Heart of An Assassin: How Daniel Craig Changed James Bond Forever

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.”

Daniel Craig covers the April 2020 issue of GQ. Click here to subscribe to GQ.

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.”

<cite class="credit">Sweater, $495, by Paul Smith / Vintage pants, from Raggedy Threads / Sunglasses, $895, by Jacques Marie Mage</cite>
Sweater, $495, by Paul Smith / Vintage pants, from Raggedy Threads / Sunglasses, $895, by Jacques Marie Mage

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.”

After the last shot at Pinewood, Craig posed with Fukunaga for a picture. His bow tie was wonky. They both looked shattered. “Typically I’m not an emotional person on sets,” Fukunaga told me. “But there was a sort of pulsing feeling to that day.” The night shoot wrapped ahead of schedule, and the production crew—many of the day team had stayed on to see Craig’s final bow—gathered next to the set. Fukunaga gave a short speech. Craig struggled through his. Since having a daughter with his wife, Rachel Weisz, in 2018, he has often found himself on the edge of tears. (Craig also has an adult daughter from an earlier marriage.) “I had a whole thing kind of put together in my head that I wanted to say,” he recalled. “I couldn’t get it out.”

Craig’s stunt double was in tears. Broccoli and Wilson looked on. “We knew it was a monumental moment,” Broccoli said. “There wasn’t a dry eye, to be honest.” A crowd went back to Craig’s trailer. He drank Campari-and-tonics and made negronis for everyone else. “I was a mess,” Broccoli said. “I was a complete and utter mess.” On set, the crew hung around. “It’s night shooting—everybody usually runs off,” Wilson told me. “And they just were talking with each other and shaking hands. And it was as if they knew it had to end, but they didn’t like the idea.”

The producers were reminiscing a few weeks later in a hotel in Lower Manhattan. It was early December. That morning, Craig and the other stars of No Time To Die—Léa Seydoux, Rami Malek, and Lashana Lynch—had appeared on Good Morning America to launch the trailer. Crosby Street was a parking lot of celebrities’ black SUVs. Watching the trailer on my phone, like the rest of the world, I didn’t think the 25th Bond movie looked a whole lot different from the 24th, or the 23rd, to be honest. The trailer showed Bond zooming a motorbike up some picturesque steps and Malek, as the baddie, in a worrying mask. There was some evident double-crossing.

Craig, however, did seem like a new person as he prepared to step away from the franchise. He was keen to celebrate his work as Bond and even keener to look forward to whatever is coming next. “I’m really…I’m okay,” he told me. “I don’t think I would have been if I’d done the last film and that had been it. But this, I’m like…” He dusted his hands. “Let’s go. Let’s get on with it. I’m fine.”

It was a different story with the rest of the Bond family. Craig’s films in the role have already grossed more than $3 billion. He also changed the part in dramatic terms. In Craig’s hands, Bond aged, fell in love, and wept for the first time. He lost the smirk and gained a hinterland. During the same period, Britain—which Bond, in some way, always represents—has experienced extraordinary turmoil and self-doubt, #MeToo has happened, and it’s very unclear who the good guys are anymore. It’s just possible that Craig smashed Bond in more ways than one. The films can never go back to what they were. When I asked Broccoli how she was going to cope without Craig, it was her turn to flounder. “Honestly, I don’t know,” she replied. “I can’t…I don’t want to think about it.”

<cite class="credit">Pajamas, $600, by Olatz</cite>
Pajamas, $600, by Olatz

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.’ ”

Selway’s funeral was at St James’s Piccadilly, a broad, light-filled church in the West End of London. The British acting world was present. Barbara Broccoli was in charge. If you have an image of Broccoli as some old lady in a Rolls-Royce, discard it now. Broccoli was 43 at the time. She has long brown hair and a mid-Atlantic accent, and you do what she says. “There’s a very slim chance that the daughter of one of the great commercial producers of the last hundred years should also be a great, great producer, but that is in fact the case,” Mendes told me. Broccoli and Craig met for the first time at the wake. She asked him to come and see her. Broccoli had been tracking Craig as the next Bond for the previous six years. In 1998, Craig played a psychopathic priest in Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth. His character was an assassin, dispatched by Rome to kill the queen. The role suited Craig down to the ground: a damaged, dangerous young man. He has long been interested in portraying violence on the screen. “I always thought it was more violent when you saw within the person,” he told me. “The shock. It’s like Pacino shooting the cop in The Godfather. He does it, and Pacino’s face—he’s never shot someone before.” In Elizabeth, Craig’s priest had to kill an informant on the beach. The script said that he should strangle and drown him in the surf. But Craig had another idea. He moved the actor out of shot and pretended to dash the man’s brains out with a rock. “I started smashing,” Craig recalled. He carried on. He broke into a sweat. “They went, ‘Cut!’ And the crew went, ‘Oh…okay!’ ” Like he was a crazy person. Broccoli was transfixed. In another shot of Craig, stalking through a church wearing a long cassock, she saw Bond. “I just remember getting chills all over my body,” she told me. “I just thought, Oh, my God.”

