Pierce Brosnan: ‘I was an only child from a fractured family’

Pierce Brosnan. Photograph: Francois G Durand/Getty
The Irish actor has kept shooting since his days as Bond, earning a Golden Globe nod for The Matador and much love for the Mamma Mia! films

In the days before I caught up with Pierce Brosnan he was hailed as a hero on the Jimmy Fallon show for saving his James Bond co-star Halle Berry from choking on a fig while on the set of Die Another Day.

“James Bond knows how to Heimlich!”revealed Berry last April. “He was there for me, he will always be one of my favourite people in the whole world.”

The past months have not been quite so dramatic. Having briefly met with Prince Charles at an event at the London Palladium – the actor is an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust – Brosnan flew home to Hawaii only to learn that the monarch-in-waiting had contracted Covid-19. Brosnan and Keely Shaye Smith – his wife of 19 years – have remained in the 50th state ever since. 

“Greetings from the north shore of Hawaii,” he says cheerfully.

He paints an enviable and pretty picture too.

“The lockdown has been very pastoral and lovely here. We’re very lucky to have this little haven. It’s been our family home for the last 20 years. It sits on the water. It has a beautiful garden. My wife Keely has got me out there mulching bananas. We started a vegetable garden which is something we’ve talked about for ages. We grow coconuts and they require constant work.

“Keely makes lovely things with coconut meat, and we have gorgeous coconut water. Of course, one can’t help but feel anxiety at the state of what’s happening in our world and the impact of Covid. But so far we’ve had a very diligent mayor and government and quarantine restrictions.” 

Pierce Brosnan as Erick Erickssong in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Photograph: John Wilson/Netflix
Pierce Brosnan as Erick Erickssong in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Photograph: John Wilson/Netflix

Covid-19 has had an impact on Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a fond comedy originally intended for release alongside the titular croon-off.

Will Ferrell, who co-wrote the script, and Rachel McAdams play Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, a poignantly uncool duo called Fire Saga who dream of representing Iceland at the Eurovision Song Contest. In a bizarre twist – involving a most unfortunate character played by Demi Lovato – the pair become the nation’s official entry. Their friends and neighbours remain unimpressed, none more unmoved than Lars’ womanising dad, played by Pierce Brosnan. 

“Will Ferrell is a grand man,” exclaims Brosnan. “I adore the fella. And he’s so adept at playing those middle aged men acting like children. My agent sent me the script one morning, and by lunchtime I said yes.

“I’m very familiar with the world of Eurovision having grown up in the 1970s. I watched when ABBA won. It’s a lovely celebration of the Eurovision Song Contest. And it was hoot to work on. I got to work with Rachel McAdams, who I’ve known for many years: we did a film together many years ago.

“I got to work with a wonderful coterie of Icelandic actors, all of whom are stars in their own right. I got to travel with my wife Keely. I got to visit my mother in London. I got to sit in thermal baths and drink beers with local families.

“And my character was introduced in parenthesis as ‘possibly the most handsome man in Iceland’. So Will Ferrell got to my Irish vanity.”

Born in Drogheda, Co Louth, to May (Smith), a nurse, and Thomas Brosnan, a carpenter, Pierce Brosnan’s perambulatory childhood began in Navan, where he spent the first 12 years of his life; he still considers it his hometown and retains Irish citizenship.

'Growing up in Ireland I loved cowboys and westerns. The most significant film for me was The Defiant Ones with Sydney Poitier'

Aged four, his mother left for work in London, so he was largely raised by his maternal grandparents. In 1964, he joined his mother and her new husband in East Lothian. The family would soon relocate to London. It was a huge culture shock after Brosnan’s hitherto solitary childhood and small classroom, rural schooling. 

“There were no siblings,” he says. “I was an only child from a fractured family. My father took off for the hills very early. And academically, my school days were pretty tough. I needed to figure out what I wanted to do. I was caught up in the English comprehensive school system. I was good at art. I left school with a cardboard folder of drawings and I got a job as a trainee commercial artist.”

Acting, he says “came out of left-field”. At a rehearsal at the off-West End theatre Oval House he strolled past a fire-eating class. He sat in on the workshop and trained for thee more years at the London Drama Centre. 

