When not dodging persistent rumors that he's favored to be the next James Bond, Daniel Craig is a serious actor, drawing acclaim in smallish British films (like Love is the Devil, Elizabeth, and Roger Michell's The Mother and Enduring Love) and notice in more widely seen American-financed films, like Road to Perdition (in which he played Paul Newman's son) and Tomb Raider. Layer Cake, his collaboration with up-and-coming director Matthew Vaughn, just arrived stateside. Craig played Ted Hughes in Sylvia, and more historical films are on the way: one in which he plays real-life convicted murderer Perry Smith and another that will offer Steven Spielberg's take on the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis. I spoke to Craig on April 26, 2005 at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
G: Your character in Layer Cake is described variously as "dreary," "a flash runt," "a smart young man"—
DC: Jesus Christ!
G: And Matthew Vaughn calls him "a poker player." What qualities did you focus on projecting, or, perhaps more to the point, what kind of image does the character try to project?
DC: Well, I know, one of control. I mean...he's someone who believes that...he has a handle on life—which I think is not unlike most of us, really. He's put himself in a position of power or to a level of power that he sort of sees himself—that he sees things as being very comfortable in. He realizes that there is above and below but he's not that interested and he wants—it's a common theme—but he's got one more thing he wants to do and he's out. It's deliberately labored at the beginning of the movie, so we think that, you know, that hopefully the audience goes, "No, that's not going to happen, is it?" He wants to be anonymous, and he wants to be low key, and he wants to be as—he wants to blend in as much as possible. I think that's a fairly accurate portrayal of what sort of modern crime and modern people—serious criminals—are about. They don't want—they don't go around advertising it. They keep as quiet as possible about it. That's sort of like we have the world of the Duke in the movie—he drives the yellow Range Rover and wears gold and smokes cigars and is very loud. But that's an aspect of the criminal world, and my character is just totally not interested—he's interested in the high end. He's a commodities man.
G: When I hear you talk about that, it reminds me a bit of the acting profession in terms of trying to blend into a role and not be too known for who you are, perhaps, as an individual—that's sort of a counterproductive way of playing parts. Did you relate to this role in any way personally...maybe his discipline?
DC: Kind of, but I'm totally undisciplined. I'm disciplined about my work, but that's because I take it seriously and I love it. But as far as his discipline in life and his organizational skills within his own personal life are beyond me. That was an acting job.
G: I guess it also may not be too much of a stretch to compare the film biz to a layer cake—
DC: Oh, yeah.
G: So did the character give you any useful lessons in that regard?
DC: You know what? There's always bigger fish. There's always someone above. You either decide to climb, or you decide that you get on with your business. You make it the best you can and—you know, the film industry, as cut-throat as it can be—I think probably more cut-throat than a lot of businesses...well, maybe the oil industry, or stock and shares, the stock market—it's a billion dollar industry. There are a lot of people out there trying to screw with you. You've got to sort of keep your head down and just keep at it and let the work speak for itself hopefully.
G: In tragic terms, I guess the mistake would probably be to think you have power over that.
DC: Yeah. It's kind of just the old adage: don't believe your own press. I think you're on to a loser. It's life, though. But especially, I suppose, in the acting profession, you have to keep your friends close. And your enemies closer.
G: Your character in the film is nameless, and his back-story remains obscure, so what did you need at minimum to bring him to life?
DC: I had the script. I mean seriously. And J.J. Connolly's book is a great book. It's a great read. There's plenty of information in there. And J. J. was around. He's a source of information as far as that world is concerned. But if you have a good script, which is telling a good story, then it's much easier to inhabit a part. I wasn't playing a sort of 18th-century cobbler or someone: I didn't need to go off and learn how to make shoes. He's a man that says he's a businessman; he's dealing with people and dealing trying to sell a product. Take away the drug aspect of it, and he's just—as he says—he's a commodities broker. And I wanted to make him as normal as possible—as if it is possible to be normal in a movie—but as normal as possible because my instinct is that the criminals—you know, you will walk past a man like him every day. And you won't notice him...that was my starting ground. And then, you know, Matthew cast the film brilliantly. So I had these fantastic characters to play off and react to and either command or be commanded by. I think I did make up some stuff before I started shooting. But I tend to do all my stuff before I start shooting. And I can't tell you what I did. It's too long.
