British actor Daniel Craig admits he now has what he calls a "high-class problem": He has been shooting films back to back this year, without a break. It's a problem he's worked for years to have.
After two roles that introduced him to U.S. audiences in high-profile films—he appeared as Paul Newman's less favored son in Road to Perdition and as Angelina Jolie's foil in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—he emerged this year in a performance that can only be called definitive. Craig plays poet Ted Hughes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia Plath in Sylvia. Craig seems blessed with the very qualities that made Hughes such a living legend: that quiet intensity hidden behind a dark gaze, giving him the potential to come across as introspective and yet masculine to the point of being almost threatening. He inhabits the man as if he were born to play the role.
Yet this confident, flawless performance is, of course, the result of enormous amounts of research—not to mention love. Craig pursued the role doggedly, having been raised on Hughes' work by poetry-loving parents. In preparing for his work, the actor chose to focus on Hughes' The Birthday Letters—a final book of poems that broke Hughes' long silence about his relationship with Plath, released after Hughes had suffered years of accusations that he was somehow to blame for her suicide. Craig's research also included numerous biographies—many of which he found heavily biased in one direction or another—as well as conversations with people who had known the couple intimately.
The role was fraught with challenges, dealing with the private life of a highly controversial and contradictory man—someone whose outer stoicism and reserve masked a private intensity visible primarily through his writing. How do you translate such a person to the screen? Craig pointed out the additional challenge: "You have to remember this was an era when people just didn't open up. If you had a problem, you kept it to yourself."
But during research, Craig found his key into the man. "I was looking at photographs of him, and I began to wonder if he sort of created a persona for himself as much as anything," said the actor. "He was very tall, very dark. He had this brooding look. There are a lot of photographs where he does pose for the camera, and you see this intensity in his eyes. I spoke to quite a few women who had known him at [publishing house] Faber and Faber, and they said when he walked into the room, you crumbled at the knees. It was a mixture of repression and self-awareness, I think. That was my take on it—which for me, pointed toward someone who was holding a huge amount of emotion in, but it wasn't that far below the surface."
Craig admits that it took him years to be able to enjoy digging in to this kind of screen performance. He humbly insists his earlier performances were driven by pure fear.
"I spent most of my first couple of years of acting on film just scared shitless," said the actor, who was given his first film break in John Avildsen's The Power of One while still a student at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
"For some reason, I got cast as bad guys," said Craig. "The director would yell, 'Cut,' and then go, 'Wow, that was really intense,' and it was just because I was scared. I'd just keep my eyes open and stare a lot. And people would go, 'God, that's really angry.'"
It wasn't until he began doing TV series for the BBC that Craig began to relax and enjoy himself. "Suddenly I realized I could really get a kick out of acting. And I realized, well, what I want to do is movies, so I turned a lot of television work down and stuck to my guns, and finally movies started happening, probably because I started loving it more than anything."
It was, however, his television work that led to his role in Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition. "Sam Mendes was over here briefly while he was casting Road to Perdition," said Craig, "and happened to switch the television on; [he] saw me on it and went, 'Ah, that's who I want to play Connor Rooney.' You really can't plan how these things happen," the actor admitted. "If you try you'll go loopy."
Recently, Craig has had the good fortune of working not only with Mendes but also with other film directors who cut their teeth in the theatre. Last fall Craig appeared onstage in Caryl Churchill's A Number, directed by theatre/film director Stephen Daldry. Craig made The Mother last year with Roger Michell and has just finished another film with Michell—Enduring Love, based on the Ian McEwan novel.
"It makes me very happy that I'm working with some of my heroes from the theatre," said Craig, "and they are all still my heroes because they're making brilliant work in film as well."
His advice to actors? "Have some fun," said Craig. "I say that jokingly, but I also say it really seriously because that's the struggle. Have some fun and don't get bitter, because it's a really really good job, and you've got to get as much out of it as you can. When it's 4 o'clock in the morning and you are doing a night shoot and you're really pissed off, it can be a bit of a struggle. But, actually, there's no better place to be."