James Bond is doing jazz hands. Fingers splay, Liza Minnelli style. Eyes pop like emancipated lotto balls. Teeth flash the fakest smile this side of an Enterprise car rental counter. It is profoundly disturbing.
Let's back up a bit. When I say Bond, I mean Daniel Craig. (How weird would it be if I were having breakfast with George Lazenby?) They're not the same man: One is a made-up spy; one is an actor sitting in front of me looking uncomfortable. Play an icon and everyone assumes you're actually that guy. Just ask Barack Obama. This is particularly unfortunate for Craig, who really, really isn't James Bond. Bond is suave, shaken on occasion but never stirred, even when confronting an enormous, metal-fanged man named Jaws. Craig is a bit less suave. Images of Craig/Bond's torso emerging from the Nassau surf in Casino Royale provide prime self-pleasuring material for millions of women and a sizable number of men the world over. But it was not always so. Years before Bond, the British press dubbed Craig Mr. Potato Head for his purportedly striking resemblance to a certain plastic tuber toy. They were half wrong. (Craig has better cheekbones and a higher success rate with the ladies. Potato Head has no game.)
"I don't think he's a guy who was ever told he was attractive," says director David Fincher. "There are actors who have never opened a door or bought a drink for themselves. Daniel knows what he drinks." That humility — or its ne'er-do-well ginger-haired stepbrother, insecurity — still follows Craig around. Just YouTube his appearances on Letterman or The Daily Show. The man looks this side of petrified. I mention to Craig that I'd been watching some of his talk-show work. He groans. His hands fiddle with the wool cap he wears as a minor disguise.
"Great. I bet they're scintillating."
They are not. In a 2009 Daily Show appearance, Craig left Jon Stewart dancing as fast as he could just to make five minutes pass without his viewers thinking they had mistakenly flipped to a Lehigh Valley cable-access talk show.
"I'm not hardwired to switch it on," says Craig with a non-Bondian sigh. "I just don't have the tools. Maybe I don't make the effort, but if I make the effort, it would be like, 'What the fuck is that about?' It would be jamming a square peg into a round hole. Why try and be something you're not?"
Craig says this in his posh-free Liverpudlian accent. He's wearing blue jeans and a crisp white dress shirt. He sounds reasonable and professorial. Craig believes there's an uncrossable line between acting a part and selling yourself out.
"To go and pretend," Craig says, his voice trailing off a bit. "I find it very difficult. I can't do that."
That's when he pushes his sleeves up, exposing tanned arms scarred and puckered from a duel with poison ivy near his upstate New York weekend home.
"You know. Jazz hands! It's all good!"
For a moment, he looks like a sociopathic jack-o'-lantern. Then, just as quickly, the pumpkin deflates.
"I don't have that in me. It's not all good."
This is cause for reflection and maybe a shot of bourbon. Daniel Craig is about to be on 7 billion screens in the newest film version of the trillion-selling The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He jets off next week to begin work on his third Bond film. ("The script is better than Casino Royale," he says.) In June, he secretly married Rachel Weisz, the hottest 41-year-old in all of Christendom. If it's not all good for Daniel Craig, the rest of us are seriously fucked.
Sad clown face.
In reality, even Daniel Craig's disasters have storybook endings. I talked with him just four days before the release of Dream House, a misbegotten ghost story directed by Jim Sheridan. The film was so dreadful that Sheridan reportedly wanted his name taken off of it, and it wasn't screened for critics. It was a strife-filled bomb that would lose the studio $25 million. Still, his co-star in the disaster was a girl named Weisz, and that worked out OK.
"The movie didn't turn out great," says Craig quickly. "But I met my wife. Fair trade, don't you think?"
Indeed. Craig and Weisz now spend most of their time in New York. This helps Craig in his struggle to remain anonymous off set. He swears he can take the subway without too much trouble. "In New York, people are starring in their own movie," says Craig as we sit in a secluded lounge at a Manhattan boutique hotel. "They have more important things to think about."
Talking with Craig, I get the feeling that he subscribes to the John Updike theory that celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. Uh, except for all the magazine covers. Some of it is a staunch belief that being an actor doesn't mean you give up the right to keep whom you shag private. (Craig's been linked to Kate Moss and Sienna Miller.) Craig also has the healthy and specifically British fear of coming across as a twat. A few times while we talked, Craig rolled his eyes at something he had just said. He'd grumble, "I hear myself talk sometimes, and I just want to shoot myself in the face."
