Heart of An Assassin: How Daniel Craig Changed James Bond Forever | GQ US April 2020.
He’s the best Bond yet—a searching soulful actor who managed to turn the campy secret agent into a three-dimensional character. Now as the world gears up for Daniel Craig’s final film as 007 nears, he offers some rare reflection on the franchise he redefined and the icon he reimagined.
Shortly before midnight, on a damp Friday last October, Daniel Craig shot his last scene as James Bond. It was a chase sequence, outside, on the back lot of Pinewood Studios, just west of London. The set was a Havana streetscape—Cadillacs and neon. The scene would have been filmed in the Caribbean in the spring, if Craig hadn’t ruptured his ankle ligaments and had to undergo surgery. He was 37 and blond when he was cast as the world’s most famous spy, in 2005. He is 52 now, his hair is dirty gray, and he feels twinges of arthritis. “You get tighter and tighter,” Craig told me recently. “And then you just don’t bounce.”
So there he was, being chased down a faked-up Cuban alleyway in England on a dank autumnal night. He was being paid a reported $25 million. It was what it was. Every Bond shoot is its own version of chaos, and the making of No Time To Die, Craig’s fifth and final film in the role, was no different. The first director, Danny Boyle, quit. Craig got injured. A set exploded. “It feels like how the fuck are we going to do this?” Craig said. “And somehow you do.” And that was before a novel virus swept the globe, delaying the movie’s April release by seven months, to November.
About 300 people were working on the final stretch of filming at Pinewood, and everyone was pretty fried. The director, Cary Fukunaga, had shot the movie’s ending—the true farewell to Craig’s Bond—a few weeks earlier. The last days were about collecting scenes that had gotten lost or were flubbed in the previous, exhausting seven months. It was just an accident of the schedule that in his very final frames as Bond—a cinematic archetype that Craig transformed for the first time since the ’60s—he was in a tuxedo, disappearing into the night. The cameras rolled and Craig ran. That bulky, desperate run. “There was smoke,” he said. “And it was like, ‘Bye. See you.… I’m checking out.’ ”
Craig isn’t the type to linger on moments like these. For the most part, he blocks them out. “You can ignore these things in life or you can sort of… It’s like family history, isn’t it?” he told me. “The story kind of gets bigger and bigger. I feel a bit like that with movie sets: This legend builds up.” Bond is fraught with legends already. More men have walked on the moon than have played the part, and Craig has been Bond for the longest of all—14 years. (Sean Connery did two comeback gigs, but his main spell lasted only five.) The films are also, insanely, a family business, which only intensifies the sense of folklore. Albert “Cubby” Broccoli made Dr. No, the first film in the franchise, in 1962. Fifty-eight years and 25 movies later, the producers are his daughter Barbara Broccoli and stepson, Michael G. Wilson, who began his Bond career on the set of Goldfinger, in 1964.
The films go toe to toe with Marvel: Craig’s Skyfall did around the same box office, $1.1 billion, as Iron Man 3. At the same time, they are weirdly artisanal, bound by tradition, a certain way of doing things. The offices of Eon Productions, which makes the movies, are a short walk from Buckingham Palace. The theme tune hasn’t changed for half a century. The stunts are largely real. The scripts are a nightmare. There is a slightly demonic, British conviction that it will all work out in the end. “There has always been an element that Bond has been on the wing and a prayer,” Sam Mendes, who directed two of Craig’s 007 movies, told me. “It is not a particularly healthy way to work.” Reckoning with any of this doesn’t actually help if you’re the frontman. Craig has spent a lot of his time as James Bond trying not to think at all. While making No Time To Die, he taped some interviews with Broccoli and Wilson about his years in the role. There was a lot that he simply couldn’t remember. “Stop fucking thinking and just fucking act,” Craig said once, like it was an incantation. “It’s almost that. Because so many things are going on in your head. I mean, if you start thinking…that’s it. You’ve got to sort of forget. You’ve got to leave your ego.”
