Forty minutes alone in a hotel room with James Bond. Anything could happen.
We could launch ourselves at each other, punching, gouging, elbowing, biting, kicking just-out-of-reach pistols from grasping hands, falling through windows, running over rooftops.
Or we could melt into each other’s arms. I could purr, “Oh, James!” as he used a magnet to unzip the fly of my jeans. (“Not so fast, Mr Bond!”) Later, while I took a post-coital puff on one of his Balkan Sobranies, he could fix us vodka martinis from the minibar. Then, perhaps, while he’s using the bathroom, a Spectre agent could come in and shoot me dead, using a Hungarian goose-down pillow as a silencer. When 007 returned to find my tragically naked corpse — tragic in every sense — he could make some mirthless quip, a cruel smile playing on his lips: “I’ve heard of petite mort, but that’s just ridiculous.”
In the event, of course, none of this took place. James Bond and I sat on facing sofas in a suite at the Soho Hotel, where the stars go to junket, knees knocking on opposite sides of a coffee table. I asked questions. He answered. Though, like all good spies, he didn’t reveal much. This is, after all, the man who once described interviews as “like going to the dentist”. (At which point I take out my drill.)
Daniel Craig is James Bond. That’s what the posters say. But he’s not really, not even close. He’s not especially suave. He isn’t a wine snob or a label whore, or an inveterate gambler. Sure, he likes a drink and he appreciates a good suit and a smart watch. He’s spent quality time with some famously beautiful women. And he’s an impressive physical specimen, a manly man: steely, diffident, not easily amused; buff, bluff and blond, with penetrating eyes.
But Ian Fleming’s original description of his man from MI6 is of someone “ironical, brutal, and cold”. Craig’s businesslike and somewhat wary, but he’s hardly a killer. And he’s not wearing a Brioni dinner jacket, or a tight pair of trunks. He’s wearing jeans and a blue work shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He’s a 43-year-old actor from Liverpool. His passions are for books and current affairs. He lives in bien pensant north London, watches the rugby on the telly. He’s not a globe-trotting sociopath. He rides a pushbike, for God’s sake.
It’s in this guise that he’s here to talk about his new film, in which he doesn’t play James Bond. It’s called Cowboys and Aliens. I haven’t seen it. What’s it about? “It’s about cowboys and fucking aliens.” This answer comes with the wriest of smiles. OK, so sometimes he is a bit like James Bond.
Daniel Craig with Harrison Ford in this month’s Cowboys and Aliens
Will Self has the best line on the unusual trajectory of Craig’s career, from serious stage thesp and art-house character actor to ultraviolent big-screen assassin. Craig, writes Self in his phantasmagorical novel-cum-memoir Walking to Hollywood, has gone from playing “tortured and sensitive types to torturing sensitive types”.
“I ought to kick his fucking head in,” remarks Craig, not unironically, when I read him that line. He needn’t bother, because further down the same page of Walking to Hollywood Craig’s stunt double does some kicking on his boss’s behalf, viciously assaulting the frazzled author in answer to an apparently innocuous question: “Why’re you dressed like Daniel Craig when he’s meant to be dressed like James Bond?”
What the stunt double knows is that Self’s question is not innocuous at all. In the celebrity-obsessed public psyche, a fan-slash-fantasist fever dream writ large, Daniel Craig and James Bond are interchangeable, even when they’re both dressed like Daniel Craig. Sometimes, Craig says, “I want to say, ‘I’m just me. I’m not fucking James Bond. I do not carry a gun. Honest. He does.’”
Perhaps because of his bloody-minded refusal to be confused with his alter-ego — while earlier Bonds seem to have revelled in the blurring of lines between their own personalities and those of the characters they played on screen — Craig has been able, more or less successfully, to convincingly play other parts in other films during his tenure as 007. He’s the first Bond — there I go again — to have had a credible career before he got the part and to rightly expect to continue to have one once he’s lobbed the Walther PPK to a younger man. (Connery had one afterwards but not before; Dalton had one before but not after; Lazenby had neither; Brosnan and Moore were always really TV heartthrobs.)
Craig’s gamble, he says, is that audiences are smart enough to be able to distinguish between his most famous role, and any other he may choose to play now and in the future. “Those that I can’t convince otherwise,” he says, “if that’s the only way they want to see me, then that’s their loss.”
James-Bond-but-not-really was born in 1968 in Chester. His mother Carol was an art teacher, his father Tim a pub landlord and midshipman in the Merchant Navy. They split when Craig was four, and he lived with his mother and his elder sister in Hoylake and West Kirby, just outside Liverpool.
