Bond bombshell

Potentially, you do cheapen your brand if you do Bond, says Daniel Craig

I half-expected the screeching of brakes, or gunshots – but the new James Bond arrives for lunch, at the Dorchester Hotel, no more noisily than any other diner.

Daniel Craig wears jeans, a black polo shirt that sets off his reddish tan and surprisingly musclebound torso – together with a thunderous expression that, combined with his unearthly, pale blue eyes, provides an air of authentic menace.

If I were one of Bond’s enemies, I would take the precaution of laying a revolver on the table beside me. But I’m not, and Craig – we must try to remember – is not Bond. He’s an actor. So I place on the table instead a well-thumbed copy of A Number, an intellectually challenging stage play by Caryl Churchill, in which Craig starred with Michael Gambon at the Royal Court in 2002, and for which he was nominated for an Evening Standard Award.

The effect is remarkable: as soon as Craig sees it, his clenched jaws relax. He rolls his eyes, as if to say, “Imagine bringing that old thing!”

If this seems contrived, I apologise. But I had to do something. Craig hates publicity, and by the time we meet he’s already endured almost a week of back-to-back one-to-ones and round-table discussions with several journalists at a time. I hate to think how many times he has been asked which Bond girl is his favourite; and which of his predecessors was the best James Bond.

What I want to find out is whether he regrets taking on the part of Bond – already, before the first film is even released. Not only because many self-styled fans deem him unsuitable, but also because it may put an end to the kind of acting assignments – including plays at the Royal Court – that Craig has done previously. And before our meeting is over I conclude that he does indeed regret it – as I hope will gradually become clear.

Having been given the special privilege of lunch with Craig, I ask what he might eat. He looks briefly at the menu, says he’s not really hungry. “Been eating junk all morning,” he says. So we push the menus aside. The waiters bring us water to drink, then leave us alone.

His wariness around journalists is not altogether surprising. In recent months, Craig’s private life has ceased to be private. A long-time friendship with Jude Law is apparently in ruins after he was reported to have had a fling with Law’s girlfriend Sienna Miller. (They’ve both denied that.) Of similar interest is a reported fling, some time ago, with the model Kate Moss, a seven-year relationship with the German-born actress Heike Makatsch, who appeared in Love, Actually, and his four-year marriage to another actress, Fiona Loudon, with whom he has a teenaged daughter.

He doesn’t talk about his private life, apart from telling me that he has “probably obliterated it” by becoming Bond. “We know why we’re here today. It’s not like I said, ‘Hi, I’m Daniel, come into my living room…”

He’s constantly followed by photographers, he says. Some even got on set when he was shooting on location. “We were filming and they discovered two guys buried up to their necks in the sand with cameras. They had been there all night.”

He tells the story with the intention of amusing – but deadpan, so that he seems unmoved by it himself. And this turns out to be typical. In person, Craig is as far as you can get from the sophisticated twinkle of Pierce Brosnan, or the camp eyebrow-raising of Roger Moore. He prefers flat monotone. When he does, rarely, present a glimmer of enthusiasm, he’s quick to hide it again behind a rather macho specimen of cynical indifference. Indeed, taken as a whole, his lunchtime performance is more like one of 007s’ dull-eyed enemies than Bond himself.

It should be said that none of the actors appointed to play Bond have avoided press intrusion. Nor have they, initially, avoided hostility from fans with fixed ideas about Bond. Even the great Sean Connery, before he started, was derided as a former coffin polisher from Scotland. But the criticism is more resonant today. Unlike his predecessors, Craig has had to put up with character assassination on the internet.

One particularly troublesome website, now defunct, urged visitors to campaign against Craig’s appointment. To argue its case, the site showed doctored photos of Craig alongside various “look-alikes”: Russian premier Vladimir Putin, the daft Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld, and Gollum from the Lord of the Rings.

Conventional media have been sniffy too, ever since Craig was appointed to the job: indeed, he was mocked for wearing a lifejacket on the speedboat that took him to his first press conference. Some complained that he is too fair-haired for the part (“James Blond” is a typical headline). Others have peddled false reports about him: that he couldn’t drive a manual car, that he was afraid of guns, and even of water.

