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His Name Was Bond, James Bond

Timothy Dalton on the World of 007.

By Edward Gross     November 15, 1999

When Timothy Dalton appeared in LICENCE TO KILL, which was destined to be his swan song as James Bond with no one, not even the actor himself expecting Pierce Brosnan to replace him in the next film six years later he was proud of what had been accomplished in a plotline that had Bond seeking vengeance against drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi) for the near-death of CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison).

'THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS,' said Dalton in an interview from the time, 'was already written and was very much of the preceding humor when I signed on. We did shape it a little bit as we went along, trying to make it more involving and special. In this one we've been able to take big leaps, and we've got it right back to its basics and right back to its origins. This is a film that really inhabits the proper world of James Bond. I mean, James Bond lives in a world that is violent and dangerous. If you like that kind of thing, great. If you don't, then it's not for you, but those books and those early films were about danger and frightening violence. They were written in a way that we could vicariously be a part of that world, and that's what a Bond movie should be. I'm delighted that we've got it back in that world, where a Bond film should be...it's a world that a Bond film should live in.'

As should be apparent, Dalton took playing Bond seriously, as his research into the character's past shows. 'There's a very interesting moment in CASINO ROYALE, the very first book,' he said. 'It was a book unlike the rest of the series, a book at the end of which Bond felt that he had had enough. He was finished. He couldn't resolve the morality of working and living in a world where one day someone is your friend and ally, and the next day he's setting out to kill them, just on the whim of the government; the whim of policy. How do you deal with yourself morally when you're supposed to be on the sight of right and good, when you're a killer? When your job is to kill people? It was either in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE or CASINO ROYALE, where he says, 'When I was younger I used to think that I was doing something noble and worthwhile by assassinating somebody, and now I realize I'm a murderer. I'm just killing me, the person who works for the other side.' But in CASINO ROYALE, this malaise, dirty morality disgusted him and he wanted to quit. It was in that book that someone told Bond he should then go out after the big people; the major threats, and from then on Fleming wrote books that were about a hero against evil. A flawed hero. A hero ridden with weaknesses and vices, but also a hero of strength and conviction and you definitely had honor and a sense of justice. But he didn't live in a real world of politics. He wasn't a vigilante, because he often depends on other people.'

There was also an element of Bond being a manic-depressive, particularly in Fleming's short stories. 'It's a theme that runs through all the books, really,' he concurred. 'He has a thing Fleming called acidity, which is an odd word and I don't know what it meant. But I think it means revulsion or distaste for your work. The man is a paradox. He's a contradiction. In the short story 'The Living Daylights' rough story, isn't it? he's in a room with whiskey, uppers and downers in order to murder someone he doesn't want to murder, but has to because he's licensed to kill. In other stories, of course, he takes a very pragmatic course and does kill people, because he believes in what he's doing. I don't think he's a role model. He is a flawed hero, but then heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they're white knights in shining armor, sometimes they're detectives like Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe or Hammett.

'Understand,' he continued, 'I don't think Bond reflects all of that at all. We're talking about Bond as Bond. But what is reflected in this film is that Bond is seen as human; a Bond who's a real person, with more dimension than maybe he's had before. In order for the audience to be swept along in this fantasy, you've got to believe in the person. We want to believe. We want to be caught in it, we want to be thrilled and excited, and you can only feel those things if you're involved. And I don't believe Bond is superman, a cardboard cut out or two-dimensional. He's got to be a human being. He's got to be identifiable, and that's what I'm trying to be. This is a particular kind of story. In another kind of story I hope we can bring in some of those other qualities. In The Living Daylights where he's with his associate, Saunders and he says, 'I don't give a fuck if M fires me. I don't like this work.' Every movie is a different story and each film we do will present different opportunities, and show different aspects of the character. What I'm trying to do is get him back to being a real person that we can identify with, to show some of his flaws, to show his strengths too. I want to participate in bringing the movies back to a world that I think a James Bond movie should inhabit. It's not a spoof, it's not light, it's not jokey. Its humor is darker, it's blacker and more morbid. It's difficult for me to talk about the movie, because I did it, but I think it is a movie that is thrilling and exciting, and I believe we get more out of it that way and we feel that because we're involved in it. Because we believe in it. It's not believable, but in order to suspend disbelief, you must believe, so it's got to be real in that particular world.

Interstestingly, the efforts to make Bond more human in LICENCE TO KILL also conveyed the impression that he was out of control. 'It's also the particular quality of the story,' Dalton noted. 'He's not behaving as a professional. Normally in any other story and in any other future story, one would presume that Bond would behave as a professional, detached, objective, skilled agent, but this time he's personally involved. He becomes consumed by this mission, backed by fury because nobody is going to do anything about it. A good man's been viciously maimed and his wife's been murdered. Don't forget, Bond's been married and his wife was murdered, too, and because of the corruption, the drug money and the influence of that corruption, no one's going to do anything. So he becomes very, very involved, and he fucks up. It's a destructive course of action. It's very understandable; in a pragmatic sense commendable. Maybe not from an idealist viewpoint, where you're supposed to arrest people and let justice take its course. In this case he kills them, but then he changes his tact because he's gone down that course almost to the point of self-destruction. But he realizes it, and then he broadens out the view of what he's after, and he behaves much more objectively, because he realizes that he just doesn't have to go against the man, he's got to go against what the man stands for and what the man is, and his empire as well. Bond is very clever, preying on the man's weakness which the man thinks as being his strength, and planting that paranoia, allowing the man to destroy himself.'

