According to Olivia Wilde, “There’s nothing quite like staring into Daniel Craig’s eyes.”
The actress made the confession during our recent interview for Jon Favreau’s new Western/Sci-fi hybrid Cowboys & Aliens (read our review). After sitting down with Craig during the gorgeous Missoula, Montana junket for Cowboys we are forced to admit that Wilde hit the nail on the proverbial head with her bold statement. Not even the genuinely stunning countryside was able to compete. Craig has a quality of sharp, almost animalistic intelligence to him that has served some of his recent characters perfectly (notably Jake Lonergan in this film and, of course, James Bond). One gets the sense that he is processing multiple pieces of information very quickly — about both people and his surroundings — and making decisions based on those assessments. Of course we are all continually taking in a myriad of information, but Craig’s process simply feels more conscious and alert than most. One also get the sense that he does not suffer fools gladly — though he was quite affable, friendly and charming during our interview.
Craig has a sense of maturity, of adult masculinity, that is rare in so many actors today. In our interview with Jon Favreau, the director explained:
“There’s not a lot of people who can play this role. Most people his age feel more like kids. They don’t feel like guys who’ve experienced enough to feel remorse and need redemption. They feel like people who are just coming of age. He had that history to him and he was a real good foil.”
All of the aforementioned qualities and traits (maturity, intensity, animal intelligence) lent themselves to Craig’s portrayal of Jake Lonergan in Cowboys & Aliens. Lonergan embodies many of the classic tropes of the Western: he enters the film as a silent stranger, a man with no memory, a violent man, who evolves over time. Though Lonergan develops as a character throughout the course of the film — he does have some eternal characteristics. He’s immediately ruthless. He’s willing to be, without hesitation, ruthless.
“It’s instinctively ruthless,” Craig responded to our observation in our roundtable discussion in Montana.
“And that’s what I liked. In all good Westerns, the good guy is always a little bit questionable because he kind-of has to make moral judgments. There’s an instinct within him, which is about survival and killing. I mean, let’s be honest. And during the movie, there’s a sort-of redemption about that. He wakes up for the first time through this awful experience. With Harrison’s character as well, he’s going through a sort-of redemptive process as well. That appealed to me, it gives it a few more levels and I kind of like bad guy, good guys. They’re kind-of the more interesting people.”
Craig, like the rest of the cast, had craved the opportunity to play a Cowboy and “gave his all” to the role, striking a balance between finding the sense of reality in the circumstances as well as the fun and the humor. In point of fact, much of the time, the humor was found in taking the circumstances seriously.
“Well, I think the title does it all. I think the title is the send up and then it was our job not to send it up. And we all agreed about that and that was certainly one of the reasons I did the job. We weren’t winking every time something happened. It’s a kind-of risk, but you have to go for it, when you make a movie, you have to take that risk. I think the easy way out is to make a gag everytime something extraordinary happens. I think it’s funnier to get people reacting in a real way, like we were discussing, then it becomes funny because of the situation as opposed to sort-of bullying the audience into laughing. It was funny, the first time I saw “Blade Runner,” I saw it double bill with “Outland.” And “Outland” is a Western, it’s Sean Connery and people. They blend. They do blend and they always have. For Christ sake’s, Han Solo’s a cowboy!”
Given the opportunity, as a group we were forced to ask if it was hard to have a blaster around Han Solo and not make jokes. To which Craig responded, “That never stopped me.” When we begged for an example, we were sadly, denied, “No I can’t,” Craig replied laughing. “I can’t let out secrets like that. I took advantage of all of those things. It was the only way I could stay sane working with him.”
As to collaborating with the iconic Harrison Ford (and within a film that was going to beg some Bond and Han go mano-a-mano references) Craig told us he was in happy to have a co-star that he admired, and who was also determined to get the job done.
“I’m a fan, and have been, as a lot of people are. But he’s an actor and I’ve been lucky enough to find that when working with great actors that first and foremost all they want to do is to get it right. He came powering in with lots of ideas, but also with humor and grace and all those things you’d hope in somebody, but you can’t expect. He wanted to take part in the movie. I’m like “f**k it” have as much as you want. [Laughter] But across the board, I could talk about Harrison until the cows come home. The cast: Olivia and Sam Rockwell, Adam and Paul Dano – that’s Jon Favreau’s absolute intention was to gather as good a cast as we possibly could because it’s an extraordinary idea and we had to have the best actors we could, every part, Clancy Brown, everybody.”
