Daniel Craig On His Decade As 007
Daniel Craig reflects on a decade as a symbol of masculinity for the modern age.
BY ALEX BILMES | Oct 1, 2015 | Film & TV
Daniel Craig would like a beer.
A cigarette, too. Not, he says, that he’s back on the fags full-time, but a man can cut himself some slack now and then. It’s a Wednesday afternoon in July. Craig filmed his last scene for Spectre, the new James Bond film, the previous Saturday, on a lake in Bray, in Berkshire. (“A bit of an anti-climax,” he concedes.)
Since then he’s been knuckling down to his publicity duties. He went straight from the wrap party into three days of PR: posing for the movie poster, mugging for promotional photos that will be packaged and sent out to the global media, divvied up between rival broadcasters and papers and websites and magazines less fortunate than our own. Tomorrow he sits for an all-day junket at a central London hotel: round-table interviews and brief one-on-ones (some as long as 10 whole minutes) with reporters from around the world.
No one who has worked with Craig before–me included–would mistake him for someone who revels in the marketing of movies. He does it with good grace but it remains a necessary evil, something to be endured rather than embraced. So now, unwinding from a day of it, he figures he’s earned a lager and a smoke.
We are sitting, he and I, on plastic chairs at a wooden table on an otherwise empty roof terrace in East London. Beneath us, the trendy loft apartment hired for the afternoon as the location for the Esquire shoot. As luck–by which I really mean cunning, my own cunning–would have it, there are cold beers in the fridge, and Craig’s publicist has a pack of Marlboro Lights she’s happy for us to pilfer.
So I flip the lids from two bottles of Peroni, he offers me his lighter–encased in a spent bullet shell from the set of a 007 gunfight–and we ash in a bucket. It’s warm out but the sky is glowering, threatening rain. When it comes, almost as light as air, we sit through it, neither of us acknowledging it’s falling. Soon we call down for more beers and more beers are brought, fags are lit, and Craig leans back in his chair and talks.
I don’t think I’ve known him this relaxed before. Not in an interview, certainly.
I’ve met Craig on a number of previous occasions. And this is the third time he’s talked to me for an Esquire cover story, in four years. (Beat that, The Economist.) He’s always courteous and cooperative and professional. He’s always thoughtful and considered and drily funny. But he has a stern countenance and there is a steeliness to him that discourages flippancy. Though not, happily, caustic wit: my favourite Craig line from an interview I did with him came in 2011, when he was promoting a film called Cowboys & Aliens and I’d had the temerity to ask him what it was about: “It’s about cowboys and fucking aliens, what do you think it’s about?” OK, fair enough; stupid fucking question. But did I mention that he’s drily funny?
It’s 10 years since Daniel Craig was announced as the sixth official screen incarnation of Britain’s least secret agent, following, as every schoolboy knows, Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan. It’s fair to say the news of his casting did not occasion impromptu street parties up and down the nation, or thousands of British parents naming their first-born sons Daniel (or, indeed, Craig) in his honour.
By almost universal consent, Craig was too young, too blond (too blond!) and not nearly suave–or, perhaps, glib–enough. The man himself seemed somewhat discomfited, too. He had spent the previous two decades building a career for himself as an actor of ferocious intensity, a specialist in wounded masculinity on stage and screen, in the kind of plays–A Number–and films–Sylvia (2003), The Mother (2003), Enduring Love (2004)–that most fans of big budget stunts-and-shunts movies hadn’t necessarily seen, lacking both opportunity and inclination, and perhaps imagination.
Even Sam Mendes, Bond aficionado and director of Skyfall and Spectre, recently admitted he originally felt the casting of Craig could have been a mistake. Crazily, in retrospect, the feeling was he was too serious an actor, too searching, too saturnine. Our expectations of Bond, after decades of increasingly preposterous hijinks and larky one-liners, were hardly stratospheric. The franchise, once seen as cool, even sophisticated–though never, until recently, cerebral–had become a corny joke.
“Austin Powers fucked it,” was Craig’s typically bald appraisal of the situation pre-2006, when I talked to him about it last time. In other words, the films had gone beyond parody. “By the time we did Casino Royale, [Mike Myers] 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.”
