Daniel Craig: a reluctant Bond who has made the role his own

Daniel Craig Skyfall Cover

The actor has hinted he may be tiring of 007, but what future he may forge for himself after Spectre is unclear

Over a decade ago, at the time of the film Road To Perdition, I interviewed Daniel Craig and asked him if he’d turned down anything interesting lately.

“Why would I turn it down if it was interesting?” he snapped back. It served me right for asking a stupid question but the exchange also marked out Craig as an actor too smart, too quick and possibly too impatient to trifle with.

These qualities resurfaced in astounding fashion several thousand interviews later when he told Time Out he’d rather slash his wrists than do another James Bond movie. “I’m over it at the moment. We’re done. All I want to do is move on.” He later added: “If I did another Bond movie, it would only be for the money.”

This is not the way the promotion for the follow-up to the highest-grossing film in UK history was supposed to go , particularly as Craig is contracted to do another Bond film after Spectre. Did he just he need a break, or could it be that he is handing back his licence to kill? His subsequent comments muddied the waters further. “I say things when I feel it, then I change my mind,” he told a BBC interviewer this week, before telling another he had made no decision. Will he? Won’t he? Isn’t the suspense supposed to be on screen?

Craig always knew the Bond role could prove a poisoned chalice. It has occasionally, alright once, paved the way to a stellar career – for Sean Connery. More often, however, it has eclipsed the rest of the actor’s CV – in the case of Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan and George Whatsisname. Doubtless Craig fears the same happening to him.

He was doing fine without the role, after all. At the time he got the gig, his career was already going in the right direction on stage and in film. His breakthrough came a decade before with the 1996 mini-series Our Friends In The North, one of the television high points of the time. He played one of four Newcastle friends from studenthood to middle age which, in the case of Craig’s “Geordie” Peacock, meant from flash wannabe musician to lonely, disillusioned convict. His Geordie accent just about held together.

Even at that stage, Craig was something of a veteran. He left school and his native Chester at 16 to pursue acting, first at London’s National Youth Theatre, then at Guildhall. He has credited his mother with transmitting the acting bug. She regularly took him and his sisters to the theatre and knew several actors. “I liked the idea of it. You know, shouting a lot and dressing up and all that,” he said.

In Craig’s case, it has been more about undressing. His “birth of Venus” swimming trunks moment in Casino Royale was by no means the first time he had let his torso do the talking. He made his first impression on film in 1998 as George Dyer, the bit-of-rough lover to Derek Jacobi’s Francis Bacon Love Is The Devil. The role involved not just nudity, but graphic, sadomasochistic sex.

“He was very reluctant to do the part originally. He wasn’t too comfortable with the idea of sleeping with Derek Jacobi,” said John Maybury, the film’s director. “But in a strange way the very concerns he had about the part and his disconnect with that world was exactly what the character needed.” Contrary to the impression of a serious character, out of the media glare Maybury hails the actor as “enormous fun” on set and says he has a terrific, dry sense of humour.

Craig took on more risky roles. He played a childlike, schizophrenic romantic hero in Some Voices – in which he ends up in the street naked. He was also the lover of a 60-year-old widow in Roger Michell’s brave The Mother. He has not, however, been afraid to take the money and run, as he did in the Angelina Jolie-led Tomb Raider, in which he affects an American accent while Jolie puts on a British one.

It is often said that it was the crime thriller Layer Cake that landed Craig the Bond role, and the film’s director, Matthew Vaughn, certainly deserves credit for recognising his leading man’s action hero potential. He described him as a British Steve McQueen, though in retrospect Craig’s “blunt instrument” quality, as Judi Dench put it, was there all along. With his physicality, rugged looks and gallery of piercing stares, he excels as tough, brutish characters with an underlying vulnerability. As well as George Dyer, there was the murderer Perry Smith in the Truman Capote story Infamous, the hot-headed mobster child-killer in Road To Perdition, the brooding Ted Hughes in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia biopic and a belligerent Mossad assassin in Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

It speaks volumes that Craig didn’t really want the Bond job when he was first offered it. Most male actors under 40 would leap at the chance, literally off a tall building if required, but he initially resisted the producers’ overtures. “There was a period of trying to woo him,” Barbara Broccoli later told Vanity Fair. “We had several meetings with him. We talked him through his concerns. He’s someone who’s very professional, and he throws himself into whatever he’s doing, and he understood it’d be a long commitment.”

