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Interview with Daniel Craig: The Icing Atop the "Layer Cake"

by Peter Sobczynski

In American, Daniel Craig is probably most familiar to the mass audience for playing opposite Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in “Road to Perdition” (where he played the psycho son of the latter) and opposite Angelina Jolie’s short-shorts in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” Frequenters of art-houses may recall him more fondly from his two collaborations with British filmmaker Roger Michell, “The Mother” and “Enduring Love, “ two of the more intriguing and unsettling films to appear last year. Actually, he is probably best-known on these shores for a role that he hasn’t played–until a couple of weeks ago, he was rumored to be one of the strongest candidates to replace Pierce Brosnan in the role of James Bond (though recent developments now suggest that Brosnan will return to the role after all.)

Already a top-tier actor in his native England, Craig looks to increase his Stateside profile with the quirky new crime drama “Layer Cake.” In the film, he plays an unnamed drug dealer who has amassed enough money to allow him to quietly retire from the business and lead a life of leisure. Inevitably, these plans quickly fly out the window when a request for one final favor leads to a series of out-of-control events that demonstrate that a criminal is a criminal–no matter how plush his surroundings–and that if you are successful in making money for people, they will be less than eager to see you go.

Although it may sound on the surface like “Layer Cake” is similar to the recent Guy Ritchie crime films “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (not surprising since Matthew Vaughn, the future “X3" helmer making his directorial debut here, started out as a producer of, among others, Ritchie’s films), this film has more of a serious impact to it and much of that is due to the strong work by Craig. There are bits of weirdness and silliness throughout but Craig holds it together with a performance that allows us to sympathize and understand a theoretically unlikable character without ever minimizing his dark side.

Recently, Craig sat down to discuss “Layer Cake,” his experiences in Hollywood and, eventually, the strange circumstances of inadvertently turning into the Man Who Would Be Bond.

What was it that got you interested in acting in the first place?

Dressing up and showing off! We lived in Liverpool and my mother had friends in the theater scene there and my sister and I spent a lot of time at the theater. I got the bug and it was as simple as that. I’d see the plays or I would be in the lighting box backstage and I knew that was what I wanted to do. Things have changed as I have gotten older but the same things still apply–dressing up, showing off and the attention-seeking are still there. I love it. I think it is a great art form–it is a populist art form that I do believe can actually change things and generate discussion and debate. I remember that we had a cinema around the corner from me and I would sit there and watch movies. One particular movie was “Blade Runner” and even though I had no idea what was happening, I watched it and I knew that I wanted to make movies. It wasn’t about doing films or television or plays–I wanted to do movies and that one struck me the first time that I saw it.

Your previous films, “The Mother” and “Enduring Love,” were both fairly heavy dramas while “Layer Cake”–though not exactly a laugh-a-minute goof–has a much lighter tone to it despite the subject matter. Were you consciously trying to find something a little lighter to do after those earlier films?

It was the writing. I took a look at it and thought that it would be a departure and then I met Matthew Vaughn, who has produced a lot of movies but is best-known for “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” Matthew does have an eye for making money and looks at how to create a profit with what he creates. It was interesting to talk to him because I, outside of Hollywood, had never really had those kinds of conversations regarding a movie. Usually, getting the movie made is a struggle from Day One and getting it into a theater is a sort of triumph. Matthew doesn’t think like that–he thinks on a grander scale of releasing it and making some money and then releasing it again and making some more money. In a way, it was a good learning program to become involved in because he is very skilled at that. Mostly, though, it was because it was a great script. It was an intelligent, bright script-more so than any other crime thing that I have seen.

One of the interesting things about your character is that we learn so little about him and his history throughout the story–while most of the other characters have fancy nicknames and elaborate backstories, the name of your character is never said once throughout the course of the entire film. For you, what, if any, are the challenges of playing a character about whom so little is known or explained throughout the course of the film?

It didn’t bother me at all. As long as we set it up well enough in the beginning–this is who I am and this is what I do–we don’t need the rest. Bad movies do this–the first two scenes will have the characters repeating their names to each other over and over so that we in the audience know who they are. You have to do that sometimes in a movie when you have a complicated plot but in this film, we have a complicated plot but most of that is irrelevant and it doesn’t matter.