G: Certainly each role that you play has its unique demands--as you were saying—you might have to do a particular amount of research, like playing Ted Hughes—or a character might be very close to the vest like in The Mother. Is there a pattern to your process that would apply to every film?
DC: In what I do? How I approach things?
DC: Yeah. Again, the script. I read the script over and over and over again. I try to learn it as quickly as possible. The only real thing I sort of go for is trying to go for the truth. Or what I perceive the truth to be. I mean, I am in a profession of hoodwinking people. But if you can hoodwink people in a generous way and in a way that sort of makes them think and makes them go with your emotion or go with the emotional life of the movie, then you're being successful. And that's really all I can really sort of—I mean there's nothing specific I can tell you I do except for, you know, try not to be shit. (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) That's a good motto. I think that will work out for you. One of the things that I read that you talked about was being outfitted in good suits in this movie.
DC: That helps.
G: To what degree did clothes make this man, or what forethought, if any, did you put into his physical presence?
DC: Only so that you could see someone who was cultural. Someone who wore clothes and when they walked into the room they walked in with confidence. They walked in with an attitude of "Who is that person? That's someone with confidence. I want to talk to that person. I want to do business with that person." But only so that we could see how far he was going to fall. There's a great suit that I wear, which comes about halfway through the movie after I've shot Jimmy Price, and it's a beautiful suit that was made on Saville Row. And it's the suit that I get the shit kicked out of me in. I like those fantastic things to play around with.
G: We were talking earlier about the tragic element, perhaps...the hubris. What do you think is the most notable mistake this character makes?
DC: Believing he knows it all. And I don't think he's that stupid. I just think that the moment that we meet him, he's trying to get out. As far as he's concerned, he's done all the sums. He's just left out the big sum. Which is basically he's a drug dealer—which seemed to be a very simple mistake to make, but he's moved on in his mind. He's already gone ahead of himself. He's already retired from the business. And that's the mistake he makes because you know, he's tied in. He's made—Michael Gambon's character talks about going to see Faust, the opera. He's already made his pact—you know. You can't get out that easily.
G: I wanted to ask you about Michael Gambon. You worked with him more than once. You've worked with him on the stage. What do people not know about Michael Gambon that you've learned by working with him?
DC: There's a thing about Michael. Michael is from a generation of actors. He worked with Olivier. He's done this tremendous amount of stage work. But he's as modern an actor as you would ever like to meet. He has a depth of raw emotion, which is shattering to watch sometimes. And maybe you don't see it so much in Layer Cake, but he improvised most of his lines in Layer Cake, which is fantastic. And he plays. When he's on form, he plays. It's playtime for him, and its magical to watch. I ask anybody to go and watch him on stage when he's on form and not fall emotionally in love with him. He's just sort of—he's just one of those human beings.
G: You needed some convincing to take this role. What concerned you, and what swayed you?
DC: Concern would be that although I'm a great admirer of Lock, Stock and Snatch, they're not my type of movie. And I was worried that Matthew was just going to recreate the success that he had with those two movies. Then when I read the script, I realized that it wasn't that type of movie, but I was still nervous about going to see him and talk to him. As soon as I sat down with him, I realized that he wanted to make something that was peculiarly cinematic and was gonna make...a movie which harks back more...to the late 60's and early 70's sort of—films that on the face of it were sort of dirty crime films—films about the dirty side of life—but were hugely cinematic. So that even though we were looking at sort of the dirty streets of New York, or looking at the dirty streets of London, they were beautifully shot. And that, for me, is incredibly exciting cinema. It's like watching Blade Runner when you see those scenes in the street where you've got this dirty world which is—God knows where?—L.A.?—in the future. But it's so beautifully shot—so beautifully detailed—that you can't help but sort of fall in love with it. Those are sort of major influences on me and my sort of decision to want to move into movies.
