Pierce Brosnan on Polanski, Tony Blair and "The Ghost Writer"

The debonair ex-007 talks about playing a disgraced prime minister for a disgraced director

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 27, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

Pierce Brosnan welcomed me into his hotel suite at the Waldorf-Astoria with lordly courtesy, standing to usher me into the sitting room and looking, in his elegant but understated zippered green cardigan, like an indebted aristocrat who has opened his country manse to tourists. The one-time 007, his debonair good looks still in full effect at age 56, complimented me on my overcoat (a London Fog thrift-store acquisition) and used my Irish sweater as a pretext for some small talk about his homeland, which was also my father's. Gazing out at the mixture of snow and freezing rain descending upon Manhattan, Brosnan murmured, "Ah, it's a fine soft day," in gentle mockery of the Irish tendency to euphemize dreadful weather.

Speaking of dreadful weather, Brosnan and co-star Ewan McGregor — who was entertaining another reporter in an adjoining room, perhaps 20 yards away — had been enlisted to try to normalize the climate surrounding Roman Polanski's new film "The Ghost Writer." With Polanski under house arrest in Switzerland awaiting possible extradition to the United States for sentencing in his late-'70s sex-crime conviction, Brosnan and McGregor had clearly been tasked with refocusing the discussion on the film as a canny, enjoyable political thriller, and on its director's impeccable craftsmanship rather than the ugly and tragic details of his private life. One could argue, in fact, that all the controversy and conversation has only helped "The Ghost Writer," which has opened strongly in New York and Los Angeles, and won Polanski the best-director award at the recent Berlin Film Festival. (According to producer Alain Sarde, Polanski remarked that even if he could have gone to Berlin, he wouldn't have: "The last time I went to a festival to get a prize I ended up in jail.")

I had been instructed that Brosnan would have no comment on Polanski's current legal predicament or on the disturbing act of sexual predation to which he pleaded guilty in 1977. Indeed he politely declined to discuss all such matters and has gone only a little further with other reporters. ("The life of Mr. Polanski has been a very turbulent one and one fraught with tragedy," he told David Chen of SlashFilm.)

Rather than beat my head against that wall, I invited Brosnan to expound on his on-set collaboration with Polanski. Perhaps that's illuminating in a different way (and perhaps not). Brosnan's character in "The Ghost Writer," disgraced former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, bears an obvious resemblance to Tony Blair. As Brosnan observes, he ended up "being an actor playing an actor playing the role of the British prime minister." But Lang also bears a bizarre and accidental resemblance to Polanski himself — he's a charismatic ladies' man, well known around the world, who has fled into exile in a foreign country to avoid facing the consequences of his past misdeeds. (Pedantic footnote: Since Polanski is a native-born French citizen, he hasn't literally been an exile or an expatriate since leaving the U.S.)

It must be a little strange to come back to this film, which I know you completed more than a year ago, and have it become a major news event because of these, let's say, extraneous factors.

It's always like that with films, in a certain sense. You revisit them with members of the press, sometime later, and you can't even remember them. As soon as they're done, they're done. Nevertheless, with something like "The Ghost Writer," and a director like Roman Polanski, who is the finest expression of artistic intention — he's quite unique, and it's somewhat indelible, the experience of working with him.

So it was the idea of working with Polanski that drew you to this film?

Absolutely. That's the reason I said yes to this project. I was quite taken with the challenge and the offer from him to play this ex-British prime minister. That's the last thing I ever expected to get, being a good Irishman by birth and heart. I saw the humor in that too. I thought it was quite ironic. I never asked Mr. Polanski, "Why me?" Maybe next time I speak to him, I will: "By the way, why did you cast me?" Ultimately, because he thought I was a good enough actor to pull this off, but with Roman, he's always dealing with metaphor and humor.

Right. Well, having the man who played the most famous fictional British secret agent play the disgraced former prime minister...

An ex-James Bond playing the ex-British prime minister! It all seems to sort of be making sense now!

We don't want to give anything away, because this is a film that takes quite a few twists and turns. But maybe that's a subterranean clue to the nature of the character.

Oh, I don't know. I'm sure it'll be spoken of or mentioned, as we have now. But I thought it was a great book by Robert Harris. I thought it was a wonderful page-turner. These are not the kinds of books I read, but nevertheless they seem to find me. "The Tailor of Panama," "The Fourth Protocol" — there's a ribbon of them in my career, and I find them very enjoyable to be part of. When they're constructed well, they're great pieces to play and great worlds to exist in as an actor. And then, of course, Polanski. It all goes together so well. He was very sincere and genuine to the book, because the book was so well constructed by Harris.

What is Polanski like on the set?

