given up a lot of myself. I had to shut up.’
Did his 11-year-old self have a strong Irish accent? ‘Yes, and a strong sense of his Irish identity. Very Irish. Nineteen sixty-four; Putney Comprehensive School. Made to feel different, and no child wants that, so the performance began. The seeds of acting. Before that, I was in Ireland and the first theatrical performance was being an altar boy at church. The whole celebration of the Catholic Mass. I was enjoying being up there and looked at. I still go to church. Went last night.’
The impression he gives of being uncomfortable with himself may also be to do with his having had his identity stolen by James Bond. These days he seems to want to play it down. The biography on his website even begins: ‘Perhaps best known worldwide as James Bond…’ Perhaps?
There is no perhaps about it. The four Bond films Brosnan made were huge box office hits, the first three generating a billion dollars in revenue, the last one, Die Another Day in 2002, making half a billion on its own. Before him it had been generally assumed that the Bond franchise had run out of steam, with Roger Moore turning Bond into a cartoon figure and Timothy Dalton putting the final nails in the coffin with his politically correct version. For the purists, Brosnan represented a return to the hairy, misogynistic and cruel Sean Connery glory days. He also made it possible for Daniel Craig to introduce his darker, grittier version of Bond… and this is a sore point. Brosnan had wanted to take Bond down that route himself, with two more films.
‘Connery did six,’ he said after making Die Another Day. ‘Six would be a number, then never come back.’ But in July 2004 he announced that ‘Bond is another lifetime, behind me’, which may have been a negotiating ploy with the studio. If it was, it didn’t work because in October 2004, when his agent rang to say negotiations had stopped, Brosnan said, ‘I was shocked. It was a bit of a body blow. They had invited me back and then uninvited me.’
Let’s face it, this bitterness about Bond, if bitterness it is, gives an interesting texture to Brosnan’s moisturised façade. I want to explore it further but he only wants to talk about his new film, Mamma Mia! And he keeps dragging the conversation back to it. He keeps telling me, indeed, how good it is and how pleased he is with his performance in it.
The story revolves around a young girl who is about to get married and decides to track down the father she never knew. Brosnan plays – and sings – one of her possible fathers, and Meryl Streep plays her mother.
Given the sempiternal popularity of ABBA, and of the stage version which 30 million people have seen worldwide, Mamma Mia! the movie looks certain to be one of the biggest block-busters of the summer. We shall come to it, I assure him. For now I want to know more about his confused identity, especially what it is like having his identity swallowed up by James Bond – having, for example, people in the street shout out, ‘Look, it’s James Bond!’ rather than, ‘Look, it’s Pierce Brosnan.’ He purses his lips. Breathes through his nose. ‘I have very little to say on the matter,’ he says. ‘I promised myself before I started on Mamma Mia! not to discuss Bond because all has been said from me. All is done. That is it.’
But isn’t that a little perverse? Bond is, after all, a huge part of his life, his identity, his career. He even has a Bond museum of sorts at his home (the watches, tuxedos and cars he was allowed to keep). And when, one day, the Brosnan obituaries are written, James Bond will surely be in the opening paragraph. ‘It will be there, front row and centre, just as it will be for Sean and Roger or any man thereafter. I think Daniel is in the first blush of what it all means. You become an ambassador to a small country. Bond is an industry. You make your pact with the devil. You know that it will follow you. But you just hope you get yourself off the ropes. I have no bitterness but I just feel exhausted by it.’
The no-bitterness line doesn’t quite ring true. But perhaps it is more disappointment at the way his tenure as Bond ended. Either way, he now says more firmly: ‘Let’s talk about Mamma Mia!’ Hmm. I suppose GoldenEye, his first Bond movie in 1995, was the opposite of the almost guaranteed hit that is Mamma Mia! He takes the bait. ‘It was daunting. Having left the press conference for GoldenEye I did go back to my small hotel room and say, “What have I done? What have I done? What have I said yes to?” Dear God, give me strength. And it’s such an institution. You can’t get it right. You’re just not going to get it right.’