Reclusivity — not an actual word — is often cultivated by publicists hiding the fact that Mr. Movie Star actually has nothing to say and is more than a little thick. That's not the case with Craig. He's just puzzled by actors who accept a public colonoscopy as part of their job description.
"I'm not a politician — you don't need to know everything about me, you don't get to see my tax returns," says Craig. "If you sell yourself and give yourself up and share your innermost secrets with the world, don't be surprised when that bites you in the end."
Here comes the twist. In his latest role, Craig plays a narcissistic, muckraking reporter who digs into people's private lives. He stars as Mikael Blomkvist in Dragon Tattoo, the great airport novel of our time. Blomkvist is a preening investigative journalist who, with the help of a Goth sprite, tackles a convoluted conspiracy larger than Sweden, Norway, and Lapland combined.
"I wanted to take the piss out of Blomkvist, make him a little more Geraldo than Dan Rather," says Fincher, who was raised on the West Coast but chooses words a punter might use on EastEnders. "I needed somebody very Robert Mitchum. In some scenes we have pictures of Blomkvist's Millennium magazine, and he's put himself on the cover. He had to be the kind of journalist who other journalists go, 'Oh, I don't know…' He needed to be big for his britches, but not a prat. Daniel can be very serious and he can be very unserious, and you can see it in his face when he decides to change."
You get the sense that, for Craig, getting inside Blomkvist wasn't that much of a stretch. He even read the doorstop of a book. He drops the old line that some of his best friends are journalists, but he actually means it. He claims that journalism was a career path he once fleetingly considered.
"Friends of mine had done a bit of war corresponding," says Craig. "They'd asked me to come along with them. We had late-night drinking sessions where Beirut was an option. Over a couple of drinks it seemed like a good idea at the time." Later, we revisited the subject, and Craig wanted to make sure I didn't make too much out of the idea. "That takes a level of bravery I don't have," he says.
In the novel, Blomkvist teams up with inked-up private investigator Lisbeth Salander — who's played in the film by Rooney Mara — to track down a killer. Salander hacks into computers and pilfers records, all with the grudging approval of the old-school journalist Blomkvist.
"The moral question comes up of when does that become the right thing to do," says Craig with a shrug. "The obvious answer is that it's never the right thing to do, but it's that gray area, and that's where you have that whole debate with Rupert Murdoch: When does it cease to become journalism and becomes something else?"
Craig is referring to the scandal over revelations that Rupert Murdoch's News of the World had been hacking into the voice mail of actors, politicians, and, most revolting, a 13-year-old girl who had been abducted and murdered. "Everyone knew it was going on for a long, long time," says Craig.
"Of course, when it was politicians and celebrities, the idea was 'you're a celebrity, you earn a lot of money, you deserve it.' It goes with the territory."
Craig stops talking for a moment. He debates whether to wade in further. Instead, he throws his hands in the air.
"The whole thing stinks."
Craig cops to being unashamedly left-wing but doesn't see a George Clooney activist role in his future. "George has his finger on the political pulse, and he's one of those guys who can get up and talk, and I don't have that. If someone shoves a microphone in your face and says, 'Explain yourself,' you have to have a 100 percent understanding of why you're doing it, and unless you are 100 percent, don't fucking do it, leave it alone, let your work speak for itself."
Despite his Manhattan residency, Craig's wariness over the intersection of politics and star power is still decidedly British.
"Tony Blair started it much more than anybody's ever done," says Craig. " 'Go and have tea at 10 Downing Street.' It becomes Mephisto. You immediately are aligning yourself with a political party. Politicians are shitheads. That's how they become politicians, even the good ones. We're actors, we're artists, we're very nice to each other. They'll turn around and stab you in the fucking back."
By the time you read this, Craig will be back to all Bond, all the time. Bond movies can take up to six months to film, and they generally beat the shit out of Craig six days a week. This time won't be any different, but Craig is 43 now, and he'll just try to survive the shoot. There's been no triathlete/sniper training regimen. "I'm a bit of a gym bunny," he admits. "But the truth is it's fucking boring. I do light weights and lots of reps. Try to keep the heart rate up for 45 minutes."
I express surprise that Craig's regimen was so un-007. Craig says he has other things to do with his life.