This guy rang true to me. We know them or we at least see them in the street every day and we don’t notice them because they don’t want to be noticed. At the beginning of the film, he says that he deals in a commodity–in this case, it is cocaine but it could be anything as long as it makes money. That is why we have the Michael Gambon character, who is “legitimate”–he is probably friends with politicians and members of the royal family and owns skyscrapers–but he would deal in anything and probably deals in things far worse than cocaine and it doesn’t make a difference to him because it is about making money. These people keep their noses clean and that is why they are so good at making money–because they are quiet about making money.

Do you prefer having something beyond the script to look at when creating your character–such as the original book in the case of “Layer Cake” or biographical information when you are playing a real-life person–or do you prefer to stick simply to the material in the script itself?

It is the script. If you don’t have a script that is ready to go on the first day of shooting, you are fucked. If you are trying to rewrite the film while you are shooting it, in my experience, it just doesn’t fucking work and it ruins the movie because no one has a fucking idea of what to do. You have to have a script sitting there that you are ready to shoot. You can change things but there is this myth about improvisation that it is a spontaneous thing where you can do anything as long as you know your character. You can only improvise if you have a good script because the story has to be there. That is what I look for–when I am giving a script and people say, “Oh, we are going to do this and this,” I get nervous and ask “Well, when are you going to do this?” There have been times when I have been rewriting scenes on the day of shooting and I am not a fucking writer.

In working with Matthew Vaughn, who is making his directorial debut after serving for years as a producer, I was curious about the process of working with a filmmaker coming from that particular background. When an actor becomes a director, for example, the focus of the film is usually on performance, a writer’s is on the script and a cinematographer’s tends to be on the visual style. Therefore, what is it like to work with a producer-turned-director?

When that happens, I think that is kind of wrong. I’d be more interested is seeing a movie directed by an actor that concentrated on the visuals, though I don’t think that has ever happened. Matthew strikes me as someone like that. On the surface, he looks like a money-making machine who makes films that are highly popular and highly stylized and filled with wonderful cliches but he is also a fantastic storyteller. I saw the film for the first time in a while and I had forgotten how well he can spin a yarn. That is a surprise because you wouldn’t think that he would be able to tell a story like that and put it on the screen. The great thing about his experience with producing is that he has been able to get a great team of people together that he trusts to do their jobs. For a director, that is important because you have to trust those people.

A couple of years ago, you came to America to do a couple of expensive, high-profile Hollywood blockbuster projects, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Road to Perdition.” Under normal circumstances, one might have expected a British actor coming off of those projects to stay in the States and work on equally high-profile films for the next several years. Instead, you immediately returned to England and did the lower-profile likes of “Sylvia,” “The Mother,” “Enduring Love” and “Layer Cake.” Was this decision just a coincidence or a conscious decision relating to your experiences of working in the American film industry?

Kind of. The “Tomb Raider” thing was . . .I don’t regret for a second doing it but it just wasn’t an experience that was that satisfying. I was lucky enough then to go off the next year and do “Road to Perdition,” which cost the same amount of money as “Tomb Raider” but had much more to it–there are only so many ways that you can look surprised at crap blowing up. The truth of it is that after “Road to Perdition,” I got a lot of good reviews and I could have come over and done a lot of auditions but I just didn’t think that was good enough for me. I was proud of what I did in that movie but there were things that I wanted to do back home–films where I would play leads and have to work my fucking ass off to play them. I loved “Road to Perdition” but that was me playing a small part in a bigger movie and I wanted to play larger parts.

I wanted to ask you about the two films that you did with Roger Michell, “The Mother” and “Enduring Love.” With both of those films, I don’t think that I quite liked them when I first saw them–I admired the performances and thought they were well-made but there was something about each of them that I wasn’t quite sure that I was getting that kept me from fully embracing them. However, as time passed, I found that they were growing larger in my mind and I was thinking about them more than a lot of films that I immediately liked. Now, I think that they are both pretty extraordinary works. Obviously, since both of those screenplays were not simple cookie-cutter scripts designed to pull in mass audiences and sell toys, you must have responded to them on a more instantaneous level in order to see their worth and agree to act in them. In those two cases, what was it that struck you about those scripts and roles that made you believe that you could play them?

