Daniel Craig is James Bond, despite the best efforts of danielcraigisnotbond.com, the protest website launched amid the general scepticism that greeted the casting of the actor a decade ago. "Too short, too blond, too thespy," he recalls. "Can one be too thespian?" He laughs camply - a hugely confident man whose strand of emotionally knackered 007 is now in the DNA of the icon. His inspiration was Indiana Jones. "What was brilliant was that he was fallible, he bled," he says of the archaeologist. "It's never left me. If you do action, an audience has to feel jeopardy." He smiles frequently. That site, by the way, is still live.
The latest Bond film, out next month, is Craig's fourth, on a continuous story arc that is a first for the franchise. Yet it's the scale of these movies that pistol-whips you (or should that be PPK-whips?). History haunts each scene: the history of 53 years of a very popular franchise and - crucially - the $1 billion made by Skyfall, the most successful 007 film ever. It's an operation that, at the latest count, has seen 610,934 uses of the title's hashtag since December, when Sam Mendes announced his second Bond would be called Spectre. It is the 24th in the series.
Think of these films like Beethoven's Fifth. A huge start - da-da-da-dum - followed by dovetailed violent crescendos and quiet moments in bed. It is the form of the latest, with a turbulent, personal plot that sees Bond face both his demons and the Spectre group, led by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). It also stars huge international action scenes, certainly more than in Skyfall, which barely left Britain. How, though, with such a leap in scale, can Spectre avoid being Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan's flabby farewell?
"Because," says the production designer, Dennis Gassner, a beaming man in a boater who spends a lot of time on Maui doing yoga, "we have better taste".
At 9.30pm on a cold March night in Rome this year, part of the elegant Via Nomentana was closed to residents, tourists and blow-dried dogs, held back behind temporary barriers by a disco dazzle of high-vis. Balcony parties whooped and clinked while, below, two policemen sat idly in a pizzeria: the Italian idea of security, which seemed to involve waiting until the British told them what to do.
The point of this fuss - 341 crew needing food, 200 locals guarding doors, a mile of road - was a scene in which Bond drives through so many tourist spots that the film even tyre-screeches around St Peter's. Come 3am, two souped-up supercars were on an umpteenth race up to 110mph. Roar, vanish, repeat, until dawn. The Aston Martin has a button labelled "fire-igniting start", and the gargantuan cost for seconds of a chase that's no different, really, from those in The Fast and Furious films is absurd.
What, then, makes Spectre special? History, yes, but it's more. It's the power of a man not even in Italy when I visit; an actor who took a tired franchise and updated it to such a millennial and twitchy extent that Roger Moore feels as worth revisiting as a saucy seaside postcard.
Four months after the shoot in Rome, I meet that man. Craig is an actor so hooked on his role that, for Spectre, he was involved from the beginning: in the writing, casting, crewing. What a presence he is, pacing through the corridor of a London hotel, dressed casually in jacket, jeans and brown boots. He makes the walls shrink in. The first detail that stands out is his bright blue eyes, 291 on the Pantone scale. He's very loud, puts his feet up on the table and swears a lot. You need his trust early. At parties he hosts, I imagine, he'd always want attention at the top of the table. In bigger groups, though, he would skulk in a corner, waiting for the evening to end.
There's an old review of a play ("Oh-oh," he says), from 1992, in which the critic wrote: "Craig contains his violence like an unexploded mine." Is that a good catch-all for the depth he has found in a once-cartoonish Bond? "I suppose," he says, nodding. His 007 lost a great love in Casino Royale, was furiously bereaved in Quantum of Solace, showed extraordinary restraint in Skyfall when faced with Javier Bardem's hair, and, for Spectre, may finally find his family. Interest in this back story - barely bothered with before - is "hard-wired" into him as an actor, Craig explains.
"First and foremost," he says, leaning in, always making eye contact, "get the story right. Then make whizz-bangs part of it. Character becomes important, and that's the interesting way of doing this. He's got older as I've got older, and I've changed and he's changed. I don't know how else to do it." If you stick within the rules of Ian Fleming's creation, he adds, you can do "anything you want".
The problem, though, is this very set of rules, laid down by the books and the first big-screen Bond, back in 1962, the 007 fans measure all others by. Played by Sean Connery like Dapper Laughs with a licence to kill, he is the embodiment of the "sewer of misogyny" that the journalist and commentator Bidisha claims Fleming wrote. It's as dated as an authentic tagine: women in bikinis have sex with him, then die. That's it. And despite Judi Dench, Skyfall wasn't so much a leap forward as a fan-pleasing step back. Articles had headlines such as: "Women, the makers of Skyfall hate you."
I tell Craig that viewers didn't think much of the scene in which Bond had sex in a shower with a prostitute to whom he offered a chance of freedom.
