On the golden anniversary of the 007 franchise, Daniel Craig, 44, makes his third outing as James Bond in Skyfall, which opens in theatres Nov. 9. Shot on location in Turkey, Britain and China, the story begins with Bond surviving a near-death experience. The plot is driven by a cybervillain named Silva (Javier Bardem), who hacks the identities of MI6 spies, targets its London headquarters and compromises the credibility of M (Judi Dench), whose role is greatly expanded. With Q recast as a young computer geek (Ben Wishaw), Bond’s mission takes him to Shanghai, Istanbul, and back to his childhood roots in Scotland.
Directed by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), with cinematography by nine-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins and a cast that features two Oscar winners (Bardem and Dench) plus Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, no Bond movie has been so loaded with talent. Even one of the film’s two Bond girls, Naomie Harris, is a Cambridge-educated, classically trained British stage actress. Skyfall is a game-changer, and Craig is clearly more player than pawn.
Q: I was blown away by Skyfall. I think it’s the best Bond film ever. And what really sets it apart is the pedigree of the cast and the filmmakers. Bond has always been a guy with class, but the franchise hasn’t always been worthy of him. Was this a deliberate attempt to turn it into more of a class act?
A: The short answer is, yes, it was. It was to make literally the best Bond we could. We had a lot of criticism about the fact that we’d taken the ‘Bond-ness’ out of Bond. After a four-year hiatus, I felt we could rediscover it. In the other two movies [Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace], there wasn’t time to do that—the first one especially, the second one because we had a writers’ strike and we were struggling a little bit. But this one we had the time, and Sam coming in tempted a lot of people to get involved. It doesn’t always work when you throw a ton of talent into a room. Sometimes it can really go wrong. But it seemed to come together. People were really up for it.
A: Because I asked Sam to do it when I was drunk at a party so they kind of didn’t have a choice [laughs]. I phoned up Barbara and Mike and said, “I might have overstepped my job description slightly: I’ve asked Sam Mendes.” And they were very excited. They felt—and I certainly felt—that Sam was ready. His pedigree is that he ran a theatre in London, he directed major musicals, major theatre events, and films, obviously. He’s got great skill at pulling huge amounts of people together. I thought the action sequences, they don’t take care of themselves, but he’ll understand them, and he’s a Bond fan.
Q: The fact you chose the director—it seems you own Bond in a way your predecessors didn’t. Do you have more clout?
A: I’ve been very lucky. Michael and Barbara have given me room to express myself. I asked them flat out when they offered me the job: “You need to give this to me, the ability to be involved. Even if you’re pretending, just let me feel like I am.” Because this is a big acting job for me. I’m not this guy by a long stretch of the imagination—I’m as far removed from James Bond as anybody. It’s a push. Anyone will tell you.
Q: But you do like a drink from time to time.
A: [laughs] Coming from a Canadian, I think that’s pretty rum, to use a bad pun.
Q: Anyway, I get your point: the job requires a lot of acting. But do you ever feel you’re playing an actor? I mean, Bond never actually pretends to be somebody else—that’s sort of the kind of spy he is—but his style and bravado are a construct, even for him.
A: I think that’s interesting, and that’s what has always appealed to me about him. Most people who behave in a macho way, it’s bluster. Most of the time we’re all bulls–tting our way through life. There are strong people on this planet, but it’s all the swan technique: it looks beautiful on top and the legs are going like this underneath, you know? We’re all like that, and anybody who thinks differently is full of s–t as far as I’m concerned. Someone like Bond is, it’s 90 per cent confidence. And that’s an interesting place to play when that gets knocked, and how he gets up and then succeeds. If you have a superhero who, in the first frame is going to save the world, and then in the last frame he saves the world, it’s like, who gives a f–k what happens in between? And I’m not talking, as someone said the other day, “Oh, it’s the Dark Knight of the Bonds.” I’m like, “Oh, f–k off.” Everybody has to compare it to something else. I’m a big fan of Dark Knight, don’t get me wrong. But all we’re trying to do is tell good stories.