“Believe me, I would love to answer this shit.” (Craig swears a lot.) “I do read reviews. I have been on the websites. I had to. There is too much temptation. You write your emails and then you think, let’s have a little look… I had a very dark two or three days. I was very despondent. But I realized I was peeing into the wind. I vowed to work twice as hard and get it right.

“I only know how to do my job one way. I don’t think that you can please all the people all the time. If I was doing my patter I would say, ‘Don’t worry, there is enough in here to entertain every Bond fan.’ And that is true. But these people think that I’m going to fuck with it in a way that is going to destroy it. This is bigger than me.”

The 20 James Bond films made by EON Productions since 1962, based on the novels and stories of Ian Fleming, comprise the second highest grossing film franchise after Star Wars. In the UK, the series accounts for three of the five most-watched TV movies.

The one novel the company hasn’t filmed – till now – is Casino Royale. Fleming’s first Bond novel introduces the character, and describes how he gets his 00-number and his licence to kill. An Americanised adaptation was shown on TV in 1954, and David Niven played Bond in a 1967 version of Casino Royale that bears little resemblance to the book. Until the 1990s the film rights were held by a rival to EON, Sony Pictures Entertainment, which decided to make its own version and even a rival Bond series. But after protracted argument, Sony settled a legal action in 1999, giving up all rights to Bond in return for certain rights to Spider-Man. Ever since then, an “official” version of Casino Royale has seemed inevitable.

No less inevitable would be the need to change actors: 53-year-old Brosnan, after four outings in the role, would find it difficult to play the young agent setting out on his first mission.

Nobody familiar with these commercial considerations will have been surprised, in October 2004, when Brosnan publicly stated, “It’s absolutely over.” He considered himself “fired” from the role.

In the year that followed, EON went looking for a younger replacement. Several successful actors were ruled out, according to a leaked EON memo, which stated that Eric Bana was “not handsome enough”, Hugh Jackman “too fey”, Colin Farrell “too sleazy” and Ewan McGregor “too short”.

In October 2005, EON announced that their next James Bond adventure would indeed be Casino Royale. The new Bond would be Craig.

Nervousness about the new film is intense, as I found out in mid-summer when I was invited to watch a five-minute “taster”, long before the film itself had been edited. After handing in all mobile phones and other recording equipment, privileged journalists were addressed inside the screening room by co-producer Michael G Wilson. “Welcome and thank you for coming,” he said. “The director has asked me to explain that the effects and the music are temporary. What we hope you will see here is how Daniel Craig plays the role, and also the style in which the film is made. So… enjoy!”

From the back of the room, where Wilson’s employees sat, polite applause broke out.

Not having been required to surrender my pen and paper, I made notes about the trailer, as follows. Craig’s first appearance is in a darkened office. Cut to a violent fight in a lavatory, in which somebody gets his head smashed on a sink. Cut back to the dark office. Bond shoots a villain. Cut to explosion at a building site. Bond runs towards a crane and climbs it at speed. Heavy objects drop dangerously. Bond does some kind of martial arts, jumps off crane. Cut to M (Judy Dench) getting cross with Bond. Then to Bond, remarkably muscle-bound, swimming in warm waters. A foxy woman on beach with a white horse. Bond at gambling tables, opposite a man with horrid scar and differently coloured irises. Stakes rise above forty million. Bond snogs, fights a man with machete, dines with foxy woman in empty restaurant. Finally back to that lavatory. After shooting, Bond turns to camera with his gun: blackness encircles him in the stylised, trademarked sphincter, and the stirring theme tune begins.

A few days later, I met Wilson and his step-sister Barbara Broccoli, who jointly inherited the Bond franchise from their father Albert “Cubby Broccoli. Broccoli, a dark-haired woman of 46 who looks ten years younger, speaks with an English accent. She started working at 22 as assistant director on Octopussy, in 1983, and worked her way up to become producer of the Brosnan films. Wilson co-wrote five Bond films in the 1980s and has also played minor parts, including a soldier in Goldfinger, various tourists, a man in a casino, a Greek Orthodox priest, and the voice of a DEA agent. Somewhat older than his step-sister, Wilson retains his native American accent despite living here for many years.

Together, they were keen to stress the sheer amount of work involved in putting out the new film, and their own close control of the process. “We are a franchise,” Broccoli said. “We are the keepers of the flame. We are preserving the whole history, the legacy. We are completely controlling and interfering!” she said gaily. “Everybody hates us, we are complete nightmares! Our dad used to say, don’t let someone screw it up. It’s OK if you do that, but not someone else.”

