In 1987, The Observer sent me to Ireland to interview Pierce Brosnan on and around the set of Taffin, which was then being filmed at Ardmore Studios.
For some reason, the piece never ran; Taffin didn’t generate a lot of interest in the media, so it might have been that, or it might just have fallen between the cracks, as articles as sometimes wont to do. I had completely forgotten about it until going through a crate of papers the other day, and quite enjoyed reading it again after all this time, so I don’t think it was spiked as unpublishable. But who knows.
Ironically, the film probably enjoys more name recognition now than it ever did around the time of its release, thanks to this line having been reborn as an internet meme, courtesy of Adam and Joe.
This interview is pre-Bond Brosnan, and quite poignant, I think. It must have seemed to him as though other guys were having all the luck – Timothy Dalton had been cast as Bond in his place, and Bruce Willis was reaping the rewards of Glenn Gordon Caron’s talent after the writer had parted company with Remington Steele and gone on to create Moonlighting. More tragically, Brosnan’s first wife (Cassandra Harris, who was present in the background during our interview) was to die of cancer a few years later.
As everyone knows, Brosnan did indeed go on to play James Bond, in GoldenEye in 1995 – and play him very well, I thought. But his next three outings as 007 (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day) were greeted with increasingly hostile receptions, and for some reason, many people seemed to hold the actor personally responsible for the decline in the franchise’s quality. The role of Bond, like all such iconic roles, is a poisoned chalice. It makes you mega-famous, but you can never escape it, and audiences will never, ever let you forget it. Your subsequent films, no matter how varied, tend to be viewed as James Bond slumming it, and you are never quite taken seriously as an actor – at least not unless you manage to stick around until old age has taken the shine off your looks.
I liked Brosnan as a person when I met him – he was charming, and disarmingly open while clearly trying manfully to be diplomatic – but I have also liked him as an actor in Nomads (John McTiernan’s first film), The Deceivers, Mars Attacks!, Dante’s Peak, The Thomas Crown Affair, Grey Owl, The Tailor of Panama, The Matador, Seraphim Falls and The Ghost. (I’ve left out some films I didn’t like, and cameos.) I didn’t like him in Mamma Mia!, but nor did I like anyone else in that, and heaven knows he was game enough.
I have never watched a single episode of Remington Steele.
But I think Pierce Brosnan is a better and more versatile actor than he is usually given credit for. He takes creative risks, and seems prepared to send up or undermine his own image (The Matador and The Ghost are two such examples). I’d love to see one of the Young Turks of contemporary cinema (paging Tarantino – even though he’s no longer young) write for him the sort of preconception-busting role he could really sink his teeth into.
The interview begins after this picture of Brosnan in Taffin.
The receptionist at Ardmore Studios in County Wicklow lowers her voice. ‘For God’s sake don’t call him Bronson,’ she says, ‘or that’ll be the end of you.’
Thirty minutes later, outside Healey’s pub in Wicklow Town, a schoolgirl confides that she is hoping to get Mr Bronson’s autograph. There are, in fact, a lot of autograph hunters hanging around outside Healey’s, where a scene from the film Taffin is being shot. They’re all after a glimpse of the Big Star who has flown in from Los Angeles to play the lead role. Pierce Brosnan, aka Remington Steele, aka the man who was so nearly the next 007, is back on his native soil.
Brosnan’s pet hate is people getting his name wrong. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘you have to live with that if you’re going to have a quirky name like mine.’ As far as forenames go, Pierce (‘as in the verb to pierce‘) is probably about as macho as you can get, but it’s not the product of some Hollywood PR’s imagination; the name has been in his family for three or four generations. As for Brosnan, that’s a common enough handle in County Kerry.
Brosnan has been given the afternoon off. He’s spending it in some style, sipping from a tube of lager as he relaxes on the terrace of the 18th Century mansion in which he and his family are staying. ‘We’ve rented so many houses this year that I’ve lost track of where I am and who I am, quite frankly.’ With Remington Steele no longer a fixture in the TV schedules, the public might also have lost track of who he is. But, as he says, ‘it’s been a busy year’. There will be plenty more chances for autograph hunters to get Pierce Brosnan’s name wrong.
We are surrounded by a sample of your actual rolling emerald landscape through which the insistent baa-baaing of sheep is being wafted earwards by a fresh monoxide-free breeze. Brosnan’s three year old son, Sean, is inside watching Superted on TV. His wife Cassie and their two elder children are also close at hand, as is a floppy Retriever called something unpronounceably Gaelic. It’s all very Country Life, but Brosnan looks as though he could be equally at ease in the back room of a pub.
‘This is like an old pair of gloves, really,’ he says. ‘Coming back here is like an old pair of shoes. I feel very relaxed, at one with the land.’ You can tell he’s been living in California.
