WHEN I’M 64
PIERCE BROSNAN ISN’T DOING THE GARDEN, DIGGING THE WEEDS OR OTHER AGE-APPROPRIATE THINGS. HE’S SAVING THE WORLD AND ENJOYING IT.
SIXTY-FOUR, STILL SAVING THE WORLD ELEGANTLY.
Such is his art of “destroying and rebuilding… continually devoting... From nothing to everything, from everything to nothing, only acting.”
“Look! Bond, James Bond!” He’s been spotted. In the lobby of the hotel in Austin, Texas, fifteen years after exiting the role, Pierce Brosnan is James Bond, positively identified in the same cadence as he spoke the immortal line. We’re actually here to talk about the Netflix special, The Foreigner, a screen adaptation of Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel, The Chinaman. Jackie Chan plays the restaurateur whose daughter is killed by an IRA bomb. But maybe we should get James Bond out of the way first.
Brosnan hadn’t wanted to repeat himself. But to do four consecutive Bond movies, you could be expected to, he admits. He was first scheduled to audition for the part in 1986, but couldn’t make it. His debut would come eight years later: as the 007 of the tenuous post-cold war and pre-putin world order; the jaded spy would conceivably be less impressed with himself; less suave and roguish fun as Her Majesty’s heroic secret service agent.
But James Bond, the multibillion-dollar Hollywood franchise, must perform to market expectations (Apple and Amazon are reportedly interested in buying). Thus the character must be comfortingly familiar. “Both Roger Moore and Sean Connery, the Bonds they played are like echoes, and I do not exclude their impact on me,” says Brosnan. Characters like Jason Bourne, having the advantage of being conceived more recently, “raised the ante on the Bond series,” he adds.
Brosnan was born in County Meath, Ireland. His father left the family when he was a boy, and he mostly lived with his grandparents. When they passed on, he stayed with an uncle, then an aunt, until he reunited with his mother when he was eleven. He would spend three years studying acting in South London, first at The Oval House Theatre (now Ovalhouse), then Drama Centre London, ever feeling the outsider. But when he landed in LA in 1982, aged 27, he seemed to have come home. As Remington Steele of the eponymous TV series, Brosnan struck up a winningly watchable chemistry with Stephanie Zimbalist, good-humouredly prodding at the politics of the male-female relationship before gender became an article of faith for millennials.
He paints; his early career was as a commercial illustrator. His first exhibition, in Paris, is scheduled for this year. He’s gentle, straightforward, humorous, and sensitive and demanding—he delayed the shoot for some proper food, and is distracted by the whispers of others drifting our way. A Martini (shaken, not stirred) relaxes him.
Hollywood is disconcerting; its fame and monetary rewards correlate poorly with respect. There are the roles he takes on to challenge himself, such as in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010), in which he plays a former British prime minister who wants to complete his memoirs. Chanelling an alternate Tony Blair, he won Best Supporting Actor at the Irish Film and Television Awards. He was nominated in the same category for his role as an ageing hitman on The Matador (2005). More recent is last year’s The Only Living Boy in New York, playing opposite Kate Beckinsale, his mistress with whom his son starts an affair, and Jeff Bridges. He describes it as a “postcard to New York,” and apologises to Esquire for his role in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again: “I don’t sing that much so it will go okay.” He’s here in Austin to shoot the second season of The Son for AMC, about the fluctuating fortunes of a Texas oil tycoon.
A devout Catholic, Brosnan plays Liam Hennessy in The Foreigner, whose character flies close to Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, the political party symbiotic with the Irish Republican Army. He faces off with a man played by Jackie Chan. They have an exchange: “Politicians and terrorists, they are just two ends of the same snake.” “There is a difference: one end bites and the other doesn’t.”
Esquire: Tell us about your character in The Foreigner. Pierce Brosnan: I play Liam Hennessy. He’s the first minister of Northern Ireland. He’s a politician; he’s a politician with a past that is quite troubled and dark, and he’s a man who is trying to do the best he can in the times that he lives in, because definitely there was blood on his hands, and he really is beginning to unravel someone when the curtain goes up in the film.
ESQ: I really like the line comparing terrorists and politicians. It’s like an action movie, with political elements. I’m curious about what drew you to this project. PB: Martin Campbell (director) did a great job. It’s an action movie with some muscle and intellect. Martin Campbell is a good friend. Martin Campbell and I, we did Golden Eye together; my first James Bond movie, his first James Bond movie. Martin is extremely accomplished and brilliant, and he’s a friend. Jackie Chan is who I adore, who I think is the most incredible actor performer, entertainer and human being. So those two ingredients were wonderful, and then also you have the script and the story which I thought was very intriguing and extremely well-executed by the writer.