Based on everything that had gone before, it didn’t make sense to cast Craig as 007. At the time, Pierce Brosnan had made four movies and was a direct descendant of the previous Bonds: dark, raffish, untouchable. The Brosnan films tended toward the camp and the fantastical, but so had many of the others. And they made good money. In 2002, Die Another Day, which featured Madonna as a fencing instructor and Brosnan kite-surfing down a conspicuously CGI wave, cleared more than $400 million. Craig was a different creature altogether: a blond art-house thug.

<cite class="credit">Shirt, $138, from Raggedy Threads / Pants, $270, by Richard Anderson / Ring (throughout), his own</cite>
Shirt, $138, from Raggedy Threads / Pants, $270, by Richard Anderson / Ring (throughout), his own

But the Bond franchise in the early 2000s was in a moment of uncertainty. In 1997, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery had satirized the movies from head to foot, making it harder to play them for laughs. On the morning of 9/11, Broccoli and Wilson were in London, in a script meeting for Die Another Day. It was too late to rewrite the movie, but they sensed that it would be the last of its kind. “We felt the world has changed and the nature of these films has to change,” Broccoli told me. Two years earlier, after a long legal battle, Eon and MGM Studios had obtained the rights to Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, which was published in 1953. After September 11, the story offered a chance to refresh the franchise, grounding it more strongly in both the original, darker tones of the novels and the new, worrying state of the world. “It wasn’t just recasting the role,” Broccoli said. “It was a new century and a new era. It felt like we had to redefine.”

Craig was sure that he was the wrong person. The first time he went to the Eon offices, with all the old posters on the walls, he convinced himself it was just an exploratory thing. “I was like, ‘This is what they do. They get people in. They’re just feeling around,’ ” he said. “Plus, Pierce was not leaving Bond, right?”

When it was clear that Broccoli was serious, Craig tried to talk her out of it. “I remember saying to them early on, ‘I can’t do a Sean Connery impression. I can’t be Pierce,’ ” he said. “I can’t do the kind of ‘Oh, well.…’ ” Broccoli persisted. Craig held out. He was 36. His film career was in great shape. He didn’t want to say yes. He was terrified of saying no. He had an image of his washed-up older self in a pub, telling strangers that he could have been Bond. He was also a private person. “I could be anonymous in the world,” he said. “It was genuinely like, My life is going to get fucked if I do this.”

In October 2004, Brosnan revealed that he had been let go. Craig continued to prevaricate. When he is out of his depth, he can be surly and difficult. “It was literally like, ‘Fuck off. I don’t fucking want this. How dare you? How dare you offer this to me?’ ” he said. “It’s just ludicrous. But it was all defense.”

He demanded to see a script of Casino Royale. It was a good script. His objections were falling apart. One day, on his way to another meeting at Eon, Craig put on a dress shirt, but he couldn’t find any cuff links. He put on a jacket, and his shirtsleeves stuck out. He left the house. He went to a job interview for James Bond looking like he’d gotten dressed in the dark. “I thought, Fuck it, I’ll just let them hang down like that,” Craig told me. As soon as he walked into the office, Broccoli knew that he wanted the part.

<cite class="credit">Shirt, $575, by Canali</cite>
Shirt, $575, by Canali

Craig studied for the part of Bond. He went back to the Ian Fleming novels and found a character he could relate to: cold, messed up, human.

He was a born show-off. Until his parents broke up, when Craig was four, they ran a pub, the Ring O’Bells, in Frodsham, a market town in Cheshire, in North West England. As a toddler, Craig would perform for the regulars, mimicking comics he had seen on TV—Groucho Marx, Laurel and Hardy. “I’d get money,” he said. “I suppose I’ve been making a living out of this from a very early age.”