In photographs, Brosnan looks almost impossibly handsome, like Barbie’s boyfriend Ken, only better looking. In real life, with a touch of designer stubble cultivated for his role in Taffin, and with his endearing charm, beguiling brogue et cetera, he is a walking, talking advertisement for Irish manhood. The jacket is Valentino and the socks are Calvin Klein; they are teamed with jeans (of which the label is not visible). His shoes… Well, he says, the left one belongs to him and the right one belongs to Michael Collins.
Here I suspect I am being led up the garden path. Michael Collins, as far as I’m aware, is not a designer label. He was a founding father of the Irish Republican Army and the subject of a postponed film project that was to have been directed by Michael Cimino from a script by Robert Bolt: a plum part, one would have thought, for any actor with an Irish accent. ‘I would have been interested,’ Brosnan says, ‘but I’m not right for Michael Collins, no way. I don’t think Hollywood is going to be able to tell the Michael Collins story. I think it should be a very small independent film, somebody who goes away and does it quietly.’
Back on the subject of footwear, the sight of my Dr Martens’ (ladies’ style, very low-key) triggers Brosnan’s memory. ‘I wore them when I was a skinhead. I used to support Spurs. My first long trousers were a pair of Levis reinforced at the knee from Milletts on Putney High Street, with a pair of baseball boots and a crewcut, and I thought I was so hot. I was ten.’
Before young Brosnan went bovverish, he’d been brought up by various relatives in County Meath. His parents parted company soon after 1953, when Pierce was born, and his mother went to London, where she struggled to set up a new life for herself as a nurse before sending for her son to join her there in 1964. It would be thirty years before Pierce saw his father again; the reunion, which took place in a Dublin hotel, was not a success. Pierce had wanted it to be a private affair, but some of his relatives sold their snaps of the occasion to the press, and the event received wide exposure in the tabloids.
After two O-levels (in English and Art) and a short stint as a commercial artist, Brosnan studied drama before paying his theatrical dues in various rep productions up and down the country. Those dark good looks were doing the trick even then, because he was singled out for leading roles by Tennessee Williams [to play the role of McCabe in the 1977 British premiere of The Red Devil Battery Sign at the Roundhouse in London] and Franco Zeffirelli [in his 1977 production of Eduardo De Filippo’s Filumena at the Lyric Theatre in London].
His first film roles were blink-and-you-miss-them affairs: he snuggled up to Liz Taylor’s bosom in the all-star Agatha Christie-fest The Mirror Crack’d and appeared, more memorably albeit very fleetingly, as the IRA hitman who aims a gun at Bob Hoskins’ head at the end of The Long Good Friday. ‘I never actually worked with Bob Hoskins,’ Brosnan says. ‘The director said: “OK, the camera’s here, and this piece of tape is Bob.”‘
His first major break was a leading role in a mini-series called The Manions of America, a sort of Irish Roots set during the potato famine. After that, he upped and went to Hollywood. ‘When I went over there I thought I was going to be doing movies, thinking hopefully in my wildest dreams that I was going to be working with the Sidney Lumets and the Martin Scorseses of this world. But I was totally unknown. Anyway, what happened to me was wonderful.’
What happened was the TV show Remington Steele (1982-1987), which catapulted him to celebrity status in America, complete with devoted fan club whose newsletter, The PB Chronicles, filed such fascinating information as the fact that PB’s favourite food is cornflakes, and that Judy from Wyoming has seen one particular episode of Remington Steele no less than seventeen times.
The series never quite took off in the same way on this side of the Atlantic. ‘I think the BBC buying it was a mistake,’ says Brosnan, ‘because it really needed the commercial breaks. It’s a show that didn’t stand up to viewing for 55 minutes non-stop. And they changed it around from Tuesday night to Wednesday and Thursday, so it never really had a good innings.’
The boy-meets-girl-at-detective-agency concept was the brainchild of Glenn Gordon Caron. ‘It was a very sad day when that man left Remington Steele,’ says Brosnan. ‘He had wonderful ideas for Remington and Laura, but he couldn’t really fly with them. I don’t want to throw any mud, as it were, but the producers didn’t see it the way he did. So he just said he was going off to do something faster and funnier. And he did. He went off and did Moonlighting.’
And now Bruce Willis, who took up where Remington left off, has just taken home the Emmy Best Actor award for his role in Moonlighting. ‘Remington was a little bit too straight,’ says Brosnan, ‘but that being said, I have nothing but fond memories of the show.’
Maybe so, but it was Remington that scuppered Brosnan’s chances of becoming the new James Bond, a part that went to Timothy Dalton instead. Remington Steele had been cancelled, and Brosnan had as good as stepped into Roger Moore’s shoes when MTM announced the TV series was going to be revived after all. Contractual obligations being what they were, Brosnan had to kiss his licence-to-kill goodbye. ‘I got cancelled out on a Thursday, and I think they had Timothy on the Saturday. I thought they’d made a very good choice.’