Craig changed all that. His Bond is hard but not cold. He’s haunted by a traumatic childhood. He is not inured to violence; cut Craig’s 007 and he bleeds. And he loves and loses, in spectacular fashion.
First in Casino Royale (2006), which was as much tragic romance as action thriller, and in which Bond–Ian Fleming’s “blunt instrument”–was revealed as painfully vulnerable, physically and emotionally.
“I would ask you if you could remain emotionally detached, but I don’t think that’s your problem, is it, Bond?” Judi Dench’s M asks him in that film. It turns out to be precisely his problem. He falls in love with a woman who is his equal in every way, including the tormented past. “I have no armour left,” he tells her, “you’ve stripped it from me.” But he can’t save her. That story continues in Quantum of Solace (2008), a revenge drama-cum-chase movie, albeit one hobbled by a Hollywood writers’ strike. Craig played Bond as grief-stricken and fuelled by righteous anger.
Skyfall (2012), described by Craig and Mendes as a return to “classic Bond”, reintroduced many of the gags and much of the glamour familiar from earlier films, as well as beloved characters–Q, Moneypenny–previously conspicuous by their absence from Craig-era Bond. But it also developed the theme of Bond in extremis: shot, presumed drowned, then ragged and cynical, and entangled in a weird Oedipal psychodrama with Javier Bardem’s cyber-terrorist and Dench’s mummy figure, M.
The cartoonish elements–the exotic locations, the evil megalomaniacs, the fast women, the suicidal driving, the techno gadgetry–were back, but Craig’s moody intensity was very much present and correct. He doesn’t do a lot of sunny romcoms. His characters, Bond included, tend to be somewhat wracked. “You meet somebody who is at the best part of their life when they’re really happy and everything’s great, I’m not sure how interesting that is cinematically,” he says. The essence of drama is conflict, and Craig’s Bond is nothing if not conflicted. Apart from anything else, he keeps trying to resign his commission.
When he was first sent the script for Casino Royale, in 2005, Craig tells me now, “I had been prepared to read a Bond script and I didn’t. They’d stripped everything back and I went, [approvingly] ‘Oh, shit!’ It felt to me they were offering me a blueprint, and saying: ‘Form it around that.’ And I went, ‘OK, I can do that.’
“I’m a huge Bond fan,” he says. “I love James Bond movies, and I love all the old gags and everything that goes along with that. No disrespect to what happened before but this is completely different. It’s got weight and meaning. Because I don’t know another way to do it. However big and grand it is, however boisterous the script is, you look for the truth in it, and you stick to that, and then you can mess around with it. And if you have that and you have the car chases and the explosions as well, then you’re quids in. But there have to be consequences. He has to be affected by what happens to him. It’s not just that he has to kill the bad guy, there has to be a reason for it.”
The last time Craig and I talked matters Bond was in the summer of 2012, and the topic at hand was the imminent release of Skyfall. I wrote then that everyone involved I spoke to exuded a sense of quiet confidence. This is not always discernible in the nervy run-up to a big budget release.
Still, even the most gung-ho 007 cheerleader could not have predicted that the film would be quite as successful as it became. Released that October, it made SGD1.59 billion worldwide–nearly twice the amount of Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace, both of which did extremely well. At the time of writing it’s the 12th highest-grossing film of all time. In the UK in particular, it did phenomenal and quite unexpected business. It is the highest grossing film released here and the only movie ever to take more than SGD210 million at the British box office.
Craig’s summary of the feeling among the film-makers as they began to discuss a follow-up to Skyfall: “What the fuck are we going to do?”
“I think everyone was just daunted, understandably,” he says. “Like, it’s ‘the biggest British movie of all time’. What does it fucking mean? Where do we go from there? How do you process that? It could have been an albatross around everyone’s necks. It turned out not to be, but there was a massive amount of pressure at the beginning.”
Skyfall’s success he puts down to simple things. “Someone who has just made a six-and-a-half-million dollar movie and is struggling to get it distributed will probably argue that if you’ve got 200 fucking million dollars you can fucking sell anything, but that’s not actually true. There’s lots of flops out there. I just think [Skyfall] had a tight story, great action. I genuinely think it’s a good movie.”
