Bond reborn again

 

In Casino Royale, Daniel Craig ripped the mantle from a reluctant Pierce Brosnan's shoulders and revitalised the 007 franchise. Now, as Quantum of Solacehits cinem as, Donald Clarkehears how the once-reluctant star has learned to love being Bond

IF DANIEL CRAIG tries to kick my head in, I should be able to handle him. Don't get me wrong. He's a very fit fellow - muscles by Michelangelo, as that beach scene in Casino Royale revealed - and in the course of learning to be James Bond he has picked up some knowledge of the martial arts. But today he has his arm in a sling, so a quick poke in the humerus should render him powerless.

"I am trying to spin as many stories as possible," Craig tells me. "It is called a labral tear. Apparently I could have done it playing rugby in school, but shooting two Bond films certainly doesn't help."

I don't suppose there was ever any real chance that Craig would put me in a headlock. But some journalists covering the release of Casino Royaletwo years ago found him somewhat lacking in enthusiasm. Indeed, he has gathered a reputation for approaching interviews with the same degree of keenness Bond might bring to an interrogation by Ernst Blofeld.

You can hardly blame him. When, in 2005, it was announced that Craig was to become the 84th James Bond (or something), more than a few hacks complained that he was too blonde, too northern and/or too inexperienced. It was even said his ears were too big. Yet Casino Royale, tougher, ruder and less frivolous than any previous Bond film, went on to garner terrific reviews and hoover up more than half a billion dollars at the world's box offices. Barring planetary meltdown, the forthcoming Quantum of Solace, Craig's second film as 007, is sure to be another huge success.

I would guess that Craig now feels smugly vindicated.

"Look, I don't want to sound terribly magnanimous," he says.

Oh go on.

"Alright, I will then. Ha, ha, ha! Look, I moved on. I genuinely moved on. What actually happened is that all the bad press kept me away from what we were actually doing: making the movie. I'd go home and do something stupid like Google my name - that's like crack cocaine - and read all this terrible stuff. The next day I'd be on set and I'd realise there was nothing wrong with this movie. We had a good script. We had a great director."

That's fair enough, but it must have been hard to resist the temptation to blow a raspberry when Casino Royaleproved to be such a smash.

"The success was a surprise. I knew we had a good film, but that level of success was a surprise. So people were saying 'now you can tell them all to fuck off'. Why should I? I feel great about it all."

It turns out that, in fact, Daniel Craig is in extremely good form. Dressed in a sharp suit and a blue sling, he cackles his way through the conversation and even manages to fake regret when our time is up. So what of this myth that he loathes doing press?

"Here's the deal," he says. "When I accepted the offer to play Bond, there were a lot of stories going round saying I didn't like doing press. But I decided I was going to do everything required. And I am going to get a kick out of it. You can't do a Bond film and then say 'oh, I'm not going to do press'. That would be pointless. Look, I got to spend time in Siena and Vienna and Panama shooting this film. I am definitely not complaining."

A few of the dumber tabloid stories reporting Craig's unveiling as Bond described him as "an unknown". First gaining prominence in the 1996 television series Our Friends in the North, he went on to rip up the screen in John Maybury's Love Is the Devil, Roger Michell's Enduring Loveand Steven Spielberg's Munich. It hardly seemed fair to portray him as obscure.

"Well, you know, I had been the 'most promising newcomer' for some years," he laughs. "I was always 'one to watch'. There's a kiss of death. When you get on that list you are usually dead."

Craig, now 40, had a reasonably uneventful upbringing in Chester, a northern town some short distance from Liverpool. His dad was originally a merchant seaman, before settling down to become a publican. It was however, his mum, an art teacher, who seems to have had the most significant influence on his early life. Craig describes himself as a victim of the 11-plus, which he failed, but he refuses to say anything negative about his comprehensive school. "The system" was to blame for his lack of academic success, you see.

At any rate, encouraged by his mother, Daniel took an interest in the plays being performed at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre and eventually ended up at the National Youth Theatre in London.

"The theatre scene was really strong in Liverpool at that time. It was very European. There were a lot of people taking their clothes off and so on. But I was a teenager at the time and just wanted to lie around in bed. It took my mum to give me a gentle nudge. She didn't literally throw me out of the house. But she was firm."

Craig has said that when he graduated from the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama he was annoyed to discover that casting agents were only interested in posh boys with fringes. This is a slightly surprising comment. Surely the likes of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay had transformed the thespian world a generation earlier and ensured that directors no longer scowled at actors from the regions.

