Pierce Brosnan sits across from me at a bistro table in the Southern California sunshine. He wears an impeccably tailored, steel gray suit that complements his salt-and-pepper hair. His blue eyes gleam. That voice — Brosnan doesn’t just answer questions, he orates. And all I (and most likely all the other diners stealing glances at the actor) can think is Bond. James Bond.
That may soon change to McCullough. Eli McCullough.
Brosnan plays the wily Texas rancher and oilman in AMC’s new period drama The Son — his first starring role in series television since Remington Steele made the debonair Irishman a household name in the ’80s. Culled from Philipp Meyer’s best-selling American epic (Meyer also pens and produces the series), The Son weaves together two tales. One captures McCullough’s harrowing experiences as a brutally orphaned boy learning a cruel brand of survival at the hands of his Comanche captors. The other follows along as Eli — now a grandfather — battles for his family name and dynasty during the Bandit War of South Texas, tracking the reverberations of his actions for generations to come.
Brosnan took over the role when Sam Neill dropped out at the same time as Brosnan’s plans to film a feature in Russia fell through. The timing seemed perfect in other ways, too. “It felt fitting for me at this age and this time in life, as a man who has traveled down the road a fair ol’ bit and knows something of success and loss,” he says. “I loved it — because of the man, because of this prototypical American hero, because of the determination that he has. The brutality and savagery of this man who is self-made and goes on to create an empire, and of the storytelling of the history of Texas.
“Before I knew it, I was sitting on a horse in Austin, Texas,” Brosnan grins. “But then comes the panic. ‘Now I have to do it, so how do I do it? How do I find the accent? Who do I listen to?’”
For Brosnan, the answer was a hodgepodge of Lone Star sons and daughters, from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to the Austin locals. Then he just trusted his gut — and his Irish heritage. “You know, he’s ‘McCullough,’ so his ancestors would have been Irish, Scottish, too,” Brosnan says. “No one knows what they really sounded like in 1850s rural Texas, or before that time. I found myself on the set the first day and this voice came out. I just followed that sound.”
The swagger, he says, came a bit more easily: “You put the boots on and then you put the gun on and you put the hat on and then you get on the horse — just like that, you have a whole vocabulary of the Western, of the cowboy.” The impressive beard, he laughs, “gets progressively more grand.”
The series title references McCullough’s birth — he arrived in the world on the same day Texas became an independent republic, earning him the title “The First Son of Texas” — but its nuances go well beyond Eli’s birthright. This is a generational tale, start to finish, as the elder McCullough tries to instill his pitiless business sense in his sons, fair-minded married dad Pete (Henry Garrett), who runs the family ranch, and bachelor lawyer Phineas (David Wilson Barnes), who manages the family fortune.
“Eli has certainly been brought up and burnished and brutalized by violence,” Brosnan explains, “and he’s a man who has successively lost three families: his pioneer mother and father, his Comanche family, and his own wife. So it’s very animalistic — he knows that he’s born of violence, and that innate sense of survival that came from the Comanches. But he’s also extremely charismatic. He loves people. He loves humanity.”
And he loves most Pete’s feisty preteen daughter Jeannie (Tony nominee Sydney Lucas), in whom he recognizes his own understanding of how the world works — and how to make your mark on it.
“Eli really has a prophetic kind of understanding of the world around him — much more so than his sons, because of his upbringing and because of the trauma of his youth,” Brosnan explains. “He loves his sons, but he can see the weakness in Pete and he wants to protect him, but more so, Jeannie. As a father to four sons, I know something about fathering. I see the fragility of my boys. I’ve sat with them in hours of darkness and remorse and sadness and joy, so I have encompassed all of that as Pierce the father. Something that just is inherent in my DNA I can now take to the table when I’m sitting opposite Henry Garrett, sitting opposite David Wilson Barnes, these brilliant young actors who have got a huge responsibility with these roles.”
Brosnan agrees that viewers will likely see modern-day relevance in this racially complex story about the Lone Star State’s Mexican and Anglo settlers fighting for their right to life, land and prosperity in a young America. “There’s a brutality and a savagery in this piece which is heartbreaking — the political climate and the social climate, the uncertainty, the unsettled quality of the players is palpable beyond words. So this has a definite relevance to what’s going on in our society right now.
“It will be fascinating to see the reverberations from this kind of storytelling — especially as it draws to a close,” Brosnan concludes. “That all goes back to Philipp and his wonderful storytelling — his visionary talent in bringing these kinds of characters together, and his investigation into the history of the land that we live on.”
The Son airs Saturdays at 10/9c beginning April 8 on AMC