As the United Kingdom goes to the polls, the actor speaks about playing a former British prime minister accused of war crimes in The Ghost Writer.
Pierce Brosnan: just the ticket
Some films are so in touch with the zeitgeist that it feels as if Charles Dickens had a hand in the amount of chance and coincidence required to bring them into being at exactly the right moment. The Ghost Writer is one such film. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival just a few weeks after its director, Roman Polanski, was arrested in Switzerland and the US pressed for extradition for a crime allegedly committed in the 1970s. Adapted from Robert Harris's novel, which was inspired by Tony Blair's decision to join the war in Iraq, the film screened in Berlin during the Chilcot inquiry, at which the former British prime minister faced questions about Britain's involvement in the war.
The hat-trick of prescient links was completed when the film was released in Britain just as Gordon Brown announced the date of the forthcoming British election. The Ghost Writer features Pierce Brosnan as a former prime minister struggling to write his memoirs. When his ghost writer dies in mysterious circumstances, a British hack, played by Ewan Mcgregor, is hand-picked to take up the reins. Arriving at a secluded house, the journalist soon learns that all is not well in the marriage between the prime minister and his ethereal wife (Olivia Williams). The world is waiting on tenterhooks for the memoir's release to see if the former leader will admit that his decision to go to war was a mistake.
The character Brosnan plays is called Adam Lang, yet it seems that he is Tony Blair in all but name. Brosnan, though, has a fine way of sitting on the fence when discussing the former Labour Party prime minster. "In the novel by Harris and then the screenplay by Polanski and Harris, all roads lead to one man and one man only: Mr Tony Blair. There was only one man I could hang my hat on, so to speak, to play this role. So my first question to Roman was: 'Am I playing Tony Blair and how do I do this?' Roman said: 'You're not playing Tony Blair.'
"We got that out of the way. I did not delve any further and asked no more questions about this, because in his answer I got where I was supposed to go." His character ends up being more a caricature than an imitation. Brosnan uses Blair as a springboard rather than simply someone to mimic. So while we see some of Blair's gestures and mannerisms, the voice is different, as is the way he conducts himself. Brosnan's depiction is of a man who now has doubts where once there were none, who wonders how history will treat him yet still remains absolutely convinced that his decisions were made with the best interests of the country at heart.
Brosnan, 56, was not worried when Polanski gave him little in the way of direct reference points. Indeed, he seems to expect little help from his directors in preparing for a role. "Well, you better know your onions, as they say in the old country," the Irish-born actor explains. "You better come prepared, as no one is going to direct you. There are no directors. You better know who you are, what you are, what you want - you know, the hard tools of acting. However, with that being said, I think I knew who I was and who I had to play in this movie."
The actor grew up in England, which explains his propensity to easily drift between British and Irish roles. He took American citizenship in 2004, three years after marrying the American television journalist Keely Shaye Smith. His first wife, the Australian actress Cassandra Harris, whom he met when making the television series Remington Steele, died of cancer in 1991. The actor appeared as the eponymous con man in the show for five years from 1982, and his debonair demeanour guaranteed him heartthrob status. He was immediately talked of as a potential James Bond, and it was no surprise when, after he established his movie-star status in The Fourth Protocol, The Lawnmower Man and Mrs Doubtfire, the 007 producers offered him the part, which he played in four hit outings.
The Ghost Writer unfolds in a way that is most reminiscent of Polanski's 1988 hit Frantic, a thriller in which the protagonist always seems to be one step behind everyone else. In The Ghost Writer, McGregor does most of the running around, while the former Bond has a steely, ominous presence. The furore surrounding Polanski's arrest dominated talk at the Berlin Film Festival, and Brosnan behaves like the consummate politician when talking about the controversial filmmaker. Despite the off-screen coverage, the actor states that there was not much talk of Polanski's troubles when they were together.
"It's none of my business," he says. "Really, I got his biography and I started reading it, but I had to put it down before I got into it as I wanted to come to the man on open ground: me as a man, an actor and a father, to him as a director and father. We spoke of our children and passion for family. We spoke about other things. He talked of Sharon [Tate, his wife who was brutally murdered in 1969] as a beautiful light and love in his life. It was just alluded to in a soft, tender sense of memory, and I didn't pry. I didn't ask any questions. The man has been asked so many questions in his life."
In a different way, Brosnan has also had to escape the past in his own career. When you play a character as iconic as James Bond (and play it as well as Brosnan did), it's difficult for audiences to buy into you playing anyone else. It was a problem that Brosnan's predecessors Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and, to a lesser degree, Sean Connery faced. "I've wanted to put a distance between myself and Bond for so long - not that I'm complaining," Brosnan says. "I have the deepest gratitude for having had Bond in my life and the experience of playing him. I also knew that through the work at hand I would be able to shake the shackles of Bond. I've seen good men go before me in the course of their career as Bond and you take stock of how they acquitted themselves. You find yourself in a position to try and move on and create for yourself a life as an actor and stay at the table as long as you can and be challenged by the work."
To this end, Brosnan has worked non-stop in the past year. Before taking on the role in The Ghost Writer, he starred in The Greatest as a grieving father. He also appeared in the fantasy children's film Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and played Robert Pattinson's father in Remember Me. There seems to be no stopping him. But then he adds: "It sounds great, but frankly after four movies on the spin I'm trying to stay off the ropes right now."