NEW YORK - Pierce Brosnan strides through the doorway of the Manhattan hotel bar, ready for a beer. It's a clubby, intimate Upper East Side room, suitably James Bond-ish but for the rhythm-and-blues Muzak oozing from a discreet speaker.
Brosnan asks the waitress for an imported brew and a single French cigarette. Informally dressed in dark jacket and black open-collar shirt, he looks terrific for a man of 29, which he has not been for 20 years. When you try to proffer sympathy for his publicity marathon, he refuses it politely.
"Poor me?" he says in a lithe Irish accent. "I ain't a poor guy. I've seen the other side, and that's kind of grim. This is a walk in the park. Being driven around Manhattan in a fancy car, people shaking my hand, saying nice things to you? ... I'm on top of the world now."
Brosnan is as on top of the world as he is probably ever going to be. In tandem with Die Another Day, which opened Friday, he is touting the December opening of Evelyn, produced by his own Irish DreamTime company that also was responsible for his highly profitable The Thomas Crown Affair.
Still, he betrays the simmering unease of an actor for whom the world is increasingly not enough. He reveals that producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson have just asked him to do a fifth Bond picture.
"I was sitting home with my wife thinking about how I had to come out to New York, and the questions, the questions, the questions, the questions. What am I going to say? Do I want to come back? Do I play coy? Do I play hard-nosed? You can only tell the truth. And the truth is I would have loved to do a fifth. So I said, well, I'd love to do another movie ...
"I'm at a point in my career where it's, like, where is it going to go next? How do I grow as an actor? How do I go back to grass roots and do work that hits emotional chords that I haven't tapped into because I've been dancing on the surface?"
Those were not the sort of questions, questions, questions that Brosnan was having to concern himself with six years ago, when he did an international media press conference announcing GoldenEye, his debut as 007. "All the cynics and the skeptics! `What are you going to do? How are you going to make it different?' I didn't know how I was going to make it different. How can you possibly know?
"It was daunting to step into that role, terrifying. I knew I had something of the Bond character in me, but I wasn't quite sure what it was. ... I try to make him as human as possible, I try to give the man heart. The man [that Ian Fleming] created was fallible, the man had fear, the man had doubts."
Whenever possible, the game and athletic Brosnan likes to do his own stunts. "There have been moments with fire, there have been moments with water," he says, maintaining a Bond-like cool. "A tank that doesn't open up quick enough, for example."
With Evelyn, in which the face of evil generally wears a nun's habit, Brosnan was butting up against the more human-sized terrors of personal identity. In it, he plays a hard-drinking Irish working stiff who must fight the church and government when his wife leaves him, he loses his job and his children are taken from him and institutionalized.
It's not quite the smart little indie one would hope from Brosnan in his efforts to counter the Bond image, but it does give him wide berth to ditch the English refinements, weep baldly and sing lusty Irish drinking songs.
When not tending to family and career, Brosnan paints: oils, still lifes, portraits, landscapes. (He was a commercial artist before trying his hand at acting in London in his early 20s.) Shortly before arriving in Los Angeles to do a 1981 miniseries called The Manions of America and winding up with a five-year run as detective Remington Steele, Brosnan was struggling to make it as a stage actor in London. There, he was given a major leg up by Tennessee Williams, who elevated the young actor from understudy to lead during rehearsals for his late-career drama The Red Devil Battery Sign.
At the mention of Williams, Brosnan breaks into a grin, perhaps the only spontaneous one of the conversation. Brosnan recalls Williams' "smiling, gracious, humorous, his warm Southern drawl. It didn't take much to get him drunk at that point in his life. There wasn't that much left at that point to hold onto the liquor. He was very appreciative of my work. He sent me this telegram on opening night, saying, `Thank God for you, my dear boy! Love, Tennessee Williams.' To have this man with all that history and that great wealth of play- writing, who worked with Brando and created a whole new way of looking at American life, sending words to you as a young actor. ..."
Brosnan peers into his glass, pondering the memory of that golden moment. "I go back to it often. Because sometimes you lose your way. How good am I? Where's the passion? Where's the drive? And so you reflect upon that, it started there.
"It's a dangerous game being an actor: wanting the fame, wanting the success. It's a dangerous game trying to constantly construct and destroy yourself. And then when you do become successful, have you retained something of your soul and your heart, your openness to life?
"You have everybody whooshing around you, doors opening. And hopefully one day, when they all close in your face, you still have the courage and the grace and the humility that you can still enjoy your life and say, well, that's who I was. I did that."
Jan Stuart writes for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.