Best Bond Yet: Daniel Craig on How He Redefined 007

Craig was unhappy at school. He failed his exams. He was bullied. He wasn’t a wimp—he played rugby, a passion of his father’s—but he didn’t fit in. When Craig was 14, a couple of friends put him forward to play Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker, in a school production of Oliver! The part has a jolly, macabre song. The audience loved him. “I’m not saying it’s like the first time you take really good drugs,” Craig said. “But it was a body shock of emotion, of adrenaline, in a way that I’d never felt before.”

Craig passed an art exam, his mother’s subject, and drifted out of school. About 10 years ago, he found out that Olivia had been admitted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Britain’s most prestigious acting school, when she was 18 but didn’t attend. “There was no money,” he said. “She couldn’t go.” Olivia would take Craig and his sister to the Liverpool Everyman, the city’s main theater, where he hung out backstage, but he loved acting because it was his. “My experience onstage was mine,” he said. “It was the first time in my life I had something that I could claim as my own.”

Boxer shorts, $45, by Paul Stuart / Sunglasses, $555, by Jacques Marie Mage / Watch, $9,200, by Omega

Sometimes Craig stayed with his aunt, who lived on the Wirral Peninsula, to the west of the city. As a teenager, he haunted a cheap cinema, in the seaside town of Hoylake, next to the Irish Sea, where he was often the only customer. “The movies used to arrive late,” Craig said. “They were always terrible prints. They were scratchy. But I sat in there and watched movies.” One afternoon, in the early ’80s, he went to a science-fiction double bill. “I’d never heard of this movie Blade Runner.” Craig watched the film, alone, with a carton of Kia-Ora, a now defunct brand of orange squash. He leaned forward in his seat, rapt, mind blown, until the end credits rolled. “I don’t think I took a sip. I just went, ‘That’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to do. I want to do that.’ And I didn’t know what that was,” Craig said. “That was revelatory for me.”

In 1984, when he was 16, Craig auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and moved to London for the summer. A friend of his father’s lent him a house on Ladbroke Road, in Notting Hill. Craig performed, on and off, with the National Youth Theatre for the next six years while he went through drama school. The theater’s director, Edward Wilson, became a mentor. Wilson and his partner, Brian Lee, a set designer, let Craig look after their house. He became the theater’s handyman. He painted the offices. In 1991, Craig was cast to play a racist South African soldier in The Power of One, a commercial and critical flop starring Stephen Dorff. Craig was 23. He was paid 18,000 pounds. “Which was a fucking fortune. I mean, a fortune,” Craig told me. “I spent every single penny of it.” No one had ever told him about taxes, assuming that he would never earn enough to owe any. (It took him five years to pay off the bill.)

Going for auditions in London, Craig encountered plenty of young actors who were better educated or more comfortable in their skin. But what he lacked in polish he made up for in presence. “At the end of the day, we had to put a show on, and I can put a fucking show on,” he said. Craig talks about acting the way other people talk about jumping out of an airplane. “I love that leveling. When you’re standing backstage and you’re ready to go on.… You’re all looking at each other, and you’re all shitting yourselves. All bets are off.” He can’t wait to be out there. “That’s the drug,” he said. “It’s a place to be able to be out of control, to be completely out of control. But yet you have to be in control.”