While Daniel Craig’s recent turn as James Bond has ditched some of the more exuberant gadgetry in favour of stone-cold realism, the modern era of 007 arguably owes its success to Pierce Brosnan. Coming six years after Timothy Dalton’s regularly dismissed outings as the super-spy, Brosnan’s quadruplet of Bond films – starting with 1995’s GoldenEye and ending in 2004 with Die Another Day – kick-started the ‘new’ series of movies that continued throughout the turn of the millennium, as well the Drogheda-born actor’s career.
But while Bond fans can be thankful to Brosnan for handling the pressures of the role with aplomb, the star himself was even more grateful for the chance to establish himself at the forefront of the most famous franchise in film history. Four years prior to GoldenEye, he had lost his first wife, Cassandra, to ovarian cancer aged 43, and in the ensuing time Brosnan had been forced to juggle a career on-screen with his duty as a father to three: two stepchildren from his late wife’s previous relationship and their own son, Sean.
“I faced the prospect of having to sell our house or finding another regular series role,” Brosnan, now 65, explains. “Even though that would have been a disaster because my children needed me very badly after their mother died and working on a weekly series would have meant spending very little time with them.
“It was the most trying time of my life. You try to do your best and my greatest concern was trying to find enough film roles and not have to work on another TV series because that means you’re gone from morning to night five days a week, eight or nine months a year. I desperately wanted to avoid that for the sake of my children. Fortunately, Bond came along at a time when I really needed that kind of a gift in my life. I had no choice, that’s your duty as a father, so don’t give me too much credit – and when Bond came calling a second time, it turned my life around.”
Cassandra’s death, and Brosnan’s subsequent years spent as a single father, brought to mind his own childhood in County Louth, Ireland. His father had left the family when Brosnan was a young boy, and they would not meet properly until the star was 33 years old. Having been raised mostly by his grandparents, Brosnan saw first-hand the struggles that lone parents faced, especially in the strict community he was raised in.
“I was born in ’53, and I lived through that Catholic experience of growing up in a small town, chafing under [a] narrow-minded, gossipy, shaming atmosphere,” he nods. “And my mother refused to be shamed [at] the hands of the church, of the priest, because she was a single mother. You learn not to buckle under it.”
Such statements are indicative of Brosnan’s in many ways typically Irish relationship with his Catholic faith. On the one hand, his upbringing brought him into close contact with members of the Congregation of Christian Brothers, who Brosnan says “instilled a climate of shame and fear” among his peers. “I was beaten all the time as were most of the children,” he grimaces. “It’s terrible that so many of us had to endure that for no real point.”
Yet on the other hand, Brosnan remains a staunch believer of the positives Catholicism can bring – and the ways in which “religion and faith has helped” him through the many struggles he has faced. These include losing first Cassy, and his daughter Charlotte in 2013, to ovarian cancer, and nearly losing his son Sean to a terrible car accident in 2000 – when he was just 16 years old – when a driver under the influence ended up barrelling over a Malibu cliffside.
“Even if my whole world would fall apart tomorrow, I would still remain devoutly Catholic,” he says. “I’ve always tried to enjoy life and make the most of things, even during the lowest and most gut-wrenching moments where you feel very lost. But you need to find a way to pull yourself through, and your faith and your will are what’s going to drag you up out of the darkness. We all want to be happy, but it doesn’t come easily.”
Fortunately for Brosnan, his unerring faith repaid dividends. Alongside the “gift” of the Bond films, which established him as a household name, Brosnan’s personal life – once battered and bruised – has, in time, healed as well. In 1994, the star met soon-to-be second wife Keely Shaye Smith, with whom he has fathered two more sons, Dylan and Paris.
“She’s a very strong woman who has been a truly loving and caring partner in life,” he says of Smith. “She’s made me a better father and man, and we’re so blessed to have been able to share our lives together. She allows me to be myself and we’ve been able to build our relationship over the years, and together with my children, that’s my greatest accomplishment in life.
“I think I’ve been blessed twice in my life by meeting very intelligent and resilient women. I never expected to fall in love again the way I did with Cassie, but then I met Keely and I knew I had found someone with whom I could share my life. With Keely, we’ve been able to solve our problems in a very comfortable way without ever letting things get out of hand. Every couple needs to find an accommodation that allows them to live happily and harmoniously together. But you have to work at it and be very attentive to keeping the spirit and passion alive.”