He left for London at 16 to join the National Youth Theatre, and graduated from the Guildhall in 1991. He served his apprenticeship with small parts on stage and in TV before his big break, in 1996, in the BBC’s epic saga Our Friends in the North. It was his first stab at what would become his trademark: tortured characters with livid bruises and sharp edges. Craig quickly became British film and theatre’s go-to-guy for wounded and potentially dangerous masculinity.
He finds troubled characters and darker material more challenging and fulfilling. “I’m not about to do a romcom,” he says. “It would be a disaster.”
“Good movies,” he says, “aren’t just funny. Good movies aren’t just sad. Good movies aren’t just serious. They’re all of those fucking things. In good movies you should be involved in the characters. Not getting deep about it but I think that’s more interesting.”
So in Love is the Devil, a portrait of the artist Francis Bacon as a vicious old queen, Craig was Derek Jacobi’s tormented bit of rough: drunk and desperate, ghostly white with hollow cheeks and boot-black hair.
Daniel Craig with Sienna Miller in Layer Cake (2004)
In Sam Mendes’ meditative gangster movie, Road to Perdition, he was terrific as Paul Newman’s saturnine son. He was surely the butchest screen poet ever as Ted Hughes in Sylvia. In The Mother he was a charismatic but damaged painter-decorator who begins an affair with a woman twice his age — a chilling portrait of a manipulator complete with a terrifying explosion of rage. There’s another worrying eruption in Enduring Love, in which he is an urbane academic traumatised by a stalker. The derivative crime caper Layer Cake may have been the least demanding of his projects from this period, but it was surely the film that signalled to the Bond producers that Craig could be a smart 007.
Craig is the real deal. In 2002, I saw him at the Royal Court in London, in Caryl Churchill’s A Number, directed by Stephen Daldry and co-starring Michael Gambon.
The play is routinely described as a two-hander, in that it requires only two actors. But four characters take to the stage, three of them — a trio of cloned brothers — played by Craig. Somehow, he managed to make each brother distinct from the others without changing out of his jeans and T-shirt. It was a virtuoso performance by a prodigious actor.
Hollywood was impressed. Steven Spielberg cast Craig as a hair-trigger Jewish assassin in Munich. He was Perry Smith, the death row inmate from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in Infamous. And then he was Bond.
When his casting was first announced there was uproar among the diehards: too blond, too short (at 5ft11in!), too old (at 37!), too serious an actor (well, yeah, maybe). He didn’t so much force the naysayers to eat their words as shove them down their throats and hold their mouths shut till they swallowed.
Casino Royale, released in 2006, was by common consent the best Bond film since Connery hung up his hairpiece, and the most profitable to date. Craig’s Bond was intense, kinetic, and — perhaps for the first time — vulnerable, human even. What’s more, for all the boy’s toys, his 007 was catnip to the ladies.
The follow-up, Quantum of Solace, was burdened by an overwritten title and an underwritten screenplay, but still made close to $600m. And then, in April 2010, it all seemed to go pear-shaped — not a figure with which MI6’s in-house Casanova is comfortable. As MGM, the studio that distributes the Bond films, struggled to recover from the financial crisis and headed towards bankruptcy, production on a new film — Bond 23, to be directed by Sam Mendes — was suspended indefinitely. Had Bond been killed by… bankers? And was Craig worried that his double-o number was up?
The answer comes in fits and starts: “Yeah…. Maybe. No, actually. Actually, no. No. I mean, honestly, I didn’t give that a thought. My feeling was, if we couldn’t get the film made it would be ridiculous, because we’d made all this money and it was a good bet. They were just in a very complicated financial situation, but there was nothing [the film-makers] could do. Either it was going to sort itself out or I was going to get too old and that would be the end of it.”
Would that have bothered him, or would it have been a blessed relief? “I think I would have felt disappointed, eventually,” he says. “I was desperate to have another crack at it.”
Quantum of Solace, he says, was a difficult film to make. It was shot without a finished script because of a Hollywood writers’ strike, “which is never a good fucking thing, especially on a movie of that size”.
The film “wasn’t as satisfying an experience as I’d have liked it to have been”. Happily, he has another shot, at least: last December MGM came out of bankruptcy with new financing and new bosses and EON, the Bond producers, announced a new distribution deal with Sony. In June it was confirmed that the next Bond film will be released on 26 October 2012 — 50 years after Dr No.