“My mother was very supportive of it,” says Brosnan. “She always said follow your dreams, and I had this crazy dream about making movies. Growing up in Ireland I loved cowboys and westerns. The most significant film for me was The Defiant Ones with Sydney Poitier. It stood out on the cinematic landscape for me so brilliantly and so captivatingly.

“I didn’t know what else to do except for painting. I joined the Oval House theatre and it was a wonderful education. My first production was an experimental, expressionistic retelling of The Little Prince. I think I was 18 and I looked like I was 12. And I’ve been gainfully employed ever since.” 

Niall Toibin with Pierce Brosnan filming in 1980
Niall Toibin with Pierce Brosnan filming in 1980

 In 1975 he began working as an acting assistant stage manager at the York Theatre Royal. Within a year he was plucked from obscurity by the American playwright Tennessee Williams.

“Back in the day,” says Brosnan. “It was one of his last plays. The Red Devil Battery Sign, which narratively was a little obscure but the prose of it was so eloquent. I was one of the leads in that production. Tennessee Williams was very generous to me. I still have a telegram he sent on opening night at the Roundhouse Theatre, saying: ‘Thank God for you, my dear boy’.”

The Red Devil Battery Sign was the first in a series of lucky breaks. In 1977, Franco Zeffirelli cast him, Joan Plowright and Frank Finlay in Filumena. Brosnan may have emerged at a moment when the British film industry was ailing, but he still found work on The Long Good Friday, The Mirror Crack’d and the popular TV series The Professionals. In 1982, he relocated to the US, hoping to capitalise on his nomination for a Golden Globe (for his depiction of Robert Gould Shaw in the BBC historical series, Nancy Astor.)

“There were many moments when I pinched myself,” he says. “I pinched myself this morning! I did. How can you not? I rolled the dice to go to America. I took out a £2,000 overdraft and got on the flight. And I got lucky. The very first audition I had was for Remington Steele.”

Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day
Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day

He first met James Bond film producer Albert R. Broccoli on the set of For Your Eyes Only. (That film starred Brosnan’s late wife Cassandra Harris.) Contractual obligations with NBC and Remington Steele prevented the actor from starring in the 15th 007 film, with Timothy Dalton assuming the role in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. A legal tussle between Dalton and the producers led to the 1994 announcement that Brosnan would become the fifth actor to play the spy. 

“I don’t know if there was some kind of divine intervention,” he says. “I don’t know what it was. I had the desire and the passion and I was driven. And I had a bit of talent in my back pocket. Remington really was a calling card for me to play Bond, but I couldn’t shake the shackles of Remington. But somehow it was my destiny that the chance would come back around with Goldeneye. It has to be the luck of the Irish behind me.”

He stayed in the role for three more films – Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day – and there might have been more had Quentin Tarantino got his way. Specifically, Tarantino wanted to adapt Casino Royale and set it in the 1950s or 1960s, starring Brosnan, his favourite Bond. 

“I don’t know if Quentin Tarantino spoke to [Bond producer] Barbara Broccoli directly or not. But he did speak to me. We spent an evening and we had dinner and I was absolutely thrilled he wanted to do it with me. But the Broccolis wouldn’t hear of it. I must write Quentin a fan letter. He’s such a huge figure on the landscape of cinema. I thought Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was quite brilliant.” 

Post-Bond, Brosnan has done some of the best work of his career, earning a Golden Globe nod for his work on The Matador, much love for the Mamma Mia! films, and much attention for his Gerry Adams ersatz opposite Jackie Chan in The Foreigner. 

“The director Martin Campbell is a good friend and he cast me in The Foreigner,” says Brosnan. “I based the character on Gerry Adams. It wasn’t indicated in the script but it just seemed to make sense. Of course, Mr Adams had great fun with my portrayal. He had a jocular turn of phrase here and there.”

Brosnan laughs. “You know the job is as much of a challenge now as it was when I was in my 20s and 30s. How do you find work? How do you find new challenges? And if you’re me, you grow a beard, you let your hair go grey, and you end up playing Gerry Adams or Will Farrell’s dad.”

 Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is on Netflix now