Q: Is it hard to make Bond real with all the iconic baggage he brings?
A: For sure, but also you’ve got to celebrate that, because it is good baggage. It’s nice-looking luggage.
Q: You almost seem to deflect the tropes in this film by delivering them in a backhanded way, whether it’s the classic martini or the classic Aston Martin.
A: It’s introducing it without commenting on it. What I love about the script is there’s a lightness of touch that allows laughs to happen. It’s not that [screenwriter] John Logan sat down and wrote a page full of gags and went, “Yuk yuk, this one’s a good one.” The gags came out of the situations and we improvised. Some of the lines just came up on the day, and hopefully they allow the audience to sort of get some relief out of the tension.
Q: But to be fair, there’s a lot more tragedy than farce.
A: That’s for sure, yeah.
Q: It seems every generation gets the Bond it deserves. Connery was a rogue, saying ‘damn the consequences.’ You’ve given us an existential Bond—he’s so conflicted.
A: But you read the [novels by Ian] Fleming, which I do, and the conflict is through every book. He doesn’t want to do this job, and Fleming put his own angst into the character. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it—it’s Fleming’s fault!
Q: The complexity of your character is rooted in the relationship with Judi Dench’s M, especially in Skyfall. What’s that all about?
A: It’s Psychology 101: she’s his mum. But we hinted at that in the last two films, and in this one with Javier’s character—he’s the prodigal son. There’s a love there.
Q: Is M the ultimate Bond girl?
A: I think so. She’s the one woman who held his heart in a way that no other woman did.
Q: She’s Mother England, as well. Not unlike the Queen, if I can segue to . . .
A: Please. Beautifully done!
Q: So what was it like playing that scene with Her Majesty for the opening of the Olympics?
A: It was surreal, to say the least. It was a day off. I was right in the middle of shooting, and suddenly it was like, “Oh, God, we’re doing that thing on Saturday.” Got in the car and drove to the palace and sat around a bit, got into my tuxedo, and there she was. She was more than happy to be there, more than happy to be involved, was loving every second of it. Danny Boyle [director of the Olympics opening ceremony] is a genius. He came up with this and came to visit me on set. I went, “Oh, f–k off. Are you visiting someone else and coming here to wind me up?” He said, “No, this is what we want to do. She’s really into the idea. She thinks it’s great.”
Q: Did you make any small talk with the Queen?
A: A little, yeah. I mean, as much as it’s possible to have small talk with a head of state. She was very relaxed.
Q: What did you talk about?
A: Please, come on! Now you’re crossing a line. The weather, the flowers in the back garden: “They look great . . . ”
Q: Hey, at least I’m not asking personal questions about your relationship . . .
A: With the Queen!
Q: Then let’s talk about your relationship with Javier Bardem. This film is full of plot points that I wouldn’t want to spoil—and this may be one of them—but there’s an amazing 6½-minute scene between you and Bardem. You’re tied to a chair, like in Casino Royale, but different.
A: I’ve got my clothes on.
Q: And he’s not beating your genitals with a rope; he’s flirting with you. Was that in the script?
A: It was Javier’s instigation. He said, “We have to push this.” Sam came to me and went, “I think he really would like to push this physical-contact thing,” and I went, “Just tell him to knock himself out.” It’s very funny, and very Bond in the modern way. Lots of people suggested to me that [Bardem’s character] is a homosexual. I don’t think he’s homosexual—I just think he likes f–king things.
Q: While we’re on the subject of vices, Bond has addiction issues in Skyfall. That’s new.
A: It is, but I like it because Fleming drank a bottle of whatever a day and had a bottle of very special pills that sat next to his typewriter that he popped all day, and smoked himself stupid all day. I’m not a condoner of alcoholism, or smoking, or any of these things. But he has a troubled mind and he’s in a lot of pain, emotionally and physically. It’s a very simple way of dealing with it, but it’s sometimes quite successful.
Q: The sexual politics of the Bond character have fluctuated to reflect the times. Traditionally he’s been able to separate sex and emotion quite efficiently. He’s having more trouble doing that these days.
A: I don’t think he has trouble with it—it just affects him more. It’s kind of nice to watch it affect him as opposed to him just being dismissive. Sexual politics has come a long way since ’62, unless you want us slapping ladies on the ass and telling them to go and wait in the other room because the men are talking and that kind of stuff. Bond remains a little bit of a chauvinist, which I think is good, because it means if you stick strong women in front of him, then s–t happens. It doesn’t take the sexiness out of it. The fact is he could die at any minute, and therefore he might as well jump into bed with somebody. In this movie, he’s more prepared to say, “Look, let’s have a drink and a good time because tomorrow I might be out of here.” That’s a Bond movie.
Q: What’s the toughest thing about playing Bond? Is it physical or mental?
A: A bit of both. They’re unusually long shoots—six, seven months—or more like nine because I start prepping before the shoot. We’re doing six-day weeks and the seventh is usually a day of meetings. I’ve got people around me feeding me energy bars, but it gets quite exhausting.
Q: The potential bankruptcy of MGM delayed Skyfall, but that gave you and Mendes a lot more time to prepare the script.
A: To rethink. To actually think it through. Yeah, you’re right. But I don’t want it to be four years before the next one. I’m going to be way too old then.
Q: What’s the most fun you had making this movie?
A: The collaborative process. Everything from the fact that you’re on set with this incredibly talented bunch of people, feeling the need to up your game; to the pressure relief when we can hold a party and all get smashed and just enjoy ourselves, to celebrate that we’re doing a Bond movie and it’s all going okay. But riding on the top of a train through the Turkish countryside, that’s quite exciting.
Q: Not scary?
A: At first it was, but you get blasé. I don’t recommend it.
Q: A lot of the movie is set in Britain. And no Bond film has championed English heritage like this one. A Turner painting is referenced and Judi Dench recites a Tennyson poem.
A: There was a financial issue attached to this one—we were tied into shooting in London, but it really worked out well. We got to film in places you normally don’t get the chance to film in, so we could show London in a cinematic way. It couldn’t get much more British than running down Whitehall with Big Ben in the background—it’s ladling it on. I love the Tennyson. I was nervous about it, but when you have Judi Dench reading it, the poem’s very clear. It’s about [how] we need heroes, and let’s hope they’re out there. But not in any kind of jingoistic way. Being secretly patriotic is very British.
Q: Your character has aged since Casino Royale. He’s battered and bruised and he’s told that, at 44, maybe he should get out of the game.
A: There are a number of reasons. He gets shot and seriously injured, and how he survives a 300-foot drop, we’ll never know. The other thing is the clash of the old world and the new politics. The way wars are fought through drone technology and spy satellites, you don’t send men out there because it’s risky and costly. He’s of the old school, and that sort of clash is something we play with in the film. Hopefully by the end of it, we feel like he’s fixed. I don’t know—I’m contracted for two [more Bond films]. We’ll see.
A: I hope I’ll jump out before I feel like that. That’s always been my instinct in situations—last to arrive at the party, first to leave. It doesn’t always work out like that, but that’s the credo I try and live by.
Q: Well, congratulations. I predict it will be the first Bond film to get at least one Oscar nomination in a major category. I’d be very surprised if Javier doesn’t get one.
A: Right. So would I. Bastard!
AVAILABLE NOW: The best of Bond
To commemorate 50 years of James Bond—from his screen debut in 1962 in Dr. No to next month’s hotly anticipated Skyfall—Maclean’s presents a special edition of pictures and stories about the villains, the guns, the gadgets and the girls that crossed paths with secret agent 007
Available on newsstands or at www.macleans.ca/bond