When his parents separated, Craig’s mother, Olivia, moved him and his sister to a flat in an inner-city neighborhood in Liverpool, where she went to work as an art teacher. The L7 postcode of Liverpool, where Craig was a boy in the ’70s, is associated, even now, with poverty, violence, and crime. “It’s rough. It’s what she could afford,” he told me. “It was what it was.” Olivia managed to get Craig and his elder sister into a school in an affluent suburb, in the north of the city. Each morning, she would drop them there and make her way back to teach. “Walking home from school was, you know, it was dicey,” Craig said. “I’m not saying it was Brooklyn in the 1980s. But it was dicey.”

Craig was unhappy at school. He failed his exams. He was bullied. He wasn’t a wimp—he played rugby, a passion of his father’s—but he didn’t fit in. When Craig was 14, a couple of friends put him forward to play Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker, in a school production of Oliver! The part has a jolly, macabre song. The audience loved him. “I’m not saying it’s like the first time you take really good drugs,” Craig said. “But it was a body shock of emotion, of adrenaline, in a way that I’d never felt before.”

Craig passed an art exam, his mother’s subject, and drifted out of school. About 10 years ago, he found out that Olivia had been admitted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Britain’s most prestigious acting school, when she was 18 but didn’t attend. “There was no money,” he said. “She couldn’t go.” Olivia would take Craig and his sister to the Liverpool Everyman, the city’s main theater, where he hung out backstage, but he loved acting because it was his. “My experience onstage was mine,” he said. “It was the first time in my life I had something that I could claim as my own.”

<cite class="credit">Boxer shorts, $45, by Paul Stuart / Sunglasses, $555, by Jacques Marie Mage / Watch, $9,200, by Omega</cite>
Boxer shorts, $45, by Paul Stuart / Sunglasses, $555, by Jacques Marie Mage / Watch, $9,200, by Omega

Sometimes Craig stayed with his aunt, who lived on the Wirral Peninsula, to the west of the city. As a teenager, he haunted a cheap cinema, in the seaside town of Hoylake, next to the Irish Sea, where he was often the only customer. “The movies used to arrive late,” Craig said. “They were always terrible prints. They were scratchy. But I sat in there and watched movies.” One afternoon, in the early ’80s, he went to a science-fiction double bill. “I’d never heard of this movie Blade Runner.” Craig watched the film, alone, with a carton of Kia-Ora, a now defunct brand of orange squash. He leaned forward in his seat, rapt, mind blown, until the end credits rolled. “I don’t think I took a sip. I just went, ‘That’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to do. I want to do that.’ And I didn’t know what that was,” Craig said. “That was revelatory for me.”

In 1984, when he was 16, Craig auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and moved to London for the summer. A friend of his father’s lent him a house on Ladbroke Road, in Notting Hill. Craig performed, on and off, with the National Youth Theatre for the next six years while he went through drama school. The theater’s director, Edward Wilson, became a mentor. Wilson and his partner, Brian Lee, a set designer, let Craig look after their house. He became the theater’s handyman. He painted the offices. In 1991, Craig was cast to play a racist South African soldier in The Power of One, a commercial and critical flop starring Stephen Dorff. Craig was 23. He was paid 18,000 pounds. “Which was a fucking fortune. I mean, a fortune,” Craig told me. “I spent every single penny of it.” No one had ever told him about taxes, assuming that he would never earn enough to owe any. (It took him five years to pay off the bill.)

Going for auditions in London, Craig encountered plenty of young actors who were better educated or more comfortable in their skin. But what he lacked in polish he made up for in presence. “At the end of the day, we had to put a show on, and I can put a fucking show on,” he said. Craig talks about acting the way other people talk about jumping out of an airplane. “I love that leveling. When you’re standing backstage and you’re ready to go on.… You’re all looking at each other, and you’re all shitting yourselves. All bets are off.” He can’t wait to be out there. “That’s the drug,” he said. “It’s a place to be able to be out of control, to be completely out of control. But yet you have to be in control.”

In 1996, Craig gave a breakthrough performance on Our Friends in the North, a seminal BBC television series, playing a wheeler-dealer who ends up as a vagrant. Two years later, he was in Love Is the Devil, an art-house movie about the painter Francis Bacon, playing the role of George Dyer, a burglar and a lover of Bacon’s. Craig was naked and covered in paint for much of the time. “He was laughing his head off,” John Maybury, the director, told me. “He’s not afraid, and that is unusual, because lots of actors are quite terrified of misplacing their image or misplacing their craft.” Maybury directed cult music videos in the ’80s and ’90s. He recognized a punk spirit in Craig, “a kind of underlying panic.” Maybury couldn’t get enough of that face onscreen. “Those icy-blue eyes,” he said. “Part of you wants to trust him and wants to believe in all of the nice-guy stuff. But there is something in those eyes that is quite psychotic: the navy blue circle around the edge of the blue.”