‘Yes, I have taken it in my stride,’ he says. ‘It’s the only thing you can do, really. I don’t feel bitter, no, because bitterness only produces negativity, and negativity produces nothing.’ Nevertheless, when asked whether he has seen The Living Daylights, the answer is negative. ‘I will see it, but right now it’s still a little bit too near the bone. Which speaks volumes in itself…’
But, he reckons, it’s all for the best, it wasn’t meant to be, and anyway fate has dealt him a Good Hand. He played a KGB agent opposite Michael Caine in The Fourth Protocol, recently completed five months’ work in Hong Kong on an eight hour mini-series of James Clavell’s Noble House, and will shortly be off to India for the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of John Masters’ novel, The Deceivers, about the 19th Century cult of Thuggee (previously featured in Terence Fisher’s The Stranglers of Bombay and Richard Lester’s Help!). [ETA: The Deceivers, directed by Nicholas Meyer, is really rather good, and bears scant relation to the usual Merchant-Ivory house style.]
And as soon as Taffin wraps, he’ll be making a Diet Coke commercial. ‘They were going to film it in British Columbia. Then they were going to film it in Ireland, then Los Angeles, then New York…’ And where did they end up? ‘Now it’s going to be filmed in Peterborough.’ Peterborough, it seems, is the only place with a train that fits Diet Coke’s requirements.
Brosnan, without being prompted, launches into a protracted and almost poignant justification for his work in advertising (he has already been seen in America endorsing MasterCard), which seems as much for his own benefit as mine. ‘You have to look at your career and think, well, this is who I am and this is what I do, and I may not get a job next year. And I’ve got a wife and three children, and the more money you get, the more money you need. And the money that you get for two days’ work cannot be sneered at.’ (And it’s true that half a million dollars can go a long way towards helping you make the right career moves.)
Taffin, according to the advance blurb, is ‘a very original action thriller which sees the return of the romantic, if somewhat reluctant, hero.’ It is not stated as to where the hero is returning from, but Taffin is a debt collector who finds himself pitted against unscrupulous businessmen who are planning to construct a chemical plant on the outskirts of his hometown.
‘I don’t consider myself a romantic hero,’ says Brosnan. ‘Basically, to be rather mundane and boring, I consider myself an actor. But this character is… I hate the term debt collector because it’s so bland. He’s kind of a frustrated idealist, I guess, which isn’t going to put bums on seats. He’s a loner, yes, he’s very much a loner.’
His co-stars in Taffin are Alison Doody, a young Irish actress with excellent cheekbones who played Jenny Flex in A View to a Kill (Brosnan’s wife Cassie appeared in For Your Eyes Only: he must sometimes think fate is taunting him with a conspiracy of ex-Bondgirls) and esteemed Irish actor Ray McAnally, whose Oscar-nominated role as the Cardinal was by far the best thing about The Mission. [ETA: along with Ennio Morricone’s score. And two years later, Doody would be co-starring in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.]
I have already met McAnally, who has been holding forth in the dining trailer on his theories of heredity: actors breeding actors, athletes springing ready-made from the womb with appropriately athletic physiques, and new generations of Irish dancers being born with naturally thick ankles. McAnally pounces on me as the perfect patsy for a demonstration of English ignorance about all things Irish. ‘Nothing personal,’ he says, going on to ask me the population of Ireland, the name of the third biggest city, the names of the opposition parties, of the Prime Minister, and of the seat of government. I score nul points on all counts.
In fact, he gives me a sticky time of it until I cunningly introduce the topic of QPR, which I have read is his favourite football team, and mention of their current league table-topping position gets him beaming benignly. But his lecturing on Irishness has been so authoritative that I conclude he should be the one to know, if anyone does, whether Pierce Brosnan’s Los Angeles lifestyle has turned him into an honorary Angeleno, touching down on Irish soil in the manner of a root-seeking Reagan.
No, says McAnally. ‘He’s Irish. He is definitely an Irishman.’
‘I’m Irish,’ Brosnan confirms. ‘It’s my country. It’s where I was born. It’s my home.’ These days, however, home in the hearthrug sense is a house in the Hollywood Hills, where the Brosnans have been living for the past six years. He is Irish enough, however, to have done away with something called ‘The Disco Room’, a feature of the house when he first bought it. ‘There was a mirrored ball in there,’ he says. ‘Now it’s very anglicised, actually, with a lot of overstuffed chairs.’
Being a man of impeccable taste, however, he has yet to wholeheartedly embrace American beer. ‘I like Moosehead and Corona. Budweiser is like yeeaagghh, it’s like water. But I love beer and I’ve put on pounds since I’ve been over here. I think I’ll have to check the old weight out shortly.’ (Now weighing in at a respectable eleven and a half stone, he has been known to hit the scales at fourteen and a half.) Unlike many other residents of Los Angeles, he has yet to deprive himself of alcohol and caffeine, but he has, he assures me, stopped smoking.
Ten minutes later, halfway through the photo session, I notice he is clutching a lit cigarette.
‘I know,’ he says, ‘but when I come back to Ireland, I take everything up again.’