So, that was it. You sit down to read the script, and it’s an offer and it’s in the company of men like Martin Campbell, Jackie Chan, that I really pay attention. So you read very slowly, quietly, and then, do you want to turn the page? Do you want to turn the page? You want to turn the page. Does it engage you? Does it have emotional content for you as an actor? And when
A GOOD ACTOR HAS TECHNIQUE, HAS PASSION, HAS HEART AND IS COURAGEOUS; AND TO BE FEARLESS, TO BE OPEN, TO BE VULNERABLE, TO BE ABLE TO GO THROUGH THE FIRE WITHOUT LOSING YOURSELF, WITHOUT MESSING YOUR LIFE UP; AND TO MEET THE BEST PEOPLE, TO WORK WITH THE BEST PEOPLE; TO HAVE HUMILITY.
you get to the very end of it, do you want to go back and read it again? And will it sustain you for six weeks, even six months? And I ticked every box. So, it was easy to do.
ESQ: Did you know Jackie Chan before you shot this movie? PB: No, we didn’t really get to know each other, which I’m sad to say, it just didn’t happen, because when he was filming his character I was pursuing my character. There were a few dinners which were set up at the beginning of the film and they didn’t happen. And once the movie starts then you know your time is not yours; it’s just work. And there was a lot of work, a lot of dialogue, so you have to do your homework. So you finish work, and you go home quietly and learned lines. So if there is a chance, Jackie and I shall go rip the town up.
(In an interview with USA Today, Brosnan describes Chan’s total commitment to his character wonderfully: “The days that we worked together started with joviality. And they ended in absolute anguish and medieval violence. Jackie has a wonderful sense of humour. But once that bell went off, that was it.”)
ESQ: You’ve been an actor for decades. How do you get started in acting, and are there any moments that sparkle? What made you want to be an actor? PB: The movies made me want to be an actor. I grew up in Ireland. I left Ireland as a young man in 1964, came to London. I was an immigrant, Irish, trying to fit in, in London. I was good at art. I love art. I still paint, and my passport was a cobbled folder of drawings and paintings. I got a job in a small studio, drawing straight lines, straight lines, straight lines, making cups of tea, and watered the spider plants. That was my job. And then, one day I was in the studio talking to a guy from the photographic department about movies and he said, you should come along to The Oval House, in south London. That was it. I became an actor. That was the start of a story.
ESQ: What was your earliest ambition, and what ambition do you still have? PB: My earliest ambition was to be a good actor. Once I found acting, to be a great actor became my ambition; to be a magnificent, brilliant and wonderful one. When I found acting, I did train; I went off to drama school. I did Repertory Theatre in England, West End, but I loved the movies. My ambitions now are the same: just to be a better actor, to create something which is uniquely yours, try to be an unexpected surprise every now and then, and to paint. I might have an exhibit next year in Paris. We are talking about it. We found a space. And I always say they can sing in Mamma Mia and I can show my paintings. Have fun, enjoy life.
ESQ: Are you closer to the actor you’ve always wanted to be? How do you define a good actor? PB: I think a good actor has technique, has passion, has heart and is courageous; and to be fearless, to be open, to be vulnerable, to be able to go through the fire without losing yourself, without messing your life up; and to meet the best people, to work with the best people; to have humility.
Above all else, to have some gratitude for your gift, because it’s a very strange art form, because you’re dealing with yourself the whole time.
You’re constantly constructing and destroying yourself somewhat, people like Daniel Day-lewis and Anthony Hopkins; or do something like Jackie Chan, in that he commits whole-heartedly, courageously. And what he does in The Foreigner is beautiful work. It’s very open and very vulnerable and very contained all at the same time. So yes, it’s very hard to define what a good actor is but I think a good actor connects with the audience, connects with the people, and that’s what you want to do: to turn people on.
ESQ: Do you have a particular method or technique you rely on most of the time to get immersed in the character? PB: Well, I was taught in the method. The school I went to was very heavily method-orientated. And the method always fascinated me because, when I found acting, Marlon Brando was a huge influence on camera. Clint was a huge influence; Clint Eastwood, Steve Mcqueen. All these people who created this aura on screen. Rather intoxicating. So I was told, as a method, to be vigilant and to be detailed.
I wish I was, more often.
Then you find yourself; you do your own role, and you define yourself. So you read the script and you try to have an emotional connection to each scene, each part of the story, and you read it and you read it, and you try to leave yourself alone, try to listen. Yes, you can dream about what you set forth, and you do 100% of yourself to be that character, to the best of your ability in the company of hopefully greatest actors.
Simple. Just, constant work. So, nothing comes from nothing.
ESQ: This is such a culture touchstone. You’re a four-time James Bond. How did you make this character consistent on-screen while not repeating yourself ? PB: Oh, I think I repeated myself. I think I was required to repeat myself in some regards. When I played the part, it had been dominated for six years but no one really felt like there was a need to go back to that James Bond. So the odds against Martin Campbell, and myself, and the whole company, the family, [producers] Barbara [Broccoli] and Michael [G. Wilson], were pretty stacked—not against us, but there was doubt. There was also consequently a great element of fear and risk. I was brought up on the character played by Sean Connery, the character played by Roger Moore, and I’d seen Timothy Dalton play it and so I knew that what was required of me and tried to address those issues accordingly. So my Bond was influenced by Roger Moore, and by Sean Connery.
