Arts

Ladies and Gentlemen, Daniel Craig

More than a year and a half ago, Daniel Craig and I met at the Museum of Modern Art to talk about his final James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” and bid farewell to that suave superspy he’d been playing since 2006.

When we sat down at our table in a private room at the Modern restaurant, Craig offered me the use of a hand-spray dispenser he was carrying. “That stuff is gold dust,” he said offhandedly. “It’s some crazy thing — people are selling it for like $25 a pop.”

As it turned out, that might have been the most significant part of our interview. We spent the next hour engaged in a polite conversation about the making of “No Time to Die” (which then was scheduled to open in a month), and how pleased he was both with the work he had done and to be finished with his duties.

We said goodbye and two days later, MGM and the producers of the Bond franchise announced they were delaying the release of “No Time to Die” until November, citing their “careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace.” (“This is purely an economic decision we understand, and not one based on growing fears over the coronavirus,” the trade publication Deadline wrote unconvincingly at the time.)

Though he had no movie to promote, Craig went on to host that weekend’s episode of “Saturday Night Live,” which featured a blithely silly sketch about how the coronavirus might affect the making of soap operas, and Craig’s introduction of the musical guest, the Weeknd, delivered with unexpected relish. The next day he and his wife, Rachel Weisz, and their family left New York and the country plunged headlong into the pandemic.

Any sense of frivolity, free of consequences, has been in short supply in the months that followed. Even as the trajectory of the pandemic remains uncertain and the box office oscillates from week to week, MGM — which delayed the film twice more — now has committed to releasing “No Time to Die” on Oct. 8.

A scene from “No Time to Die,” which was delayed a few times because of the pandemic. “I’m so desperate for people just to see it and hopefully for them to like it,” the actor said.Credit…Nicola Dove/MGM

It has been an awkward, drawn-out send-off for the 53-year-old Craig, who, from the moment he was chosen to succeed Pierce Brosnan as 007, was never an obvious or elegant fit for the character. His looks were too rugged; his film résumé was too thin; his hair was too blond.

As Craig told me in that initial interview, he assumed he’d been invited to audition as cannon fodder, to make it easier to choose someone else for the part. “I was just amongst the mix — someone to dismiss,” he said, adding that, at best, he thought he’d get a dispensable villain’s role: “Here you go, have a baddie.”

Instead, Craig parlayed his debut, “Casino Royale,” into the quick 2008 follow-up, “Quantum of Solace,” and the more epic-length sequels “Skyfall” (2012) and “Spectre” (2015). His Bond movies, which have grossed more than $3 billion worldwide, have grown increasingly ambitious in scale and vertiginous in running time.

Despite indications that he had soured on the franchise — when Time Out asked if he could imagine making another entry, he said, “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrist” — and the intermittent injuries he has suffered on it, Craig said that he wanted one more go at his sullen, stolid Bond to complete the story that “Casino Royale” began.

“There’s a consistency which I wanted to put into it,” he told me then, adding with a laugh: “Maybe I’ll be remembered as the Grumpy Bond. I don’t know. That’s just my Bond and I have to face up to it, that has been my Bond. But I’m quite satisfied with that.”

“I don’t show myself to the world as much as maybe people would like, but that’s my choice,” Craig said. “It’s got me probably into trouble.”Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

But making “No Time to Die,” even in the heady before-times of 2018 and 2019, was no easy feat for Craig, who was a co-producer on it and “Spectre.” Danny Boyle accepted the director’s post, then left, citing creative differences; Cary Joji Fukunaga directed the film instead. Craig injured his ankle during shooting, requiring minor surgery.

Then the actor — whose tenure as Bond, elongated by the pandemic, has outlasted that of any of his predecessors — had to wait 18 months to unveil the 2-hour, 43-minute film that would finally release him from his obligations to Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the interim he has already filmed a sequel to Rian Johnson’s 2019 crime caper “Knives Out,” reprising his role as Benoit Blanc, the gentleman sleuth whose cultivated whimsy seems like a commentary on everything Craig couldn’t do as James Bond.

When we talked again by phone in September, Craig was both his usual guarded self and a shade more relaxed. The knowledge that “No Time to Die” was now coming to fruition had given him the freedom to reflect on what his Bond experience meant to him — up to a point. When asked to comment on developments that could affect the future of the Bond franchise — like, say, Amazon’s plans to purchase MGM — his brevity spoke volumes.

