The last time Daniel Craig was at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, he received a Tarot reading from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Since there was no clear way to top that, Craig decided to go deeper rather than wilder with a Q&A held on the evening of March 3 (just hours before news broke that his final 007 film, “No Time to Die,” will be pushed back seven months over coronavirus fears) to kick off the museum’s lineup of the actor’s films screening as a series through March 22. “Deeper rather than wilder” could also describe how Craig approached Ian Fleming’s classic character — no more invisible cars or exploding pens.
“I wanted to explode some of the things that had gone before,” Craig told MoMA film curator Rajendra Roy during the chat. “Clearly he’s suave and sophisticated, but I realized he couldn’t be that at the beginning. I had this chance to start over and say, ‘Who is this character?’ Unless it was something based in reality, I couldn’t figure out how to play it. To say, ‘The name’s Bond, James Bond’ … how do you do that? It’s got to mean something or otherwise it’s just a repeat of what someone else has done. I wanted to find the emotional heart.”
He added, “We know the world needs saving at the beginning of a Bond movie and that it will be saved at the end, so what happens in between? Is there a moment where we’re in doubt about this character? In doubt over his safety, his personal life … load it up with that and then the movie becomes a bit more relatable. He’s a killer. That’s his job, and if that’s not complicated, I don’t know what is. He tries to do the right thing, but at the end of the day he takes people’s lives.”
Roy suggested that Craig was the first Gen X Bond because “he’s introspective and has a certain malaise that’s not quantifiable but omnipresent … but he leads from the heart as well.” Part of that has to do with the character’s approach to sex. Roy’s suggestion that Craig’s 007 is “the least horny Bond” was met with a joking “How dare you?” from Craig.
“I wanted the characters who were women to mean something,” he said. “It was very important to lift what they had been. I hope we’ve done that in these five movies. And so that means sex isn’t always the endgame. It’s part of it. Sex and death are always closely related in these stories, going back to the original books, where everyone’s a bit turned on doing all this stuff. That wasn’t the go-to. I wanted a twist to it: he falls in love, he’s heartbroken, he’s actually pushing someone away. It had to have meaning.”
Also in attendance in the audience at the event, which preceded a 35mm screening of “Casino Royale,” were Bond franchise masterminds Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who were part of the decision the next day to delay “No Time to Die.” They obviously have profound affection for Craig’s work on the series, as evidenced by a clip from an upcoming documentary about his tenure called “Being James Bond” they pair have produced. The footage that was screened featured the two producers saying how much Craig’s role in 1998’s “Elizabeth” affected them and that even then, they were considering him to one day take up the cinematic license to kill.
But success for Craig was never guaranteed, and the actor himself was ready in case his debut, “Casino Royale,” was a failure. “I knew we had a good movie when we were making it,” he said. “But I squared it away with myself that if it was a swing and a miss, it was a swing and a miss. I could just do one movie and then move on.”
Obviously, phenomenal success followed. And the goodwill for Craig in the theater at MoMA was palpable. The Q&A concluded with a birthday cake being presented to him — he turned 52 on March 2 — and the collective singing of “Happy Birthday,” which you can watch below.
The MoMA screening series “In Character: Daniel Craig” will run through Sunday, March 22. “No Time to Die” will be released on Wednesday, November 25.