Love Is the Devil was a surprise hit. Sam Mendes wanted to cast Craig as Paul Newman’s unbalanced son in 2002’s Road to Perdition, a big-budget Prohibition-era gangster film. Craig played scenes with Newman and Tom Hanks. He was on edge the whole time. It came through in the performance. “There was something very, very tightly wound,” Mendes told me. “People talk a lot about danger in performances, and truthfully, it’s very rare. But Daniel always had that.” When he heard that Craig had been chosen to play Bond, a few years later, Mendes was taken aback. “Bond was this sort of constant: this eyebrow-raising, urbane, unflappable, punch-line-delivering figure,” he said. “I thought, ‘Daniel can’t do that. He’s completely connected to his emotions.’ I thought he would struggle with it.”

<cite class="credit">Pants, $165, from Stock Vintage</cite>
Pants, $165, from Stock Vintage

After Craig agreed to play Bond, the studio insisted on a screen test. A ritual of the franchise is that all potential Bonds are asked to play the same scene, a moment in From Russia With Love, in which the spy returns to his hotel room to find Tatiana, a Russian agent, waiting for him naked in bed. Craig hated the rigmarole, the sense of following tradition. “I can’t believe my own arrogance, really,” he said. But he studied for the part. He went back to Fleming’s novels and found a character quite distinct from the unruffled screen persona of the previous 30 years. The Bond of the books was someone Craig could relate to: cold, messed up, human. “He is really fucking dark,” he said. In the novel Moonraker (1955), Bond tips a load of speed into his Champagne. “I think it’s more interesting,” Craig told me. “I know we can’t have him having amphetamine and speed and doing all these things. But inside, I know I’m doing that. And I wanted to inform the part and say that’s what he is. He’s kind of a fuckup. Because this job would fuck you up.”

The screen test was a whole deal. A stage at Pinewood. Lights, crew, makeup. A half-day shoot. The director, Martin Campbell—who shot GoldenEye in 1995 and went on to make Casino Royale—asked Craig to walk over to a fruit bowl and toss a grape into his mouth. Craig refused. “I just went, ‘No.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ ” The two men argued. “I’m not going to do it. You do that,” Craig said. “It was about ‘How am I going to be James Bond?’ ”

From then on, and during the making of Casino Royale, a strange dynamic set in. The more that Broccoli and Wilson saw of Craig on camera, the more excited they became.“You just look in those eyes and you know he’s capable of doing anything,” Broccoli said. The rest of the world, however, was basically in uproar. It’s easy to forget, some 15 years later, quite how badly Craig’s casting went down—especially in Britain, where James Bond is considered, like the royal family or the England soccer team, to be more or less a publicly owned piece of the national culture. It was very quickly determined that Craig was the wrong guy. No one had heard of him. If they had, it was from arty, challenging films like Love Is the Devil or The Mother, in which he plays a carpenter who starts sleeping with a woman in her 60s.

On October 14, 2005, Craig alighted on the banks of the River Thames from a Royal Navy assault craft to be introduced to the world as the sixth James Bond. He was wearing a life jacket. He wasn’t particularly tall. One of the few things that the British tabloids knew about Craig, who was married for two years in his 20s, was that he liked to party. At the press conference, he was asked whether he would prefer Sienna Miller or Kate Moss, whom he was rumored to have slept with, as a Bond girl. (Craig declined to answer.) And then there was his hair. It seems absurd now, and the color has faded somewhat over the years, but at his unveiling, Craig was flaxen. His hair was like summer straw. Fleming’s Bond might be an enigma, but his dark hair was an immutable fact.

<cite class="credit">Shirt, $138, from Raggedy Threads</cite>
Shirt, $138, from Raggedy Threads

Outraged fans set up websites—​blondnotbond.com, danielcraigisnotbond.com—to register their displeasure. “The Name’s Bland—James Bland,” ran the front page of the Daily Mirror. There was talk of a boycott. When shooting for Casino Royale began, paparazzi stalked the set. In the Bahamas, photographers buried themselves overnight on the beach, like turtles’ eggs. “It was all-over-the-world news,” Broccoli recalled. “Everything was saying that he was not right for the role.” It got to Craig. He called Olivia. “I remember saying to my mum, ‘Can I play James Bond?’ ” Craig told me. “And she was like, ‘Of course you can. But I am your mother.’ ”