Yet he took on the role at the right time. Had he been able to take it when he was first offered it in 1986 – his contract on the television series Remington Steele prevented him – he could have ended up the Timothy Dalton of the Bond story. He was devastated at the time – ‘I felt a kind of ugly numbness when it all fell apart,’ he has said. ‘It was a very painful experience.’ But as things turned out, Dalton was given the part as a second choice after Brosnan and Timothy Dalton became the Timothy Dalton of the Bond story. But the subject of Bond is making him hot. ‘Oh God, I’ve got to take my scarf off now,’ he says unwrapping the garment. ‘Look. Bond was there. It was great. It has allowed me to make movies like The Matador [a dark comedy in which Brosnan played a deranged hitman]. To have a working career. It also allowed me to make Mamma Mia! Let’s get back to that.’
OK, OK. Was he nervous about the singing? ‘All trained actors have to learn to sing just as they have to learn to do tap and fencing. I had actually made a film before, called Evelyn, in which I sang, but singing pub songs in Dublin is different from the musical acrobatics and precision of a pop song. I was mildly terrified about singing the songs in Mamma Mia! but the musical director, Martin, left me with an iPod full of tunes and I spent the next few weeks in my house in Hawaii singing into the ocean. Driving my sons crazy as I drove them to school in the morning.’
He wasn’t an ABBA fan before this film. ‘No, I wasn’t. Did I dance to them? Hear them? Live with them? Yes, we all did, but it wasn’t my kind of music. I would never have gone to see this musical if I hadn’t been offered the job.’
Does he dislike the musical genre? ‘It’s not high on my list. I thought Moulin Rouge was inspirational, and Jesus Christ Superstar I loved.’ So the romance of musicals is lost on him? ‘I have a romantic side, of course, and a sentimental side. If it’s good and meaningful and coherent, I will have tears. It’s the most wonderful thing to be moved by a performance. Edith Piaf. The life of an actor lends itself to emotion and yet you have to be tough as old boots to stay at the table.’
We are on the subject of emotions. When Cassandra Harris, his first wife, died in 1991, four years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he said he was in ‘a helpless state of confusion and anger’. The grief would strike unexpectedly. He would be driving along the Harbor Freeway in California and find himself screaming at the top of his lungs: ‘Why? Why?’ I ask if he has ever drawn upon his memory of those extreme emotions in his acting and, if he has, whether that made him feel compromised, whether he felt it had devalued the real emotion. He gives a long sigh.
‘Well, I’ve never had to reproduce that particular emotion. I’ve never been in a piece where I have to lose a wife. I’m in a piece now where I have to lose a son. A movie with Susan Sarandon. I hold myself in abeyance about it somewhat. I will have to find that emotion… but you do use it. You do. It’s not as pure as the original emotion and there is that sense of fraudulence and of scavenging in your heart for that emotion, but if it is well written, you get an echo anyway and a subtext of what happened in your own life. What happened in my life back there has its own private place. With other emotions, well, you know the experience of pain, laughter and deep frustration because we all act everyday, to our wives, our children.’
He sometimes catches himself using his skills as an actor to manipulate other people’s emotions in his everyday life. ‘Of course. I could be doing it now, but so could you be. I have been subjected to many a lovely interview only to read in print that they have cut me to ribbons. I was being sincere but because they didn’t like what I did as an actor, or the way I spoke, they had made their mind up before I walked in the door.’
Oh dear. Perhaps I’m a little guilty here. Certainly I am finding him more sympathetic now that he is opening up a bit. And I can see why he might find it frustrating to live in the shadow of James Bond. For a proud man he doesn’t seem especially proud of himself for doing those films.
Tellingly, he once said of Christopher Fettes, an actor and one of his oldest friends, ‘I don’t know what he thinks of my doing Bond – I’ve always been scared to ask. Maybe he’ll say, “Could do better”, or “Try harder” – or “What are you doing?”‘ (Actually what Fettes said was, ‘To be honest, I think James Bond is a bit below his talents.’) Besides, there is more to Brosnan’s career than acting. He is a canny businessman who has his own production company, one that has made six films, his biggest being the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) in which he starred. ‘Thomas Crown was very good at playing on an iconic theme,’ he says. ‘There was room for manoeuvre with it, in terms of “suit acting”, which Steve [McQueen] never did very well. He was never comfortable with. I thought there was a chink in the armour there. We’re going to be doing another Thomas Crown. How do we find him again? How do we make a surprise? Good sex scenes. It’s great when you get it right, but very fleeting.’