ESQ: How have your feelings towards the character evolved over the years? PB: Oh I adore the character. I have nothing but gratitude for the character of James Bond. It has allowed me to create my own company, Irish Dreamtime, to make movies like The Thomas Crown Affair and The Matador; everything.
I knew that at some point the curtain would fall and then you will be stamped and branded as James Bond forever. You knew that going in the door: if you get it right, and you want to get it right—every man who’s played the role has got it right in their own way. So yes, you just celebrated it.
I know that Daniel [Craig] was very nervous when he was taking over, and he and I sat on a few occasions and he spoke of his apprehension—because it’s a huge undertaking. But he committed in the most incredible fashion and made the most magnificent James Bond. So you digest all of that, you sit with all of that, then you go play … James Bond was a significant small chapter of my life, a decade of my life, but it’s the gift that keeps giving.
ESQ: So could you speak to the James Bond series’ influence on movies and even on pop culture at large? PB: Oh, Bond has influenced many generations of filmmakers. It’s one of the most indelible and potent characters in the cinema; what the Broccolis
have is something uniquely theirs and [worth] knowing about. No one else has such a product, such a beloved character [that] will be played for many decades to come. There will be other men waiting in the wings to play this role. I wish I could be more eloquent about it; I am one of five men who have played the role now, and people love James Bond, and there are many detractors. When I saw Bourne Identity, I thought, oh this is good, this is really good: Paul Greengrass, Matt Damon, just the whole vibrancy, kinetic value of it, was quite exhilarating. That upped the ante for the James Bond franchise.
ESQ: Based on how audiences have changed, do you see different choices, for you, being made about what to produce now? PB: I live such a simple life as an actor, as a man, as a father. I used to know what was happening and who was running the studios. It has metastasized now into a society of filmmakers that it’s very hard to keep an eye on everything. I just go from project to project. I do pieces that sustain me, that have come to me organically. I try not to second-guess.
It’s an exhilarating for young filmmakers and writers now. You have the world at your fingertips with an iphone. Has it changed? Of course, it’s changed. The cinemas are closing down one after another. The studios made massive tentpole movies and the need for smaller stories is always necessary.
ESQ: TV was very much a step down from movies but now, it’s flipped. Is there anything you’re able to put on TV that you couldn’t before? PB: The TV world is very fertile now, very potent. Cinema has diminished a little bit, because people have access to movies in their own homes. I had for the last number of years wanted to do a TV series with my late partner, Marie [Beau Marie St Clair]. She and I had been actively looking, and then The Son came out of nowhere, really, and that’s how I’m here in Austin, Texas. This is a second season of The Son. It’s really well-written; beautiful cast of young actors, and the character is very timely for me. There’s a man of certain years in life able to play this character: the colonel and baguettes work.
Keep it as simple as possible; the ego can pull you in many different directions. And I love TV. I started on the stage, and then TV, but always dreamt of the movies. If you are a good actor, a hard-working actor, you should do anything. At least, pretend to.
ESQ: Actually, you’re also a producer, an anti-war activist and an environmental activist. What do you think of the role of politics in people’s daily lives, especially right now? PB: In America, everybody has to be actively connected to the community, pretty much. So everything starts in the community. Everything starts with the family; everything starts in the home. So if you love your family, you love your children and you want the best education for them, you want the best environment for them to grow up in, then you better pay attention to the politicians who run your community and then you need to speak out. In America now, there’s a definite imbalance within the country that comes with a southern heartache. America is my adopted country. I’m an Irishman, but I’ve lived here in America now for 35 years and I am an American citizen. Wife, children. Everything can be politicised.
I grew up in the countryside and what I see happening to our rivers and oceans and the deforestation of the land is really heartbreaking. If you’re passionate about living a good life for yourself and for your children then you have to be educated [about] who’s taking care of your life. And that starts in your own community.
ESQ: Do you think the movie industry should try to comment on the present political climate, or in general, do you see movies as a chance to make any political statements? PB: I think you can do all of the above. I think it is to ultimately to entertain and to enrich people’s lives and to hold up some kind of mirror to their lives, so they can have an identification in a positive way. Yes, of course, you can. However, sometimes you can be censored so badly by the ones that are taking care of you [who are] in a position of power. Artists are always the first to be censored, made aware of their position in society. But it is up to artists also to break through that censorship and say, this is how we see it.
ESQ: You’ve been in Hollywood for a long time. What do you think of the diversity problems or are there any other problems you think should be put in priority that we should try to solve? PB: Better identify with each other’s cultures for sure, and embrace the cultures we have. And because we are multiplying at a colossal rate globally, it’s heartbreaking to see so many individuals and people who are trying to make a life for themselves be crippled by the politics.
SO YOU READ THE SCRIPT AND YOU TRY TO HAVE AN EMOTIONAL CONNECTION TO EACH SCENE, EACH PART OF THE STORY, AND YOU READ IT AND YOU READ IT, AND YOU TRY TO LEAVE YOURSELF ALONE, TRY TO LISTEN.