And unlike his martini-drinking womanising alter ego, Brosnan has held on to his principles in spite of the various temptations that life in the spotlight can invariably bring.
“I was never interested in one-night stands or having a lot of superficial relationships,” he muses. “I’ve also been married twice and have enjoyed raising two sets of children and all that takes up a lot of time. I’m a man who’s very comfortable with the idea of marriage. I lived for 17 years with my first wife, Cassie, and now I’ve spent 21 years with Keely. That speaks for itself. Keely and I live a very beautiful and calm life together, and she has never objected to the fact that I spend a lot of time away at work, and not even if I’m working with beautiful co-stars.”
Indeed, in a world seemingly full of fractious celebrity break-ups and make-ups, Brosnan’s overwhelming gratitude for having experienced the joy of marriage twice in his life is a refreshing departure. But that’s not to say he’s become complacent in his relationships – and he certainly knows better than most that the work you put in is worth it to enjoy what time you have together.
“It’s very difficult, but I believe the trick is to sustain the romance and passion, and that happens only through imagination, perseverance and respect for your partner,” he smiles. “You have to believe that the love which binds you is more important and more powerful than the stupid and petty arguments which can pop up. You’ve got to learn how to sweep those things aside and remember why you’re together and keep that thought in mind every waking day.”
It helps, too, that Brosnan’s personal life has finally settled down. His first foray to America was founded on blind faith: “It was my late wife, Cassandra, God bless her,” he says, “who said we should go to America, and somehow we took out a second mortgage, and we went to Los Angeles on a wing and a prayer.” These days, however, Brosnan is a naturalised American citizen, and he has carved out his own little slice of Eden on the island of Hawaii.
“It’s a form of paradise on earth,” he says of the Aloha State. “We have a very beautiful cottage by the sea, fairly isolated and very peaceful. I like to describe it as Ireland except the heating is turned on. I get up a six o’clock, I make myself a cup of coffee, sit on the terrace and watch the waves roll onto the beach. Then I’ll have breakfast with Keely and the boys and spend the rest of the morning painting. Then it’s lunchtime, maybe a few hours of surfing, reading, relaxing in the sun, and then before you know it, you go, ‘What’s for dinner?’
“It’s a very simple and peaceful life. There are very few things that can trouble you, not even my occasionally dour Irish soul.”
Few would begrudge Brosnan this lifestyle, considering the turbulence he has been through off-camera. Having freed himself from the constraints of a Bond contract – the negatives of which have been bluntly espoused of late by Brosnan’s successor, Daniel Craig – the star finds himself enjoying his current silver fox status. Between action romps and thrillers, there was even the intriguing sight (and sound) of the former 007 gallivanting alongside Meryl Streep and co in Scandi-singalong-sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again earlier this year. Despite him encroaching ever nearer to the supposed twilight of his career, Brosnan continues to be shaped by his upbringing, even if he has been forced to mature and adapt to the hardships of his personal life.
“I’m the same person I was when I started out,” he declares. “I’d like to think I’m much wiser and even more open as an individual than when I was younger, but still scarred in many ways by my upbringing as well. You learn to close off certain sides of yourself as a form of self-protection until you begin to realise that you don’t have to protect yourself anymore and that those defences you’ve put up have become the real problem. Perhaps you never entirely unburden yourself of your past, but you do manage to find peace of mind.
“I’m more attentive to certain things which you notice about your children as they grow older, especially during their teenage years, which are the most complicated. I’ve also had Keely by my side who holds our home together and is a very smart and caring mother. She’s a strong woman who has helped make my life so much richer, and … we’ve been able to enjoy a wonderful life together with our children.”
Brosnan remains one of Hollywood’s last classic leading men.. His cinematic journey may have taken him from his native Emerald Isle to the States, but he carries his idiosyncratic “Celtic heritage” and devout Catholicism with him everywhere “in his back pocket”: a welcome reminder of the power of positive faith in a life threatened by multiple tragedies played out under the spotlight of fame.
“There have been tragedies, yes, but I’ve also had great fortune in life,” he concludes. “I aspired to be in the movies, I wanted to become a movie star, I wanted to be Bond, I wanted all the grand things that came with that life. I got it all.
“It can happen like that. You just have to pull in the sails and ride the tiller and hopefully you’ve got faith and some good friends. You know I have the luck of the Irish.”