“I think the challenge now is to create something that is iconically Bond,” Craig says. “To make sure we leave [the franchise] in as good a shape as when we found it. Sam Mendes is a Bond fan through and through. He’s read every book. So his take on it is very similar to mine in the sense that we want to get something that excites us and turns us on and hopefully turns everybody else on.”
Can he be more specific? “Nope.” Can he tell us what it’s called? “Nope.” I’ve heard that it’s called “Red Sky at Night”. “Oh, bollocks. I’ve no idea. It’s not called that.” Craig was originally persuaded to take on this most freighted of roles by the fact that Casino Royale was the first of Fleming’s books, and he felt an adaptation of it might offer the chance to start Bond afresh. He is the kind of actor, he says, who wants to know, “‘What’s this about?’ ‘Who is this person?’ ‘How would he react in this situation?’
Daniel Craig's debut as a new, more human James Bond in Casino Royale (2006)
I wanted to instil it with some emotion. If you look at the later Bond films there’s this untouchable thing about him that I wanted to steer away from. [Because] if you’ve set someone up as Teflon-coated it’s very difficult to then show the sensitive side.
Give him a kitten? Well, the fucking baddie’s supposed to hold the cat, you know?
It’s a tricky fucking thing to deal with.”
He wants the next Bond to be funny, but “the humour has to come from truth, at how ridiculous the situations are.” Otherwise, he says, “it’s just gags for the sake of gags.
I’m not interested in that. I want to get the wryness back into it. It’s a balance, because you’ve got to believe that he’s going to be alive at the end of the movie. That’s a James Bond movie.”
Craig’s personal life is closely guarded; you won’t catch him blubbing to Piers Morgan on ITV. In the early Nineties he was married to actress Fiona Loudon; they have a daughter, Ella, 19 . Since then he has had two long-term relationships as well as a respectable number of dalliances. Most recently, he’s begun a romance with Rachel Weisz, the Oscar-winning actress,
a woman who is rather difficult to describe without recourse to embarrassing superlatives: beautiful, accomplished, poised, and so on. In June, they married in a private ceremony in New York.
He’d rather not talk about their relationship, he says, so instead we have a round-the-houses conversation about privacy and the press. As a thoughtful, liberal person who also happens to be famous, he’s well placed to comment on our spring of super-injunctions, and he does, drawing a distinction between media intrusion into the lives of harmless public figures — such as himself — and the need to allow journalists to expose wrongdoing in other areas.
“The freedom of press is fundamental in a democracy,” he says. “And when you have CEOs pulling the celebrity card, saying ‘I have a right to privacy’, it’s like, ‘Hold on a minute!’ There is a distinction between celebrities and actors and that type of person.”
So he doesn’t think we should have a privacy law in this country? “I think we need to define things. Harassment is wrong. Every individual has the right to a private life, whoever they are, maybe even politicians. Because otherwise you can’t be a fucking human being.”
Was he given pause, I wonder, when he got together with Weisz, by the fact that their combined celebrity and the inevitable attention it would attract, would make their movements even more circumscribed than they were as separate famous people?
“Not even slightly,” he says. “Genuinely, I really don’t want to talk about this. But I will answer that question. How can you calculate something like that, or quantify something like that? You can’t.”
But presumably he’s aware that it’s a risk, because the interest in famous couples seems to be so magnified?
“But you say ‘risk’. That’s life! I can’t live like that, no one can.
You can’t be scared about what people think. It’s nobody’s business. Let them think what they’ll think.”
Sure. But I suppose I meant not that he might worry about what people think, but just in practical terms that the increased focus on him and Weisz might become unbearable.
“But again,” he says, “You can’t quantify that. You can’t put it on a scale or draw a graph. It has no meaning whatsoever.
Sorry. I will get defensive in a minute, but the fact is privacy is privacy. You don’t choose people based on that. Life just happens and you have to deal with the consequences. I don’t want to behave in some calculated way, because that’s fucking madness. I want to be the person I want to be. It seems little to ask.”
He’s quite irritated now. “Look,” he says. “I have a responsibility to protect the people around me. And I can’t protect them if I just give them up. You know, ‘Let me tell you something about them...’ That’s shooting them in the back, because how can they defend themselves? That goes for my family, my friends — and I expect that of the people I have around me. I say, ‘OK, we’ll look after each other, protect one another.’
