Daniel Craig Is a Movie Star From England. Any Questions?
The cowboy in Cowboys & Aliens is hard to get to know. Even if you witnessed the encounter our writer had with him in London, you'd be left wondering about a few things. We imagined what those things might be.
By Tom Chiarella
Published in the August 2011 issue
So, where is this?
It is a room. Though you wouldn't call it a room, since technically there is no ceiling.
A courtyard then, many tables. This is London. The neighborhood of Camden, specifically. Just north of Regent's Park. Nice part of town — urban, once hip, not dripping with money. Midday sun needles through the arbors.
Who are we looking at?
In the corner, by the walkway to the kitchen, in a threadbare T-shirt, torso gripped by a misbuttoned gray cardigan, sits Daniel Craig, forty-three, eyes properly aviatored against the light, spinning something in his hand — an unclasped watch or a set of house keys.
Nervous? Or bored?
Maybe he likes to keep occupied while he talks. He lives near the courtyard. Could be a form of simple impatience, or anxiety about all of the reasons he's sitting here in this courtyard. There are many. This year alone, he will star in installments of three different movie franchises, one already massive, the others almost assuredly so too: the next Bond film, his third, which begins filming in November; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the Stieg Larsson book that everyone on the planet read, directed by David Fincher; and director Jon Favreau's Cowboys & Aliens, which also stars Harrison Ford and which is about cowboys and aliens, plus some Indians. Craig also will finish shooting the drama Dream House, long in the works, and he's in Steven Spielberg's first cartoon movie, The Adventures of Tintin. And there's the new romance, with an actress. Plus, he lives close by.
What did you think when you sat down across the table?
Daniel Craig looks like sandpaper.
What's he talking about just now?
Where he was born, where's he's from: "Kind of a small town. Chester. It's a city in the northwest of England. Famous, I suppose, for being a Roman city." His eyes focus on a corner of the courtyard to the left, then hold there.
What is he looking at?
Nothing in particular. There's a house cat necking its way around a planter. A table full of forgotten stemware. It's just a corner of a courtyard. His eyes narrow, then return to center for eye contact. There's a little head tilt, then he winches the gaze down again. The impression: Daniel Craig is always telling you something he ought not tell or ought not have to tell, so it's either confidential or obvious.
It's like a bit then, this thing with his eyes?
Maybe. He works his eyes, sure. Those blue pegs are his moneymakers. He's made a good decade's worth of movies behind them. Flashed them as an assassin in Munich, as a freedom fighter in Defiance. He pretty much trademarked the stare as a drug dealer in director Matthew Vaughn's Layer Cake, in 2004, though at the time it was hard to tell whether it meant he was cool or heavily opiated. (Perhaps that was the point.) Then he found a role to define the smoldering gaze and locked it down on the last two Bond posters. Surely he'll use it again on the next one. In fact, it's jarring when he goes wide-eyed or shows a bit of vulnerability, as he did in strong but largely unseen movies like Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon in 1998 or Flashbacks of a Fool, ten years later.
That's what he's doing here in London — courtyard: the flock of tables and chairs — just as he tips into the next part of the story, this tale of his hometown: squinting, which leads him to yet another sidelong. "It's also famous because the Duke of Westminster — the richest man in the country, as he owns Westminster, including the American embassy — um, he owns Chester as well. It's his seat, it's where he ..."
What, besides the eyes?
Well, look at the guy. That is some rough business right there, right? All scuffed and creased, lips overdry and at the same time overripe, the space between the eyes too wide, looks like he always has a headache. Maybe he's hungover, or maybe he's growling through a primer on English land stewardship to get to a better point. Or perhaps the mantle weight of being appointed to carry three separate movie franchises is making him show signs of strain — maybe the next four years has him a little bedraggled.
And again — just as he's about to go on, the little tick, the pause, that thing with the eyes. What the hell is he looking at in the corner of the courtyard? Nothing can hurt him. Not here. But Daniel Craig is wary, though he's pressing on about this land thing.
"It still applies," he says, "that you never own the piece of land you live on, you just lease it from the landowner. You can get a 99-year lease, or you can get a 199-year lease, but it's not your house. It doesn't stay in your family; it reverts back to the earl or whatever. That's just this country. England. But it's what American land laws were structured on."
Where did Daniel Craig come from?
He has a house nearby. On a ninety-nine-year lease. Or a flat maybe. He is evasive. When asked if this is his home now, he hooks a back-there thumb over his shoulder, then twirls the air with one finger. "Yes," he says. "Hereabouts."
No, no. Before he was Bond.