Away from the madness, though, there was lots about Casino Royale that felt right. The script, by experienced Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with Paul Haggis, who had written Million Dollar Baby, hewed close to the Fleming original. The story focused on a high-stakes poker game, updated for the 9/11 era, in aid of terrorist financing. For a Bond movie, Casino Royale was quietly revolutionary. There was no Q dishing out gadgets, no flirting with Moneypenny, and scarcely a one-liner. Early in the film, Craig drives a Ford Mondeo and is mistaken for a parking valet, ignominies unthinkable for Roger Moore. Craig bulked up for the filming, and for the first time James Bond’s body became an object of fascination. His emergence from the aquamarine sea, all muscle and swimming trunks, evoked Ursula Andress and her white bikini from Dr. No, 44 years earlier. Craig’s physicality spoke in other ways too. He performed many of his own stunts. His Bond became a tryer; he wasn’t so insouciant. He had a thick neck. He vomited. He ran through a wall.

More than anything, though, Craig’s Bond was capable of emotion. His scenes with M, played by Judi Dench, rang with vulnerability. “She’s Mum. It’s as simple as that,” Craig said. “He loves her as much as he has loved anybody.” (Olivia had a picture of Dench on the fridge in Liverpool when Craig was growing up.) Bond’s relationship with Vesper Lynd, meanwhile, has the heft of a genuine love affair. He talks about getting out of the spy game. My memory of watching Casino Royale is of the wholly new feeling of wanting James Bond to be happy. Of course, he can’t be. As in the book, Lynd betrays Bond and gets killed in the end. “The bitch is dead,” Bond says. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the star of Fleabag, who worked on the script of No Time To Die, was struck by a new complexity in Craig’s performance. “He let us in a bit, which makes the moments he shuts us out even more arresting,” she told me in an email. “Overall he grounded a fantasy character in real emotion, which is what I think we hadn’t realised we’d missed amongst the action and the bravado.”

The premiere was at the Odeon Leicester Square, in London’s West End, in November 2006. The Queen came. The lights dimmed. The opening sequence is shot in black and white. Craig is sitting in a darkened office in Prague. There is a flashback to his first kill, a drowning in a sink, a moment of vividly performed violence for a Bond movie. The audience laughed. Then Bond shoots a rogue British agent. The audience laughed again. In his seat, Craig started to panic. “I went, ‘Oh…,’ I was like, ‘Oh, fuck,’ ” he said. Then the opening credits rolled, the music played, and the crowd cheered. He realized that they liked him.

When Craig described this moment to me, 13 years later, in a hotel room in New York City, he started to cry. There was an unopened bottle of Champagne and two glasses on a table by the door. “I’m sorry,” he said. “All the pressure suddenly was… Because the whole thing of, ‘He’s not right…’ I intellectualized all of it.” He said: “I know why they don’t like me. I know why I don’t like me. So I know why they don’t fucking like me.”

Casino Royale was a hit around the world. It became the biggest-grossing Bond film to date. But the relief that Craig felt upon being accepted by a skeptical British public was particular. Britain has a complicated attitude toward its heroes, even fictional ones. “I don’t really quite understand it,” Craig told me. “But in Britain, it really fucking matters, and we nailed it.” Craig was the first Bond actor to be nominated for a BAFTA. He remembered all the 007 movies that came out when he was growing up as a kid. “Even when they were bad, it was still an event,” he said. “You still went. For it to be good and for people to go—fuck yes.”

<cite class="credit">Suit, $1,560, by Paul Smith / Shirt, $535, by Charvet at Saks Fifth Avenue</cite>
Suit, $1,560, by Paul Smith / Shirt, $535, by Charvet at Saks Fifth Avenue

“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.”

Philip Larkin was a James Bond fan. In 1981, the poet wrote about Fleming’s novels for The Times Literary Supplement. “What strikes one most about his books today is their unambiguous archaic decency,” Larkin wrote. “England is always right, foreigners are always wrong.” During Craig’s years in the part, the world and Britain’s place in it have changed. When Casino Royale was released, Tony Blair was in 10 Downing Street and Donald Trump was on The Apprentice. The risk of a financial crisis was minimal. Brexit was not a word. In 2012, Craig filmed a skit with the Queen for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London. Bond and Her Majesty strode through Buckingham Palace, corgis all around. They climbed into a helicopter and appeared to parachute down over the Olympic stadium while the Bond theme tune dang-danged around. Craig compared the experience to swimming off a beautiful beach and staring back at the shore in wonder. “I look around and I go, ‘I can’t believe I’m here,’ ” he said. If you watch the footage now, everything looks so innocent and long ago.

