One morning last summer, Pierce Brosnan woke up alone and miserable in a hotel room in Serbia, and realised he was 60. “My wife had given me a great birthday party the night before in Malibu,” he says, “and sent me off with all my birthday cards and said, you must put them all up, which I dutifully did when I got in. The next morning all the birthday cards were there and there was one in the middle that said 60. Just that number alone”. He smiles ruefully.
We are sitting in the vestibule of a grand hotel in Versailles, which is exactly the sort of place you would imagine Pierce Brosnan would spend his days. There has always been an atmosphere of glamour about the man. Today he looks bronzed and handsome, black cords and a black moleskin jacket. He speaks languorously, his accent a mixture of Irish and American. On screen, whether in the tuxedo of James Bond or the deck shoes he sported in Mamma Mia!, he has the grace and fleet-footedness of the actors of an earlier era. Brosnan has referred to this as his “smooth git number one” persona.
It is something he plays on in his new film, The Love Punch, a goofy farce that nods to the Bond movies with its glamorous globetrotting locations (London, Paris, the French Riviera) and frenetic chase sequences. Except that the cars are dinky hatchbacks and the film’s central diamond heist is carried out by a group of retirees — Brosnan, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie — more likely to provision themselves with a round of egg mayonnaise sandwiches than a gun. Oh, and the plot revolves around stolen pensions.
“It was enormous fun,” says Brosnan. “No acting required. Just show up and have a good time, really.” The plot may not make much sense, but the four leads are game enough, squeezing themselves into wetsuits and discussing bunions and prostates and scuttling off during the action for loo breaks. Thompson and Brosnan hold the film together as a happily divorced former husband and wife. “She is so beguiling, so bedazzling and of great heart and kinship, it’s easy to fall in love with her,” says Brosnan. She looks incredibly attractive in the film, I say. “She is,” he says. “She lets it all hang out at the same time. She’s a clown, really. We talked a lot because we both studied clowning. She studied mime in Paris, I studied mime in England. We both had a background in buffoonery and slapstick which lent itself to the high jinks of The Love Punch.”
It’s interesting, too, to see a Hollywood star playing against a romantic lead his own age, when the tendency seems to be to cast older leading men with women 20 years younger. Are we in Europe less squeamish about the idea that older people might find each other attractive? “Oh, absolutely,” says Brosnan, who became an American citizen in 2004. “It’s so manicured and codified in America; they don’t really venture into the realms of reality when it comes to the relationships of men and women; they go to the market of youth.”
Does it feel odd, I wonder, when you are cast against a woman half your age? “I have no problems with that whatsoever! No, I don’t!” He laughs. “But I think I’d feel a little...” He winces. “Actually I did that in a film that’s not out yet, How to Make Love Like an Englishman. In it, Jessica Alba and I are lovers; so when the curtain goes up, everyone knows that she’s far too young; and I as an Oxford professor of the Romantic period know that she’s too young, but it doesn’t matter. So you have a get-out.” Because it’s self-aware, I say? “Yeah. But I do love the notion of the younger woman, as I’m now the older man. You see it in men, that fear that the clock is ticking, the clock is ticking, and women become more and more beautiful, every age group. It just becomes this lustfulness of yearning and want. There are just so many gorgeous women and your attitude to time and the ticking of it, and what could have been.”
Brosnan’s own experience is rather at odds with this wolfish talk, because he could be described as a committed monogamist. He was married first to Cassandra Harris, who died in 1991 of ovarian cancer, at the age of 43, and is about to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary with his second wife, Keely Shaye Smith. “I was 23, 24, when I first married,” he says. “There was a wildness before then, and there was a wildness after I lost my first wife, there were a number of years there. Not many. But I enjoy married life; it gives me balance and continuity and steadfastness that helps my creativity. I think if I allowed myself to go nuts, I don’t know it could be dangerous.”
Brosnan spent the first 11 years of his life in Navan, a town 30 miles from Dublin. His father, Thomas, left his mother, Mary, when Brosnan was two; the young Brosnan was shuttled between friends and grandparents and the Christian Brothers, a group whose brutality towards the children in their care was the subject of a newspaper expose in 1964. [Brosnan has spoken in the past of the “paddybats, the straps that would fly out of the soutane like vipers’ tongues, the beatings amid the prayers”]. In the same year, Mary was able to send for her son to join her in England, where she had sought to make a new life.
“It was extremely courageous of her to get out of the mangled lifestyle of Catholicism and shaming, and find a life for herself and myself,” says Brosnan. “I wouldn’t have had my career if she’d stayed in Ireland and been persecuted for being a single mother by the church and the gossip of the town.”
Last year Brosnan made what he calls a “pilgrimage” to Navan. He visited the bungalow built by his grandfather in which he spent many years of his boyhood. He looks pained when we talk about it. “It’s a cesspool,” he says. “It’s just a sea of beer bottles and beer cans. There are no windows; it’s just the shell of a house. They let all the local kids and druggies go in there. It was a tree-lined beautiful avenue, right on the River Boyne. It was just awful.” He sighs heavily.
