Daniel Craig speaks candidly about his latest role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, his ‘moody’ relationship with the media and his great hopes for Skyfall, the new 007 movie currently in production. Interview by Dave Calhoun
Daniel Craig is doing a terrific impression of a smiling buffoon. The actor is explaining how he’s rubbish at grinning on demand and is always branded ‘mean and moody’ whenever he’s snapped unexpectedly by a photographer. So now he’s giving me his best forced smile. It’s not pretty. “I’m just not that person,” he laughs. “So people have a perception that I’m grumpy all the time.”
You could say that as James Bond he has a reputation to protect. The 43-year-old is currently shooting his third Bond film, Skyfall, although when we meet in a downtown Soho hotel in New York City – he lives in Manhattan with his new wife, Rachel Weisz – it seems a quieter time for him. He’s finally finished some pick-up shots for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Los Angeles and is then flying directly to London to begin full-time production on Skyfall with British director Sam Mendes.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the reason we’ve met. Craig is dressed in his usual off-duty uniform of dark T-shirt and jeans, rounded out with some colourful Nikes and a chunky watch (a 007 sponsorship tie-in, perchance?). He has clearly been working out and tells me he’s down the gym every day to prepare for being Bond.
He’s full of praise for Dragon Tattoo director David Fincher (responsible for The Social Network and Fight Club), who has followed three recent Swedish films of Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ books with his own, English-language version of the first novel. Craig is Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist on his uppers who hooks up with troubled computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, who played Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend at the beginning of The Social Network) to investigate a serial killer. The film was Craig’s last non-Bond duty before dusting off the tuxedo and leaping back into the world of 007 later this autumn.
You’ve said before that talking to the press is like going to the dentist. Do you feel any different now you’ve played a journalist?
Oh yeah, now I understand! [Laughs] I feel so much better about it! The truth is, I don’t have any problem with journalists – I count some of them as friends – also some of my heroes are journalists, I’m a big fan of Robert Fisk – great people or crazy people who are prepared to stand up for what’s right. And I like the guy in this film, Mikael Blomkvist, but what I like about him is that he’s flawed, he’s a complex, weak, egotistical man on a moral crusade. And all those things combined are interesting, plus he has this brilliant relationship with this girl, Lisbeth Salander, this damaged, hyper-intelligent human being. On paper, they shouldn’t come together, but they do and they respond to each other. She’s the one with the balls in the relationship. He’s happy to watch while she beats someone up.
Rooney Mara looks terrifying as Salander.
There were shenanigans going on while she was being cast [about whether she was right: Natalie Portman, Carey Mulligan and Scarlett Johansson were all linked to the role]. David Fincher was adamant and I get that. Just look at the beginning of The Social Network, she’s phenomenal. She’s got something about her, but also she’s physically perfect. When she puts the hoodie on and the leather jacket, she looks like a 14-year-old boy, she looks sexless. Which is perfect. The other side of it is that when she doesn’t have that on, she’s really sexy. That combination is absolutely true to the book. Salander’s someone who would walk down the street and you wouldn’t notice. That’s how she wants it, that’s how she’s survived in her life. She’s switched herself off from humanity and she walks in the shadows.
Your character is Swedish, it’s set in Sweden, but you speak English with no accent. Was there a debate behind that?
Some people in the film have accents and some don’t. I don’t. I had a long conversation with David about it and said that a lot of Scandinavians speak English perfectly. I’m one of those guys. We’ve got Danish people, Swedish people, English people, American people. The only thing that matters, as far as I’m concerned, is that no-one sounds American. We sound as European as possible. We’re all speaking one common language and that happens to be English. I didn’t want an accent to get in the way, and for me it would. Salander has no formal education and she has a street accent, it’s quite specific. They shot all of Wallander, the Kenneth Branagh thing, in Sweden and it works brilliantly. You need that Swedish train in the background or the Volvo – of which there are many! Count them: Volvo, Volvo, Volvo… Saab!
Were you into the books before?
I had read them already. I stole a paperback off someone on holiday. Then I read the other two. You’d be at the airport and see the cross-section of people who were reading them, that’s how I noticed them. I kept seeing it on the bestsellers list and had no idea what it was about, and then you’d find 80-year-old men and 14-year-old girls reading it... And that
You can’t have needed that much encouragement to work with David Fincher after The Social Network.