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.”

The challenge has been to reverse engineer that long, somewhat complex arc through speedboat chases, lethal poisonings, exploding hotels, beautiful women, a touch of skiing, and world-destroying maniacs—all under the pressure of movie-release dates set years in advance. It hasn’t always worked. Quantum of Solace, Craig’s second Bond film, begins moments after the action ends in Casino Royale but quickly collapses into a zany plot about Bolivian water resources. “We didn’t have a script,” Craig conceded. “So we concentrated a lot on the stunts.”

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.”

The relationship between Bond and Britain—or Britain’s male imagination, at least—has never been totally straightforward. The movies are mainly about escape: The world is endangered, then saved by a man in a dinner jacket. But both Mendes and Craig were concerned with making the franchise at least correspond to the world that it departs from. (Skyfall and Spectre were inspired by Julian Assange and the Edward Snowden NSA disclosures, respectively.) In Skyfall, Mendes told me that he was anxious to correct the “kind of nostalgic, jingoistic, pre–Cold War idea of what Britain was,” represented by the classic films. “It felt right that it was Daniel,” Mendes said, “because he seemed like a contemporary Bond and like a realist, like a person who actually walked on the street.”

During our conversations, Craig didn’t want to talk much about real-world affairs. Not because he isn’t engaged (Craig opposed Brexit and, as a U.S. citizen, has given money to support Bernie Sanders), but because once you start, it’s hard to talk about anything else. “We struggled to keep Trump out of this film,” Craig told me of No Time To Die. “But of course it is there. It’s always there, whether it’s Trump, or whether it’s Brexit, or whether it’s Russian influence on elections or whatever.” Like many Britons who have left home—Craig and Weisz are based in New York—he is baffled by the country’s seemingly inward turn since 2016. “There are British people working in the top industries in the world and at the top of those industries. We do that, and we are good at that. And somehow we’re kind of breaking all that apart,” he told me. “Whether that’s breaking from Europe.… There is a sort of nihilism, isn’t there?”

It is a stretch, but Craig sometimes sees Bond as an avatar for a kind of selfless public service that doesn’t seem to hold in our populist, polarized moment. “There’s something I feel that Bond represents, someone who’s there, trying to do the job and doesn’t want any fucking publicity,” he said. “And this is a joke, because he drives a fucking Aston Martin and does all these ridiculous things. But these people exist.… It’s the ambulance service. I know it’s terribly kind of romantic. But they are people who are just getting on with it and saving people’s lives.” He despairs of the grandstanding of Trump and Boris Johnson and the generalized hysteria of social media—the absence of a certain adult indifference. “But that’s not the way the world works now,” Craig said. “It’s about humiliating others to save one’s own skin. And it’s cowardly, it’s just fucking cowardly.”

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.”

Making his first two Bond films, Craig experienced, at times, a suffocating sense of responsibility. When he accepted the part, he had insisted on having a say in the creative process, but this sometimes left him feeling like he had to control everything. With Mendes, Craig found he could relax. “He reminded me that my job was to act,” he said. “It loosened me. It took the rod out of my arse, whatever.” He began to experiment, playing with the script and adding other flourishes.

On set, Mendes witnessed an actor wrestling with one of the most familiar, and hackneyed, characters in celluloid history. For some reason, he came to think of Craig as one of those slightly frightening guys at a protest, wearing a T-shirt despite the cold, decorated in tattoos, telling everyone they are not extreme enough. “That’s Daniel. That’s actually who he is,” Mendes said. “The truth is, there is something wounded and hurt about him.” Shooting Skyfall, Craig confided that he was trying to play Bond as if he were burning up. “Really no other actor would have attempted to play Bond in that way,” the director told me. “That sense in which he is incendiary.” And it is by that arduous road that Craig discovered his own version of the old Bond swagger. In the film’s opening sequence, Bond is chasing an enemy on a Turkish train. He rips off the roof of the train with a mechanical digger and drops into a crowded carriage. His suit is dusty and smeared with blood. He straightens his cuffs.