“You don’t seem to be one of those people,” he says, “but there are journalists in the world who would take full advantage of this situation and use it to spin a story. I have to be wary of that. It really isn’t churlishness on my part. I just want to protect. As soon as you let something go, give a piece of information away, it’s public knowledge. If it’s out there it’s fucking out there. You can’t pull it back once it’s gone.”
He and Weisz are in a film together, Dream House, which will be released in October. Presumably that means they’ll have to talk about each other in interviews?
“We will, yeah,” he says. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” He takes a slug of water. “It’s no biggy.”
Before Dream House, a psychological thriller from the Irish director Jim Sheridan, comes Cowboys and Aliens. Deadpan plot summaries from its leading man aside, from the 10 minutes I’ve seen it looks a lot of fun. Inspired by a series of comic books, it’s just as it sounds, a high-concept collision of western and sci-fi: Unforgiven meets The War of the Worlds, directed by Jon Favreau, who made a great success of the Iron Man films.
Craig is an amnesiac gunslinger in 1870s Arizona, up-and-coming actress Olivia Wilde is a beautiful barmaid and Harrison Ford, no less, is a grizzled sheriff in the Little Bill mould. Craig particularly enjoyed spending time with Ford, a man who knows more than almost anyone else about how to conduct oneself as one of the world’s leading film stars.
“You rarely get these opportunities to actually speak to people you admire,” Craig says. “I think it’s human nature to get a bit nervous around people like that, but certainly a couple of large malt whiskies helped loosen my tongue. I was very open about how much he’s influenced me.”What is Ford like to spend time with? “He’s Harrison Ford, you know? He knows how to ride a horse, shoot a gun, build a house, fly a helicopter. But he’s also very funny, very dry. Thank God. Could have gone either way, I suppose.”
Just before Christmas Craig will appear, this time in 3D, in another huge blockbuster: Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, with Jamie Bell as the boy detective, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson. On Boxing Day he’ll open in another big film: as the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the Hollywood version of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, from David Fincher, a director still throbbing with the success of last year’s The Social Network.
Daniel Craig in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
In the Swedish version, as played by Michael Nyqvist, Blomkvist is a paunchy, pockmarked, rather passive middle-aged man, his diffidence contrasted with the furious sullen intensity of Lisbeth Salander, the traumatised bisexual cyberpunk hackette — oh, yes indeed — who has turned Larsson’s Millennium trilogy into a publishing phenomenon.
One can understand why Fincher — whose early credits include the serial killer classic Se7en — might find the remote locations, the brutal sexual violence, the collision of modern technology and ancient scriptures and the Nazi paedophile conspiracies ripe for reimagining, but what does Craig see in this project?
“We’re making a very expensive adult movie,” he says. “People are decrying the fact that it’s a remake. It’s not. The book is the source material. I haven’t seen the original. And that’s not disrespect at all. I just want to keep my head as clear as possible. But this is an R-rated, risky movie that could possibly fail. I don’t know if it will, I know plenty of people who are interested in it, but it’s an edgy movie. It’s the kind of movie I’ve always liked making. I just happen to be making them with Fincher now.”
It will be a surprise if Craig’s Blomkvist, like Craig’s Bond, is not driven and damaged. Does the actor see something of himself in these men? Not especially, he says, “I just find people who are going through something big and dramatic in their lives more interesting than people who just kind of exist.”
And, as a result of his success he finds he can explore his interests on a much bigger canvas than he used to work with, pre-Casino Royale. He’s a character actor with box-office bankability.
“To do Bond and then deliberately go and make small, edgier movies is kind of stupid,”
he says. Not to mention impossible. “You can’t take away the caché from your name.
If I sign up for a $4m movie then investors will suddenly want to start putting money into it, because I’m in it, so it will become a $10m movie. And that’s wrong, because the reason movies like that are good and interesting is because they only cost four million, and no one [from a studio] can fucking tell them what to do. I don’t know whether I can ever really do that again. Or not for a while. I mean, if everything bombs over the next couple of years I’ll be screaming to do that.”
This seems unlikely. All being well, Craig says his life is mapped out for the next four years. “For an actor,” he says, “that’s quite a good feeling. I’ve really never had it before. Normally you’re on hold all the time, wondering what the next thing to come up will be. It actually means I might be able to find some time in there to live my life a little bit.”
I leave him to it, pacing his hotel room, awaiting another interview. Perhaps it’s the next guy who’ll end up with a broken neck.
Cowboys and Aliens is out now
Interview by Alex Bilmes
Photographs by Benni Valsson
Fashion by Catherine Hayward