Brosnan is working harder than ever — he has made seven films in the last two years, including the one shooting in Versailles, The Moon and the Stars, in which he plays an approximation of Louis XIV. His palpable weariness is offset by a dignified reserve. It’s a combination that makes me loath to ask about the most recent tragedy he has endured — the death of his adopted daughter, Charlotte, who died last summer, aged 42, of the same cancer that killed her mother.
I ask how he has coped with difficult periods in his personal and professional life. “Faith”, he says, unexpectedly, “I have a strong faith, being Catholic Irish, that has been maintained throughout my life. I enjoy the ritual of church, prayer. I’m not consistent in it, but it’s within me. The dark times and the troubles, they’ll come regardless. You just hope you have the strength and courage to address them and endure. You want to live as many lives as possible in one, you want to do as much as you can.”
It was acting that offered salvation to Brosnan when he was a young man. He was working as a commercial artiste in Putney — “drawing straight lines, watering the spider plants, making cups of tea” — when someone suggested that he visit the Ovalhouse theatre company in south London.
“I knew that I had found sanctuary when I went there,” he says, “and I knew I had found a lifestyle that enabled me to be many people all at the same time and to explore my own fractured life.” He dabbled in experimental theatre, doing plays on the underground and almost getting arrested at a Rolling Stones gig for, as he puts it, “getting in the way, loitering and trying to do puppet theatre activities”.
The hero of his youth was Steve McQueen: he worshipped him for “the cool factor”. Brosnan loved being part of a stage company, but he wanted to be a film star. His first wife, also an actor, suggested they try their luck in America. “We took out a second mortgage,” he says, “hopped on a plane to America, got an agent, got a car from the Rent-a-Wreck, went for my first interview and it was for Remington Steele, and that was it.” To play the dandyish private investigator, Brosnan watched Cary Grant films, trying to imitate his pace and effortlessness. In reality, he says, he was “very easily flustered, thrown off — I lose my way like most people”. He crafted a niche as a leading man in a way that seemed entirely natural, yet still felt at heart like a character actor. And he likes to subvert his smooth Bond persona — he does so in The Love Punch, but think too of his roles as the manipulative MI6 agent in The Tailor of Panama (2001), or as the hitman in The Matador (2005), sipping margaritas and strutting through a hotel lobby dressed only in cowboy boots and black underpants.
“The leading man arena can be fairly vacant and vacuous,” he says. “Who the hell am I within this role or on the page? They want you to bring your own persona, and that gets a little tricky at times, when it’s just you bringing yourself to a role which is thinly written.”
As we are talking, a suave young Frenchman stops in front of our table. “James Bond,” he says. “In another life,” replies Brosnan, and shakes his hand. This is not an infrequent occurrence. Being Bond was like being “an ambassador to a small nation”, says Brosnan. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving, that allowed me to create my own production company and make my own movies.”
His sons [he has three, one by his first wife, and two by his second] often complain that he won’t watch the Bond movies with them; his feelings towards the role are equivocal. “I felt I was caught in a time warp between Roger and Sean,” he says. “It was a very hard one to grasp the meaning of, for me. The violence was never real, the brute force of the man was never palpable. It was quite tame, and the characterization didn’t have a follow-through of reality, it was surface. But then that might have had to do with my own insecurities in playing him as well.”
Has he ever re-watched the films? He mock-shudders. “I have no desire to watch myself as James Bond. Because it’s just never good enough.” He laughs mirthlessly. “It’s a horrible feeling.”
Last year, Brosnan produced and starred in a film called The November Man, an adaptation of Bill Granger’s thriller, There Are No Spies, which marks a return to the genre that made his name. “There’s enough time between my being James Bond and now,” he says. “Daniel [Craig] is James Bond; I was James Bond; I think there’s enough room on the stage to elbow my way in and find some audience.” Could he be beginning a later life action-man renaissance, a la Liam Neeson? I mention that there’s been talk of him doing the next film in The Expendables, the geriatric action film franchise. He rolls his eyes. “It was idle dinner conversation with [the producer] Avi Lerner. He said, ‘do you want to be in it?’ I said, ‘sure, Avi, let me have a look at the script’. But it’s the internet, it all snowballs. What I did say to him was if you want to do a female version of The Expendables, I’ll be in that one.”
After he’s finished this next film, he plans to go to his home in Kauai, Hawaii, where he spends his time when not in Malibu or shooting a film. There he kayaks, gardens, hikes, surfs and paints. He has no intention of working less. “I’ve taken time off in the past, and the phone didn’t ring.” He laughs. “Mr Obama likes to take as much as he can get out of your pocket, you know. We voted for this fellow and it’s like, let’s just pull asunder what you have built. So you have to work, and I love to work. Nothing comes from nothing.”
The Love Punch is releasing on Friday.