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Pierce Brosnan on Playing Another Grieving Dad, Acting in the Water, and When We’ll See a Thomas Crown Affair Sequel

Pierce Brosnan will always be synonymous with James Bond and Remington Steele, but the Irish-born actor has since parlayed his alpha maleness into more subdued roles, including a Golden Globe–nominated turn as a burned-out hit man in The Matador. In The Greatest, which opens today, Brosnan plays a college professor who finds emotional salvation in the pregnant girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) of his dead teenage son. Brosnan, who also produced the film, talked with us about the trials of emoting underwater and acting in Percy Jackson on stilts.

This film has been on quite a journey since it premiered at Sundance last year. Was it a shock when your distributor went kaput after you secured an opening date?
Yes, it was a shock. But in the climate of last year, everything was falling apart around everyone’s lives. It didn’t really surprise me and it didn’t alarm me. I had confidence that we would find another distributor and find a home for the film.

As a father yourself, how hard was it to play a parent who loses a child? Did you ever hesitate about taking on the movie?
I read the script and thought it was really well-founded, but I threw it under the bed and said let’s just put this away. It’s too hard, too tricky. But eventually I dug it out and I read it quietly and it was so moving. … Susan [Sarandon], I knew, was interested, so I called her up and said, “I’m gonna make the movie and I’d love you to be a part of it. Let’s go make it in New York. We’ll come to you.” So we had this great actress and then found Carey [Mulligan].

You have a moving moment with Susan Sarandon in the ocean, in which you're really getting pushed and pulled by the waves. Was it difficult to shoot such an emotional scene when water was going up your nostrils?
In circumstances like that, you just follow your heart. It’s very hard to choreograph something like that. You’re at the mercy of the elements, the waves in this case, and it adds to the emotional turmoil of what these characters are going through. It was a tricky day’s work. We had so much work to do that day, trying to get photographs to float correctly and make sure people kept their clothes on.

You mean in the water?
In the water.

Clothes kept getting knocked off?
It’s just, you don’t want to be completely disrobed or inelegant.

Out of all the roles we’ve seen you in this year — a centaur [Percy Jackson and the Olympians], a prime minister [The Ghost Writer], and the two grieving fathers [Remember Me and The Greatest] — which one was the most challenging?
I think they’re all challenging in their own ways. In Percy Jackson, you’re a centaur, you’re up on stilts, you’re in blue CGI tights. You’re trying to keep your dignity as this wise professor and you’re hoping you don’t fall off your stilts and make a complete fool of yourself in front of 200 beautiful and virile young people. Prime minister is a tricky role to walk, [deciding if you’re] playing [Tony] Blair or not playing Blair. They all have their challenges.

Since Remington Steele was your first major role, do you think it ended up being a formative experience for you?
It certainly created a style and pigeonholed me into that kind of genre of the suave, sophisticated, debonair character. You run with that for a while and then you try to break out of the mold. But it’s been a very lucrative line of work for me.

How attached do you feel to the James Bond franchise? If you see a headline in a newspaper about James Bond, are you curious?
No, I’m always curious to hear what’s going on and to see headlines about Bond and what they’re going to do next. It was a big part of my life and I’m very proud of the fact that the movies I made were very successful and we relaunched the series. I have the greatest pride in that time.

I read that you have a personal note from Tennessee Williams from when you performed in one of his plays. What does it say?
It’s in my office at home and it says, “Thank God for you, my dear boy. Love, Tennessee Williams.” It’s a brilliant note. It’s a telegram. It’s a thing of the past. 1977.

I know you’re still gunning for a Thomas Crown sequel. What's happening with that?
It’s still there. We have the script and we’re just trying to deal with MGM so that they can get their act together and we can go make it.

Photo: Patrick McMullan