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I don’t compare myself to any of the previous Bonds,” says Daniel Craig of his starring role as Agent 007 in Casino Royale – which is just as well, because there can be few other people who will be able to resist comparing Craig’s account of the iconic superspy with those of his predecessors when it opens later this week. This is, after all, the 21st movie in what is perhaps the most successful series in cinema history.

The 38-year-old Craig has the distinction of being the first blond Bond, in contrast to the dark-haired Sean Connery, George Lazenby (who made only one film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan. He landed the role after a casting search that had all the proportions and intrigue of that for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind in 1939. Rumours about the search for a new Bond began in 2004 and Craig found himself on a list with his fellow countryman Clive Owen, the Scot Ewan McGregor and the Australians Eric Bana and Hugh Jackman.

In February 2005 Craig came across the previous Bond, Pierce Brosnan, at the Bafta Awards. He recalls leaning over and asking Brosnan: “It’s a possibility. What do you think?” to which Brosnan responded, quickly and generously: “Go for it!”

His decision to do just that cost Craig some negative press. When he was announced as the new Bond in October 2005, some coverage was dismissive – “The Name’s Bland, James Bland”, one headline ran – and some, such as the website Craignotbond.com, outright hostile. Critics said he was too blond and too plain. It’s noteworthy that Connery was initially dismissed by the Bond author Ian Fleming as a “snorting lorry driver”.

Craig says he was hurt by the reaction: “I didn’t respond publicly but I wanted to say: ‘Give it a chance. Let me show you what I can do with the role. Go see the movie and then judge me.’”

But even the nay-sayers had to acknowledge that Craig was an accomplished actor. He gave riveting performances in Road to Perdition (as Paul Newman’s bad son), Sylvia (as the poet Ted Hughes), in trashy adventures such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and in weightier fare such as Capote, in which he played the killer Perry Smith.

Committing to the Bond role took him about 18 months. “[The producers] Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson approached me a long time ago, but I said I needed to see the script,” he says. “Once I’d read it, I said to myself: ‘I have to have a go at this, because if I don’t do it, I’ll regret it.’ I screen-tested, while Barbara did a lot of winking at me, saying ‘it’s OK’, so I had a little more confidence.”

“When we audition for the role of Bond,” Broccoli and Wilson recall, “we ask actors to do the scene in From Russia With Love where Bond meets Tatiana Romanova for the first time. The scene has everything you want to know about the potential Bond: drama, romance and action.”

Craig passed the test “with flying colours”, says Broccoli. “As soon as we met him, Daniel was the obvious choice for Bond. He is charismatic, versatile and sexy.” He was given the call while shooting the thriller The Visiting in Maryland with Nicole Kidman, Broccoli apparently telling him: “It’s over to you, kiddo.”

There was, Craig says, a feeling of anti-climax after he received the news: “Apart from getting blindingly drunk, which was my first step, with vodka Martinis, it really sank in a couple of days later, when we did the press lunch in London. After that, I just thought: ‘OK. Let’s make the best Bond movie we can. Let’s go on with the show.’”

A rigorous fitness regime was crucial. “If Bond should at some point take his shirt off, we should feel that he’s physically imposing, that he’s done the things he’s supposed to have done, like being a commander in the Navy,” Craig says.

The effort paid off as soon as production began, in Modrany Studios outside Prague. The first scene he shot was a chase sequence, in which Bond pursues a would-be bomber. “I wanted to do as much of the action work as possible,” Craig recalls, “so that the audience can see that it’s me and that it’s real. That meant acquiring injuries and carrying on, blasting through to the next level of action – and pain . . . if you don’t get bruised playing Bond, you’re not doing the job properly.”

He elaborates: “I had black eyes, cuts, bruises and muscle strain. We had a physiotherapist on the set and I took lots of painkillers. You ask a stunt man: ‘What does it feel like to fall down a flight of stairs?’ and he’ll tell you: ‘It’s like falling down a flight of stairs.’ That’s the simple answer. As much as I was hurt, the stunt men were in much more pain than I was.”

Ultimately, though, Craig says, he was attracted to the movie because of the script’s emotional complexity. “In this film, Bond is a darker character, which is how Ian Fleming originally wrote him,” he says. “We start right at the beginning of Bond’s career, when he has a lot of rough edges. He’s a loner, and he doesn’t like to get involved with people. We wanted to base the story as much in reality as possible, within the bounds of the franchise. As the story goes on, however, Bond becomes more refined.”

In preparation Craig watched all the Bond movies. “I didn’t want to miss a trick and wanted to find good things in them that I could use. But then I pushed all that behind me because I didn’t want to do it unless I could take it in another direction and move forward.” He admits, though, that Sean Connery is his favourite Bond. “Connery defined the role, for which he was perfect,” says Craig. “He was bad, sexy, animalistic and cool.”

Growing up near Liverpool, Craig loved movies. He singles out Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: “I walked into the cinema not knowing what was on, sat down with my drink and popcorn and Blade Runner came on. I didn’t know Ridley Scott from Adam, but I wanted to make movies like that, to create beautiful images in a great story.” As a boy, he says, he also admired Steve McQueen.

“Daniel will be a revelation to the audience,” predicts Casino Royale’s director Martin Campbell, who also introduced Pierce Brosnan as Bond in GoldenEye in 1995. “He combines toughness with charm and humour, and because this is a much more character-driven story, Daniel’s gravitas is a perfect match for the role.” Craig in turn credits his director with galvanising cast and crew. “Martin fires everyone up. You obviously need that level of energy in the action sequences, but it’s equally valuable in quieter dramatic scenes like the poker tournament.”

Contracted to do two more Bond pictures, Craig says: “The plan is to shoot another Bond movie by the end of next year, but we really have to get this one out first. We have to find out what the response is.”

He hopes the Bond experience will prove to be liberating rather than stifling: “It’s a high-class problem to have an actor typecast as James Bond, and I’m certainly going to try to get as much out of it as I can. I’m aware that it might limit what I do, but I shall approach that problem as it comes.”

I ask Craig whether he feels a responsibility to carry on the legacy of the Bond pictures, which began six years before he was born. “I accept the fact that there is this Bond history,” he says. “I want to continue the tradition of parents taking their children to see the movie because they were taken by their parents. You could be critical of past movies, you can be critical of my movie, but it’s a great cinema tradition and Bond is a great character. I want to appeal to everybody – but then, I’m greedy.”

‘Casino Royale’ opens in cinemas on November 17

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