Pierce Brosnan: A new licence to thrill

Pierce Brosnan has reinvented himself in the story of a debauched hitman. He tells Elaine Lipworth what the future holds for the former 007

"I am a sick, pathetic, immoral, alcoholic, sexually perverse, lost man, who is having a crisis of confidence in Mexico City," says Pierce Brosnan, a gleam in his eye. The actor is describing Julian Noble, the debauched hitman he portrays in his latest film, with great relish. The Matador, written and directed by Richard Shepard, is a black comedy that's refreshing because it is so far removed from 007. We see the actor looking hungover and unappealing, sporting a moustache and unflatteringly tight shirts, with a gold chain around his neck. In the most memorable scene, the former James Bond saunters through a hotel lobby, out to the swimming pool, wearing nothing but his skimpy underpants. Brosnan has managed to reinvent himself with one quirky film.

"Yes, it's a good performance, relaxed, confident and sure-footed, possibly my best performance ever," says Brosnan. "I've been identified with James Bond or Thomas Crown for so long; suave, elegant, sophisticated men in suits. it's like you've been giving the same performance for 20 years. Then suddenly you're walking across the lobby in your knickers and people say 'how amusing'. The swimming-pool scene has certainly become the central image from this film," says the actor. "Brosnan in his Cuban-heel boots and skivvies, Heineken in one hand and a fag in the other hand. You are used to seeing Brosnan, trying to do his best Cary Grant acting, so to dismantle that was great."

He talks about himself in the third person, in a strangely old-fashioned style, but does so with charming self-deprecation. He's easy on the ear, his soft, Irish voice undulating gently. He seems more or less unchanged by fame. When I first met him, in 1992, he was starring in a small film called The Lawnmower Man, shortly before his appearance in Mrs Doubtfire. He had recently lost his wife, the actress Cassandra Harris, to ovarian cancer. He was working, but the roles were pedestrian. A few years earlier, he had missed the opportunity of playing Bond because of contractual commitments to his television show Remington Steele. Yet he was enormously enthusiastic about his career and life in general. And during the Bond years he never seemed self-satisfied; on the contrary, one always felt that he couldn't quite believe his luck.

"I left school at 15 feeling fairly useless and not really up to scratch in my education," says Brosnan. "And I still suffer sometimes from that lack of education. As an actor, I've got by, I've had employment, I've had the good fortune to be able to work and I just feel blessed. But I do feel I have some bit of talent to create a character or move people, or entertain an audience, and that is very gratifying."

The Matador is particularly exciting to Brosnan because he's finally proved himself as a versatile actor. There have been solid performances before where he played against type, in films such as The Tailor of Panama in 2001, and the Irish drama Evelyn that he produced in 2002. But neither film took off at the box office. His performance in The Matador has had American critics in raptures.

"As an actor I've had the time of my life. Jesus, I've been living the life of Riley, " he says. "But you sit back and think: 'Well, some day maybe I'll find a role, find a piece and just nail it.' Some people have careers that are brilliant, everything they touch turns to gold. I'm just a working actor, a journeyman. My God, I came over to America 23 years ago, on a wing and a prayer on Freddie Laker, sandwiches in the back of the plane, you know? I was hoping to work with Martin Scorsese and ended up with a TV job instead, doing Remington Steele. But beggars can't be choosers. Don't look a gift horse in he mouth. That's why The Matador is so good," he says.

"I was aware that I was not getting the good acting roles because I was either too handsome, too pretty or whatever. I was being judged in ways that left me nowhere to go. You have to be patient."

Brosnan's Julian Noble is appealing and scary at the same time. "He is a killer, but you just like the guy. I gave the script to a friend at LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department], who introduced me to a criminal psychologist and she gave me a breakdown of this kind of psychopath. Apparently they are the greatest actors, charming, wonderful, narcissistic, cruel and relentless. These men do exist in our society, they kill for money."

Making the film was enjoyable, Brosnan says, despite some trepidation about filming in Mexico City. In fact, his fears were well founded: one of the crew was mugged. "My wife had some concerns," he says. "You hear about violence and kidnapping. We had bodyguards, that's for sure, and armoured vehicles, which was strange."

Aside from concerns about the location, in hindsight Brosnan says that The Matador was a risky career move. Would audiences accept him as such a depraved character? "It goes against Bond, of course, and that's why I did it. Julian's the ultimate vulgarian, so to be able to go sexually and verbally and psychologically wherever you want to go was very liberating. But there was a risk factor, because you don't want to be an embarrassment."

Brosnan says he decided to tone down the script and make his character less extreme. "At first he was bisexual, he shagged everything - man, woman, beast - but I thought: 'Less is more.' It's a razor's edge. The trick is to bring the audience in then push them away, but you don't want to leave them in the cold. So he is still wild. The curtain goes up, he gets out of bed and paints his toenails."

Brosnan is willing to admit that closing the Bond chapter after a decade wasn't easy. There was the inevitable disappointment, (not to mention the financial loss) when the producers and franchise holders, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, decided to go for a younger 007, Daniel Craig. Brosnan's four Bond movies made billions. His last, Die Another Day (2002) with Halle Berry, set a franchise record, earning $425m worldwide. Aged 52, Brosnan had been keen to tackle the role one final time when he got the phone call that informed him that his services were no longer required.

With The Matador doing so well, there doesn't appear to be any bitterness, but he is prepared to acknowledge that there were creative differences about interpreting the iconic character. "When you look at Fleming's work, the character has more depth, it's all there on the page: the sadness, the loneliness, the Martinis, the cigarettes, the casinos." He trails off with a sigh. "But they never went there with me. Hopefully there'll go there with Daniel. Some of those stupid one-liners never felt real to me," he says. "They always felt so phony. I'd look at myself in the suit and tie and think: 'What the heck am I doing here?'" He is generous, however, (or at least diplomatic) about his replacement. "I think it's great casting. But that chapter is over, closed, finished," he says with a flourish of the arms. "I am the happiest man, making films with my company Irish Dreamtime."

Brosnan is currently producing Butterfly On A Wheel and a sequel to The Thomas Crown Affair. Physically you can tell that he has started a fresh chapter. He's still ridiculously handsome but doesn't look remotely like Bond; in fact, he doesn't bear much resemblance to Pierce Brosnan, wearing a grey beard he grew for his latest film, Seraphim Falls. "You want to know about my facial hair?" he smiles, stroking his chin. "I dyed it grey, of course," he says, grinning. "I have no problems with the beard. My wife, on other hand," he lapses into broad, cartoon Irish, "is not particularly partial to it at all."

Brosnan's wife is Keely Shaye Smith, the mother of his two youngest sons, Dylan and Paris. He has an older son, Sean, and two adopted children, Christopher and Charlotte, from his marriage to Harris. Brosnan and his family live in Malibu and have a home in Hawaii. "I've been a married man most of my life; that's the way I like it. This is a very capricious business and the family, being a father, keeps you centred," he says.

Fatherhood has been an integral part of life for Brosnan since he adopted Harris's children when he was just 23. Perhaps because his own father left when he was a child, the actor takes his familial responsibilities seriously. "When I go home from the studio or the set, work stays there and life is around the kitchen table and what's happening in our children's lives - soccer, homework, planning the next adventure in life. I get to go home to the most beautiful woman in the planet, lovely children, a good normal life and then I get to run off and play in the movies, in a fantasy world.

"Where does the career go when I get older and things fade and fall apart? I don't know." He trained as an artist before acting. "I often think that when all this goes away, I'll be sitting out there in the sunshine in Hawaii, painting away."

'The Matador' is released on 3 March

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