And of course the tight-lipped star had one more secret up his sleeve: It was announced on Wednesday that Craig is starring in a new Broadway production of “Macbeth,” playing the power-hungry thane of the title alongside Ruth Negga as Lady Macbeth. (This production, directed by Sam Gold, is expected to begin previews at the Lyceum Theater on March 29 and open on April 28.)

As Craig would say on more than one occasion in our conversations, he is just an actor and not to be confused with his soon-to-be ex-alter ego.

“All I really wanted to do was make a living out of it,” he said of acting. “I wanted not to have to wait on tables, which I’d been doing since I was 16. I figured that if I could do it and pay the rent, then I was a success.”

“Believe me, I’m completely a mere mortal,” he said.

Craig spoke further about the long wait for “No Time to Die” and shared — for now — his final reflections on James Bond. These are edited excerpts from two further conversations.

What has the last year and a half been like for you? How are things, whatever that means to you?

They’re as good as they can be. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful family and also to have had a place out of the city where we could go and get away from kind of the craziness. We left the city the 8th of March. The night before, I did “S.N.L.,” which was truly surreal. It’s been a tough year for everybody and we’ve had things go down which have not been so pleasant, but so it goes.

He hasn’t had any involvement in the selection of his 007 successor: “Whoever does it, good luck to them.” Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Is it humbling to play these characters who are defined by being capable and resourceful and then to have a real-life experience that reminds you we’re all at the mercy of these larger forces?

Well, I don’t feel like that anyway. I feel like a normal human being most of the time. I don’t feel any connection to the characters I play. I mean at all. They’re just that. So many things have been put into perspective. It’s difficult not to just look at the world in a different way. I’m sure it’s the same for everybody.

There is a video clip making the rounds from a speech when you addressed your colleagues and crew at the end of filming “No Time to Die.” You teared up at the end, and it was very comforting to me to see you show emotion — that you could be vulnerable that way.

I don’t show myself to the world as much as maybe people would like, but that’s my choice. It’s got me probably into trouble and has made people make up their own minds about me. But I’m an incredibly emotional human being. I’m an actor. I mean, that’s what I do for a living. And the clip you’re talking about is the end of 15 years of my life that I’ve put everything I can into. I would be some kind of sociopath not to get a little bit choked up at the end of that. Hopefully, I’m no sociopath.

If things had proceeded as planned a year and a half ago, you would have gotten to enjoy a slightly glitzier victory lap. Does this feel muted in any way?

Put Covid at the end of every sentence. I’m very sanguine about all of this. I’m just happy we’ve been able to get to this stage because God knows, a year and a half ago, none of this even made any sense or seemed even remotely possible. I’m just incredibly happy that we got to a point where we can get audiences to go and see it. I’m so desperate for people just to see it and hopefully for them to like it.

How many other endeavors take up 15 years of someone’s life? Usually you get, like, a doctorate or a professorship named after you at the end of them.

That’s true. [Laughs.] Neither of which I have, by a long way. But very nice of you if you want to put it in those terms.

What will you miss about Bond?

I’ll miss the massive team effort that it takes. It’s nearly five years since we started this project, as frustrating and sort of anxiety-making as that can be. Sometimes it feels like it’s not going to happen, but it’s an incredibly creative process and I will miss that. I’ve got other projects I do, and they’ll reward me, but there’s nothing quite like a Bond movie.

Anything in particular about the character himself?

I’ve done him. I’ve given all I can. He’s as there as he’ll ever be for me. I mean, who knows? I don’t have a clear answer to that.

Craig’s tenure as Bond started with “Casino Royale” (2006).Credit…Jay Maidment/MGM and Columbia Pictures
His second outing came in the 2008 “Quantum of Solace,” co-starring Olga Kurylenko.Credit…Karen Ballard/MGM and Columbia Pictures
We haven’t seen Craig as Bond since “Spectre” (2015).Credit…Jonathan Olley/MGM and Columbia Pictures
The franchise grew increasingly ambitious, as in “Skyfall” (2012).Credit…Francois Duhamel/MGM and Columbia Pictures

You’re a parent. Do you think Bond will mean something to your children and their generation?

