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Daniel Craig interview: the James Bond actor on his new comedy Knives Out, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the problem with social media, and why he’s not grumpy
Daniel Craig is happy to break out of his 007 straitjacket
Daniel Craig is in an ebullient mood, despite being frantic with the making of the heavily scrutinised next James Bond film. The latest global romp will be called No Time to Die. “Oh, that’s the title, yes,” he laughs, brain frazzled, when reminded. He’s a blast of conversation from the start. It will be released in April. So what is the most interesting thing the actor can say, right now, about his fifth and final outing as the world’s randiest spy?
“Well, I’d like to give you a breakdown of my week, but people would just think I was complaining,” he explains, his voice gruff and loud, a man you could understand perfectly in a packed bar. “But every day has an intensity to it. We’re trying to make the best f****** Bond movie we can. Pulling out all the stops. If we aim for the stars, we might hit the treetops.” He pauses, briefly. “The most interesting thing? Yesterday I was up to my neck in water for 12 hours.”
He talks quickly. This is his first big interview in years, and there is a lot to cover. Honest and funny, he is a man so confident in his own skin that he never does what most of his peers do, which is to think before answering a question. It is a thrill: thoughts burst out that lead to a random unpacking of his brain. He isn’t meant to be like this. In person he scowls, he has played history’s most furious Bond for more than a decade and more than once has been snapped by paps sticking up his middle finger. Such are the reasons Craig has a reputation for putting up barriers in front of barriers, for being a bit of a grump.
Is that fair? “Probably,” he replies. “But then I don’t do much to dispel it, because I’d just be chasing my tail to prove that I’m not the person people think I am. You know, I probably don’t have a particularly good public persona. Some do. Some can go on talk shows and tell stories, but I’m just not wired that way. I don’t know what to say. I can try, but people would go, ‘What’s he doing?’ They’d go, ‘Where is the grumpy f*****?’”
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“But I’m not grumpy,” he continues, with a booming laugh. “Genuinely, I’m not. I hope you can tell. I love what I do. I love this business, and I don’t mind talking to journalists. I mean, I don’t love it. Yet I don’t mind talking about stuff I love. That’s easy. But I just grew up in an era when, if you were trying to be an artist, you didn’t look for approval. You didn’t look for likes. You just did your thing. And this? This is what I do. Who am I personally? It has nothing to do with anybody, except for the people in my life.”
So what changed? When did people start to care what others thought? “It’s social media,” he says, spitting the words out. “There is a constant looking, in life, for approval, and it really jars with me. But I’m a 51-year-old man. Nobody listens to me. Or they will stop listening to me sooner rather than later, so it doesn’t really matter what I think. But I grew up when punk rock was on the scene. You want approval? That’s anathema to me. It doesn’t make any sense to me — in art. It’s anti-art. It’s anti-creativity.”
In Craig’s new brainy ride of a film, Knives Out, his character, a suave and tweedy detective from Louisiana called Benoit Blanc, gets lines such as “Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom”. He just doesn’t get to say that as Bond, and this is him letting off steam after the relative creative straitjacket of that role. It is a liberation. Knives Out takes place in a mansion where the patriarch of a ghastly family has been murdered, and Craig must figure out whodunnit. Think a star-studded Miss Marple with Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer and Toni Collette, masterfully plotted and directed with cool pizzazz by Rian Johnson. It is as much fun as you will have in the cinema this year.
Why, then, has it taken Craig so long to do something funny? “Well, nobody offers me parts like this,” he roars. It is a claim that his CV supports. Steven Soderbergh’s absurd 2017 crime caper Logan Lucky aside, this is his first big comedic role. “Believe me, if I’d been offered parts like this in the past 15 years, I would have done them.” (He says all this while cackling.) “I’ve been begging for people to offer me roles like this, but nobody seems to think I can do shit like this. I’ve been playing James Bond for 15 years and people go, ‘Oh, he’s that guy.’ But I’m not that guy. I’m lots of people.”
In fairness, during the first six years of Craig being Bond, he made eight films outside the franchise, whereas in the next nine he made only three, Knives Out included. Maybe directors thought he had lost interest.
“No,” says Craig. “Rather, by the time I’m finished with [a Bond film], I just need a break, and I’m very much about being at home.” His wife, Rachel Weisz, gave birth to their first child last year; the family are based in New York. “This may be hard to believe,” Craig continues, “but I love the fact I’m Bond. We’re in rare air, making Bond movies. It is one of the most intense, fulfilling things I’ve ever done, but it takes a lot of energy and I’m getting old. I’m getting creaky. And so what I do outside of that has got to be really good.”
Also in Knives Out, and stepping away from another iconic role, is Captain America, Chris Evans. “He brought his shield in,” Craig says. Of course he did. “No, he didn’t. I brought my Walther in. No, I didn’t.” I read that when Craig puts on an accent, as in Knives Out, he keeps it when off set. “I don’t know where you heard that,” he scoffs. So it isn’t a weird tic of his? “Weird tic? I’ve got loads of those, but that’s not one of them.”
I tell him I laughed at the big chair in the film that looks like the Iron Throne. “What?” As in Game of Thrones? It was a great pop culture moment; Bond in Westeros. Has he seen the show? “Not an episode, mate. No idea. Wild f****** horses couldn’t drag me [to that].”