Craig sought advice from friends and colleagues, including Maybury, who also directed him in the 2005 thriller The Jacket. “It was a very complicated choice for him,” Maybury said. “At that time his daughter was maybe 12 years old. There were repercussions for him in his personal life as well as professionally. I don’t think anyone can actually prepare for the reality of fame until they’re experiencing it, and of course, by that time it’s too late. What most of us said to him was, ‘there is life after Bond’.”

And after all, why would he turn down a role if it was interesting?

Rather than passively accepting the Bond role, Craig took control of it. He recognised Bond’s credibility problem in the 21st century movie landscape, especially in light of the Bourne films, not to mention the Pierce Brosnan ones. Stuntmen attest to how Craig throws himself into the action more than he needs to. He spent weeks with costume getting the right suit tailoring, and his reading of the character restored Bond’s manly pugnacity but ditched the dated chauvinism. He recruited Sam Mendes to direct Skyfall, having worked with him on Road To Perdition, and persuaded him to return to direct Spectre, on which the actor also takes a co-producer’s credit.

When he made his “I’d rather slash my wrists” comments, Craig was careful to include the caveat “at the moment”. He is likely getting fed up with the other role that comes with the Bond territory – doing endless interviews, press junkets and promotions, a Groundhog Day of feigned enthusiasm, gushing superlatives and identical answers to identical questions.

“If you don’t have the right temperament, or the right zombie facade, you can just snap,” said Maybury, who knows what he is talking about. The same thing happened to him while promoting The Jacket in Hollywood, when his truth-filters were disabled by a few too many vodka Red Bulls. “I think the real key to Daniel is, he doesn’t suffer fools, and he doesn’t like feeing foolish himself, and that can come across as sullen or surly when I think it’s just impatience. He is such an intelligent guy.”

If it came to a toss-up between money and art, there is little doubt which way Craig would jump, but he might be wondering if it is not too late. He knows that the longer he carries on as Bond, the harder it will be to shake off the association and inhabit other characters. His recent roles away from 007 have been both hit than miss. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a success, but not so the sci-fis Cowboys & Aliens, The Invasion and the horror thriller Dream House – though the latter did introduce him to his wife Rachel Weisz.

He has fared better on stage, with Weisz in Harold Pinter’s The Betrayal and with Hugh Jackman in A Steady Rain. Both productions received mixed reviews, but were kill-to-get-a-ticket Broadway hits, and he has announced that he will return to the New York stage next year as Iago to David Oyelowo’s Othello.

True to form, Craig personally sought out the director Sam Gold a few years ago after seeing one of his productions, and they had been “talking and seeking to collaborate for some time”. There will be life after Bond, and if Craig fails to find any roles that are interesting enough, he will doubtless take matters into his own hands.

Daniel Craig in brief

Born 2 March 1968

Career Studied at the National Youth Theatre and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Made his film debut in 1992 with The Power Of One, and his TV breakthrough in 1996 with Our Friends In The North. Steadily became a fixture of British theatre - Angels In America, A Number - and cinema - Love Is The Devil, Elizabeth, The Trench, Some Voices, Enduring Love - progressing towards Hollywood - Road To Perdition and Munich. Took on the Bond role in 2006.

High point Casino Royale; his muscular reboot of the Bond series. “Craig Not Bond” objections evaporated the moment the film was released, and he has owned the role ever since.

Low point Cowboys & Aliens. Craig looked out of place in this awkward wannabe blockbuster.

What he says “When I accepted the job to work on Bond, I genuinely did it to change my life. I knew that it would flip everything on its head. I can say, hand on heart, though, that I’ve never made movies for money. I’ve always made them because I’ve truly wanted to do them.”

What they say Sam Mendes: “He’s delightful and funny and much goofier than people might imagine him to be. He’s extremely fast-thinking and lively and alive as a person. The kind of brooding intensity that he sort of got known a little bit for is not who he is at all.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Steve Rose, for The Guardian on Sunday 25th October 2015 14.22 Europe/London

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