Craig added the gesture mid-stunt. “It wasn’t in the script,” he told me. “I realized why that came in, why he did it: Because he’s scared. He’s fucking terrified. He’s just jumped off the back of the train. He’s just like, ‘Everything’s fine.’ ” The moment is pure Bond, yet differently so. Craig’s Bond isn’t detached from the moment; he is fully immersed, holding himself together. “Otherwise he’s just shooting his fucking cuff,” Craig said. “Isn’t he cool? He’s not cool. He’s really not cool at that point.” When I mentioned the cuffs to Mendes, he remembered the improvisation straightaway. “Because it has come from inside,” he said. “Anyone else doing that, it would have been a cliché, and somehow he manages to make it real.” And that is Craig’s art. “It’s very difficult to achieve,” Mendes said. “Finding a way to reimagine those things so they feel real again. It takes unbelievable willpower to do that.”

Skyfall made a billion dollars. It also had a solid script. Craig’s tough times as Bond have come on the movies that never quite came together, where scenes and dialogue and plot twists were being written and rewritten on the fly. Since Casino Royale, there has been a lot of attention paid to Craig’s body and physical preparation for the films. At times he worked out relentlessly because he had nothing else to go on. “I’ve got to do something,” Craig said. When we met this winter, Knives Out, in which Craig plays an eccentric gentleman detective, was in the cinemas. For the part, he had practiced a Southern accent and played with an ornate screenplay by Rian Johnson, the director, for several months. “You’re learning the script, and it gets into you like that,” Craig said. “With Bond, you don’t get the script, so the physicality of it is a preparation, in a way. It’s making my head go, ‘This is what it’s going to be.’ ” Trying to inhabit a cipher, in a plotless blockbuster, with the world’s eyes upon you, is like living out a very particular anxiety dream. “I have suffered from it in the past,” Craig told me. “I have suffered because it’s been like, ‘I can’t cope, I can’t deal with this.’ ”

His body has taken the brunt. On Quantum of Solace, Craig tore the labrum—the connecting cartilage—in his right shoulder during a stunt in a plunging aircraft. Then he bashed it again, jumping through a window in Italy and crashing into a wall. “I was just nervous and overcooked it,” he said. “At that point, my arm was kind of useless.” Early in the filming of Skyfall, Craig ruptured both his calf muscles, meaning that he had to undergo rehab in a swimming pool during the shoot. “It’s not about recovery, because you know you can recover,” he told me. “It’s about psychologically thinking that you’re going to do it again.”

Over the years, Craig has caught himself swaying, 60 feet in the air, wondering what the hell he is doing. He burned out on Spectre. In March 2015, he blew his anterior cruciate ligament—heard it go boink—while fighting with Dave Bautista, a former professional wrestler, on the set of a train at Pinewood. “I was like, ‘Dave, throw me, for Christ’s sake.…’ Because he was being light with me,” Craig said. “So he threw me, and God bless him, he just left my knee over there.” Craig spent the rest of the shoot wearing a bulky knee brace, which was disguised during the edit. “That was a drag,” he said.

It was also why, when Craig was asked in an interview two days after filming ended whether he would make a fifth Bond movie, he said that he would prefer to smash the glass he was drinking from and slash his wrists. Craig has never been comfortable selling Bond. “You’re front and center while filming, and then they tell you to go and sell the movie. Literally, you’re standing in a crowd of people,” he said. “And suddenly they’ve all pushed you forward. And they’re like, ‘Go on!’ It’s really disconcerting. And you think you’re responsible. And actually, of course, you are.” Mendes has long sympathized with Craig, who is not a smooth P.R. man. “He is by nature a much more anarchic person, and he is not allowed to be that within the franchise,” Mendes said. “His natural position is to tell the truth.” After Spectre, Craig told the truth. “I was never going to do one again,” he told me. “I was like, ‘Is this work really genuinely worth this, to go through this, this whole thing?’ And I didn’t feel… I felt physically really low. So the prospect of doing another movie was just like, it was off the cards. And that’s why it has been five years.”

<cite class="credit">Shirt, $845, by Brunello Cucinelli / Pants (price upon request) by Ovadia & Sons / Belt, $745, by Artemas Quibble / Watch (price upon request) by Omega</cite>
Shirt, $845, by Brunello Cucinelli / Pants (price upon request) by Ovadia & Sons / Belt, $745, by Artemas Quibble / Watch (price upon request) by Omega

The hiatus between Spectre and No Time To Die has been the second longest in the history of the franchise. And the production of the 25th Bond has been no picnic. In August 2018, Danny Boyle, who shot Craig’s double act with the Queen for the Olympics, walked away from the film, citing creative differences with Broccoli and Wilson. “Danny had ideas, and the ideas didn’t work out, and that was just the way it was,” Craig said. At least four versions of the script came and went. “I would love to have gone into this and had a script that we could shoot,” he said. “And it just didn’t happen. There were so many things that went against it.” Fukunaga, who is best known for making HBO’s stylish True Detective, came on board three months before production was due to begin. Then Craig injured his ankle. The release date was pushed once, and now twice. Last June an explosion at Pinewood injured a member of the crew. The British tabloids called it a cursed film. “It pisses me off,” Craig said. “Because I’m just like, ‘Don’t curse our movie.’ And also, we’re doing our best here.” (The decision to delay the release of No Time To Die until November because of the coronavirus outbreak was made by studio executives only a month before the planned April release—just as their star was embarking on a full press tour. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the person who had to deliver the news to Craig.)