He wants to contest this, the widely accepted assertion that he arrived when he became Bond. He waits for the full formation of the question, takes a measuring breath. When he's told that no one ever needs to read another word about his first pass as Bond in Casino Royale — the objections to his blond hair, the doubts surrounding his out-of-the-blue inheritance of the ballyhooed Bond legacy — he is curt in acceding.
"Good," he says. "Neither do I."
So not one word about the next installment of Bond, which he refers to simply as Bond 23?
"No-no-no, Sam's gonna do it, Sam Mendes, and I'm really fucking really lookin' forward to the fact that he's gonna do it," he says, snapping to. Mendes directed him in the gloomy thriller Road to Perdition in 2002. Craig tricks out a little smirk then. A concession, a comfort maybe.
"This has become my way, it's as simple as that," he says. "I mean, since I've just become James Bond. And I think, you know, that means being something that people feel they own. And all of the sudden I'm getting magazine covers, when I got nothing for ten years before that. I say it's just pure luck. And doing covers, people interviewing me, and they want to know everything and I'm going, I'm not gonna fucking tell you!"
Craig settles once more into the clutch of his muscular recline. "Well, you know," he says, sliding the Ray-Bans from his nose. "I mean this is actually very nice. We can talk about anything else, and hopefully it can be made interesting."
Okay, then. What does he want to talk about?
First, it should be said: He's right about this. He can talk about nearly anything and it is pleasant, informed, normal. Mostly the jabber of the everyday: children, politics, regret. His daughter comes up, a student in a college on the East Coast of the United States.
"I don't really talk about her, because — well, she can't defend herself. But she's fantastic. Fantastic, and she's — you know, she's doing something." A certain lightness comes over him then, a loosening of the features, a squaring of the hips to the table edge. The sun angles along the courtyard wall, and on his face: the shine of a pride not often allowed out for a walk. "I mean, she's finishing her education, in the States. I said, 'Look, there's an opportunity here, you should take it.' I'm in that position, and I guess that's something that feels more than lucky. It feels essential."
For him as a boy, he says, it was more luck. "I'd left home at sixteen, so I was independent and I could apply. I got a full grant. But I got full grant and full maintenance, which is fuck-all, but I mean, it made the difference. I got through college," he says. It is strangely difficult to imagine Daniel Craig as a twenty-year-old college student.
There is advice, too, woven in. It springs from him, dry and recognizably earnest, then athletic in its grumpy practicality, and none of it bad. To the father of an indecisive high school kid: "I think you have to put your foot down. You just say, 'Look, I'm gonna have to break my balls here to do this, so therefore you need to make a decision so I can plan the rest of my fucking life.' I mean, it's like, you're eighteen — let's get on with this. I mean, that's easy for me to say to you. Oh, fuck, I'm doing it to you now, aren't I? On kids, it's a different thing. But I do think there's a — okay, ultimately at eighteen, I remember ... you just don't really know. And actually they kinda need someone to say, 'Fuck it, just do what I tell you!' And then, you know, for fuck's sake, if he's there for a year and he's really fucking unhappy, he can change."
He mumbles then, about ten syllables, spoken as if into a cloth napkin gripped by a fist.
"He can move."
What did he say right before that?
He's just mumbling, the way men do.
What else moves him, aside from the frustrating idealism of youth?
Well, he did let loose a sort of foment of the moment. Libya. Capitalism. Facebook. Streets running red with rebellion against consumerism, apathy, what have you. He runs through a troublesome litany. He likes to ask after the opinions of others. He's the sort — educated, opinionated, a reader of newspapers — who hungers for an argument. "But it's all built around that, and, you know, you just hope a generation's gonna come who very soon is just gonna turn around and say, 'Hang on a second. I don't like being fucking manipulated like this. I don't like being told what to do, I don't like being told what to buy' — you kind of hope it's gonna happen. And there's gonna have to be a shift. I mean, the big companies will figure it out. They'll go, 'Oh, you don't want that anymore? You want this.' And they'll figure it out, but at least there'll be kind of a change in attitude towards it. I mean, I don't know. We've had student riots here. And whatever way you think about politics, the fact that students have — there's no such thing as free education anymore. That's kind of gone, and they're gonna put up a fight. But you know, there was a time when it was free, and education was paid for."
The conversational habit seems positively Continental, refined. And when he argues a point, his strings loosen. Everything about him is more straight-ahead. At one point he is discussing, or rather going off about, failing pension systems and lengthening life spans: "Not everybody's happy with their situation!" And here Daniel Craig pounds the table in front of him. There is rattling of glass. "There are some fucking seriously poor people, who are mixing with your diminishing middle class, and there's a sort of ever-growing fucking ruling class, and it's like, it's obvious."