G: I think audiences may have the same experience of expecting that sort of Guy Ritchie style—
DC: If it gets them in to see it, then I don't care.
G: But it succeeds at not being reliant on style but being enhanced by it—the style of this film. Were you concerned about what you'd gotten into when Matthew started giving you line readings?
DC: That was not—it happened during rehearsal. It was one of those "Production Notes" I'm having to explain. He gave a line reading to an actor. I just said, "You can't do that to Michael Gambon because he won't appreciate that." Matthew, to his total credit, and because he absolutely listens and wants people's advice, was just like "Oh. Okay. Fine." I think it's something that he sort of—you know, I mean, as far as I'm concerned, good directors allow actors to make it up. Sometime, you know, you might be working with someone who needs a line reading, but, you know, I just said, "You can't do that with people like Ken Cranham and Michael Gambon—they'll punch you on the nose."
G: Good advice. As a director, what was he best able to provide you?
DC: He facilitates. All great directors employ people because they trust their talent. It doesn't matter whether they're actors or crew. And they allow that talent to come through. And it's a sort of—it's a leadership thing. I mean, it's a leadership and a confidence-giver, and if you allow—I mean that's why a film set can be so incredibly exciting. Because if you get a huge amount of talent on a film set, and everybody's allowed to do their job, then you suddenly think, "Christ, magic might happen here!" And he does that very well. But that's, I think, because of his producing experience and his film experience.
G: Roger Michell has proved a simpatico director for you and keeps you coming back to him.
DC: His attention to detail, his intelligence, his knowledge of not only emotional worlds but of the intellectual world—we clicked straight away. We've done two films now, and we've got to make a third. We've just got to find out what it's gonna be—hopefully a multi-million dollar movie where we're both going to want a huge amount of money.
G: While you've avoided being typecast, I think your stock in trade is intensity. Do you secretly pine to headline a goofy comedy?
DC: I don't know. The answer's probably no because actually I am a great fan of goofy comedy. But I know how hard it is. The mistaken belief is that you watch a very funny film and think, "God, they had a great time." And I would suggest that they didn't. I would suggest that there wasn't that much laughter on set, because—it's probably like watching the Marx Brothers—some of my favorite films. I would say those were routines that they worked out. It's like Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire rehearsed for months before he did a dance routine. So when you see it after he's rehearsed it seventy times, it's like, "Oh, okay," and I would suggest that with the Marx Brothers, it was the same thing. There was probably not a giggle on set. But it's because it's so beautifully honed—it's so beautifully thought through. It's like the television series The Office, which is now over here, but the original series—everybody said it must have been improvised. And Ricky Gervais, who wrote it, would say "No, no, no, no. It's scripted, absolutely." You may laugh while you're doing it, but actually, the comedy comes across because of the razor-sharp attention to detail.
G: Yeah. Of course, the Marx Brothers took all that stuff on the road—
DC: I know. And that was all rehearsed forever. And that's what makes it so seamless. There's even comedians who used to sort of--on stage, would count the laugh. I mean, I've heard some amazing stories.
G: You have so much stage experience. Do you find the process of rehearsing for a stage play more comforting, or do you like the pace of film?
DC: No, because you got much more lines to learn. (Laughs.) I don't know. I'm kind of, at the moment, and it may change, I'm comfortable—really comfortable in both worlds. I love the process of rehearsing a play. Obviously I hate learning the lines. I don't know any actors who love learning their lines. But you do it, and it's like cramming for exams. You do it. You have to do it. But once you get out there and you start performing, you're on your own. Or you're with other actors. But you have to turn up with the goods. And the same thing once the camera starts going. You've gotta start making it happen. So I can't put a line between them, really.
G: Do you read your own press?
DC: I kind of do, yeah. I mean (looks askance) I kind of do like that. I sort of scan it and go, "Ughh!"—I mean, the shit that's been in the press recently—. I mean, I've just—I've not looked at the internet, nor am I likely to because I think I'm going to be sick if I do.
