Whether he's battling criminal masterminds as 007, outwitting authorities as Thomas Crown, or going dark in the new November Man, the Irish leading man has personified big-screen cool like few actors in history.
Photo: Sam Jones / Trunk Archive
You’re in Hawaii? That must be nice!
Yeah, I’m sitting here with my family—my wife and my sons. I’m nursing a beer on the north shore of Kauai, where we live.
I feel like one of those Secret Service officers who interrupt your island retirement because the world needs you one last time.
No, it’s OK! I love Maxim, actually. It’s very cool. I see my note for today—“Icon interview”—and I think, Shit, icon? How the hell did that happen?
Let’s start at the beginning: You grew up poor in Ireland but became an emblem of sophistication. How’d that happen?
A man becomes what he dreams. And I dreamed of being in the movies. I was brought up on Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Cary Grant. Being some country lad from the banks of the River Boyne, I never wanted to be wealthy. I was driven by artistic intention.
Some stars come from acting royalty, but you didn’t. Your father split when you were young. Your mom was a nurse. Was that part of the motivation?
Acting—well, when you have nothing and you find something like that, you have the world. When I found acting, I found a sanctuary; I found a home for myself. It made me work hard because I had nothing else in the back pocket going for me. I cleaved my way in there for years: street theater and kids theater. I trained. At 61 years of age, it’s what I do. I love making movies.
When colleagues talk about you, they also describe your professionalism. Do you take pride in that?
Acting is a hard fucking game. It’s psychological warfare out there. My old teacher taught me that, as trivial as it may seem to the outside world, it’s always a life-and-death situation as soon as you set foot on the stage. So you’d better bring heart and soul to the work to somehow turn people on and enthrall them. And you want to be with cool people who will also enthrall you! I just worked with William Hurt [in The Moon and the Sun]. I love the dude. The better the actor you’re working with, the better you’ll be.
You’ve worked with Hurt, Geoffrey Rush, and Ewan McGregor—just to name a few. Who’s pushed you hardest?
Well, the men you mentioned, for sure. Greg Kinnear in The Matador—and there’s a list of women who are so beautiful and beguiling. Judi Dench, and, I mean, just being dazzled by Meryl Streep most of my life and then to do Mamma Mia!—it was easy to fall in love with her. The good ones are really human and have a sense of who they are. They make you real, the good ones do.
You made your name with Remington Steele, but James Bond took you to another level.
Of course, the ghost of Bond will follow me forever. In many respects, that is the gift that keeps giving, and one can only look at it with gratitude and a great sense of humor and pride. I stood on the stage alongside Sean Connery and Roger Moore and the lads. I like playing in that part of the arena.
What about Thomas Crown? He was another iconic hero. Do you think you’ll ever do another Thomas Crown movie?
I think Thomas Crown could still work, but the clock is ticking somewhat. We’ve gone through a couple of scripts and never really hit the mark of our expectations. But maybe we could find another Thomas Crown out there and pull it off.
Movies about spies and assassins and such have changed over the years. How would you describe that shift from Remington Steele to Bond to your new film, The November Man?
When I was doing my first press conference for James Bond, which was an absolute baptism by fire, one of the first questions they asked was, “Do we really need another spy? Is the world of espionage real?” And, of course, it’s very real because countries have secrets, and the subterfuge of our politicians and the dissembling by various countries is very much in evidence to this day. So that kind of character—
Pierce? Are you there, Pierce?
[laughs] Sorry, I’m watching a beautiful girl go by on her stand-up paddleboard! Sorry, man…The spy movie has been good to me, that’s all I can say! Where were we?
We were discussing espionage and how in this day and age it’s an area that seems more important than ever.
Right. There’s a fascination with that, and it makes governments pretty nervous. But they control us; they’ve got us by the short and curlies now: They know where to find you and how to control the masses through agitation and confusion. The media has us in its crosshairs, and the entertainment world has a hand in this as well.
Well, when you put it like that, it all sounds pretty bleak.
Listen, there will be more terrible things happening to our young people before there's less of it, because of the shaming that goes on online and on reality television, whether it’s about being overweight or whatever else. It’s not healthy. It’s a harsher world now.
Which bring us to…Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams beats you up pretty bad. Was it traumatic being beaten up by a man in a dress?
No! Extremely humorous. I am still proud of it. The choking sequence around that table went on for at least three days. They had to dismiss the children because of the joyous, humorous filth that came out of Robin’s mouth. I could hardly get through the takes.
Since Bond, it seems like you’ve worked hard against the smooth grain of that Bond image and gone after darker parts.
I came to America and got very lucky with Remington Steele, and I got branded with this image of being sophisticated and suave: Mr. Pretty Boy, Mr. Handsome. So you find yourself painted into a corner. It’s great, but you have to do something different. When I came into the world of Bond, the blood was never real, and I was caught between the world of Sean Connery and Roger Moore. So within that decade I created my own production company, Irish Dream Time, and then did The Tailor of Panama. I was always trying to push against the restraints.
The November Man reminds me of three films of yours: The Matador, The Tailor of Panama, and The Ghost Writer. Do you see a common thread?There’s definitely a ribbon of truth in the continuity of performance within the four films. They are dangerous, bleak, lonely characters. They’re mangled by life and their own kind of self-doubts and anger. And that appeals to me.
In The November Man, the role seems particularly gruff and tough. Was it fun to shake off the suave charm?
The intention was to create a character that was vicious and dangerous once you opened the box and let him out: to show the other side of the coin and to do something I didn’t get to do in the Bond movies. We always wanted to make it gritty, down and dirty. Make him vicious, make him lethal, and give it as much grit as possible without getting totally gratuitous. But the movie had been close to my heart for five years.
You seem to be busier than ever. What motivates you?
Seven films in two years was definitely not planned, but that was just the way the cards fell. I’m just driven by the love of it, and that I can fucking do it.
What are your passions now?
Acting, along with painting and looking after my family. I have four sons who are all filmmakers and actors in the making. And I have great mates. Still, I was standing here the other day with Mr. Graham Nash, and he said to me, “Have they found you out yet?” I said, “No, I don’t think they have. Or maybe they have but just haven’t told me."
Do you think about your legacy?
Yeah, sure. At 61 years of age, if not now, when? You can look at yourself as a young man or an old man—in the many different periods of manhood—but you always have to temper it with gratitude.
You are one of the few actors brave enough to say, “I like sex scenes.” You also once said, “Bond was supposed to be this great lover, but I always found the love scenes in those movies a little dull.” So what does make a good sex scene?
Sex scenes are very tricky to do. I shouldn’t say this too loudly—my wife is nearby. Thank God for my darling wife. She allows me to run off into the wild and do what I do. Anyway, The Thomas Crown Affair has a good sex scene [with Rene Russo]. You know, they make a little bit nice and then they end up sliding all over the floor and up the stairs. On the page, it just said, “They make love.” You know, it’s like Ben-Hur: “Chariot race.”
You were talking about your November Man costar Olga Kurylenko, a former Bond girl, and you said, “She started with Daniel Craig, and she’s going to end up with Brosnan.”
There’s a great sense of fun among us. Olga just gets deeper and richer. I have a real sense of admiration for Daniel doing such a majestic job of making Bond so big and bold and alive. Once a Bond, always a Bond.
The November Man hits theaters on August 27.
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