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Skyfall | The Daniel Craig interview

Skyfall | The Daniel Craig interview

Esquire sat down with James Bond for an afternoon pint. 

Daniel Craig’s tenure as MI6’s most famous agent began with the triumphant Casino Royale, faltered a little with Quantum of Solace and looks set to exceed even the highest  expectations with this month’s Skyfall.

Over an un-Bond-like pint in a London pub, the best 007 since Connery discusses his toughest mission to date: to make the classic Bond film — stylish, funny, exciting — we’ve all been waiting for.

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A government-sponsored assassin, by turns glowering and deadpan, solemn and vicious, Daniel Craig’s James Bond is the most successful interpretation of MI6’s least-secret agent since Sean Connery retired his chest rug. Craig’s performances as Bond are muscular, kinetic, committed. His Bond is hard; “a blunt instrument”, Judi Dench’s spymaster calls him, echoing a description made by Bond’s inventor, Ian Fleming, 50 years earlier.

He is ruthless, relentless. But his eyes give him away: he is capable of love; he feels pain. Cut him and, unlike his predecessors, he bleeds into the next scene, even the next film. To say the least, he is a departure from the sardonic smoothie played by his predecessor, Pierce Brosnan.

I meet Craig for this interview in June, in a North London pub closed for the afternoon so that we can photograph him for the Esquire cover. We talk over a post-shoot pint, well earned by him given that the previous day he had finished his last scene on the forthcoming Skyfall, his third James Bond film.

I’ve interviewed Craig before and crossed paths with him on a number of occasions. On first meeting, he can be wary and less than garrulous; not quite a blunt instrument but bracingly no-nonsense. But with a few encounters under our belts, he’s good company, a serious talker when the mood takes him, with a martini-dry sense of humour.

In my experience, Craig loathes — I don’t think that’s too strong a word — talking to the press about his private life. In truth, he’s not that comfortable talking to the press about his professional life. An hour spent analysing his career in the company of a journalist is not Daniel Craig’s idea of a good time.

And he knows that an actor discussing his technique in public comes across as an onanistic ninny. He’s conscious, too, of not wanting to be regarded as what a friend of mine calls a Charlie Big-Time Bananas — someone who’s up themselves; a swank.

“You know me,” Craig says at one point, when we briefly touch on the glamour and privilege that attends celebrity and success. “I’m not like that.” And I really don’t think he is.

His story, then, as he’s told it before — to me, and many others — is uncomplicated: drama school boy works his way up through theatre, TV and independent film, makes a name for himself as an intense character actor and then lands the blockbuster role that transforms him into an above-the-title movie star. Other details: Age, 44. One daughter from first marriage.

Recently remarried, to fellow film star Rachel Weisz. Lives: between London and New York. Big reader, leftish tendencies, watches a fair amount of sport on TV. All that we know already, and have recently covered; it’s only a year and a bit ago that Craig last graced Esquire’s cover.

So for the most part, we stick to Bond. It’s more fun and, in discussing it, Craig does offer, largely unprompted, some insights into what it might be like for a pensive man of artistic bent, from a relatively humble background on the outskirts of Liverpool, to be thrust onto the world stage as the contemporary embodiment of the ultimate aspirational male fantasy figure.

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Daniel Craig was announced as the new James Bond in 2005. Initial reactions to this news among aficionados of the films were mixed, to put it mildly. But Casino Royale (2006), his first Bond movie, was a triumph. A return, for the first time in a long time, to the source material (it was based closely on the Fleming novel), the film revolves around a high-stakes poker game and the romance between Bond and the doomed Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green — the best Bond girl in many years.

Casino Royale brought sex and danger back to cinema’s longest running series. Seriousness and sincerity, too, because Craig is the least flippant actor to have played Bond. And brawn: Craig’s Bond is prime British beefcake. To descend for a moment to the language of the gymnasium (not something Ian Fleming would countenance), no 007 has ever been so pumped, so ripped, so cut.

The now notorious hunk-in-trunks sequence, a subversion of the Ursula Andress bikini scene in Dr No (1962), ensured that Craig’s Bond was as popular with women as any Bond has been. Casino Royale won a Bafta and was nominated for eight more, including best actor for its star, and took almost $600m at the box office — a record by some distance. Craig is rightly proud of the film and its success, but his transition from indie darling to A-list heartthrob was difficult.

“It threw me for a loop, quite honestly,” he says of the experience of becoming Bond, and all the hoopla that involves. “It really fucking shook me up and made me look at the world in a very different way. It changed my life.”

How so? “It just confused the hell out of me,” he says. “Fame and fortune, for want of a better expression is, erm, fucking scary. My background is not well off. And there aren’t many people you can ask for advice about [dealing with] that.”

I’d have thought that someone who becomes a megastar would be able to turn to other megastars for counsel, but Craig’s natural reticence wouldn’t allow him to do that. “My pride would push that away,” he says.