"Did they not?" he asks, surprisingly. She was a former slave, and Bond did what men had done to her when she was 12. "That's interesting. It's not how we wanted it to perform. Maybe it was because she was a victim. That's very valid."
He takes the criticism as if it is the first time he has heard the charge. (Later, supporting this, he argues that "if you're even slightly famous, you should avoid the internet at all costs. It's like being bullied at school.") Still, aware or not, he adds that, for Spectre, he and Mendes tried hard to make Bond a little bit more modern. As with a train line after an upgrade, there are issues, and bits creak, but it's better.
"He's a misogynist," says Craig, matter-of-fact about his role. "That's clear. He's got problems. Serious f***ing problems. But it's not my job to judge him. I like the fact that if you put him up against a very strong character - especially a female - who goes, 'What are you about?' he goes, 'Oh, okay.' I like to see that change."
Was the desire to update the spy's attitude to women the main reason for casting Monica Bellucci, 51, as his lover? She has four years on Craig: it's almost a third-wave feminist act in a series with Pussy Galore and, more recently, Quantum of Solace shoving the actor, then 40, into bed with Gemma Arterton, then 22. Sitting here pushing a blockbuster, and wary of being "overtly political", Craig says picking Bellucci "wasn't as self-conscious as it has become". Rather, her age just fitted. "But later," he continues, "people started to say it's a really good thing - and it is. If it raises debate, that's no bad thing. If it helps the conversation about the disparity in wages, not only in this business, but in every business, then bring it on." Bellucci plays a character called Lucia Sciarra - finally, no double entendre.
Craig has few reservations about being Bond, the most scrutinised role in cinema. As Britain's film figurehead, Bond is expected to be a spokesman, pushed to represent the country, mirror its culture. It's all-consuming, then, and if its current incumbent has a complaint, it is the total lack of anonymity. Last year in Ireland, he and his wife, Rachel Weisz, spent a long night in the pub. They were, he tells me, left alone, really happy, and only at closing time did the locals ask for photos. The couple said yes, of course. They had respected privacy, so the celebrities offered selfies and small talk as a way of saying thanks. This is how Craig wants it, but not how he gets it. Mostly, if he goes somewhere public, he's got "an hour, then it gets out of hand".
Yet all this, he admits, simply shows his age. He is 47, and shakes his head and frowns at a mention of Twitter - "anathema" to him. He hails from a "different generation", and all these lights and the desire for photos, he doesn't understand.
"If me and my mates went out and all got shit-faced, and someone started taking photographs, they'd get thumped," he says, chortling, before flipping back to serious again. "The other thing I don't get is, people are happy to take pictures of me without asking. But things have changed so rapidly. Nobody really gives a f*** what I think about the modern world, but that part I can do without."
The conversation moves to Citizenfour, the disquieting Edward Snowden documentary about this modern world and its strangulation by surveillance. Craig had to "stop half way, as it was making me sweat" - he was caught in the phone-hacking scandal, after all, before Sony, the Bond studio, suffered email-hacking on an industrial scale - and such themes are "messed around with" in Spectre. The new ways of spying, though, are tricky to introduce into 007: as Craig puts it, his agent is "of the old world", using intelligence-gathering methods that don't focus on listening into millions of phone calls and hoping.
"I presume they get information," he says, with a lack of conviction that suggests he doesn't think they do. "That things are thwarted. But looking someone in the eye, having a conversation ... In big conflicts, peace has come because people sat in a room together. I hope that is still happening." Face-to-face is in Spectre. For one thing, because cybercrime - watching files download - is cinematic paint drying; and because Bond lives in a "fantastical world" that has "supervillains". The latter is important for audiences. Is Waltz's baddie based on anyone?
"I don't know if supervillains exist," Craig says, shaking his head. "They could. There's maybe an island somewhere that sinks. Or maybe they are in plain sight, parking boats off St Tropez every summer."
Never - from Connery (definitive), to George Lazenby (one-off), to Moore (silly), to Timothy Dalton (serious), to Brosnan (mixed) - has an actor playing Bond been as invested in the part as Craig. He is obsessive, saying "we" about the film-making when others would say "they", and suggests that I talk to the director. He knows this role - not his theatre origins, his mainstream breakthrough on television with Our Friends in the North or his career-best film, Enduring Love - is how he will be remembered. So he wants it to be weighty, a reel to take to his teachers at the National Youth Theatre, to show them his talent wasn't wasted. Indiana Jones, the inspiration, has a scene in which the rogue's heart is nearly torn out. He bleeds. He's vulnerable, and that is Craig's Bond in microcosm.
Will the film after Spectre, the 25th, be his last? "I don't know. Yeah. I mean, yes. Maybe." Then it's the question of who takes over. A woman? "That's another story. But why not? Jasmine Bond?" A black actor? Idris Elba is a rumour.
