Pierce Brosnan on tackling tougher roles: 'Why persecute yourself?'

May 30, 2013

Pierce Brosnan strides into the hotel room, looking like the character he plays in almost every movie he has starred in. In his tailored sports jacket, casual pants and an open-neck shirt, he could have stepped off a yacht, and as he takes a seat by the window, he glances out at the sunshine as though he's onboard one, slightly bored by the beauty of the view.

This is the junket interview routine after all. In town last year for the Toronto International Film Festival, he knows what it usually entails: A brief exchange that's a bit like a game of warm-up tennis, played close to the net, during which each person sends gentle offerings that the other can take an easy swing at. Everyone wins. The celebrity gets to say inconsequential things about the movie in question. The journalist get some quotes.

Brosnan exudes a confident pleasure in who he is, offering an expression – a tentative smile, a slightly quizzical brow wrinkle – that one suspects he has practised in a mirror. It's the look the Irish actor often deploys in his films, when the camera first comes upon him; viewers take in just how handsome he is, and the expression says, "This face? Well, it's a face, it's handsome and it's mine."

In All You Need is Love, all Brosnan needs is that visage. The boomer romcom is directed by Susanne Bier (whose last film, In a Bitter World, won the Oscar for best foreign film in 2011). He plays Philip, a wealthy (and elegant, of course) British importer of fruits and vegetables, who is emotionally cut off, even from his son, whose marriage he is going to Italy to attend. He lost his wife in a tragic accident, and the world makes him angry. The mother of the bride, Ida, played by a lovely and sympathetic Trine Dyrholm, is dealing with cancer treatment and the discovery that her loathsome husband was so upset about her struggle with the disease that he had to have an affair. All the characters end up at a villa in southern Italy, where Philip owns a run-down villa in a lemon grove. Love ensues, but not with the young about-to-be-married couple.

Brosnan's 60 now, and the romantic leads are still his to play. "Long may it last," he says in a hushed lullaby tone.

He's so one-note in his acting – from his break-out TV show in the 1980s as Remington Steele to James Bond to The Thomas Crown Affair – that you'd think he might wish for something a little outside his comfort zone. To get at the issue, I decide to ask about his art. It is in his painting that he seems more free to express himself than in the straightjacket of his typecast roles.

He looks at me, slightly taken aback. "Well, you know, I left school at 15 with a cardboard portfolio of paintings. That's all I had to my name, to my space and time. And I got a job as a commercial artist. And one day, one of the lads came in and he said, come along to the theatre club called the Oval House." After that, Brosnan trained at the Drama Centre London for three years.

Is he aware of the greater range of expression he has in his art? I persist, hoping he might stop playing Mr. Perfect. He produces a quizzical scowl. "I'm a creative person," he explains. "It's relaxation." The paintings of his wife, Keely Shaye Smith, border on emotionally extravagant, the last thing he appears to be. (Well, I don't dare say that. I simply say that they're beautiful.)

"They come from love, and when you do things from that part, about the likeability of someone, someone who is precious to your life, they sometimes have a good balance to them," he replies. His first wife, Cassandra Harris, died in 1991 from ovarian cancer at the age of 43. The pair had been married 11 years. He and his second wife, with whom he has two teenaged sons, have been together for 17 years, married for 11. "I'm just a marrying man. I like being married. ... And then I get to go off and do movies and kiss the girls," he says, laughing. "Legal cheating, she calls it."

She doesn't mind being married to someone with perennial sex appeal? He narrows his blue eyes. "Oh, God. This thing is going to run away with itself," he says. "You Canadians are able to cut through the dross of it all," he says, somewhat belligerently.

"Happy marriage and celebrity often don't go together. That's all," I explain.

"That's probably true," he says, recouping a sense of calm. "But somehow, I've managed to make it work. I love the excitement of being an actor but, quite frankly, it confounds me that I did become an actor, and that I found such a lucrative business in it. I have a good life. ... I want to have it all. And I want to eat my cake. I want to be a movie star and I want to be a dad and be a regular man and work hard. That's the joy of it."

But aren't there roles he would love to take on, that are different? (His greatest artistic departure on film was in The Matador, a 2005 dark comedy in which he played an assassin.) "I really don't know," he begins. " I do look at [my body of work] and think, 'God, 'I'd love to be like Daniel Day Lewis and Gary Oldman, but you are who you are.'"

It's acceptance, then?

"Yes," he says with a sigh. "There's part of me that's probably lazy; that doesn't challenge myself enough. And there's a part of me that's so content with playing on the same theme. Why persecute yourself? Tying yourself into knots? For what? And then falling apart trying to do it?" He speaks with a conviction that's the closest he has come to sounding unscripted.

"I just know that I haven't laid down enough emotional yardage as an actor," he adds. "I've gotten away and gotten by on one thing or another."

His good looks, perhaps.

"Could be. Could be the hair. Could be the way you wear a suit. Could be the swagger, the walk, whatever. I'm acutely aware of that."

Could Mr. Suave actually wish he weren't so suave? Is he suffering from leading-man curse? I never got to ask. His polished veneer had cracked only slightly, a moment he smoothed over with a little smile until in walked his publicist to rescue him from his discomfort.

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