They asked what I thought of the trailer. I said it had not lacked incident, which seemed to satisfy them.

But then I asked why it took so long for the film to get into the cinema. They looked outraged – Wilson especially – and proceeded to talk me slowly through every step in the process – backwards. “We deliver all the elements from which the prints are made in November,” Wilson said. “You work back from that, with six weeks of dubbing. The music isn’t recorded till September. So the film has to be cut by September 26… Two weeks before that, you might test it with a real audience. You’re looking for clarity. Do they laugh when they’re meant to?”

“Is it too long?” adds Broccoli.

And so on.

Just for fun, I asked why they bothered making the films. They must have made plenty of money already, what could possibly motivate them to keep doing more?

Broccoli didn’t exactly answer the question. “People were saying that with the Berlin Wall coming down there was no more Cold War and Bond was not relevant any more. We said that he was more relevant. The world is ready for Bond. And even more so now. Look at the world situation, and it’s more serious now than it was before.”

Wilson, no less gifted in this po-faced nonsense, said the times we live in call for a less frivolous approach to Bond. “We wanted to change the style of the films from fantasy to something a bit more gritty.”

But then, perhaps worried about selling tickets, he added: “We are still entertainment… We are trying to make it a PG film.”

Is the violence really suitable for children? “No, it’s not suited to younger children,” Wilson said gravely.

“We talk about the level of violence all the time,” said Broccoli. “You do see the consequences of the violence all the time. In the last couple of films you would not necessarily see blood. You do in this film. We think that is a responsible approach.”

I wrote all this down, silently wondering why that same responsible approach wasn’t deemed suitable in the last couple of films. Then I asked why they chose Craig to be Bond.

“Barbara had no doubts,” said Wilson.

“We live here,” she said. “We are familiar with the actors here. I saw Daniel in Our Friends in the North. I saw him in Elizabeth, just walking down the hallway. I thought, My God. He does have extraordinary presence. Just look at the body of work. He can be a character actor but he can also be a leading man. And a star. It’s a pretty unique thing. He seemed the obvious choice. And he has surprised our expectations.”

In what way? “Well, when you hire an actor like Daniel,” she explains, “you see what he brings to the film and you think, my God. For example, imagine a situation where your hero is captured and tied to a chair naked and having his genitals beaten…”

As instructed, I tried to imagine it.

“How can he maintain the upper hand in that? Impossible, you would think. And you make it even harder for him by casting an extraordinary actor as the villain. Somehow, the way Daniel does that scene, he comes out as the winner. It’s hard to articulate what he does. But he does hold the power in that scene, and he does it throughout the movie. He has taken something that is really good on the page and made it even better.”

With Craig’s track-record, that’s not altogether surprising. He grew up in the northwest, the son of a publican and a teacher. At 16, he joined the National Youth Theatre and after that he studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where his contemporaries included Ewan McGregor, Alastair McGowan, Damian Lewis and Joseph Fiennes.

Over “lunch” at the Dorchester (we still haven’t ordered anything to eat, and indeed we never do) I’m keen to talk about what made him an actor, and what he learned in those formative years. But he doesn’t share my interest. On the contrary, he puts on a display of a calculated indifference. For instance, he describes acting as, like music, a mere “get out clause” for people from Liverpool.

After his parents divorced, his mother largely conducted her social life around the Liverpool Everyman, a theatre that enjoyed national acclaim during the 1970s. Was young Craig impressed by the plays he saw there? He says he doesn’t remember much about them. “Most of them involved walking around in the nude.”

What did interest him, he says, was the cinema that put on double bills. “I just went and watched movies, from Quest for Fire to Blade Runner. I thought, ‘Fuck, that is what I want to do.’”

What about the Guildhall? Can he tell me what he learned there? “I’m not sure what I got out of it apart from the discipline of getting up in the morning.” When I press for more, he says he learned “not to shout when you’re backstage”.

He gets invitations to talk at the Guildhall, but says he doesn’t know what he’d tell students. “I suppose my advice would be to stick with it and make something happen. I was lucky to do a bit of TV that paid the rent and a bit of theatre, which pays fuck all.”