"There was a class I heard someone talk about — spinning yoga — which is an hour and a half of spinning, then an hour and a half of yoga, hot fucking yoga," says Craig with a smirk. "What are you doing with your life where you can spend three hours on that?"
Craig's verbal scrappiness is rooted in a Liverpool childhood where daily life was a Mike Leigh film. His parents divorced when he was little. His dad owned a pub, but Craig spent most of his time with his mother, who was active in local theater. He watched plays from backstage and the rafters. He started attending experimental political theater as a teenager in his almost-dead hometown, where Thatcherism ruled and unemployment was Detroit-high.
"You'd go and laugh at the government," recalls Craig. "Laugh at how ludicrous the situation was, especially the fact that Liverpool had this reputation of just being full of thieves — because it was full of thieves. People were stealing hubcaps off your car to try and make some money to feed their kids."
On the weekends, Craig headed down to a "shitty fleapit" of a neighborhood cinema and watched films. Blockbusters snuck up on him in the pre-internet age.
"Something like Blade Runner, nobody knew what the fuck that was," says Craig. "There was no fanfare behind it — nothing. You went in to see it and were like, 'What the fuck is this about?' It was great. You can't do that now. I mourn it, I really do. Now everything is explained. Now there's Rotten Tomatoes, with 120 reviews and your Tomatometer. Just aesthetically, I have a fucking problem with Rotten Tomatoes' graphics. I mean, what the fuck? I really hate the expert opinion. If you were a fucking expert, you'd be doing it."
Craig's mum was intent on getting him out of Liverpool as soon as possible and with good reason. Craig often headed out with his mates to the pubs, where many evenings end with the traditional British brawl. "I wasn't a particularly good fighter. I'm still not. It's not my thing. You'd end up being chased down the street by a gang of whomever. It was fairly terrifying at the time."
When they grew bored of fisticuffs, Craig and his friends started playing a driving game they called "flying" on back roads outside of Liverpool. At night they would gun their Peugeots and turn off their headlights, trying to steer from memory. "I don't know how the fuck we got around that without killing ourselves," says Craig, shaking his head. "I didn't own a car, so it was my job to pull the hand brake."
Craig dropped out of school at 17. His mom nudged him to take acting seriously, and soon after, he got his exit visa from Liverpool when he was accepted at London's National Youth Theatre. "My grades weren't great," says Craig. "My mum was frustrated. She just wanted me to keep studying something, and I wasn't exactly academically inclined." Craig spent most of the next decade bouncing between classical theater roles and bit parts on British television shows. At 24 he made his film debut in The Power of One as a sadistic South African policeman who takes equal pleasure in beating the crap out of blacks and whites. Hollywood took notice, and Warner Bros. flew him to Los Angeles to take some meetings. He didn't have a license or a credit card, so he couldn't get far. Instead, Craig went to a series of casting sessions for menacing villains.
"It was a lot of reading for 'henchman number two' or 'henchman on the left,' " says Craig. "I love Los Angeles, but it's a mining town. There's a coal seam, and everybody's digging at it. They got it set that that was what I was about, and I didn't want to go down that road. I know it sounds pompous, but that wasn't my image of America. I didn't fucking take to that. My idea of America was Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. I couldn't go and sell something else, so I went back home."
I mention Fincher's remark about Craig's not having the persona of a pretty boy.
"I think that's true. My looks are, well, unusual, and yes, I've heard them described worse," says Craig with a laugh. "I had to build relationships, not based on one meeting but over months and years, so a part might come up and someone who'd seen me years ago might say, 'Oh, he'd be good for that.' That takes time."
Craig couldn't completely escape the criminal element. One of his first breaks back in England was in Our Friends in the North, a 1996 BBC miniseries. The show won critical acclaim, as did Craig for his portrayal of Geordie, a chronically good-hearted Newcastle man operating on the dark side of the law. After the show, Craig was approached to do more British television, but he had his heart set on film. "I could see houses in Spain," says Craig. "There was a whole life appearing before me, but I was just like, 'No fucking way. I want to make movies.' "
Craig knocked around in a number of eclectic roles in critically acclaimed, poorly seen British indie films, but his breakthrough characters were all felons: a sociopath son in Road to Perdition, a stylish coke dealer in Layer Cake, and a South African assassin in Munich. It was Craig's ability to murder with depth that first brought him to the attention of the James Bond production team, which was looking for an actor to reboot the franchise after the Pierce Brosnan years.