If you understand children like that, I would say that you should have a professorship. I don’t understand kids that well. They’re an enigma to me, and if they do get something out of these movies in the future, then that’s their journey, not mine.

Do you have any involvement in the search for whoever your successor will be?

None whatsoever.

You prefer it that way, or it’s just how things are?

It’s really nothing to do with me. Whoever does it, good luck to them. I hope they have just as great a time as I’ve had and they carry on making interesting, relevant movies.

This past spring, Amazon said that it would purchase the MGM studio, which makes the Bond films, in part so that it can have a stake in the future of the franchise. Does that —

You know, good luck? I’m very pleased with the people at MGM. I’ve worked with them for a long time now. I’m not trying to be political. It’s just got nothing to do with me.

As you were saying goodbye to Bond, you found success with the role of Benoit Blanc, and “Knives Out” is becoming a franchise of its own. Do you feel at all like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part III” — “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”?

Listen, write that if you want to. [Laughs.] I mean, how lucky am I? I’ve got the chance to work with Rian Johnson on something that’s incredibly fulfilling and fun.

Opposite Ana de Armas in “Knives Out,” from 2019. A sequel is in the works.Credit…Claire Folger/Lionsgate

There was a playful elusiveness and a comfort that Benoit Blanc had about him, almost in deliberate contrast to Bond’s rigidity. Did you feel like that role gave a much longer leash to play on?

It’s just the nature of the part, though. Bond is what he is, and Benoit is very different. Not to be blunt, but as an actor, that’s my job, play parts that are different. I got the script for that, and I was like, really? It’s amazing, as it was when I got “Casino Royale.”

As we are speaking, it’s a Friday afternoon, and I am about to see my social media feeds populated with a video of you declaring it to be the weekend. Has the popularity of this gotten back to you in any way?

No, what is that?

There is a clip of you from that “Saturday Night Live” you hosted, introducing the Weeknd with almost a sense of relief. People just like to post that clip as a way of ushering in the weekend.

They do? It’s amazing. I don’t know what that is, but thank you. That’s lovely. I suppose I’d have to have social media to know what that was all about.

You’re returning to Broadway next year to star in “Macbeth.” What got you interested in that particular play?

It’s the only other Shakespeare play I’ve read. [Laughs.] No, it’s always been one of my favorites. It’s very difficult. It’s fast-paced and not particularly long. There’s an opportunity to do something. Broadway has taken such a kicking, like every other industry, and to do something spectacular and magical and weird, to try to get that on Broadway and help out and give it as much of a boost as possible — I know we can do a wonderful production. There will be plenty of things going on, on Broadway next year, and I wanted to join in.

How does one prepare to play Macbeth?

You learn the lines. We’ve got lots and lots of ideas, all of which are just in the conversation stage right now. We workshop the play for two weeks in November and then we’ll start rehearsals in the new year. Hopefully in those two weeks we’ll nail some of these ideas down. And then you just go from there. Thank God we’ve got Sam Gold and Ruth.

There is also a new film version of “Macbeth,” starring Denzel Washington, that will be released at the end of this year. Do you feel any competition with that project?

God forbid I was ever in competition with Denzel Washington. Jesus. I don’t consider myself worthy. That doesn’t come into it. They’re going to be very different, clearly, but I don’t worry about those sorts of things. The more, the better.

You’ve previously played Iago for Sam Gold in “Othello,” you’ve done the brooding thing —

How do you know what I’m going to do? I’ll be far from brooding.

You’ll do a jovial Macbeth?

I genuinely don’t know. I don’t make those kinds of decisions early on about these things. I didn’t play Iago brooding at all. Quite the opposite. Both characters are massively complex and intelligent. Macbeth is one of those characters who’s reported on, at first, as being this warrior who can slice a person from their nut sack to their throat. But he’s closer to Hamlet than anything because he’s so inward-looking. I’m just looking forward to getting my teeth into that.

Would you next maybe like to play Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” just to change the pace?

I know what you’re saying, but I don’t think of them in that way. Those comedies are just as hard, just as complicated to get right and to do well — to be not just funny but thoughtful and deep.

How about Falstaff?

[Sighs.] Get me a fat suit.

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