I tell him what Broccoli said about his amazing screen presence. He shrugs. “I don’t think about whether I have a strong presence.”

How did he pull off that torture scene she admired? How did he make Bond, naked, come out the winner while baddies whacked his genitals? “I just got myself angry. Bond thinks he’s going to die. It’s his last shout.”

To be fair, he’s not the only actor who prefers not to talk about the work. Many others think that to do so is inevitably to sound pretentious.

He does, briefly, allow a glimpse of the enthusiasm and passion that brought him into acting. For instance, when I ask about working with Gambon at the Royal Court, he says: “It’s mesmerising, you start to forget about yourself.” Then he remembers why we’re here and turns all bluff and macho again: “If Michael doesn’t think it’s working, he will bow and say, ‘You are shit.’”

I’m disappointed. Why belittle it? In A Number, Craig created an unforgettable display of vulnerability and hurt. Does he think he has to behave like Bond all the time now? Have the fans got to him that much?

I ask about his big breakthrough, Our Friends In The North, and the passion flickers back. In the BBC’s saga about 30 years of life in Britain, Craig played a strip club boss. He’s said before now that the experience changed his life. “It helped me start to enjoy myself again,” he confirms. “It was a great chance to work with that great group of actors. I showed it to a friend the other day and it kind of stood up. Gina [McKee] and Mark [Strong] and Chris [Ecclestone] were fantastic. They all seem fabulously real. It was because we spent time discovering things about each other. It was like being taught all over again how to make a character and get it watchable. Like a year with a Russian theatre.”

It’s interesting that Our Friends In The North brought together the new James Bond and the man who breathed new life into Dr Who. Ecclestone did only one series before moving on. Does Craig think he got out of Dr Who too fast? “He did a cracking job. He has made Dr Who cool again. Then fucked off. He will do something amazing.”

Is that what Craig will do with Bond? “I like to think about doing great things.”

I ask for his own account of how he was hired. “I met them at the EON offices in Piccadilly. I said I was very honoured but I couldn’t actually consider this. In a fantasy, yes. But not in reality. We sat around the table and discussed things. I told them Bond needed to change. Even if it fails, you have to turn it around.”

As for himself, Craig saw clearly that becoming Bond changes the kind of actor you are. “Potentially, you do cheapen your brand if you do this,” he says. “Some people I talked to were against it. They said, ‘You may lose the chance to do the stuff you want to do.’” I gesture towards my copy of A Number. Stuff like that? Craig nods.

Ultimately, the discussion boiled down to the script, co-written by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis. If Craig hadn’t liked that, he’d have been able to walk away from Bond without a second thought. “I genuinely wanted to hate it. I read it, and then read it again two more times immediately. It was exactly what it should have been.”

He faced a momentous decision. “I was doing back-to-back work, the kind of work I want to do… But this is one of those opportunities that you would be crazy not to consider.”

By chance, he was able to ask Brosnan’s advice. “It was at the Baftas, maybe two years ago – I don’t actually remember what year we are in any more. He was on the same table as me. I thought, I have to talk to him. I would feel like a dick if I didn’t. He said, ‘Go for it. It’s a ride.’”

But Craig still worried that people he’d worked with might not employ him again. He went and asked them. They said they would – so he committed himself to three films, for a reported fee of £8m. “Seems like a lifetime,” he says. “But that is standard. I did three Tomb Raiders.” (He played the villain in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Angelina Jolie later described him as “one of the best kissers” she’s worked with.)

So if all goes well, he’ll be financially secure. “Most actors can’t dream of that. And if there is a movie being made and it lacks friends then my name is attached – then it might get made.”

Very casually, I ask if it’s conceivable that anybody could win an Oscar for playing Bond. Craig’s response takes me aback. “No, I don’t think you can get an Oscar for Bond. You know the right question to ask an actor, you cunt!”

At last, I understand why Craig has tried so hard to make light of his training and the craft of acting. Despite the assurances of those friendly directors that they would continue to work with him, part of him seems to believe he’s left all that behind – in favour of a starring role in lucrative entertainments that place more emphasis on weight training.

After a pause, he smiles and more or less says so himself: “Look, for an actor to have an ambition it has to be to win an Oscar. I have not taken my eye off that. But when this came along I probably thought, that is going to go away now.”