His phone rings, vibrates, and this too rattles the glass. He excuses himself, stays seated, and takes the call.
Who is it?
There's no way to know, is there? Craig puts his sunglasses back on as he speaks — a curious gesture. He explains his schedule, looks at his watch, keeps his eyes low, his gaze downward. He tells the other person: what time he'll be leaving the courtyard, when he'll be home. It might be any of a number of familiars. A family member. His daughter, perhaps. Or it might be Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz. She is his costar in Dream House, and his new girlfriend, rumored to have left her longtime fiancé, Darren Aronofsky, the director, for Craig. Not that the tabloids have much on Craig. Even in the tabloidy UK, he tends to drift above the fray.
He listens for a moment, then says goodbye and I love you. Disconnected, he goes right back to it — foreign policy, social policy, and the familiar pratfalls of the West. "And if you can't afford to give them their fucking pension because you didn't figure it out ... you failed!" He's intellectually fluid, and curious. There's an engine behind his thinking.
Is he smart?
Obviously. He's astute. He thinks.
Nice? How is that germane? He's fifteen minutes into a conversation here. What do you want, Dick Van Dyke? He's talking. He simply is. In fact, in the courtyard, this blank space, on the other side of the table, he generally acts like a living, breathing "to be" verb. Reserved, static, a limited expression of a state of being. This political stuff lights him up a mite.
Why, do you think?
This, this talker, may be closer to the kind of man he played before Bond. Talky, smart movies based on talky, smart novels or plays. Box-office blips like the exquisite Love Is the Devil, in which he plays a man who breaks into Francis Bacon's apartment and becomes his lover — gritty and hypersexual. And Enduring Love (2004), and even a BBC4 treatment of Copenhagen (2002), a play about the portentous meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. Aspirational works. His descriptions of filming them muster up a kind of rhapsody in this otherwise music-free courtyard.
"We shot Copenhagen as conversations between the two guys. Heisenberg goes to visit Neils Bohr to ask him how to build the A-bomb. Bohr balks. Heisenberg is left going, 'Because we have to, because they're building the same bomb!' It's a moral issue, an arms race happening during the war. The weird thing: As it was written, the Germans were a lot clumsier than the cliché of the Nazi scientist student, though they did get us to the moon. Let's not get that wrong. But Hitler was spread so far and wide that, you know, releasing that amount of energy from nothing? I don't think he believed in it. Fucking hell, he was more into the occult."
You can hear it echoing in the courtyard. Rambling wonder in the ideas expressed in a nine-year-old made-for-TV adaptation of an intensely serious play. Although one can never be certain, it would seem there isn't much room for Octopussy within the Heisenberg Principle. What is certain, however, is that Daniel Craig wants to make movies for adults.
Did he actually say that?
Directly. Listen to him speak on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: "It's as adult as you can possibly make it. This is adult drama. I grew up, as we fucking all did, watching The Godfather and that, movies that were made for adults. And this is a $100 million R-rated movie. Nobody makes those anymore. And Fincher, he's not holding back. They've given him free rein. He showed me some scenes recently, and my hand was over my mouth, going, Are you fucking serious?"
He raises his eyes, looks upward to describe what he saw in a set of Fincher's dailies that startled him this way. You can imagine — the book contains sodomy and torture chambers and lighting people on fire. And yet, "it's not that he simply showed me footage that was horribly graphic," Craig says. "It was stuff that was happening, or had happened. And somehow you don't see it."
What's that mean?
This is the adult thing: to not be obvious about it. "There's more than one way to sense violence," he says. "Much more powerful ways than seeing it step-by-step."
So he's astute when it comes to the nature of violence onscreen. And he is drawn to somber subject matter — Francis Bacon, the A-bomb, the Holocaust, and, apparently, immolation: serious actor. But could he do a comedy? Does Daniel Craig have a sense of humor?
Sure. But the laughs come the same way the views appear when you're riding a train: a matter of what he happens by, all of it told through the lens of work. Consider this anecdote: On top of the three big franchise vehicles, he's got a part in Spielberg's animated version of Tintin, the 1930s French serial adventures of a trench-coated boy reporter, a terrier named Snowy, and various older nautical gentlemen. A churning tissue of subtext. Craig reports that he's pleased by the final product, though he says it's hard to remember what he expected, since they filmed his part two years before. "We shot it in mo-cap. Which is like: Fuck me, I'm literally in a leotard with a fucking helmet on, and a camera strapped to it. It's Steven Spielberg, so every fucker in the world comes to visit. Fincher comes to visit. Clint fucking Eastwood comes to visit. It was just like, are you kidding me? I'm gonna meet these people dressed like this? Playing a pirate, wearing a leotard and a camera? Really?"