Johnson says he and Craig had a “total blast”, and I totally believe him. “One of my favourite things is to give an actor something I haven’t seen them do before,” says the director over email. “Daniel has a great sense of humour, and I knew he would have fun letting loose. We’d laugh our asses off. It felt like we were two kids playing, seeing how far we could push it.”
Despite the frivolity, Knives Out also has a political edge. Weighty themes kick in during a second half in which the white American family Benoit is investigating fear they are going to lose their inheritance money to an immigrant nurse — “Allegories!” Craig barks enthusiastically — and so they gang up to make her a scapegoat.
Did the actor talk to Johnson about what his film was trying to say? “It’s very obvious to me,” he says, even blunter than usual. “I didn’t need a lot of discussion, but it was another reason to do the film. I mean, I love big popcorn movies, nothing gets me more. But there has to be a touch of reality. I want the audience to be plugged into something. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun watch, but there is a heartbeat and a message, and that makes it richer.”
It is clearly pro-immigration. There are lines about children in cages. Is he worried certain viewers on the political spectrum will feel lectured to? “I’m not responsible for their reaction. I can’t go through life worrying what everybody thinks because I’d get nowhere,” he says. “The message is one of humanity. That’s all. I’m not planting a political flag by doing a film about nasty people and lovely people. It’s just storytelling. I know where you’re going, but do we have to ask that question about every movie we make now? Really?” OK, but ... “Do I believe in the politics of the movie? Yes. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it.”
I ask if he is happy to talk about the notoriously secret new Bond. “Yeah, yeah,” he replies. First, forget that daft misreading of an interview Craig did in 2015, in which he apparently said he would rather slash his wrists than make another 007 film. What he actually said was: “Now? I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists. No, not at the moment.” He was always contracted to make No Time to Die, and all he meant was that he wanted a break. Now he has had one, and so, after Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and Spectre, we get to see him put on the DJ again.
The big news this time is that Phoebe Waller-Bridge has a writing credit. Was it his idea to get her in? “Yeah.” What will she bring to Bond? “You’ll have to wait and see!” he shouts, before laughing. “But she’s just brilliant. I had my eye on her ever since the first Fleabag [TV series], and then I saw Killing Eve and what she did with that and just wanted her voice. It is so unique — we are very privileged to have her on board.”
When I met Craig in 2014, for Spectre, we talked about misogyny in Bond, and the actor said he was pleased that, by casting Monica Bellucci as 007’s similarly aged lover in the film, a dialogue had been started about sexism, wage disparities and similar issues. Waller-Bridge is only the second woman to have a writing credit during the franchise’s 57-year history, after Johanna Harwood on Dr No and From Russia with Love. A cynic might suggest the new recruit has been chosen to help the film look more representative.
“Well, I think Phoebe coming on...” Craig begins. “She has been asked many times about what she is going to do, and her answer is that we’re not really going to change anything. He’s James Bond. But, of course, it’s a different angle to come at ...”
He stops and draws breath.
“Look, we’re having a conversation about Phoebe’s gender here, which is f****** ridiculous. She’s a great writer. Why shouldn’t we get Phoebe onto Bond? That’s the answer to that. I know where you’re going, but I don’t actually want to have that conversation. I know what you’re trying to do, but it’s wrong. It’s absolutely wrong. She’s a f****** great writer. One of the best English writers around. I said, ‘Can we get her on the film?’ That’s where I came from.”
It was then that I realised the more Craig shouts at you, the better things are going. He enjoys this sort of debate and, by virtue of the energetic rate he punches out words, nothing comes across as rude as it seems on the page. He is, instead, brusque and open. Just a really big fan of ironing things out and, like a friend in a pub during a fourth pint argument, any bad blood will be forgotten by the journey home.
He is, in other words, extremely content. A man at the stratospheric stage of his career. He knows he is privileged. When he was at drama school, someone from the Inland Revenue came to talk to the young, optimistic actors about PAYE and self-employment. “He looked at me and said, ‘You do realise 90% of you are not going to work?’” the millionaire remembers, decades on.
“That was the deal but, because of that threat, you do anything, because you’re desperate — and I still feel like that. I feel I’ve only scratched the surface with acting. I want to be better. I’ll never conquer it, because I don’t think anyone ever does, but I definitely want to try and keep on getting better at it.”
It’s easy to forget what a versatile and, indeed, subtle actor Craig has been on both stage and screen. In 1993, he made his theatre debut as the conflicted legal cleric Joe in Angels in America at the National Theatre, while 1996 saw his hugely popular role as Geordie in the television series Our Friends in the North. On the big screen, he has been even more diverse, taking on challenging work such as playing the younger lover of ageing May in The Mother, and a man being stalked in Enduring Love.
Now Craig is letting loose. In Logan Lucky, he dyed his hair blond and put on a weird American accent as the crook Joe Bang. In Knives Out, he based Blanc on the eccentric historian Shelby Foote, just because he could.
Is this the oddness he wants for the rest of his career? “I hope so,” he says, still loud, still laughing. I can barely remember speaking to anyone who sounded happier. “Who knows? Maybe nobody will employ me again. I’ve got no serious plans.” Will he return to theatre? “No hard and fast plans, but definitely. The great thing about a play in New York is that I’m at home.”
And, finally, before he heads back to work, what will he miss most about Bond? “I’ll miss my friends,” he says, as quiet as he has been all chat. “I’ve worked with many of these people for 15 years now, and that will be a real jar. I’ll see them again, but this is a special atmosphere, on a Bond set.”
Knives Out is out on November 29