I think that film was a real shift for him in the way he makes movies. I think his visual style was all there, but it was embedded in the movie in a way I hadn’t seen before. I love all his movies, but Fight Club dated because the visual style was copied in commercials and if you’re that cutting edge you’re always going to be up against that. You’re creating new things in movies and people are going to steal them. With The Social Network, I felt there was a maturing of him. He’s always been a great filmmaker but he suddenly became confident about storytelling and visual stuff, and the two married together in a way I hadn’t seen him do with such confidence.
You’ve started shooting the new Bond film. How do you feel about it? Is there a sense of ‘hell, here we go again for the next seven months?’
Yes, there’s definitely some of that, but I’m genuinely really excited because we’ve got a script. The deciding factor for doing Casino Royale, even though I was umming and aahhing, going [puts on moody voice] ‘I don’t know if I want to do it’, was that they showed me the script and I thought: ‘fuck, I’ve got to do this’. And I think this one is better. I really do. It’s a totally original story. I read it and it just works as a story. It sounds like a simplistic thing to say, but you read it and you go: ‘oh yeah, I get that, yeah, and oh, yes, yes, okay’ – and that’s unusual.
It seems that the script is sometimes an after-thought on huge productions.
Yes and you swear that you’ll never get involved with shit like that, and it happens. On Quantum, we were fucked. We had the bare bones of a script and then there was a writers’ strike and there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t employ a writer to finish it. I say to myself ‘never again’, but who knows? There was me trying to rewrite scenes – and a writer I am not.
You had to rewrite scenes yourself?
Me and the director [Marc Forster] were the ones allowed to do it. The rules were that you couldn’t employ anyone as a writer, but the actor and director could work on scenes together. We were stuffed. We got away with it, but only just. It was never meant to be as much of a sequel as it was, but it ended up being a sequel, starting where the last one finished.
It was still a massive commercial success though. So it wasn’t a failure in that sense.
No, quite. Thank God it worked – and it worked like gangbusters. But for me, personally, on a level of feeling satisfied, I would want to do better next time. That’s really important to me.
To give a better performance?
No, the whole film. If you’re going to do that sort of stuff, you’ve just got to get it right. You’ve got to give it your best shot. When you’ve got all that talent, everyone gunning to make it good, you’ve got to get it… for fuck’s sake, it’s a Bond movie. You want people to go ‘whooah!’ – a sharp intake of breath during a movie is never a bad thing.
Did you have anything to do with getting Sam Mendes on board as director?
I did, yes, I did. He’s English, he’s Cambridge-educated, he’s smart. He’s lived with Bond all his life, he grew up with Bond the way I did. We grew up at exactly the same time, and I said to him ‘we have to do this together, we have exactly the same reference points, we both like the same Bond movies and we both like the same bits in the same Bond movies we like’. We sat down and we just rabbited for hours about Live and Let Die or From Russia with Love, and talked about little scenes that we knew from them. That’s how we started talking about it. That’s what we tried to instill in the script. He’s been working his arse off to tie all these things together so they make sense – in a Bond way.
We love that Sam Mendes’s last film was Away We Go – his most indie film yet.
Yes, that’s true, and now he’s making a $200m Bond movie. He’s an OCD control freak and I mean that in the nicest possible way, as all directors are. David Fincher included. They are all absolutely single-minded and all they want to do is get it right. On a movie like this, you need that – maybe I shouldn’t call him an ‘OCD control freak’: it’s a joke, but you need someone with lots of different heads – there’s a producing head, a directing head, a special-effects head, a publicity head. More than any other movie, you need someone with all that going on, and he just does. He’s a manager – a great manager – and one of the skills doing a Bond movie is about managing a lot of people, saying, ‘okay, do that, that’s got to be done, and I’ll do that’. It’s a tricky fucking job to do.
It sounds like you’ve become even more involved behind the scenes as time has gone on.
I said from the very beginning to Barbara [Broccoli] and Michael [Wilson, the producers and guardians of the Bond franchise]: ‘if you give me this responsibility, I can just walk on that set and pretend to be James Bond’, but they allowed me to be involved more. It’s naturally progressed. I don’t want to get in people’s way. I just want to encourage things along. Sam got involved and then we got Roger Deakins [the director of photography], for fuck’s sake, who’s shooting it. The air is rare, and we’ve had the chance to employ some brilliant people. Win or lose, we’ve done the best we can because we’ve put the right people in the right job. Pool the best talent you can, give them a good time and do the best we can – now I sound like a fucking politician!
Did you worry about becoming tabloid fodder when you did Bond?