“The Mother” was the first one. It was a Hanif Kaureshi screenplay and though I am probably kidding myself about it now, I was scared shitless about the script and what it required of me. I didn’t even want to think about it, to tell the truth. I spoke to Roger on the phone and said, “I don’t know if I want to do this. I don’t like these people” and he said, “That is why we are making it.” Roger is an incredibly charming guy and he knows his stuff, it is as simple as that. He got me involved in making the movie and I love the fact that it is shocking. I love the fact that audiences sometimes say “That movie made me sick!”while others go on a roll with it and saw the dark side. Mainly, the film is about broken families and how they hardly talk to each other–that is the crux of the movie. It is really complicated with this film about an older woman whose husband dies and she has an affair where everything ends horribly.

When you hear a one-line description of the film, it sounds like the kind of thing that could be done as a sweet-tempered drama or as a silly farce and one of the things that is striking about it is how seriously and realistically everything and everyone is treated–even the mother is less of a sweet and angelic person and more self-centered than many might have expected.

It isn’t a simple story that tells you where your sympathies should lie. You look at the daughter and she is sort of acting like a brat and you would think that the mother would be sweet, but what she does in the film is horrible. She knowingly fucks her daughter’s boyfriend and convinces herself that it is okay. The problem then is trying to sell the film. With a lot of the films that I have done, you can’t really trailer them because there isn’t really a sound-bite in them that explains everything. Invariably, I see the trailers and I am dismayed because they throw people a different spin and try to make it seem like a thriller. One part of me is pissed off at that and another part is actually kind of proud of the fact that I make movies that get sent off to the people who make trailers and they can’t.

With “Enduring Love,” it was very simple. We were a week from finishing shooting on “The Mother” and Roger came up to me and asked if I had read the novel. I said I had and that it was a great book and he said, “Don’t read it again. We’re writing the script as we speak–are you in?” and I said yes. I wanted to work with him again straightaway and there was never an argument about it. I knew the story and when Rhys Ifans and Samantha Morton got involved, I knew that no matter how it turned out, it would be a good thing to do. That is the kind of security that you have–that you know you will get something out of it.

There are a couple of projects that you have coming up that I wanted to ask about. The first is the Truman Capote film from Douglas McGrath in which you play Perry Smith, one of the killers that Capote chronicled in “In Cold Blood.” Considering how well-known that story is, both from the book and the 1967 film, how much of a challenge for you was it to take on that role?

The film is actually about two different subjects. It is about whether or not artists only have one piece of art in them. Sandra Bullock plays Harper Lee, who was Capote’s best friend and who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird” while Capote wrote “In Cold Blood” and some would say that was it for those two. There is that debate and there is also the story of Truman’s relationship with Perry Smith while the latter was waiting to be executed and the question of how close they got.

The other film you have scheduled, which is supposed to go into production later this summer, is the 1972 Munich Olympics movie begin directed by Steven Spielberg. Can you shed any light on what you are doing in that one?

I can’t. Believe me, I would love to because I am very excited about it but it is still being prepared.

Finally, I have to ask–mostly because I will be slapped by editors if I don’t–about the speculation that you were in the running to be the next James Bond, which I believe has finally died down now that it seems that Pierce Brosnan actually will return. Now that it is over, what was it like to go through this enormous media storm–one devoted entirely to a film that hasn’t yet been made and a role that you haven’t played?

I genuinely believe, and this is just my opinion, that my name was put out there because they wanted to create debate over who should be the next James Bond and my name was on that list. I was here in America filming, so I was getting it all second-hand–it did hit Texas eventually, but by then the shitstorm had finally begun to die down.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1473
originally posted: 05/16/05 05:51:21
last updated: 05/16/05 07:20:29
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