With two 007 films under his belt, Dalton was pleased to note that his life had not changed significantly from where it had been a few years earlier. 'It's changed professionally,' he clarified. 'Being in a big success, you get more offers. But on a regular, personal level, it hasn't changed very much at all, and I'm very pleased. A lot of people have said, and of course the press is partly responsible for creating a public image or public awareness that your life ceases, and that you are besieged by photographers, besieged by the public, but it's not actually true. Given that it's a possibility you have to think about it, but thankfully it hasn't happened. If you go out on the street and behave like a regular guy, most people are decent and self respecting and they'll talk to you like you're one of them. If you behave like an asshole, you'll get treated like an asshole. If you go out behaving like a star, maybe people will make your life hell. But if you go out on a regular basis, like a regular guy, they'll treat you like a regular guy, and I'm thrilled by that. What could be more foolish or self destructive than to remove yourself from the very roots and foundations of your work? We, all of us....writers, actors, producers, directors...we deal with life, and if you cut yourself off from life and then go and live behind barbed wire on top of a hill, or look at the world through the tinted windows of your limousine, you've cut yourself off from the sustenance of your work.'

Something that has perplexed Dalton through most of his career has been the notion of 'celebrity stardom'. To this day, he can't quite figure it out. 'When I was growing up,' he said, 'people I thought of as stars were people at the very top of their profession. Those people who worked for many, many years were stars. They earned it, and they deserved it and it was the product of a great amount of achievement. Even as a kid, if you made one movie that was popular, you shouldn't think of a person as a star, because you know it's a very changeable, uncertain world. These days, celebrity seems to be the goal; the thing itself. When you ask a kid what he wants to do when he grows up, he says, 'I want to be a star.' 'Yeah, but what do you want to do?' 'I wanna be a star.' It's crazy, and it's a crazy world today, this whole emphasis on stardom, celebrity or even just money. All of these things are fine if you've won them, but they should come as a consequence of achieving something. Build a very great bridge, a building, or make a medical breakthrough, be at the top of your profession. So in that sense, no, and I've always felt that way. You say, 'What happened?' I know exactly what happened. When I was in my 20s, I'd had a lot of good successes. I'd done THE LION IN WINTER, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, WUTHERING HEIGHTS--playing any parts. Rightly or wrongly, and I think I was influenced by peers and colleagues around me who had been involved in filmmaking or stardom, and then disappeared. I actually wanted to learn my craft. I wanted to be an actor all my life. I love writing, I love the work, I love my job and I knew I was a beginner. I also felt that I wasn't ready to be playing leading parts with Katherine Hepburn, Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Richard Harris, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm...when I'm in my early 20s? I felt, in a way, that I didn't deserve it, so I knocked it all on the head. I turned every movie down and went into three solid years of theater, because I wanted to improve; I wanted to learn and really develop. I was wrong, because only young people can play young parts, and it was young parts I was playing, and I think I was playing them very well. But I know I'm a better actor because I went back to learn.'

And, he emphasized, he sees no difference between playing James Bond or appearing in Shakespeare. 'I approach it exactly the same way I'd approach anything,' he detailed. 'You look at the script, you understand the script, it's structure and you try to analyze your role in it, so that the story affects you. Then you do all the research and work, and you bring that character to life in the best way that you can. I give a Bond movie as much commitment as I give anything else, because nothing is worth doing unless you at least attempt to do it as well as you can. You want to be as good as you can be, and the character must be as good as it can be, and the story must hold together.'

Fully expecting to come back for a third stint as Bond, the actor also offered his views on his future as Bond. 'One of the best moments that's happened to me it has happened to me previously over the past twenty years, but we are talking about Bond was here in New York two years ago,' Dalton smiled. 'I say best because I had a lot riding on The Living Daylights. If I failed as Bond, I would have been a world famous failure, and I would have been very seriously hurt as an actor for a long time. Much of the public was divided. Some people loved the Connery movies and hated the Moore movies, and some loved the Moore movies and hated the Connery movies, and the fear was that they might have all gotten together and hated me. So there was a lot riding on it. I went to see The Living Daylights here in New York. I sneaked into the back of a theatre, because a movie is not finished when you finish shooting it or after postproduction. It's finished when an audience sees it, because that's who you're doing it for. Just like you can write an article, but you're not going to tuck it away in a draw. What good will it do? You write it for people to read, so a movie is only finished when people have seen it. So I snuck into the back, and I was overwhelmed by the pleasure and the delight that people were taking in that movie. They're very vocal in America. Much more than anywhere else, I think, in the world, and to see that response was so satisfying and made me feel so happy, that if anyone said, 'Would you care to do another?' how could you refuse? If you think you can achieve that again. So, sure, if I was offered another one, I'd be happy to do it. But we won't know until we see the results of this one.'

Of course, now we do know: six years later Pierce Brosnan would make his debut as Bond in 1994's GOLDENEYE, breaking previous Bond box office records and completely reinvigorating the franchise for a new generation of fans.

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