All of which means, now that it’s coming to an end, Craig sometimes struggles to comprehend what has happened to him and what he has achieved. When I spent time with him this winter, Craig was warm and voluble in the extreme. He talked a mile a minute, losing threads and finding others. He apologized when answering my questions almost as often as he swore. Onscreen, Craig’s face—that beautiful boxer’s face, those gas-ring eyes—can have a worrying stillness while his body moves. In real life, everything about Craig is animated, part-sprung. It’s as if he wants to occupy several spots in the room at once. He self-deprecates a lot. During one long conversation, when I told him that he had managed to imbue a previously vacant character with an inner life, a sense of mortality, and an unquenchable feeling of loss—in short, that he had triumphed as Bond—Craig initially misunderstood what I meant. When he realized, he spluttered apologetically for a while. “What you’re saying, it’s like, if I say it…” He hesitated. He couldn’t bear to brag. But he also knew. “It’s raised the bar,” Craig finally conceded. “It’s fucking raised the bar.”
It started with a funeral. On April 21, 2004, Mary Selway, a celebrated London casting director, died of cancer. Selway had helped Craig land some important early roles; she had also told him what to do. Craig isn’t exactly a submissive person. He left home as a teenager and never looked back. “My mother would hate me saying this, but I was on my own,” Craig said. In his 20s and 30s, he was self-reliant to a fault. “The idea that people supported me…at the time, I couldn’t see it. It was ‘I’m on my own. I do my own thing.’ ” Craig was at the airport, on his way to India, when one of Selway’s daughters called. She asked him to help carry the coffin. He was taken aback. “It was a wake-up,” he said. “It was like, ‘Oh, right. People care.’ ”
“We struggled to keep Trump out of this film,” Craig said. “But of course it is there. It’s always there, whether it’s Trump, or whether it’s Brexit, or whether it’s Russian interference on elections.”Craig
Craig introduced time to the Bond movies. Before him, the character, and his world, simply regenerated from film to film. The padded-leather door to M’s office swung open. In Craig’s films, which are loosely serialized, Bond ages and Britain has aged. There is such thing as doubt. England isn’t necessarily right. Foreigners aren’t necessarily wrong.
When Casino Royale wrapped, Craig had a sense of where he thought the overall story should go. “The biggest ideas are the best,” he told me. “And the biggest ideas are love and tragedy and loss. They just are, and that’s what I instinctively want to aim for.” After the death of Vesper Lynd, he wanted Bond to shut down, lose everything, and over the course of several adventures, gradually find himself again. “I think we’ve done it, with No Time To Die,” Craig said. “I think we’ve got to this place—and it was to discover his love, that he could be in love and that that was okay.”
He found his great collaborator in Sam Mendes. It was Craig’s idea to approach the director. Mendes said yes because of Craig. “He was the reason I did it,” Mendes told me. “I got re-interested in the franchise because of Casino Royale.” Like Craig, he was drawn to the idea of Bond’s mortality and an uncertainty about Britain’s 21st-century status. In Skyfall, the first of Mendes’s Bond movies with Craig, Javier Bardem, playing the cyberterrorist villain, says: “England, the empire, MI6—you’re living in a ruin.… You just don’t know it yet.”
Craig was more involved in the writing of No Time To Die than in other Bond films. “This is my last movie,” he said. “I’ve kept my mouth shut before…and I’ve regretted that I did.”
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No Time To Die was projected onto the wall of an editing suite. There was no score, the special effects weren’t finished, but Craig’s final Bond movie was done. He had been allowed to invite a few people to the screening. But he chose to watch it alone. “I need to just be on my own, kind of experiencing it,” he told me. The first few minutes are always unbearable: “Why am I standing like that? What am I doing?” Craig said. But it passes, and then he was the boy in the empty cinema by the sea again, transported by a big, wild movie—only now it was him was up on the screen, doing whatever that is. “I think it works,” Craig said, pausing on every word. “So hallelujah.”
Sam Knight is a London-based staff writer for ‘The New Yorker.’ This is his first article for GQ.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2020 issue with the title “Heart of An Assassin.”
Written Sam Knight
Photography by Lachlan Bailey @Lachlanbailey
Styled by @Georgecortina