In the courtyard, the sun cuts a path across the sky, the day passes. There are plenty of laughs. Still, it seems evident that Daniel Craig doesn't burn with the instinct to delight, to relate the dopey tragedy of life, the absurdity of the everyday. He doesn't aim for a punchline.
"It's hard to translate comedy from one country to another, you know?" says Jim Sheridan, the six-time Oscar nominee who directed Dream House, starring Craig (alongside Weisz and Naomi Watts), a thriller due this September. "Daniel has a kind of British reserve that stays up front."
The release of Dream House was delayed seven months largely by Craig's scheduling conflicts. Sheridan is sanguine about the trade-off that came with employing the world's most in-demand actor. "Ah, it took forever," he says. "Daniel just got very busy and we needed to do these reshoots. But I really think he's one of the very good British actors. They are not many, you know? I suppose you'd say Ralph Fiennes and a few others, but they always dwell in the area of being, you know, very good actors. But who was the last great British star, really? Was it Peter O'Toole? Daniel Day-Lewis? Is he a star or an actor? Ewan McGregor looked like he would be for a while. I don't think he is anymore. And what about Jude Law? He seems to have gone back a bit, yeah? I think Daniel is a star. Or he can be a star."
Before he hangs up, Sheridan says of Dream House: "Daniel is terrific in this. Very vulnerable, very damaged, very lovable. Great, great acting. Very accommodating man." He hums a little, pondering across the ocean's breadth of our phone connection. "I'm just trying to think of something funny that happened. If I thought about one, I'd come back to you."
No. But Jon Favreau did call. Director of Cowboys & Aliens, the other installment of Daniel Craig's 2011 trilogy of blockbusters, in which the actor plays a skeletally thin frontier outlaw who is pressed into leading a ragtag assembly of cowboys against a marauding alien invasion. Presumably, another incarnation of The Godfather. Favreau says Craig was in on every choice in the movie, soup to nuts. "He's very smart. Very," Favreau says. "He has a quiet facade, comes across as reserved, but the minute you break bread with him he's full of observations and conversations." So Favreau has been to the courtyard.
He calls Craig a partner. He calls him an "athlete." "He likes to laugh," Favreau says to the question of the moment. "He's not dour by any stretch. His persona onscreen tends to be reserved and calculated, but he's a good host. Gracious." Then, in answering a question about sense of humor, he uses that word again, the same one Sheridan used: "Accommodating."
Wait, so he's funny, then. But funny how? Like a clown? Does he amuse you? Funny how?
You know, he's funny. Favreau acknowledges as much: "He's very funny. Though a lot of the things said about Daniel might be viewed as boilerplate answers for anybody that's just trying to give a positive response — 'Daniel's not a guy just trying to get through the day, he definitely has fire in his belly, his dance card is full, he works to give you his all' — in Daniel's case, that checks out really well. He's a really exceptional guy.
"I think it's in your DNA, it's in your bones, the measure of what you're going to be when you finally get to be yourself," he says. "I think he's there. Daniel Craig's getting to be himself."
Where does that leave us with Daniel Craig?
Still in the courtyard, he's on another ramble. This time describing how he came to the opportunity, the chance to play an archetypal role in a movie hip-deep in summer popcorn — with the prospect of sequels down the line. He's saying what appealed to him. Does the movie have a political heart, or what?
"No," he says, "it can't, I don't think. Because it's got cowboys and aliens. And we team up with the Indians and there's an alien force coming in that's gonna ..."
He pauses then and smiles. The first smile the courtyard has seen from him. He looks different then, looser, leaning forward, telling the story of the movie with a title so simple, it's silly. "You know, in fact, let's not fucking get too crazy about it, but Stephen Hawking just said recently, 'Let's hope aliens don't land, 'cause I think it'll be pretty much like the Europeans landing in the Americas.' You know, it's gonna have that much of a devastating effect. That's kind of ... that's the only political angle. And you can't help but have that. But it's, really — it's called Cowboys & Aliens. Let's ... just ..."
About then, two women on the other side of the courtyard pull their chairs around to the same side of a table and sit side by side, so they can watch him from behind the dark saucers of their sunglasses. He gives them a version of the eye thing, again featuring a tilt of his head. But they don't back down. Why would they? He is a movie star, full-blown and handsome, on a sunny day in London. That's a rare enough thing for a long look.
"Yeah, let's just leave it at that," he says. And Daniel Craig laughs.