He also pays tribute to the skill of Mendes, the London stage sensation turned classy Hollywood auteur: (American Beauty (1999), Revolutionary Road (2008). It was Craig, who worked with Mendes on his gangster film Road to Perdition (2002), who first approached the director to do Skyfall, and he had to use his powers of persuasion again for Spectre.
On Skyfall, Craig tells me, “I felt like [Mendes and I] got into a real groove with it. I felt like we’d started something on that movie and I was so keen to finish it.” At first the director was resistant–he had other work on–but Craig and the Bond producers waited, and again got their man.
“We did have the conversation: it’s got to be bigger and better,” Craig says. “The stunts, the action, every department.” He holds out his palm, flat. It’s shaking. “I’m all jangly at the moment because it’s over. Sam has to lock the picture off for September 7, so he’s got fuck-all time, basically. That’s it. Can’t go back and do it again. Tough shit.”
He doesn’t want to jinx it but, “I feel like we’ve all done our absolute fucking best and that’s a good feeling. Whether that makes a better movie we’ll see.”
Spectre benefits not only from the return of the star and director of Skyfall but also from the work of veteran Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan. Ralph Fiennes returns as Mallory, the new M; Ben Whishaw as Q; and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. Replacing director of photography Roger Deakins is the terrific Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, the man responsible for the look of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Spike Jonze’s Her.
Is the “classic Bond” ethos still in place, I wonder? “Times 10!” Craig almost shouts, momentarily revelling in his role as hype man. He repeats it when I laugh, holding his beer in the air. “It’s Skyfall times 10!”
And that is a point he is keen to make. For all the soul searching, he says, Spectre is “a celebration of all that’s Bond”. There is a new supercar, the Aston Martin DB10. There are beautiful women, played by the va-va-voom Italian bombshell Monica Bellucci and the kittenish Léa Seydoux. There are signature set pieces: a thrilling opening in Mexico City; a car chase through Rome; action sequences in the Austrian Alps, in Tangier and in London. There’s a thuggish henchman (the first of Craig-era Bond) played by the former wrestler Dave Bautista. And there’s an evil megalomaniac, played by the great Christoph Waltz, devilish star of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.
There has been chatter that Waltz plays Bond’s most notorious adversary, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the comical, cat-stroking, Connery-era menace and boss of the shadowy criminal enterprise Spectre.
Actually, Waltz plays Franz Oberhauser. For Fleming fans, that name will ring a distant bell. Franz is the son of Hannes Oberhauser, an Austrian climbing and ski instructor, and friend of Bond’s father, who briefly became the young Bond’s guardian after the tragic death of his parents – in an Alpine climbing accident, no less.
“A wonderful man,” Bond describes him in the Fleming story, Octopussy. “He was something of a father to me at a time when I happened to need one.”
Hannes Oberhauser was later shot dead by the dastardly Major Dexter Smythe; his frozen corpse was discovered in a melting glacier. Bond took it upon himself to track down his former guardian’s killer. So, Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser is Bond’s foster brother. It seems from the trailer he is a senior operative at Spectre–conceivably still under the control of Blofeld–and possibly was connected to Quantum, another nefarious outfit hellbent on world domination (crumbs!), represented here again by Mr White, familiar to fans of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
In other words, Craig’s initial reluctance to let Bond’s backstory bleed into Spectre–and to cut back on the angst in favour of, as he puts it to me, “more Moore”, invoking the jollity of Roger Moore-era Bond–didn’t survive much past the first script meeting. “I think I’d just got it into my head that flamboyance was the way forward and fuck it, nothing touched him. But as we got into the story and rooted out the connections, they were too good to leave alone.”
When I interviewed Craig for Skyfall, I tried him on some supposed plot points and he laughed me almost out of the room. This time he concedes I’m doing better.
But according to him I’m still miles off. I’d read that Spectre was the first part of two films. “I don’t think so,” says Craig. (Then again: never trust a spy.) In fact, he says, if it has any relation to other Bond films, it’s as the denouement to the story that began with Casino: Bond’s determination to confront his past and figure out his place in the world, and MI6’s place in the world, and whether he might be able to fashion a life away from all that. “I think we can safely say we’ve squared all those circles,” Craig says.
There has been much speculation that Spectre will be Craig’s last film as Bond. I thought he’d signed on for two more after Skyfall, meaning there would be at least one more after Spectre.