“The James Bond of it all,” as Craig sometimes says, was clearly a monster. He was more involved in the writing than in any of his other Bond films. “This is my last movie,” he told me. “I’ve kept my mouth shut before and I’ve stayed out of it and I’ve respected it and I’ve regretted that I did.” Craig was instrumental in hiring Waller-Bridge to work on the script, partway through the shoot. When things were rough, he didn’t hold back. “I’ve been very forceful in meetings and often way too blunt and probably completely rude,” Craig said. “But I’m like, We’re here! Come on! And I always say sorry.”

Waller-Bridge was more diplomatic. “He is incredibly passionate about the work,” she told me. “Bond is very close to his heart, and he fights for the integrity of the character every step of the way.”

Fukunaga said that Craig suggested dialogue for entire scenes of No Time To Die, trying to give a voice to a character that many writers find frankly intimidating. “Daniel’s very adamant that Bond is the driving force in everything,” Fukunaga said. “He’s the jackhammer.” Craig worked himself into the ground. “He is tireless,” Fukunaga told me. “He will work until he’s basically crawling home.”

The first time we met, a few weeks after the end of the shoot, Craig seemed almost too close to it all. The production was too large and too recent to make sense of it. “How much of Phoebe’s is in there, who knows?” Craig said. “We’re all in it somewhere. Phoebe’s in it, Cary’s in it, the writers are in it, but it’s a… We battled it and battled it and battled it. Who knows?” he said. “I’m talking to you now. I’ve seen bits of it. I haven’t seen it. Who the fuck knows?”

But the truth is that after 14 years, busted shoulders, busted knees, the best part of $50 million, a place in the pantheon, a happy home, Craig didn’t feel it so much on No Time To Die. “This one I was like, ‘Nah, it’s not going to happen. It’s just not going to happen.’ It doesn’t mean I wasn’t as wound up and just as fucking, like, mad,” he said. “Because the world outside sort of slightly ceases to exist. When you’re in it, you’re in it, and that’s the thing,” he said. And now Craig is no longer completely in it. He can see a world outside. “I don’t know what it is, maybe having another kid, maybe just being older,” he told me. “But all of these things, I was just like, you know, fuck it. There are other things that are more important.”

The last time I saw him was in London, a few weeks later. Craig was wearing a large brown leather cap and carrying an empty suitcase. No one in the hotel lobby seemed to recognize him. He was in a sprightly mood. He was looking forward to the Golden Globes, where he was nominated as best actor in a musical or comedy for Knives Out. (The movie has already made some $300 million, and Craig is committed to being part of a planned sequel.) “The success of it, going into Bond, could not have come at a better time for me,” he said. Craig was delighted by the contrasting performances: a prolix, Sondheim-humming private eye, next to his taciturn, tormented killer. “It’s not like, ‘Okay, this is going to be my career after Bond.’ There’s no plan to it. It’s just kind of worked out.” Craig wasn’t about to shoot anything straightaway. Much of 2020 will involve an extended, slow-moving sign-off as 007. But unlike with some of the other actors who have played Bond, it doesn’t make much sense to worry about what Craig will do next—especially when he sounds so unafraid. “I’m pretty sure I can play just about anything,” Craig told me. “Yeah. I’m pretty sure I can, or at least I can make a fucking good fist of it.”

It was early evening. We ordered some beers from room service. Craig had spent the day in a post-production studio in Soho, recording dialogue for No Time To Die. That morning, he had watched the film for the first time. It was the reason he had crossed the Atlantic. For security, the cut existed on only one or two hard drives. “I couldn’t see it in New York, I had to fly over,” Craig said. “Everything is on such lockdown.”

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.”

Photograph by Lachlan Bailey
Styled by George Cortina Hair by Johnnie Sapong using Leonor Greyl
Tailoring by Martin Keehn
Set design by Nick Des Jardins at Streeters
Production by That One Production

Originally Appeared on GQ