The devil is in the details as they say, and one thing fans might notice while watching Cowboys & Aliens is that particular care that was taken in the casting (as Craig mentioned) right down to every last character in the film. In addition, there is a strong sense of the desire to capture the authenticity of the West. Craig’s Jake Lonergan for example, quite noticeably,…never looses his hat.
“Can’t lose your hat,” Craig laughingly told us. “All the wranglers on the set… I lost my hat a couple of times, I had to buy a crate of beer everytime I lost my hat. So I glued that motherf**ker to my head.”
Part of the pleasure of a film like this is, of course, the action. When Craig was asked which he enjoyed more: the hand-to hand violence or the bigger set pieces he excitedly responded, “Just the violence!” At which point we began to understand why his character’s instinctual ruthlessness came so naturally to the actor. When he took a moment to answer in earnest, Craig reflected that although he is not a lifelong horse-person, and as such was on a bit of a learning curve for this film, he ultimately found the riding to be the most pleasurable aspect of the action:
“I don’t know. The best one I had was just saddling up every day. I mean, it really was just that. Whether you came to work with a bad head, or just in sort of a bad mood, getting on a horse was just sort of like: ‘oh okay, here we go.’ Everything’s got to calm down a little and it just, you know, you look up and we were in a beautiful countryside. I get a kick out of doing the action, I always have. It’s kind-of one of the reasons I wanted to become an actor was so I could fall over well, and so it sort of just gave me that opportunity.”
Harrison Ford bought both his own as well as Daniel Craig’s horse when shooting was complete and reports that the animals now, “have a nice life and don’t have to work.” We were tempted to ask Ford if he would also be willing to buy us, but somehow managed to refrain. (You can read our interview with Ford – HERE).
Craig became quite attached to the animals as well and said, “If I had a patch of land, a patch of grass, I would have bought my horse.”
Take a look at Craig both riding a horse and being violent in the Cowboys & Aliens character featurette below:
In watching Cowboys & Aliens you can’t help but notice how the people from the time period depicted react to the initial contact with the alien technology. Something they would have no point of reference for. The initial response is, of course, one generated from a biblical framework, but then it becomes far more active, defensive – as one would assume we would respond today.
“The leap of faith is one of… I mean obviously, there’s something at the beginning of the movie that says these are demons. I imagine you live in the wild West and it was heaven and hell and a dusty earth. And the fact is that they came along to something they immediately thought they were being punished for something. And then to take it to the next stage these people kind of suddenly go, ‘F**k this, we’re going to deal with it and we’re gonna go, in fact (I’ve said it before but it does make sense) we’re going to head them off at the pass.’ You know, literally, they’re going to get a posse together and go after the aliens cause they’ve taken our kin.”
One of the basic (though unspoken) notions present in this film is idea that aliens (or creatures in general) are the last bastion for a depiction of pure evil. An enemy that we can sit back and viscerally enjoy seeing our heroes brutally fight and kill… a lot, with no sense of consequence. We are well past the point where it is an acceptable practice to demonize an entire group of people, so, there are few options left for a straightforward good guy vs. bad guy piece. During the course of the interview Craig mentioned the political Westerns of the ’70s that revisited the previously limited cinematic depictions of “Cowboys” and “Indians.” We asked the actor what he thought of the idea of needing a place where we can, without apology, watch unmitigated death and violence.
“Well,” Craig responded laughing, “This one’s called ‘Cowboys & Aliens.'”
“Joking aside. We’re trying to get this to as wide an audience as possible – this is not the movie to discuss or develop those ideas. But it’s interesting, “why aliens?” After the war and during the nuclear age there was a lot about aliens attacking, because it was this constant threat. There’s whole theses to write on this, and I’m sure you will. People have PHDs on this thing and address why we apply science fiction to culture, because there are other fears in our lives. But it’s much easier and much more morally right to blast aliens than to blast each other.”
The irony is that this correspondent had been thinking of writing just such a paper earlier that morning. We mentioned that Craig seemed to have a shockingly good bead on people.
Craig (as we have said) is a Western enthusiast, a genre that has seen some more success in the past year or so (particularly with the Coen Brothers’ True Grit). When we asked the actor if he would be pursuing additional Western roles, he replied:
“Yeah I think I would, maybe one without the aliens in it. They’re amazing stories. There’s always a major moral argument within a Western. There’s life and death decisions, and therefore everything is heightened. Plus riding a horse, wearing a hat, and carrying a gun.”
You can see Craig doing all that and then some in Cowboys & Aliens in theaters now.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc