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Stripping the spy down to his manners

12-Nov-2008 • Quantum Of Solace

It took two years of high-level negotiations to arrange a meeting with Daniel Craig. In an era when MI6 — the agency that employs his best-known character, James Bond — blithely advertises for agents on the Internet, Mr. Craig may well be the world’s most elusive pretend spy, reports the New York Times.

The long wait allowed plenty of time for disturbing rumors to marinate. For instance: He is surly and defensive, a reporter-averse utterer of combative monosyllables. Or this, from two women working on his publicity: He has more sexual magnetism than anyone we have ever met.

Perhaps nothing short of Mr. Craig’s materializing in his snug powder-blue bathing trunks from “Casino Royale” and offering to shake the martinis himself could have realistically lived up to all that anticipation.

But there he was in normal jeans, his arm in a sling from recent shoulder surgery. He was wearing a thick cardigan that, truth be told, walked a sensitive line between doofusy and stylish. He was, of course, unfairly attractive anyway, in his craggy, lived-in, blue-eyed way, but not so much as to render anyone speechless or unable to operate a notebook.

He was polite to a fault. He stood up when his publicist’s assistant brought in a cup of tea. He apologized several times for being five minutes late. He acted as if he were not sitting in a soulless conference room, which he was, and as if he had all day to chat about Bond and other interesting topics, which he didn’t. (He had an hour.)

Unlike many movie stars who come to believe the myth of their superiority, Mr. Craig, 40, tends to mock his own celebrity. Now that he is too famous to go to the movies without being recognized, he said, he might be forced to install a screening room at home. Not. “I could stick it next to the indoor swimming pool,” he said sarcastically.

Passing beneath two celebratory posters of himself as James Bond in his publicist’s office here, he grimaced and muttered, “That’s my Dorian Gray portrait.” Asked whether he saw himself as a natural leading man, he said, “Fat chance.” And then, “There’s not a skin-care product in the world that would have made that happen for me.”

When he was cast as Bond, filling the position most recently vacated by Pierce Brosnan, Mr. Craig did not seem like an obvious choice. He was an actor’s actor known for his intensity of focus and his wide range of challenging, counterintuitive roles. He has played, among other things, a sharp-lapeled pornography baron from Manchester in the BBC mini-series “Our Friends in the North”; a college professor pursued by a male stalker in “Enduring Love”; a builder sleeping with his girlfriend’s sexagenarian mother in “The Mother”; a drug-dealing businessman in “Layer Cake”; a killer full of murderous rage and heartbreaking tenderness in “Infamous”; and the poet Ted Hughes in “Sylvia.”

“Everybody said, ‘Oh, aren’t you afraid you’ll be typecast?’ ” he recalled of taking the Bond role. “And I said, ‘Of course I am,’ but if it has to be this — well, that’s not too bad.”

Traditionalists were appalled. The British tabloids, whose writers possibly had not seen Mr. Craig in his other films, sniped that he was too short, too blond, too actory, too potentially Lazenbyesque; they spread the rumor that he didn’t know how to drive a stick shift, let alone one attached to an Aston Martin.

But from the first scene in “Casino Royale” (2006), in which Bond brutally kills a man with his bare hands and then coolly shoots and kills his own corrupt boss, Mr. Craig proved to be a rare combination of plausibility, physicality and charisma. He got rave reviews, and not just from Bond’s traditional fan base.

(Full disclosure: Mr. Craig’s mix of emotional vulnerability and cocky insouciance discomfited to an alarming degree many a journalistic associate. One saw “Casino Royale” five times in two months. Another received an e-mail message from a flustered pal: “What are we going to do? About Daniel Craig, I mean.” Efforts to find a way for interested outside parties to pose as a reporter’s assistant during the interview or to dress as plants and hide on the windowsill proved unsuccessful.)

The latest movie, “Quantum of Solace,” which opens Nov. 14, is full of the usual Bondian big guns, big explosions, big-busted women and big, improbable, high-testosterone stunts, many of them performed by Mr. Craig. While he bulked up for “Casino” — he wanted to “look as if he could kill people just by looking at them,” his personal trainer, a former Royal Navy commando, said recently — in this film he focused on building up his stamina, going for lean and mean over brawn.

(Mr. Craig was recently quoted in The Times of London as saying, “I am not an athlete, although I have always enjoyed keeping fit between bouts of minor alcoholism.”)

Mr. Craig said that he had been determined to ensure that the story made logical and emotional sense. “Quantum” begins moments after “Casino” ends, with Bond, wielding an enormous firearm, on the island where he has just shot one of the men responsible for the death of Vesper Lynd, the treacherous love of his life.

“They’re two separate movies, but if you were to punish yourself by watching them back to back, you’d see a through line,” Mr. Craig said. He particularly wanted Bond to have to contend with the emotional repercussions of Vesper’s death.

“It was very important that we deal with that,” he said. “I just felt that you can’t have a character fall in love so madly as they did in the last movie and not finish it off, understand it, get some closure. That’s why the movie is called ‘Quantum of Solace’ — that’s exactly what he’s looking for.”

He added: “By the end of ‘Solace,’ there’s a conclusion that I’m hoping will set us up, if all goes well, for a third movie. And we can set it someplace warm and quiet.” (He was kidding, he said, about the “quiet” part.)

Last fall he and the director of “Quantum of Solace,” Marc Forster, set out to fill in the gaps in the script, left incomplete because of the Hollywood writers’ strike. Mr. Forster said he was struck by how much Mr. Craig wanted to get the story right and ensure that his interpretation of Bond was “not just a cliché, but a character that people can connect to.”

He added: “He’s very shy and slightly modest and humble, and he doesn’t like to be the center of attention. It’s more like, ‘Let’s make good movies and tell a good story and do a good job.’ ”

Along with “Quantum,” Mr. Craig is appearing this fall in “Defiance” (set to open Dec. 31), based on the true story of the Bielskis, a trio of freedom-fighting Jewish brothers in World War II. Defying the Nazis (and the odds), they set up an unlikely community of tough, armed refugees in the punishing Belarussian forest. Mr. Craig plays Tuvia, their complicated leader — sometimes hot-headed, sometimes coolly rational; now seeking revenge, now preaching restraint.

The shoot was tough. The actors had to speak Russian in a number of scenes; they also had to live more or less in the woods, in sometimes extreme frigid conditions, for three months. Most of the cast came down with some sort of bronchial flu, Mr. Craig said, “but when we started drinking more, it seemed to get better.”

The director of “Defiance,” Edward Zwick, said it was interesting to watch Mr. Craig take on the role, with all its ambivalence and inner conflict, in tandem with playing the self-assured Bond.

“You see very clearly his ambition as an actor; he refuses to be just one thing,” Mr. Zwick said in a telephone interview. “What you have to understand about Daniel is that he is a working actor who considers himself that. He began in the theater and did all sorts of ensemble work, and in some ways this was a territory in which he’s more comfortable than in being the star who’s out in front of the movie.”

Mr. Craig grew up in Liverpool and spent much of his spare time watching movies, sometimes by himself, in a small cinema down the street from his house. He left home as a teenager to seek his fortune as an actor in London. He worked with the National Youth Theater, went to drama school and began being cast as romantic leads, a designation he brushes aside.

With each part, he explained, “I said to myself: ‘Romantic lead — what is he? Is he an alcoholic? What’s his deal? What’s his problem?’ For me, that has always been the way. That’s what I did for Bond and what I try and do with everything.”

He is determined to continue pursuing extra-Bond roles.

“I’ve been so fortunate to land this amazing role in a huge franchise,” he said. “It’s set me up in a really good way for life, and that’s wonderful. But I love acting, and I genuinely think it’s an important part of what life is about. I get a kick out of it, and I’m not good at sitting around.”

Mr. Craig, who has a teenage daughter from an early marriage, genuinely seems more interested in talking about other topics — the books of Philip Pullman; the exciting-to-him proposition of Barack Obama being elected president; movies he likes — than he does in talking about himself.

But he mentioned his longtime American girlfriend, Satsuki Mitchell, with whom he lives in Los Angeles and London. He wears a silver necklace inscribed with a quotation “about taking your heart wherever you go,” he said when asked, sounding suddenly shy.

Recently, he said, the two drove up the American West Coast, through to the Pacific Northwest. They ducked into a small-town movie theater to see the Guillermo del Toro movie “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

Someone approached Mr. Craig.

“Has anyone ever told you you look like Daniel Craig?” the man asked.

“No,” Mr. Craig answered, and walked on.

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