Escaping 007's shadow
Pierce Brosnan was sitting on the patio of a Beverly Hills restaurant sipping a beer last week when he was assailed by a gaggle of lively elderly women.
"You are gorgeous in person," exclaimed one lady with a thick New York accent who appeared to be in her 80s. "You look spectacular! I just got 20 years younger."
"You look gorgeous," Brosnan replied.
"Ugh! God, I'm in love. That's James Bond," she said, whispering to her friends as she shuffled away.
By the end of the spring, Brosnan, 56, will have appeared in five new films this year -- but to some, he'll always be James Bond. It's been eight years since the release of "Die Another Day," the last of the four films in which Brosnan reprised the iconic role of the unstoppable spy who loves women, fast cars and nifty gadgets. Just as one of his predecessors, Sean Connery, was able to leave behind the Bond role later in his career, Brosnan too is hoping that audiences will eventually be able to see him as more than just the international man of mystery.
That effort is reflected in Brosnan's latest spate of work. His most recent film, "The Greatest," on which he also served as a producer, opens Friday and tells the story of a father grappling with the death of his son. It shares in the serious tone of March's "Remember Me," in which he was embattled in a different kind of father-son relationship with teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson. There has also been Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," in which Brosnan played an emotionally distant former prime minister, as well as his less dramatic turn as a bearded centaur in "Percy Jackson and the Olympians." Later this month, he'll serve as the narrator on the environmental documentary "Oceans."
The diversity in projects was a conscious choice, said Brosnan, who was dressed immaculately in a crisp button-up and blazer with nary a crease. His face too was virtually without wrinkles -- his hair, peppered with just a hint of gray, was the only sign of his age.
"I said to my agents, 'Look, it's time to really work, and to find and explore other avenues here as an actor,' " he explained. "It doesn't have to be leading roles. Let's not be tripped up by past information. It's time to try and have longevity as an actor."
It was a move that surprised even the director of "The Greatest," 33-year-old Shana Feste.
"Initially, we never thought we could get someone like Pierce, with me as a first-time director on a low-budget film. It was the jackpot of actors for us," said Feste. "You associate him with Bond and this very GQ, slick, sexy persona, but he's actually a real chameleon and I don't think mainstream audiences have seen that yet."
In reality, Brosnan has been distancing himself from that image since one of his first big post-Bond roles, 2005's "The Matador," for which he received a Golden Globe nomination for his turn as an eccentric, burned-out hit man.
"At the time, I was definitely still very connected to the image and the history of Bond," he said. "Even when I was in it. It just lives with you. It permeates your life. And you know that going in, but the reality of it -- the overcoat is really large, and can be quite heavy at times. So you have to break the shackles of that."
Greg Kinnear, who also starred in "Matador" and will play opposite Brosnan again in the upcoming "Salvation Boulevard," described the role as "the best thing that could have happened" to Brosnan.
"I was sitting there watching this man painting his toenails purple and be completely fearless," he said. "I don't think he was even consciously reinventing himself. I just think of him more as a character actor than as a franchise player."
Brosnan began exploring his passion for the arts as a teenager in England (where his Irish Catholic family moved when he was 11). After leaving school at 16, he found a home at the Oval House Theatre, then an English arts lab.
"I had a romantic notion of being in the movies, but the reality was in finding an education for myself and finding an articulation of speech and passion for myself as an actor," he said. To help find that identity, Brosnan enrolled at the Drama Centre in South London. After leaving, he landed work with such acclaimed directors as Tennessee Williams and Franco Zeffirelli. Then in 1981, he and his wife, Cassandra Harris (who died of ovarian cancer in 1991) took out a second mortgage on their Wimbeldon home to afford a move to the U.S. A year later, Brosnan landed a role on the NBC detective series "Remington Steele," which would run until 1987 and make him an American star.
"I was trained and led to believe, as a young actor out of drama school, that I could play anything," he said. "And you come to America and find yourself in a TV series -- which I am forever grateful for because it allowed me to have the career that I've got -- but I never expected to be branded so. Or to be pigeon-holed."
He's tried to separate his identity from his more recognized screen personas in part by forming his own production company, Irish DreamTime, in 1996, for which he's overseen eight films, with more in the pipeline.
"The company was also a good way to take things that might not come down the stretch," said Beau St. Clair, a partner in the company. "You can create new avenues for yourself because this town is so much like, if you play an assassin, you get assassin scripts. You've gotta keep going, 'Oh, no, look over here, see this? I can do this.' "
Ewan McGregor, Brosnan's costar in "The Ghost Writer," said he admires the actor's exploration.
"I like what Pierce has done since he's left Bond," McGregor said. "He's really playing interesting roles and characters we haven't seen him play before. I think he's enjoying a real golden age."
But Brosnan, who is remarried and has five kids, three from his first marriage and two boys with his current wife, bristles at the thought that to some -- like the group of women who had passed by earlier -- he's a movie star. Instead, he opts to describe himself as a working actor.
"Movie star? Clint [Eastwood] is a movie star. Jack [Nicholson] is a movie star," he said. "If I'm called a movie star, then great. I certainly wanted to be one. I dreamt about it, in my own quiet way. I definitely have played the leading man, but I also see myself as a character actor -- a working actor. It just fits me well. It gives me a grounding."