On his 60th birthday in May 2013, Pierce Brosnan woke up in Belgrade, Serbia. In three days he was to start shooting a new action-thriller called "The November Man," playing a world-weary but still lethal ex-CIA agent — the sort of role that would involve a whole lot of running, jumping, pistol-whipping and fireball-dodging.
"I thought, 'Is this a good idea?'" Brosnan recalled over lunch on a recent afternoon at a Beverly Hills hotel. After a moment, he decided that it felt right in his gut. "I can still run in a straight line," he said with a wry smile, "and I can still throw a punch."
Brosnan is no stranger to the espionage genre, of course. You may remember his stint as a certain British superspy with a fondness for martinis, Aston Martins and scantily clad women. Indeed, the persona of the charming but deadly international man of intrigue has fit Brosnan like a tailored tuxedo since well before the James Bond franchise came his way in 1995, going all the way back to his breakout role on the 1980s TV series "Remington Steele."
Now, 12 years after his final appearance as 007 in the film "Die Another Day," Brosnan is playing a very different kind of spy on the big screen, one more haunted and emotionally broken than Bond or Steele. Adapted from a 1987 novel by late author Bill Granger, "The November Man," opening Wednesday, centers on a former CIA agent named Peter Devereaux who comes in from the cold for one final assignment involving a power-hungry Russian leader.
"Devereaux is a much darker, more reflective, more cynical and ruthless person than Bond ever was," said the film's director, Roger Donaldson. "The only thing the characters have in common is that they're both spies."
Like Devereaux, Brosnan himself resisted being pulled back into the spy business for years. In the wake of his four-film run as Bond, he charted an unpredictable course, zigzagging between dramas and comedies and deliberately tweaking his own image whenever he could.
In the 2005 comic thriller "The Matador," Brosnan played an assassin whose life is falling apart. In the 2008 musical comedy hit "Mamma Mia!" he crooned ABBA songs — something Bond would never be caught dead doing, even under torture by the likes of Blofeld.
The goal was stay relevant and fresh to avoid a fate similar to that of actor Roger Moore, who never quite managed to escape the shadow of Bond.
"If Pierce had gone straight into action movies after Bond, he could have trashed his career," said Brosnan's longtime producing partner, Beau St. Clair. "We try to push the boundaries on every movie. You don't want to hack out."
The fact is, in spite of his dashing looks and facility with a gun and a quip, Brosnan — who was raised in Ireland by his single mother and his grandparents and now splits his time between Malibu and Hawaii — has never seen himself deep down as a matinee idol.
"I always thought of myself as a character actor," he said. "I was told I was a leading man, so I thought, 'Well, I'll run with that.'"
Yet for all the varied work he's done since Bond, Brosnan knows full well that he will always be inextricably linked to that iconic role. Witness his recent appearance on "The Tonight Show," in which he accepted Jimmy Fallon's challenge to play a round of the classic 007 video game "GoldenEye." (He was killed within seconds.)
"I will forever be a Bond," Brosnan said. "It's a small group of men who've made this role. Someone said more men have walked on the moon than have played James Bond."
As he discusses his tenure as Bond, though, it's clear Brosnan has conflicting feelings. On the one hand, he said, "it's the gift that keeps giving." On the other, he still bears some lingering wounds over being replaced by actor Daniel Craig when the franchise was rebooted in 2006.
Brosnan admits that for years he resisted watching Craig's Bond movies. "There was a certain reluctance and pain after what had happened," he said. "I understood [the decision to recast the role] — it's just good business sense — but it was a mighty blow to take."
He did try to watch 2006's "Casino Royale" on a plane, he said, "having believed that 30,000 feet was a safe distance to view it after a couple of cocktails." But when the video repeatedly stalled, he turned it off, seeing the malfunction as a sign. Finally, after a few more years, he watched 2012's "Skyfall" — and was impressed.
"They got the right man for the next chapter of Bond's history," Brosnan said. "'Skyfall' was dynamic. It had character and a good story you could hang onto." He laughed. "Most of the time [in my Bond films], you had no clue who you were fighting: What am I doing? What's at stake? You'd just go on 'Action!'"
In a way, "The November Man" represents Brosnan's chance to make his own espionage film in the grittier, more grounded style that the Bond films adopted after he left the role. With audiences showing an appetite in recent years for action movies headlined by older stars, like Liam Neeson, Relativity Media has already greenlighted a sequel. Still, it remains to be seen how moviegoers will respond to Brosnan as a spy who doesn't have the code number 007.
He isn't twiddling his thumbs waiting to find out. The actor has a number of other films on deck, including the romantic comedy "How to Make Love Like an Englishman" and the thriller "The Coup," and he is continuing to develop projects through his production company, Irish DreamTime, including a sequel to his 1999 heist remake "The Thomas Crown Affair."
Asked about rumors that he could join the cast of "The Expendables" for its next go-round, Brosnan acknowledges that he met earlier this year with the series' producer, Avi Lerner. "They were going to do one with women — I said, 'I'll do that one.'" He laughs. "Why do I want to sit on a set with a bunch of crusty old dogs when I can sit on the set with a bunch of gorgeous-looking women? I think that's much more fitting."
What's clear is that Brosnan has no plans to slow down any time soon. "There will be time enough some day to work less," he said. "I always keep thinking, 'The next role — that's going to be the one that's really going to define me and show them all. I'll transform and disappear and it will be a revelation.'"