Yes, in some respects it’s unavoidable, you can’t deny it. In some respects, I still fight with it now. I can’t go to war with paparazzi. The Daily Mail loves saying – [putting whiny voice on] ‘he never smiles’ – yeah, because I know you’re fucking taking pictures of me, that’s why. Because The Daily Mail comes to mind every time I see a camera. I challenge anybody to fucking smile. I’m just not that person. But I do get it; you can’t just come out and be angry. There’s no fucking point. You’ve got to live your life. I know I’m not that person. I’m never going to arrive at an airport after a 12-hour flight and go, ‘oh, hi everyone, it’s so great to see you!’ I can’t do it. You’ve got to live your life, you’ve got to enjoy it. And this is a great time – I’m playing James Bond. That’s what makes me secure about it. I’m having a lot of fun with it and getting a kick out of it, and people have a perception that I’m grumpy all the time.
When they announced you as Bond they had you speeding down the Thames in London on a boat. You obviously decided to swallow your worries about exposure to the press for that…
They wanted to fly me in on a Harrier jump jet! I remember thinking: ‘okay, in for a penny…’ But the safety regulations stopped that idea. The irony was, I got down to the river, to the military speedboat, and there was this marine giving me a lifejacket. And I was like ‘do I have to wear a life jacket?’, and he was like ‘yeah, you’re not getting on this boat without one’. But what about my suit? It was a strange transition that time. I had no idea what was going on. Who could I ask? ‘Hey, Pierce [Brosnan], what’s it like?’ I did do that. And he was just ‘you’ve got to go for it’. There’s nothing that he could say that could be of any use whatsoever.
Did you worry about being seen forever as Bond?
I weighed everything up and the only reason not to do it was fear. The fear of losing everything else. And you can’t not do something because you’re afraid. Well, you can, jumping off cliffs and things like that, but to be afraid of losing something because I was going to play James Bond is kind of nonsense. That’s how I convinced myself. I thought: even if it goes wrong, hopefully I’ll earn enough money to live on an island when I’m old and get a leathery brown tan! And drink cocktails in the afternoon. Which sounds quite good to tell the truth.
Before Bond, you had success with smart British films – Layer Cake, The Mother – but you hadn’t broken America, had you?
I went to auditions for bad guys in American movies and was sick of going on tape to play the villain in this and that film… and then losing out to fucking… no, I’d better not say who!
Rewinding to the start. Did you really leave home at the age of 16 to join the National Youth Theatre in London? It seems young.
I left Chester (north England) in 1985, when it was as depressed as it could be. My mother says I wasn’t 16, so maybe
I was 17 by the time I properly left home. But I definitely left at 16 and spent the summer in London. I stayed on people’s floors until they chucked me out. We didn’t have any money, but my mum would bung me a couple of hundred quid, and there were people willing to look out for me. I managed to scrape it together. God knows how, it’s terrifying really. My mother gave me a gentle push. I wanted to act
and she knew that there wasn’t much going in Liverpool and I had to go to London.
In the early 1990s, you won film roles even before you finished three years at Guildhall studying drama. Do you remember how it felt being on a film set for the first time?
In my third year I went up for a bad guy in an American movie. A South African. And I got it. I went to do this movie in South Africa and Zimbabwe and I just lost it, I forgot how to act. Everybody was saying ‘oh, you’re so intense, you’re so intense’. [Does his best ‘intense’ impression and bursts out laughing] I was shit-scared! I’d forgotten how to act!
Do you wrestle with the vanity side of movie acting?
Me and my very close friend call it ‘modelling’. I don’t find myself particularly good at it. But you find yourself having to model sometimes in movies. It’s kind of that. [Does a ‘Blue Steel’ impression]. Some people are really good at it. And then you watch it and you go ‘oh, that’s fucking modelling, what are you doing?’ But it is part of movie-making. As long as my ears don’t stick out too much, I’m happy. The greatest asset to an actor is their ego, but it’s also their greatest enemy. The ego gives you the balls to get up there and do it, but it’s also the thing that scuppers you because you’ve got to communicate.
But as James Bond you’re virtually a pin-up, aren’t you?
The iconography of it is really important. I’ve just spent three or four months on and off with Tom Ford, trying suits on, over and over. It’s important. It just is. Whichever is the first suit I come out in, it has to have the reaction ‘oh, fucking hell, that’s a suit’. You have to have an eye on that and the look and feel of things. I’m in the gym every day, that’s the truth, I have to be there. I have to start doing it 10 weeks off from filming, otherwise it doesn’t work.
And, as Bond, you have to whip off your top at some point. So vanity surely comes into play?
To answer your question – yes!
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens on January 5. The next James Bond film, Skyfall, will provisionally open in Hong Kong on November 1.