You want to be your best for the fellow, as you want to be your best for every director. But none more so than Polanski, because he's so intense, and so into every aspect of the filmmaking. He gives you line readings, which can be quite abhorrent to an actor. To me, I found it quite humorous, because his accent is so Polish and so thick, it doesn't quite fit into the context of playing the British prime minister.

[Unreproducible "Polanski accent":] "Don't play it like that! It goes like this: 'Give my friend a Calvados!'" I had to say, "Roman, this is doing my head in." You have to match wits with him.

Well, I know he started out as an actor in Poland in the '50s, in films by Andrzej Wajda and others. He's acted a lot, actually.

Oh, he's still an actor. He still loves to play out all the roles. When you enter onto the stage, you're in the domain of Polanski. It's his world. He rules. He ordains every movement and gesture and color, the look of the piece. We shot in Berlin, we shot at Babelsberg [the oldest studio in the world, where many classic German films were made]. That's a potent place of cinema and structure and time.

Right. So that big beach house we see in the film, which is supposed to be in Massachusetts, that was all built in a studio.

All built in a studio, with the classic green screen for the Cape Cod landscape outside. So you're just looking at green when you're sequestered on set.

Is that peculiar, working that way? You're used to doing location work, aren't you?

Not at all, not at all. You know, you're trained as an actor from a very early age to use your imagination, stand on an empty stage and see Birnam Wood come toward you, see the tree of Godot, or see whatever. Well, you've got to have the tree of Godot, sorry! But you know what I'm saying.

So it was more like doing theater, maybe, than most of the films you've made.

Yeah, it's a very theatrical experience. Not that I've done that much green-screen. I did a bit in the world of Bond. Babelsberg, I think, gave us all a feeling of the past, and the presence of Polanski gave us a feeling of the past. You're working with a man who's 76 years of age, and who's acquitting himself on the set like a first-time film director who's passionate for his first movie, and who's deeply knowledgeable about the camera and the presence of actors before the camera, and how to position them for the most effective storytelling.

That set alone, that bunkerlike set, that gave us a lot of ambience. Then, when we were outside — I mean we weren't outside that much; Ewan was outside a bit, when he rides his bike around the island — the desolation of the landscape informs the film. Certainly the film ends on a note of desolation and foreboding.

Your character bears at least some resemblance to a living ex-prime minister, and certainly Robert Harris' novel has been interpreted as an attack on the Blair legacy. How much or how little did you think about that?

Well, that was my first question to Roman Polanski when we met in Paris over lunch: "Am I playing Mr. Tony Blair?" He said, "No, you're not playing Tony Blair." However, all emblems and indications and roads seem to point toward that particular man. I had to hang my hat on someone, so I looked at footage of the performance of Mr. Tony Blair playing the British prime minister, and then I looked to the pages of the novel and the script, the character of Adam Lang, who leaves university, who is a fantastic actor, who is a star prime minister, a populist. Then you come to the role of you being an actor playing an actor playing the role of the British prime minister. So it becomes this kind of play within the play. This kind of Max Escher-like transformation.

The character of Ruth [Lang's wife, played by Olivia Williams] really gave me a lot. When I looked at her malevolence within the piece, you know, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth came to mind. None of which was spoken about with Olivia or with Roman. But just the sensation of drama, of Jacobean drama, was very present.

Yes, the portrait of a political marriage the two of you create is very complicated, very tricky, full of nuance. You mean to say you never really discussed it?

She and I had one dinner when she got into town. I remember that my day's work was over, and I called her. She's a true character. She said, "Hello, darling, let's have dinner!" She's a very passionate actor, Olivia. We spoke a little about the life and history of the characters, but beyond that — you look at the text and you play a role.

Well, actors on your side of the Atlantic are mostly free of that American method-acting disease, where you have to write an 800-page biography of the character...

God, no! No! I was taught in the Method by some of the finest teachers of the Method. I've worked the Method and lived the Method, but at the end of the day, if you understand the role, you know how to act the role — pretend the role — then so be it. There are times when, of course, you do use yourself. The age-old adage: What if I were prime minister? What if I were in this situation? The wolves are at the door, the long knives are out, you're running for your life, and you realize you're adrift politically, spiritually, emotionally. You need your wife. And she's not there. How does that feel?

I need to wrap this up by asking you at least one Bond-related question. You're a member of a pretty exclusive club, the former 007s. How do you think Daniel Craig has done with the role?

Well, I know Daniel is a fine actor, and you have to be a good actor to play the role, that's for sure. It's not something easy. I mean, you know, Sean [Connery] is the man I look to all the time — he was the Bond for me. I haven't seen Daniel's performances as Bond. I never really watched the Bond films, to tell you the truth. When I was playing the role, I didn't watch myself. My sons are always saying, "Dad, why don't you watch James Bond with me?" But I have better things to do.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Movies Roman Polanski The Ghost Writer