"The right person for the job should do the job, and I don't give a f*** what colour their skin is," he says sternly. "It shouldn't be an issue. We should have moved on." And next for him? "I need to meet more directors," he admits wearily. This is his first film since Skyfall. He needed time off as he'd "got married and needed to settle". But he won't rest long, and hints at a stage return.
Back in 2001, the young actor summed up his career: "Grew up on the Wirral, left home at 16 or 17, came down to London, went to drama school, became an actor." What's to add? "I feel the same," he shrugs, playing down stardom, millions and a United Nations post as global advocate for the elimination of mines and explosive hazards, which led Ban Ki-moon to say: "You have been given a licence to kill. I'm now giving you a licence to save."
He continues: "I always had an ambition to be an actor, and every actor who says they didn't want to be famous is lying." He pauses. A very large watch sits on his wrist. "But I never foresaw this."
On day 110 of the Spectre shoot, back in June, Pinewood was sizzling. The studios sit in a bleak crater where vast indoor stages offer essential cooling: acre on acre of dream factory and chill. The biggest is the 007 stage, which, for Spectre, held a full-scale replica of Westminster Bridge, laid with real tarmac for this colossal film. Gunshots fill the air. A fight scene is prepped and the crew wait for their key prop. All this structure and personnel - one has work as "crowd hair superviser" - and you still spot a vacuum in the shape of the man this is for, whose obsession over a role many didn't want him to take led to quiet desperation to prove the doubters wrong, or annoy them.
An assistant rushes to Mendes to tell him "DC" has arrived, as a 4x4 with tinted windows pulls up. It stops, sprays dust in the air. A door opens. Everything clicks into its place. "Action!" The tone is modern, serious, suffering. It is, thanks to Craig, impossible to think of this spy as anything else these days.
Months later, I speak to Mendes. Yes, Spectre is emotional, he says, but that's just what he and Craig are good at. It's a long way back to knowing winks. The creator of danielcraigisnotbond.com, however, was far from a lone voice back in 2005. How popular, I ask, is Craig now?
"Oh, I have no idea," Mendes says. "When we were in Istanbul on the last movie, a cab driver told me how much better Bond was since it stopped trying to be funny. Then I went to the hotel and a woman at the desk said, 'Are you going to put some jokes in it?'"
This is the director's final Bond and, soonish, producers need a new actor for the tuxedo, too. Who the hell can replace him? "The good thing is it's up to someone else!" Mendes bursts out laughing - loudly, unsympathetically.
"What happens to Bond? Is he culturally significant any more? All of those things. But one thing I would say is that two months before Skyfall came out, the front cover of Entertainment Weekly had a photograph of Daniel and the headline was, 'Is Bond dead?' Before every movie, there's always the debate: 'Does he make sense any more?' That's up to the culture to decide and the film-makers, people who have a little part of the mythology that is Bond. The only job is to be interesting. Nothing else."
Daniel Craig's best Bond moments
Five scenes in which Daniel Craig has brilliantly transformed the role of Bond to be truly his own.
Casino Royale rooftop chase
Martin Campbell's 2006 movie opens with a sickeningly vertiginous chase sequence on a construction site. The scene, in which James Bond pursues a Frenchman who has stolen his bag of potatoes, was Craig's first 007 chase on screen - and he carried it off with aplomb. It features a genuine acrobatic stunt by the actor, which was voted the best James Bond stunt of all time in a magazine poll. Craig later says he chose to jump off the crane: "It was important to me that I do as many of my own stunts as possible for authenticity ... I didn't get fit just to take my shirt off."
Casino Royale swimming trunks scene
Critics claimed that Craig's "look" didn't fit the mould. But when he emerged confidently and impressively from the sea in a tiny pair of trunks, the scene marked a Venus-like rebirth for James Bond. Roger Moore's retro hairy chest and Pierce Brosnan's trim, lightweight figure were history as the world greeted the protein-shake action-gentleman. In typically modest style, Craig claimed the iconic scene was a fluke: "It happened by accident. Where we were filming in the Bahamas, the beach has a very low shelf and the water is very narrow. I kind of swam underwater for a while and then came up, and of course it's only up to my knees. So you saw more of me than we were expecting!"
Quantum of Solace car chase
Craig practised speedboating and stunt driving for this film - and it shows in the slick opening sequence where he takes absolute control of his Aston Martin DBS as it flies around sharp, mountainous bends. Telegraph film critic Mark Monahan described it as one of the film's highlights: "Edgy close-ups of Craig's granite features give way to a spectacular high-speed chase around an Italian coastal road. Bullets fly, glass splinters, cars crunch, in a scene that - like many of the film's best - owes much to the quick-fire editing of the Bourne thrillers."
Spectre is at cinemas on November 12. Variety will host a red carpet event and screening at Hoyts Sylvia Park on November 4 to raise funds for disadvantaged Kiwi kids this Christmas. Tickets from iticket.co.nz.
- Canvas, Times, Telegraph