“I don’t know,” he says. He really doesn’t know? “I really don’t know. Honestly. I’m not trying to be coy. At the moment I can’t even conceive it.”
Would he at least like to do another one? “At this moment, no. I have a life and I’ve got to get on with it a bit. But we’ll see.”
Unless there’s something he hasn’t been telling us, Daniel Craig is an actor, not a spy. He is married, to another actor, Rachel Weisz, and he has a grown-up daughter from an earlier relationship. He is 47 years old. He lives quietly, and as privately as you can when you are an A-list movie star and so is your wife. He is often to be found with his head in a book. He likes a few beers now and then. He looks good in a suit but is more often to be found wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He does not carry a gun. If he did, he’d have to put on his glasses to fire it accurately.
“I’m not James Bond,” he says, not for the first time. “I’m not particularly brave, I’m not particularly cool-headed. I have the fantasy that I would be good in a certain type of situation, like all of us, and I put those hopes into [playing] him.” But Craig also likes to think that his own non-Bondness adds something to his interpretation of 007. “There are bits when he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, and I like that.”
One touchstone for his work on Bond is Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, especially in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “The brilliance of that performance is that he’s so fallible, to the point of comedy. You know at any time he might fuck up, and that adds to the danger and the excitement and the joy of it.”
It’s harder to do that with Bond, he says. No one in the audience really believes 007 won’t, ultimately, cheat death, defeat the baddie, save the world. But he hopes to borrow at least some of Ford’s haplessness. And worse things have happened to Craig’s Commander Bond than to Ford’s Professor Jones. The love of his life drowned in front of him. His mentor and substitute mother died in his arms. “[Bond] failed,” he says, of Judi Dench’s character’s death at the end of Skyfall. “That was a big decision.”
Does he like James Bond, I wonder? “I don’t know if I’d like to spend too much time with him,” he says. “Maybe an evening but it would have to be early doors. What goes on after hours, I’m not so sure about. But I don’t judge him. It’s not the job of an actor to judge your character.”
Nor does he think it is his job, specifically, to rescue Bond from the critics who see him as a throwback to an earlier, less politically correct era. When I interviewed Craig in 2011, we spent quite a lot of time on what Bond represents as a figure in the culture. What does it say about men–British men especially, but men all over the world, too–that our most potent symbol of masculinity is a lonely, socially maladjusted killer with no family or friends, unable to maintain a loving relationship with a woman and with apparently no life whatsoever outside his work?
“He’s very fucking lonely,” Craig says now. “There’s a great sadness. He’s fucking these beautiful women but then they leave and it’s… sad. And as a man gets older it’s not a good look. It might be a nice fantasy–that’s debatable–but the reality, after a couple of months…”
What does it say, too, that Bond is a fantasy figure for a Britain that no longer exists, an Imperial warrior who satisfies the rest of our vicarious appetites–no longer as easily fulfilled as they once were–to travel to exotic locations, execute the natives and then have sex with their women?
“Hopefully,” he says, “my Bond is not as sexist and misogynistic as [earlier incarnations]. The world has changed. I am certainly not that person. But he is, and so what does that mean? It means you cast great actresses and make the parts as good as you can for the women in the movies.”
It’s a difficult line to walk, I imagine, to keep the essence of brand Bond, but to update it so he doesn’t seem like a dinosaur. “There’s a delicate balance to it,” he says.
Bond, of course, represents something different to Craig than to anyone else. “For me,” he says, “it’s an opportunity as an actor to take part in movies that are thin on the ground: where you have a producer, in Barbara Broccoli, who’s dedicated her life to this; where you get together a team of people and push them as far as you can; where I can push myself as far as I can. When it boils down to it, if you’re going to make these kind of movies you want to be in that atmosphere. It’s all you can ask for.”
It’s been three years since we’ve seen Daniel Craig in a new movie.
In 2013, he acted in a play, on Broadway, with his wife–a very well received revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, directed by the late Mike Nichols–but between Skyfall and Spectre, he has done no screen acting.
For a time, he says, especially at the beginning of his Bond career, he felt pressure to prove he was more than a blockbuster hunk.
