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By Kathy Blackwell | April 6, 2017 | People
Austin Way caught up with Pierce Brosnan to discuss his latest character, Eli McCullough on The Son, what drew him to take on the role, and why he can't wait to be back in Austin.
The epic novel The Son by Austin’s Philipp Meyer, a graduate of UT’s Michener Center for Writers, became an instant Texas classic when it was published in 2013, becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. On April 8, the saga of the McCullough clan will debut as a 10-episode season on AMC. Starring Pierce Brosnan as patriarch Eli McCullough, the show was adapted by Meyer and show runner Kevin Murphy and shot in the Austin area with help from local talent.
Murphy, known for his work on shows such as Desperate Housewives and Defiance, took on this different kind of project because he loved the novel ("It was life-changing in terms of what a good book can be") and was pleased that AMC wanted the author involved, an unusual move in Hollywood. "Philipp was in on every creative decision that was being made early on, and I think it shows in the final product," Murphy told Austin Way a few hours before debuting the first episode, along with Meyer and Brosnan, at South by Southwest in March.
Meyer was willing to let go of the original material and adapt it in a way that worked for the screen. For example, the family’s generations are condensed so that Jeannie is now Eli’s granddaughter instead of his great-granddaughter as in the novel, allowing the book’s three main characters, including Eli’s son Pete, to be in the same scenes. The first season follows two storylines: that of young Eli (played by Jacob Lofland, known for his work in Jeff Nichols' Mud), captured by the Comanches in 1849, and of a middle-aged Eli, who in 1915 is a hardened, successful oilman embroiled in a feud with his Mexican-American neighbors in South Texas. Says Meyer: "I started developing the show with two of my buddies from Michener, Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman... and I let go of the original idea of the book right away. If it was in the book and it saved us some work, we adapted it. Otherwise, we didn’t care. The point was to capture the tone and the philosophy and the honesty of the book and the underlying message."
The show lost its original leading man when Sam Neill dropped out for personal reasons just two weeks before shooting, but Pierce Brosnan—in typical James Bond style—saved the day. Like Murphy, Brosnan was already a fan of the book and signed on right after reading the first five scripts. "Pierce was always on the list but we didn’t really think it was real when we found out he might actually want to do it," says Murphy. "It was a dream come true."
As for Brosnan of the role that drew him back to TV for the first time since the 1980s hit Remington Steel, he says simply: "Eli and I met at a very good time in life." The suave Irish actor, wearing a dark brown leather jacket and drinking hot tea to ward off the final days of a cold, talked to Austin Way about filming the show and his time in the city.
Pierce Brosnan, in his role as Eli McCullough, pictured with his on-screen son, Pete McCullough.
What drew you to this character?
PIERCE BROSNAN: When The Son came out, I read the glowing notices from The New York Times—I bought it and loved the book. So when the offer came out of left field last summer, I was very intrigued. I was heartened by the adaptation and that Philipp was going to be at the helm. I enjoyed playing Eli so, so much, and there was very little time to really second-guess any decisions that I made. I came in at the eleventh hour to play this role, so I leapt in with both feet. I love riding horses, and I know something about weaponry, about being a father and having sons, and the loss of life. I also know something about being an immigrant. The story just appealed to me that it was a father born out of war, born out of brutality and violence. He’s a good man at heart. He likes humanity; it’s just that he knows he has to use violence and he has to control the violence in his life to get what he wants. He will do anything to get what he wants.
What did you do to prepare for the role?
PB: The challenge in it was the accent. The company had already been formed about a month before I got here, so they had already delved into the history of it. I had a slim knowledge of the state, and the book I referred to constantly. I read the book aloud for the accent, and I listened to various accents of politicians and musicians, and country folk. I have great dialect coaches. The voice and the character of the voice just happened on the very first day.
What did you enjoy doing around the city?
PB: I loved Lady Bird Lake. I have my paddleboard down at the Austin Rowing Club. Everybody knows me here. I get out and about. The Irish travel well, and I was very much welcomed here by people. I had my bike sent over. This was home—I had a lovely apartment here and set up my studio for painting. I had days off, which was really wonderful. Like the old Robert Mitchum story: "What do you look for in a script, Mr. Mitchum?" and Mr. Mitchum said, "Days off." I’m at that point in my life where I like days off. Let the other young bucks be in every scene, and I’ll just do my character work. Austin was home, and hopefully if the show gets picked up, it will be again. I’ve signed on for three years.
How has the TV industry changed since your days on Remington Steele?
PB: It’s still a beast that needs to be fed; the content and work require stamina. There are just many more outlets now. There’s a wonderful irreverence to the PC way of life on TV now, so you can get away with so much dark storytelling, violent storytelling, and sexual content. That’s exhilarating for artists to be able to have no holds barred. To be able to tell a story of a turbulent time on The Son, 1915 and 1849, when a country and one culture is mangling another culture through violence and borders and discrimination and racism. There’s something immediate and visceral about a production like this or an independent movie where time, restraint, money, and economics really [force you] to make strong decisions.