The late, great Sean Connery on the late-career joy of working with a woman his own age
Sean Connery made many great movies: most of his James Bond canon (especially "Goldfinger" and "From Russia With Love"), "The Untouchables" and "Indian Jones and the Last Crusade," to name just a few. The celebrated Scottish actor, who died in his sleep Oct. 31 at age 90, also made a few not-so-great films in his 50-year screen career. Among them was 1999's "Playing With Hearts," an episodic rom-com in which he was paired with Gena Rowlands, another actor of renown. Both 68 at the time of the film's release, they played a long-married couple grappling with a revealed secret. Their time together, seemingly as familiar with each other as a real couple would be, was the best part of a so-so movie. The two also made for a memorable interview, when I talked to them together at a promotional junket. What follows is my Toronto Star report of the occasion:
The Bond of experience: Sean Connery finds instant chemistry with Gena Rowlands in their first movie together
Jan. 22, 1999
Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands enter the hotel room like Dad and Mom working a family reunion.
They walk up to every one of the dozen journalists present to warmly shake hands and to introduce themselves, as if none of the scribes would know the real James Bond and the original Blonde Bombshell of American independent film.
In one sense, though, it's true. No one knows Connery and Rowlands together like this.
Born just a few weeks apart in 1930, he in Edinburgh and she in Cambria, Wisc., they have a combined career total of nearly 100 movies in 95 years of thespian service. But until their pairing for the new romantic comedy "Playing By Heart," no one had seen them together, bonding like twins.
It's a wonder to watch how they get along, bantering and bickering with each other, as if they really are the 40-years-married couple they play in the movie. Prior to filming, they had met on just one previous occasion.
"We had met socially at (actor) Edmond O'Brien's many years ago, " Rowlands says.
"But we never came close to being in a movie before, " Connery chips in.
"Mind you, " he adds, looking at Rowlands, "in a funny way, you are the female counterpart of myself, because you've been shooting all over (the world) and not set in terms of Hollywood. I've worked in Europe, Africa, Australia and America."
Connery lards on further praise: The chance to work with Rowlands was "a major deciding factor" in his signing on for writer/director Willard Carroll's small-budget film about love in L.A. Connery reportedly worked for $60,000, a pittance compared with his $14 million regular paycheque.
Rowlands, looking sharp in frosted blonde hair, her red lipstick, nails and scarf setting off her black suit, beams as Connery talks; she's equally effusive about his talents.
No one is quite sure what he's driving at — Connery is an A-list Hollywood star, while Rowlands is known for starring in the indie films of her late husband, John Cassavetes — but she takes the comparison with him as flattery.
Connery and Rowlands are both 68, though, and age is the great equalizer in movies. They know they're long past their bloom in the Hollywood celebrity hothouse, and they rejoice at being able to get roles of interest and distinction, even if it's as part of an ensemble cast in a multi-story movie like "Playing By Heart."
Connery, ever the sporty whitebeard in yellow turtleneck, khaki slacks and beige Mephisto shoes, can still hold out for love roles in which he's paired with ridiculously younger women, even if his visibly spreading paunch suggests he'd best leave his shirt on.
Yet he seems relieved to be matched, for once, with a woman of his own age.
"It would appear that it's such a sort of nip-and-tuck culture that you're not going to see anybody (in the movies) past 30, even if they're 60, you know what I mean?" he says, with a Scots burr that could replace the butter in shortbread.
"That's what the dream is, I suppose. But when it's written like this one, I think that it might change a bit. Even if it doesn't, it means there will be more parts for us."
Rowlands says she's talked to younger people who can't believe anyone could stay married as long as Hannah and Paul, the couple she and Connery play in "Playing By Heart." Rowlands herself was married to the late Cassavetes for 30 years, about the same amount of time Connery has been with Micheline, his second wife.
"Some people are truly astounded that a marriage could last 40 years, " Rowlands says. "They really think that at 30 or 40, life just stops. Or at least passion does, the whole excitement and mystery of it all. I don't know where they think it goes."
Connery agrees, recounting his own discussion with a young woman who doubted any marital union could last four decades.
"It wasn't affectation — she really was saying she couldn't comprehend it, " he says. "And I suppose that if you go back over the movies the past five years or so, I don't think there's been any marital relationship about people in their late 60s. It's just not filmically exploitable, I guess."
What is exploitable, always, is Connery in a James Bond movie. He hasn't played Secret Agent 007 since his cheeky 1983 comeback in the "Thunderball" remake "Never Say Never Again," and he's watched as Pierce Brosnan — whom he politely avoids commenting on — has made a solid claim on Bond's Walther PPK pistol.
But there's been serious talk of late of Connery playing a part in yet another remake of "Thunderball," once Sony and MGM finish battling it out in court for the rights.
Is he interested?
"Well, you people keep telling me (about it), " he says, weary of the question. "I haven't sat down and discussed it with anybody who has any money."
Would he consider playing Bond again? He wouldn't have to travel far — he currently lives in the Bahamas, where the original was filmed in 1964.
"No, I'm not doing it, " Connery says firmly.
"Not the part of James Bond. But if there was something in it that was interesting . . ."
"But I don't know if they could afford it."
(The BBC recently reported Connery is considering taking the role of 007's arch-nemesis Ernst Blofeld for the latest "Thunderball.")
Rowlands, meanwhile, has kept busy playing grandmother types, in such recent films as "The Mighty," "Hope Floats" and "Paulie."
And like Connery, she will soon know what it's like to see another actor play a role she made famous. Sharon Stone, who starred next to Rowlands in last year's "The Mighty," returns to movie theatres today as the streetwise title character of a remade "Gloria." The original 1980 Cassavetes film won Rowlands her second Oscar nomination for best actress (the first was for 1974's "A Woman Under The Influence").
"I haven't seen it and yes, they did offer me a part in it, just to see if I thought it would be a pleasant feeling or not, " Rowlands says.
"And I just didn't really want to do it. But I hasten to say that Sharon was very courteous when we were making "The Mighty." She came and said, 'I know "Gloria" is yours and John's movie, and if it hurts you for someone else to do it, I won't do it.'
"I thought that was very nice, " Rowlands continues. "But I said, 'No, go ahead.' I think it's quite a compliment to John in the first place. It's a great part and it's very hard for actors to find great parts."
The joy of finding great parts is what keeps Rowlands and Connery in acting.
"Acting is refreshing, " Rowlands says. "I think it may be hard for someone who isn't an actor to realize just how much sheer enjoyment you get from it. It's unlike other jobs in that it changes every time. It's as if you're a mystery reader and you're waiting for a new mystery to come up."
Adds Connery: "You get a chance to display the intelligence of someone that you don't possess."
They say they'd both be interested in acting together again.
How about in a Bond film? Rowlands could take over the role of 007's boss M, which Judi Dench has had for the past two turns by Brosnan.
"Yeah, sure, " Connery says, amused by the suggestion.
"It would give me a chance to get back at her!"
He smiles at Rowlands, and she beams back.
(This column was originally published in the Toronto Star on Jan. 22, 1999.)