“I worked a lot before [Casino Royale]. I did lots of things, I worked with amazing directors. I was very relaxed about what I did. I knew I could act.” Then Bond happened. “There’s kind of a rigidity to it. You’re playing this very specific character and everybody starts looking at you in that way, and you’re like, ‘I’m not that.’
“I did feel like, ‘I’ve got to look like I’m doing other stuff.’ But then it was, ‘Who for?’ So the public think, ‘Ooh, isn’t he versatile?’”
More recently, he’s decided to stop worrying about all that. On Spectre, he says, “I relaxed. It was like, ‘Fuck it. I’m James Bond, for fuck’s sake. So I’ll do James Bond.’ The fact of it is, it’s not a bad position to be in. I used to get asked all the time, ‘Don’t you worry that you’re going to get typecast?’ ‘And?’ I mean, talk about a high-class problem.”
In any case, he says, his break from the screen “wasn’t because I couldn’t get the gigs”. He does an impression of a desperate luvvie: “It was just terrible, agent wouldn’t answer the phone…”
So, where has he been all this time? “We’ve got a place in the country, in New York,” he says. “There’s a lot to do there. I read, I photograph things really badly.” I’d noticed him doing just that earlier in the day. “Maybe one-in-a-thousand comes out. I’m working that ratio down.”
He has an office in the house. “I try to get there once a day, surf the internet for half an hour.” He laughs. “Phew! Knackering.” He’s being self-deprecating. In reality, he’s been working on Spectre, on and off, for two years, and he’s been at it every day for the past six months at least.
There’s a chance he won’t play Bond again but no chance he’ll stop acting. “I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t act,” he says. He tells me he’s made a pledge to himself to be a bit more proactive about work. Watching films over the past year or so he’s occasionally thought to himself, “‘God, I’d love to meet that director.’ And then it’s like, ‘Oh! I can!’ That realisation is weird. Like, maybe if I phone them up they might go for lunch with me…”
All that said, he has no plans. “Nothing at all. But I’m not worried. Not yet.”
In 2012, he told me that his transition from jobbing actor to A-list star had not been an easy one. “It threw me for a loop. It really shook me up and made me look at the world in a very different way. It confused the hell out of me. Fame and fortune, for want of a better expression, is fucking scary. I couldn’t find a lot of fun in it.”
That is another aspect of his life he’s learned to be more philosophical about. Of the attention and the hoopla and the press commitments, he says, “You just have to go, ‘Isn’t this great?’ As opposed to, ‘Isn’t this fucking awful?’ But believe me, after the fifth interview of the day, sometimes you’re like, ‘Get me out of here.’ I used to get a bit pissed off about things, and if somebody else gets dodgy with me in an interview now – and it still happens – I’m less likely to say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ Now I just laugh, and go, ‘Really? Of all the things that are going on in the world at the moment, this matters most?’ It really doesn’t.”
Our attitude to Bond, and to Hollywood movies in general, he thinks, should be, “Let’s celebrate this. It’s good fun. And of all the industries that make lots of money in the world, yes, the movie industry is a bit crooked and there are some sharks and not very nice people, but it’s a fairly open book: you come and see it, we make money. It’s not, ‘Come and see it and we’ll fleece you somehow and sell your house.’ We’re not bankers. It’s entertainment. I think there are worse professions to be involved with.”
Will he miss James Bond, when it’s another actor carrying the Walther PPK, at the wheel of the Aston Martin?
“Yeah, of course I will.”
What will he miss most? “Doing the films; just that. You know, it sounds awful but I’ve been left a wealthy man by doing this. I can afford to live very comfortably. Things are taken care of. Family and kids are taken care of and that’s a massive relief in anybody’s life. I’m incredibly fortunate. But the other stuff that goes along with it…” He trails off for a moment. “The day I can walk into a pub and someone goes, ‘Oh, there’s Daniel Craig’ and then just leaves me alone, that’ll be great.”
For now, at least, were he to walk into a pub, people would see James Bond first, Daniel Craig second. And they would not leave him alone. He’s made his peace with it, for as long as it lasts.
If it were to be the case that he’s shot his last scene as James Bond, would he feel satisfied with what he’s achieved? “Immensely,” he says. “I’ve done my best.”
And with that we drain our beers, stub out our fags, and head off back to work.
First published in Esquire UK October 2015 issue.