Churning, at-risk persona yields cutting-edge actor

LONDON — With hindsight, it seems incredible that anyone thought Daniel Craig was too blond, too short or, most bizarrely of all, insufficiently masculine to play James Bond.

When producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael J. Wilson decided to take the suave secret agent back to his origins and rough him up a bit, they turned to an actor whose charisma and intensity had won him admirers and awards in edgy indie films, but who was still only vaguely familiar to mainstream audiences.

As the fansites and the British tabloids howled in disbelief, Craig’s challenge was to bring depth to a character of iconic shallowness — guns, girls, fast cars — without ruining Bond’s primal appeal.

If a BAFTA nomination, unanimous critical acclaim and nearly $600 million at the global box office aren’t enough evidence that he pulled it off, his freshly minted deal to play 007 four more times for a reported $60 million is irrefutable proof.

No one was less surprised at Craig’s success than Matthew Vaughn, who directed the actor in the 2004 Sony thriller “Layer Cake,” the nearest Craig had come to a conventional leading role prior to “Casino Royale.”

“When Daniel walked through the door for our first meeting, I remember thinking that I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t a movie star,” Vaughn says. “He seemed like a reincarnation of Steve McQueen. He’s a fabulous actor, but at the moment, there aren’t many of those around who are also real men.”

Yet Craig took a circuitous route to Bond.

He broke into the public consciousness in the epic 1996 BBC TV drama series “Our Friends in the North.” Of the brilliant trio of actors — Craig, Christopher Eccleston and Mark Strong — who played the show’s central male characters from their optimistic youth in the 1960s to their uncertain middle age in the 1990s, he seemed the least destined to play the clean-cut hero.

In the years prior to becoming the world’s most famous licensed assassin, he indulged in sadomasochistic sex games with Derek Jacobi in “Love Is the Devil,” wandered naked and schizophrenic down London’s Goldhawk Road in “Some Voices,” took the 70-year-old Anne Reid from behind in “The Mother,” snogged Rhys Ifans in “Enduring Love,” peddled cocaine in “Layer Cake” and played a vicious killer infatuated with Truman Capote in “Infamous.”

“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in 2001 proved an unhappy false start in studio movies, but his effective supporting roles as Paul Newman’s psychopathic son in “Road to Perdition” and as a South African member of the Mossad hit squad in “Munich” started to build his reputation in Hollywood.

Craig has too much presence to be a chameleon, but he has managed to escape all attempts to pigeonhole him — as a working-class hunk, a Nazi bully, a rough diamond — with his versatility, the boldness of his taste and his work ethic. Since British agent Sally Long-Innes picked him up straight from the Guildhall drama school, he has racked up nearly 50 screen credits in a 16-year career while finding time for significant stage work.

“Rather than just being able to play strongman roles, his versatility allows his vulnerability to come through, which enables him to play across a wide spectrum,” says Ileen Maisel, exec producer of his upcoming New Line pic “The Golden Compass.” Maisel’s late partner, legendary casting agent Mary Selway, was among the first to spot Craig’s potential.

Craig never plays it safe. He has painstakingly built a career on taking risks, putting his body on the line, exposing the weakness beneath the tough exterior. And Bond was the riskiest choice of all. It’s a role where success or failure could have been equally destructive to his hard-won credibility.

He was never likely to fall into obscurity like George Lazenby, but even the successful Bonds have struggled to escape the shadow of the icon they have created. Craig was acutely aware of the pitfalls, recalls John Maybury, who directed him in “Love Is the Devil” and “The Jacket.”

“I was talking to him at length when it was being (discussed), and he had serious concerns, not just about the possibility of a press drubbing but of the impact it would have on the rest of his career,” Maybury says. “What comes with the territory is a kind of celebrity, which shifts people’s attitude to the actor, rather than directly affecting the actor himself.”

Adds Sam Mendes, who directed “Perdition”: “It was very brave to take the part of Bond, because he’s not a sophisticate. He’s a very humble fellow, a pure actor.”

In truth, those who doubted his ability to play Bond hadn’t followed his career closely enough.

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