Was it not fun, his first flush of global fame? “I couldn’t find a lot of fun in it,” he says. “I’m not very materialistic. I mean, I love nice things, but I give a fuck about what’s going on in my head, you know? So trying to get that straight really has been, it’s been…” He trails off. “You know, there’s that great expression: ‘know thyself’? I think I probably stopped knowing myself for a couple of years. And really, you’ve got to find your own way back.”

This period of existential angst and uncertainty — and he wants to make the point that he’s not asking for sympathy, just telling the story — lasted quite a while. Only after the completion of his first two Bonds, he thinks, did he begin to embrace his new situation and enjoy his strangely elevated position.

Filming Skyfall, “made me remember why I do it. You know, I did a lot of movies before Bond and I used to work because I wanted to work with [certain] directors and great scripts and I kind of didn’t give a fuck what people thought.”

He remembers an excoriating full-page review by the late film critic Alexander Walker, in the Evening Standard, of his 1998 film about the artist Francis Bacon, Love is the Devil.

“God bless him, but literally it was a page of hate. And then in another paper there was a full page of love. And it’s like, ‘Fuck it, this is the best!’ We polarised opinion. We got a reaction.”

Bond is a very different tank of sharks. “Bond movies live or die on their popularity. They force you to care about what people think. And I’m involved [in the films] on a very deep level. I have it in mind all the time: if it doesn’t make any money, we’re fucked. So there’s that kind of pressure, and that’s an enemy in any art form, acting especially,” he says.

“If you’re worried about what people are going to think, then you’re kind of nervous. But Bond can’t be fucking nervous! Be relaxed and enjoy it, that’s what people want to see. They want to see a man enjoying fear, enjoying champagne, enjoying martinis, enjoying the fact that he’s got a beautiful woman.”

More than that, people want to see the actor playing Bond enjoying himself. “I think so, yeah. They don’t want to see him suffering, going, ‘Oh my god, I can’t live this life’. You can’t do that! You have to kind of fucking go, ‘This is great! Look at me!’”

It was particularly hard for him to look like he was having fun on Casino Royale’s sequel, Quantum of Solace, released in 2008. It would have been inappropriate on screen — Bond was battered, bewildered and bereaved — and close to impossible off it, given the difficulties of the production.

A revenge thriller in which Bond seeks to track down Vesper’s betrayers, Quantum was the first time that the plot of a Bond film had followed on directly from the point where its predecessor left off. This didn’t entirely work, largely because a screenwriter’s strike meant that sections of the film were shot without a finished script. “It’s come out that I slagged [Quantum] off,” he says, “and I never meant to do that because I think it’s as good as we could have made it. But we didn’t have a script. We struggled.”

The James Bond in Quantum was grief-stricken. “He’d lost the love of his life, and that’s what I played through the movie. It was darker and he was out for revenge, and I stand by that. I think that was the right thing to do.”

Still, if Quantum was not a wholly satisfying experience for its audience or its star, then it was still a considerable improvement on 2002’s shagadelic Die Another Day, the last film before Craig took over, in which Pierce Brosnan was forced to contend not only with North Korean megalomaniacs and a Madonna cameo almost as awful as her title song, but the indignity of driving an invisible car.

Now that he’s so convincingly rebooted the series and the character, it’s easy to forget how knackered the James Bond formula had become in the years before Craig’s picking up of the Walther PPK.

“Austin Powers fucked it,” is Craig’s pithy summary of the fix brand Bond was in — it had become a parody of a parody. “By the time we did Casino, [the Mike Myers spoof] had blown every joke apart. We were in a situation where you couldn’t send things up. It had gone so far post-modern it wasn’t funny any more.”

As the astute Bond-watcher Simon Winder has pointed out, the films long ago became locked into a cycle of binge and purge, alternatively overdoing the sincerity, and then the silliness. They began in the early Sixties as relatively restrained affairs, close in spirit to the best of Fleming’s nastily effective novels, but by the end of that decade they had begun to gorge on preposterous gizmos, corny jokes, creaky plots.

A halt was called in 1969 with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was strong on narrative, weak on gadgetry. It even had a classy leading lady, in Diana Rigg, who died in the final reel, anticipating Vesper. But unlike Casino Royale, this return to source was not judged a success, largely because it forgot the crucial bit, which is to cast an actor in the role of Bond; the ill-starred Aussie George Lazenby became a pub-quiz question, rather than a Connery-style superstar.

Back to binge: the safari-suited Roger Moore era, from 1973 to 1985, was increasingly characterised by cardboard acting and wholly implausible plots. After a terrific start (Live and Let Die, the young Daniel Craig’s first exposure to 007), by the end of his shift Moore was playing Bond for cheap laughs. He was never remotely convincing as a spy — he was never remotely convincing as anyone but Roger Moore — but he was at least riotously enjoyable.