G: There's an obvious danger there. But can a tide of press be a motivator to you or a tool?
DC: What do you mean? Like a good press or a bad press?
G: Yeah. Either one.
DC: Well, I mean that that's always the advice that I've always been given: don't believe the good and don't believe the bad. But it's obviously very difficult. I mean, you know, if you get bad press, you take it to heart. And if you get good press, you take it to heart as well. You've got to be as level-headed about it as possible. I mean, the worst thing you can do is rehearse a play for six weeks, put it on the first night, and you get hammered. I mean, there's nothing more devastating. But, on the other hand, it's, you know—there's worse things that happen in this world.
G: Perspective, as always. You alluded to recent press. Obviously, there was the big James Bond rumor. What was your reaction when that news first got to you?
DC: Well, I was in Austin filming, and I just kept on getting these texts on my phone going, "Congratulations," and I was kind of "Did I win the car?" I mean, what happened to me once—there's been news—it's been bubbling, so I just was surprised that the press decided to call it because it's news to me. And, believe me, it's way off the mark and way beyond a decision being made yet. At the end of the day, it's got little to do with me.
G: Matthew is developing a number of things including a Man from U.N.C.L.E. film, and I read someone else conjecturing that you might possibly be cast in that film. Is that something you've ever discussed with him?
DC: I'd work with Matthew tomorrow. So if he's got a part for me, I'd have a look at it.
G: Let's talk a little bit about your experience with Hollywood. You did a couple of large films in Hollywood—one which, by all reports, you found very satisfying, Road to Perdition, and one perhaps not so much, Tomb Raider. Have you set yourself any "do" and "don't" guidelines for choosing big films?
DC: The thing about "do and don't"—if you make the decision to go and make a huge film, if you get that chance...to play a lead in a huge film—is you've got to take your sense of humor with you. Because it's a huge machine. It's worth—potentially it's worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And the people that control that really don't give a fuck—they want to make hundreds of millions of dollars. So you have to take your sense of humor into it, and you have to know what you're getting into. I didn't have a great time on Tomb Raider because it was sort of a big surprise for me. But I've gone on over that surprise now. But then, you know, I did two films, both which have cost, so they say, cost eighty million dollars, but you never know who to believe. And Road to Perdition cost eighty million dollars to make. And it was like making a small budget film of this level. Once you are on set, there obviously a few more things—food, whatever, they're simple things. But basically what it comes down to is the work is the same—you know, you're working with people who are trying to be creative and trying to create something. On something like Tomb Raider, you're beholden to the fact that you're—they didn't have a script. So that's as simple as that. You can't start a film without a script.
G: Is it sort of liberating and more enjoyable perhaps, on a larger film or a larger-budgeted film like say The Jacket...to be able to come in and do that supporting role that's really meaty, and not have to feel that the film—
DC: No, I enjoyed doing that. I mean, I did a week's worth on that, and John Maybury's a close friend of mine, so I came in, chewed the furniture, and left. I had a good time on that.
G: This film, Layer Cake, is partly about, as you said, that the character might be sort of a man who'd be walking past you on the street. What's the closest brush you've had with the criminal underworld or crime?
DC: Oh, you mean, have I ever been arrested?
G: Well, not that—perhaps, if that's the answer.
DC: Well, I haven't, no. But I've worked in bars in London where I know that there's been a lot going—I mean, we all have touched upon it, and we kid ourselves that we haven't, at some point in our life. If you can stand up and say you've never had a brush with somebody whose got a criminal past, criminal intent, or criminal—then you live in a cave somewhere. I mean, the world—you know—Christ, this country's built upon criminals. My country's built upon a bunch of criminals, so I mean, legitimate criminals become politicians. Or legitimate politicians become criminals. I can't remember which way around that is. (Laughs.)
G: Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you.
DC: It was nice to talk to you, as well.
[For Groucho's interview with director Matthew Vaughn, click here.]