"I suppose they did. But the joke of it was that the only British movies that made any money then were Merchant Ivory films. I understood how those people talked. But I was just not interested in that world. It really did seem that the only options were to do one of those parts with the floppy fringe or to go off to the RSC and learn to talk proper."

Fortunately, before he hit 30, Craig managed to secure that part as Geordie, an uncomplicated bloke who becomes a hoodlum and, eventually, a tramp, in the BBC's epic series Our Friends in the North. That visibility helped him establish a healthy film and TV career, before Bond booted him into the stratosphere.

He must have paused for a second - okay, a nanosecond - before agreeing to rip the mantle from a reluctant Pierce Brosnan's shoulders. Though Brosnan, Roger Moore and Sean Connery have had successes away from the franchise, the shadow of 007 hangs over every subsequent performance. For good or ill, they are not like other actors. They are Bonds.

"I guess it's a bit like those Christmas pantomimes," Craig agrees. "The poster will say it's that bloke from whatever TV show. Yeah. I suppose people will think, whatever the film, that it's the guy from the Bond films. But that's a high-class problem to have. There are worse problems. The exposure has helped me to do several smaller films since. That's very useful."

I suppose the exposure also helped him secure the role of Lord Asriel in the film version of Philip Pullman's mighty The Golden Compass. That film, wrongly described as anti-Christian propaganda, was supposed to be the first of three pictures based on the author's His Dark Materialstrilogy. But, despite performing well in Europe, the film's mediocre US takings have cast doubt on the series' future.

"Oh, I think it's been kicked into touch now," he says with a sincere sigh. "It's a shame that the perceived hot potato of its anti-religious stance hurt it in the States. That was nonsense. Spend five minutes with Philip Pullman and you realise he has no problems with religion; it's organised religion he is concerned about. They didn't know what to do with it and, as a result, people stayed away in droves in the States."

Still, the comparative failure of The Golden Compasshas done nothing to seriously impair Craig's career. That labral tear will, however, keep him away from the set for another few months. But he seems content enough. Craig, who was divorced from actress Fiona Loudon in 1994, recently bought a house in London and is looking forward to seeing a bit more of his teenage daughter and getting to watch the odd Liverpool match.

"I am tempted by the sun, but this is home. I came here to London when I was 16 and this is where I belong, though I still have family in north."

Ah, yes his mother. She must, now, feel very happy that she prodded him towards the National Youth Theatre all those years back.

"You know how it is. She's just happy that I'm happy."

If he were happy being a panel beater then she'd by happy? "Like all mothers, that's what she'd say, I think."

James Bond still loves his mum. It's enough to make M blub.

•  Quantum of Solaceopens on October 31st

The smug joker with the gadgets is no more

WHEN Daniel Craig became the latest Bond, Eon Productions, the company behind the franchise, let it be known that they would be taking the character back to his roots. The smug joker with his silly gadgets was no more.

Dealing with the beginning of the agent's career, Casino Royalewould offer us the rougher, more cynical, less forgiving 007 of Ian Fleming's source novel. The film even included the notorious scene from the book in which Bond has his testicles flayed by the evil Le Chiffre.

"That nearly was a camp classic," says Craig. "That scene was, quite literally, balls to the wall."

The producers also suggested that, whereas Bond had previously remained the same person until, like Dr Who, he regenerated into a new actor, his character would now be allowed to develop throughout the revamped series.

"I hope so," says Craig. "I am going to have to leave it for you to judge. If I wax lyrical about how he's changed, you might end up saying: 'What the fuck is he talking about?' It's all Fleming. I don't think Fleming liked Bond all the time. There is this change within the character: he originally doesn't want to do the job. That's an interesting conflict.

"The new film begins just 10 minutes after the last one ended. He's just lost the love of his life and that propels him into the action. So that trauma surely has changed him."

Quantum of Solacetakes its title from an obscure short story by Fleming, but little of that original narrative appears to have remained.

"That's not strictly true. The story is about that point in a relationship when the lights go out. Fleming loved his literary flourish and called it Quantum of Solace. We, maybe, should have called it 'Closure', but that's not as attractive a title."

Craig has signed up to do four more films. Will the character continue to develop? "Well, if this one doesn't work, then who knows what will happen next. We will put more of a gap between this and the next film. The point of doing this film was to tidy things up from the first film. Next time the story will be starting from scratch."

• DONALD CLARKE