Moore gave way to Timothy Dalton, an accomplished Shakespearean actor who, once more, promised a return to Fleming’s original conception of Bond. But his 007 was dour and conflicted and the films were weirdly glum. Enter Brosnan, a man with the looks, and sometimes the gravitas, of a leisurewear model, for a quartet of explosive but empty action-movies.

The most astonishing thing about James Bond is that through all this, he has somehow maintained his allure. Not exclusively, but perhaps especially for us Brits, embarrassingly flattered as we seem to be by Fleming’s unlikely positing of one of our own secret service agents as the repeat saviour of the world. Why is this? Is it really still the case that with our empire a distant memory, the only way for British men to sate our innate desires to see the world, meet new and interesting people, kill them and then have sex with their wives and daughters, is to do so vicariously through the unusual, ambivalent figure of James Bond?

Craig says he’s uncertain why Bond’s appeal to boys of all ages is so enduring. “I don’t know the answer to that. I think if I tried to figure it out, it would ruin what I do,” he says. But he’ll have a go: “I think what’s always fantastic about the Bond stories — and they have retained it, though they might have lost it for a while — is that there’s always a darkness involved, but it’s a darkness with a sense of humour. A black humour. It’s about danger, but good danger, because you’re in the hands of somebody who’s saying ‘Fuck you’ to risk, ‘Fuck you’ to dying.”

I think he’s on to something here: in a risk-averse world, James Bond has a thrillingly flamboyant disregard for his own health and safety. “For a boy watching that,” says Craig, “it’s like watching a great footballer, the George Best thing, the wink just before the goal. It’s that moment when you should be as scared as you possibly could be, and your heart is in your mouth, that’s when you take the time to wink at the crowd. As a kid, when you see that, you’re just punching the air!”

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Fifty years after the release of Dr No, the first Bond movie, it’s that euphoria precisely that Skyfall, the 23rd Bond film, aims to recapture. It is intended to be neither a continuation of the Casino and Quantum narrative, nor a return to frothier fare. Instead, Skyfall stands alone from its immediate predecessors. It’s classic Bond: girls, guns, gadgets, sex, danger, humour, excitement, a finely balanced mixture of reality and fantasy. Bond, as Craig puts it to me, “with bells on”.

Skyfall arrives after an enforced four-year lay-off for the Bond series, during which time MGM, the studio that co-produces the films, went into and then came out of administration. There were suggestions at the time that this might have meant the end for 007, or at least for Craig as 007, but he says he was never seriously concerned.

In fact, he says, the break gave him and the Bond producers time to reassess. Craig has changed — “I’m a different person now to who I was then [during the making of Quantum]” — and his Bond, the suggestion is, has changed, too. He’s intended to be neither exactly the Fleming character — “ironical, brutal and cold,” as the writer put it — nor the suavely glib cipher he became.

It was Craig himself who pulled off Skyfall’s first masterstroke, approaching Sam Mendes, the British theatre and film director, with the idea of taking on Bond. “It’s a very showbizzy story,” Craig says. “I was at Hugh Jackman’s house in New York. It was a soiree — we were in a play together — and Sam was there. I’d had a few too many drinks and I went, ‘How do you fancy directing a Bond?’ And he kind of looked at me, and he went, ‘Yeah!’ And it snowballed from there.”

Veteran Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, not surprisingly, were supportive of the idea and after some thought, Mendes signed on. The former tyro artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London and director of the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the chilling gangster film Road to Perdition, in which Craig has a memorable cameo, Mendes is by far the most acclaimed director to make a Bond film.

Next to come aboard was the much-garlanded screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator). And Skyfall has been shot by the great Roger Deakins, who has worked with Mendes before (on Revolutionary Road and Jarhead) and most extensively with the Coen brothers, with whom he has made 11 features. Craig won’t stand for any loose talk of an arthouse 007, but clearly this team brings more critical bonafides than any previously assembled for a Bond film.

Unless you’re Deakins or Sam Mendes, I’ve seen a few minutes more of Skyfall than you have, and as many completed minutes as Craig himself had seen when we met. And I’ve only seen four minutes. From that and the publicity materials — and from Craig’s amused nods and shakes of the head as I stumble through an attempted plot précis born of speculation and guesswork — I can tell you that Skyfall’s starter button is pushed by a bouffant blond psychopath called Silva (Javier Bardem, in what looks to be a vintage OTT Bond baddie performance).

Judi Dench’s role is much expanded from previous films, with her M under pressure and MI6 under attack — there’s an architect-pleasuring explosion on the roof of the much-maligned MI6 South Bank ziggurat — as information about its operatives falls into the wrong hands and its most famous agent goes missing, presumed dead. When he surfaces, he and M mount a clandestine defence of the realm.