He’s been a Hollywood star, and indeed a Hollywood mogul, for quite a few years now; what motivates him to keep at it? Is it the money? Surely he’s made enough to retire. ‘I’ve got a house in Hawaii and another one in California and a few overheads still. I’m building two homes in Malibu. I have a mortgage to pay. I’ve invested. I have my properties and want to keep them. I could cruise along but I like working. I’m getting older. I’m 54. What’s next? Do I want to direct? I love the visuals of it all. I paint. How do I mix that with acting? I like producing. I enjoy having my company. So a musical, why not? Having Meryl singing The Winner Takes it All on a bluff overlooking Greece is wonderful. I’ve worked with some beautiful ladies, Halle Berry and so on, but Meryl is the tops.’
Speaking of Berry, her Bond bikini is on display at the Imperial War Museum at the moment, as part of a Bond exhibition. Is he going to see it – the exhibition, I mean? ‘I have no desire to go to see it. I’ve been asked but I don’t have the heart. As for the bikini, I saw the real thing. I saw it on the day and so did half of Spain. She came out of the water, which was very cold and not clean. You looked to the right and looked to the left and there were huge crowds of people. Everyone had turned up to see that scene.’
I tell him that I had canvassed opinion about him before meeting him and that female colleagues had all seemed to know that he was a good husband and good father. ‘Interesting,’ he says. ‘I found it quite cathartic to talk about my wife after she died. The disease of ovarian cancer is so insidious and frightening, I thought it would be good to explore my own feelings in an interview with People magazine, which I later regretted.
‘That had a huge effect. I was fairly numb and deeply in pain when I gave that interview. I was grieving. It put an enormous focus on me as a father and husband. You don’t want to lose the common touch and get adrift from your life, because fame is glorious but it’s also hollow and meaningless without love and family and mates and bricks and mortar.’
Hollow in what way? ‘If you’re having an off-day it can be a very uncomfortable experience to be recognised in public. You have this other persona following you. Being observed and judged all the time can make you feel neurotic. The way to deal with it is to be nice to everyone, really. I hope I’d be nice without the mantle of fame. I’ve been working down in Soho these past five days and I am now the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine. From Thomas Crown to Thomas the Tank. I go to the pubs around here. Meet mates for lunch. My son [Sean]. He lives here. He’s 24, went to the Central School of Drama here, he’s in the first throes of being an actor, played Romeo with the RSC. I think he’s got the talent and the guts and the humility to be a good actor. He looks like me, actually.’
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? ‘It’s a great thing, for goodness’ sake! Looks like me – and his darling mother, God bless her.’
After his first wife died, was it Sean that forced him to re-engage with the world? ‘The children forced me to carry on, and my life carried on because of the children, no question. We had been together for 17 years, my wife and I, so that was a long partnership and it was very hard for me to find myself again. The main thing was to find a positive place for her in my life. We still talk about her. She’s not forgotten and I am blessed with a wife now [Keely Shaye Smith] who always keeps in her heart a place for my first wife. Keeps it open because she has a stepson and I have stepchildren. It takes a mighty heart to do that. A special kind of woman.’
Oddly enough, when I see his words written down, without hearing him deliver them, I find them more moving. For the record, he believes that he is comfortable in his skin. ‘I’d say so. I can be pretty hard on myself and have a good, healthy dose of insecurity and doubt, though. All the foibles of being human and being an actor and being a husband and being a father, wondering where to go next, wondering how talented I am. Where is that talent? How big is it? How small?’
Having heard that he prefers to be photographed from the left, I ask whether he is a narcissist. ‘There is always someone to cut you down. I have enough people to take the piss out of me and tell me to shut up and go away and don’t be boring, but actually I’m my own worst critic. I’ve tried to use my looks as well as I can but they have also cost me jobs. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.’
I like him for saying that. The interview is winding up, but before I go I ask if he will sign autographs for my James Bond-obsessed sons, aged 10 and eight. Rather endearingly, he signs with a flourish, signatures so big and flowery they take up two whole pages of A4. And when I inspect them later I see he has put in brackets at the bottom of each page (007!!).