"I hemmed and hawed about it for well over a year," says Craig. "The truth of it is, I first said, 'Forget about it, thank you very much, how very nice, I'm incredibly honored you'd even consider me, you fools, but this is just not for me.' "
According to Craig, one of the driving factors in initially saying no was the fear of losing himself in a role that, good or bad, would be the first line of his obit.
"I thought, How do you walk away from something like that? How do you ever rid yourself of it? You can't," he says.
Craig thought about it for a long time. He then wrote out a lengthy pro-and-con list. In the end, a compelling, very British reason came up to say yes.
"I didn't want to be the guy in the bar, drunk, going, 'I could have been Bond. I was offered the job,' and then some guy goes, 'You dumb shit.' "
Craig made a wise choice, even if there was collateral damage. Bond nerds bitched that Craig was too blond, too short, and too craggy to play 007. Rumors spread that Craig couldn't even drive a stick. (Craig says it's not true.) But then Casino Royale came out. I happened to go to an opening-day screening with the director Judd Apatow. Twenty minutes in, he whispered, "He's totally Bond." Soon the same Bond nerds ripping him online were calling Craig the best 007 since Connery. Together, Casino Royale and the less good 2008 follow-up, Quantum of Solace, grossed $1.2 billion.
Earlier this year Craig was approached by Bond-film producer Barbara Broccoli, along with his onscreen boss Judi Dench, about appearing in a British public service announcement decrying gender inequality in the United Kingdom. At first the idea was for Craig to speak directly at the camera and list statistics citing escalating sexual violence and workplace inequities. Craig thought about it for a minute and decided he wouldn't do it.
"I told them I can't speak in this," says Craig. "I'm a man. If I come out and say, 'Did you know women are treated really badly?' I might as well pull out the pipe and tobacco and do it in a fucking smoking jacket."
Craig had a different idea. He would appear first as Bond, pouting for the camera but saying nothing. Then, as Dench read the statistics, he'd reappear dressed as a matronly woman, teetering uncertainly in pearls and high heels. The result is chilling and weird, more powerful than a dozen straight-to-camera PSAs.
Craig grows more animated talking about the spot than he does talking about Bond or Blomkvist. "Sometimes it's more effective when you take the piss." After the trauma of the first two films, Craig insists on having fun with Bond rather than fearing Bond. "When I was doing the first and second Bond, the pressure became almost more than I could bear," he says. "I'm trying to enjoy it now. I'm trying to tell myself, 'This is good stuff.' " He lets out a sad laugh. "I'm at a place where I want to be a little more…" He pauses before puckishly using an L.A. term. "You know, more chill."
Craig has another new movie coming up where he takes the piss the whole time. The Adventures of Tintin is an adaptation of a Belgian graphic novel starring a cub reporter and his trusty dog, Snowy. No, really. Craig plays a hammy pirate, as well as a modern-day villain bent on destroying wee little Tintin. Craig took the role so he could work again with Munich director Steven Spielberg and try his hand at acting in 3-D animated performance capture. Every day, Craig entered a padded room in a black bodysuit and reacted to Spielberg shouting instructions at him.
"The whole room's a fucking camera, man," says Craig. "It's wild. I was playing the classic English bad guy I've been avoiding my whole life. And overacting like a motherfucker. It was fantastic."
By now the coffee has gone cold, and Craig is itching — literally, itching with poison ivy — to get back to Weisz and their Manhattan home. I can't say I blame him. But before he goes, he wants to make something perfectly clear: Daniel Craig knows that what he does for a living is ridiculous.
"I grew up watching people like Michael Gambon," says Craig, naming the legendary Irish actor who dangled him from the top of a construction site in Layer Cake. "He thinks the whole acting thing is nonsense — he thinks it's all bullshit — but he takes the job incredibly seriously. That line-walking is fascinating to me. You're laughing all the time; it's a sister-fucking joke."
Craig drains the last of his coffee and inches forward toward me, suddenly speaking in
an urgent whisper. "But there's something profound about the whole thing. It's a Zen mind game to get your head around it, as opposed to just being 'we're going out now and doing tits and teeth, and we're here to entertain you.' "
For a moment his smile disappears, hinting at the malice he projects onscreen.
"But we might not be here to entertain you. We might be here to fuck you up."
Just as quickly the smile returns to his face. He stands up, shakes my hand, pulls his cap down over his eyes, and heads out into the bright New York sunshine.
See? All good.
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