We know that locations include Istanbul (see Esquire’s set report, on page 130), Shanghai, Macau and the highlands of Scotland, but that the film is overwhelmingly set in London. (Such is Bond’s pull in the higher echelons of the civil service that Whitehall was closed so the crew could film there, and there’s an incendiary chase scene on the Underground; no word yet on whether Bond makes violent use of his Oyster card).

In the footage I’ve seen, M is shown glaring at a row of coffins draped in the Union Flag. At another point, Bardem’s nutcase lisps a line about the end of the Empire and England becoming a joke. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that this portrait of British power might be rooted in something closer to reality than on previous occasions.

“There’s a little bit of what it is to be British in the movie,” Craig concedes. “That’s not what the film is hard and fast about, but I’d be lying by saying we don’t touch upon it. It’s about who Bond is, but first and foremost who M is. What she represents as the head of MI6, her morality.”

You’ll have gathered that it’s not just the film-makers and the lead players who come trailing laurels. Together with the producers, Craig and Mendes have been able to attract an unprecedentedly accomplished supporting cast: Ralph Fiennes as a steely, patrician Whitehall mandarin; Naomie Harris as a sparky MI6 field operative; Ben Whishaw as a gadget geek from Q Branch; as well as Rory Kinnear and Albert Finney.

“I had no major game plan coming to this,” says Craig, “but in the back of my mind, I thought if we can get the right writer and director, and get the script right, then we can attract those people. Then when Sam came on board and we got the script, and then every single number one on our list said yes, that gave us a real boost.”

Craig’s original inclination, when he first took on the role, was to bring realism back to Bond. That’s still there, but counterpointed by a desire for more levity. More jokes, even.

“Whenever I go and see a big blockbuster movie,” he says, “whether it’s about aliens or whatever, as long as it’s got an element of truth in it, I’ll buy it. People ask me [concerning Bond], ‘What about the gadgets? What about the jokes?’ And I can’t force that in if it’s not there in the script. If it is there, I can make something of it.”

In Skyfall, he implies, there are opportunities in the script for lighter moments. “I’m not saying we’ve done it a lot, but we’ve said, ‘OK, at the right point we’re allowed’. Whether it’s just a straightening of the tie [after an action sequence] or a quip I’ve been able to improvise. When you’ve got a writer like John Logan, you can do that.”

He’s never going to be Roger Moore. “That’s about sending it up, and that’s not me. I kind of have to act it. I’m not James Bond. You know me well enough to know there’s a difference between Bond and me. I know I’m not funny-funny. So I have to work at it to find these comic moments. But if there’s a good story, then I feel quite confident. Then I can wink and hopefully the audience can go along with it. That was always the plan [for Skyfall], and it relies on great writing and a good director.”

Unlike on previous Bond films, before shooting started Mendes gathered the leading players together with the script and with John Logan and encouraged them to improvise lines that might be used in the film. The intention was to find the implicit humour in the scenes Logan had written, not to arbitrarily insert gags.

And it was necessary to keep a close eye on proceedings, lest Bond’s old habits returned. “We had the Austin Powers warning klaxon. Guys running around in boiler suits, me just killing them willy-nilly? Klaxon goes off. Can’t have that!”

What a shame, I tell him. I love those guys in boiler suits, running around being randomly offed.

“Oh, we’ve got a few of them in it,” he says. “With the hard hats and the Wellington boots on.”

There are other nods to Bonds past. Craig drives the silver Aston Martin DB5 made famous by Connery and even his suits — made by Tom Ford — have the thin lapel and the fitted silhouette familiar from Sixties Bond.

“It all comes from the same place,” says Craig, “which is that as much as possible we wanted to give the audience our take on classic Bond.”

Craig says that if Skyfall were to be his last Bond, he’d be satisfied with his achievements — “Don’t tell Barbara,” he says, nodding across the pub at the newly-arrived Ms Broccoli — but he has already signed on for two more Bonds, so I think it’s safe to say 007 survives Skyfall, gunshot wounds and all.

Now, though, is not the time to talk about the future. “Today, just contemplating another one is fucking beyond my imagination. All I want to do right now is go home.”

Between our meeting and late October, when he’ll be on the worldwide publicity tour, for the first time in a long time Craig has no work lined up, except for any discussions he might have with Mendes as the final cut of Skyfall takes shape. For an actor, this would usually be a cause for concern. But not in his case. “I’ve been working non-stop. I’m sick of the sight of me, so I can’t imagine how other people feel about it.”

I tell him he’s right: we’re all fed up with looking at him, too. He drains his pint, gives me a steely glare, then a wry grin, then a firm handshake.

“Cheers,” he says.

Then he winks.

Skyfall is out on 26 October

Interview by Alex Bilmes
Photographs by Terry O’Neill

Styling by Gareth Scourfield