IT’S no easy thing to play James Bond.
Current incumbent Daniel Craig labours in the shadows of the five men who preceded him in the canonic series of films, and has said that it’s the single hardest thing about the role.
Almost as difficult is playing a so-called “Bond Girl.” Ever since Ursula Andress strolled out of the surf in a memorable bikini in Dr No (1962), the standards for 007’s ladies have been dauntingly high: stunning beauty and rampant eroticism, yes, but also brains, cunning and, more often than not, the ability to kill a man – say, Bond himself – in a variety of interesting ways. The 30-odd women who have taken up that mantle in 23 Bond films cast long shadows of their own, from action icon Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) to martial-arts master Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), from Beatle bride Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me (1967) to Oscar winner Halle Berry in Die Another Day (2002).
The latest members of this exclusive club are very much up to par: Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe co-star in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, as flirtatious, rifle-wielding field aide Eve (Harris) and the mysterious Severine (Marlohe), a stunner with a secret which may spell disaster for Bond.
A couple of weeks ago, Marlohe and Harris strode into a New York hotel suite, one after the other, for separate interviews about Skyfall.
“I’m French, and in France we get to see a lot of the Bond movies on TV,” says Marlohe, a statuesque beauty who speaks five languages. “I started seeing them when I was 12, 13, and I think the first I saw was A View to a Kill (1985), with Christopher Walken, who became my favourite ever. Grace Jones was amazing, amazing and wonderful.
“Grace Jones and Famke Janssen are my favourites,” she continues.
“Janssen displayed a sense of self-deprecation and a sense of humour. I admire actors or actresses who are not afraid to take risks and to play and to make unconventional choices.” The 33-year-old Marlohe, who is of French, Cambodian and Chinese descent, had acted in several French films and television shows, but too often for her liking was told that that she “didn’t look French enough.” As a result she had hardly worked in two years before landing Skyfall.
“I was struggling a lot in France and hardly auditioning at all,” she recalls.
“The agents I’d meet would tell me that I don’t look like the French actresses that work. They’d say, ‘What producers and directors do you know personally?’ I’d say, ‘Well, nobody, but I can show you my reel.’ They’d say, ‘Well, come back when you know everybody.’ So I was used to being my own agent and manager.
“I was thrilled when I heard that they were auditioning for Skyfall because I felt connected to the Bond universe,” Marlohe continues.
“I just spent a few days in front of a computer trying to find all the Bond contacts, and I found the email of Debbie McWilliams, the casting director. I sent her my reel and she auditioned me on two scenes from Skyfall. Then they had me go to London, to Pinewood Studios, where I got to audition with Sam Mendes, and then I did a third audition with Sam and Daniel, and then I met with the producers, Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson.
“It was a long process of many years of personal experience and struggling,” she says, “and that was great because I have the feeling that all of it prepared me for such a moment. And everything was connected. I had an immediate complicity with everybody on set, with Daniel, with Javier (Bardem, who plays the villain), with Sam.
Everything was ... can you say, fluid?” Harris should be a more familiar face for moviegoers worldwide. A 36-year-old Brit, she counts among her credits The Tomorrow People (1994-1995), 28 Days Later” (2002) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and its 2007 sequel, in which she played Tia Dalma. She’s also been seen in Ninja Assassin (2009) and the National Theatre Live production of Frankenstein (2011).
Harris says that the Bond films “were massively on my radar, because they’re such a big part of British culture.” Like Marlohe, she considers Grace Jones her favourite previous Bond girl “because she was unlike any other Bond girl that came before or since.
She was scary and then, at the end, there was this compassionate twist. And I loved her costumes. I’d wear any one of her costumes.” She credits her being cast as Eve to several strokes of good luck, first and foremost being the Danny Boyle factor.
“When I did 28 Days Later, I was nine months out of drama school,” Harris recalls.
“I really hadn’t done anything, and I was finding it very difficult to find a job. Danny, who directed 28 Days Later, took a risk on me despite the fact that I didn’t have many credits to my name. That job completely changed my life and my career. Everything started from there.
“Exactly 10 years later Danny cast me in Frankenstein at the National,” she continues, “and I hadn’t done theatre in 10 years, since leaving drama school. He took a risk again and put me on the Olivier Stage.
Debbie McWilliams and Sam Mendes saw me in that show and said, ‘We think she’d be right,’ and that’s when they brought me in to audition.” It’s hard to talk about a Bond movie without giving away plot points, and Harris chooses her words carefully in discussing Eve.
“Within the Bond realm, she’s someone we haven’t seen much of before,” the British actress says.
“She’s a badass. She’s an equal to Bond. She’s out there with him in the field and just as capable as him. Well, she’s not quite as capable as him, because he is the ultimate field agent, but I loved the fact that she’s a strong woman who’s out in the field with him.” Marlohe and Harris each share numerous scenes with Craig, some serious, some playful and a couple uber-sexy. In one Severine ends up in a shower with Bond, while in another Eve uses a straightedge razor to give 007 the shave of his life.
“Working with Daniel was amazing,” Harris says. “He is someone who is at the top of their game, so, when you work with him, you get to learn from the very best. He’s also a really, really lovely person. For both Berenice and I, he really looked after us and took us under his wing.” “I always love to think that talent comes with humility,” Marlohe says, “and I was happy to discover that both Sam and Daniel are very humble and talented and funny. For me it’s very important to have the ability to laugh, because you can feel just totally relaxed and you can create a real connection with the other person. You can trust your work and let it go moment by moment, and then the chemistry will just appear on screen if it really exists in life.
“That was a great, great experience working with Daniel.” All of the actresses who’ve played Bond girls through the years have experienced instant fame. Some went on to enjoy long, successful careers, however, while others pretty much disappeared. Marlohe and Harris hope to end up in the former category.
Harris dramatises the impact of Skyfall by pointing to the window behind her. On the street below, a small crowd of people have gathered with posters, photos, markers andor cameras in hand.
“The reach of this movie, the passion of the fans, the interest as well ... it’s unlike anything I’ve done before,” Harris says. “Once or twice I’ve been followed by paparazzi, but yesterday, here in New York, I went outside the hotel and I was swamped by people who were waiting to have autographs signed, and then I got followed down the road by five or six paparazzi, all taking pictures. I was just in street clothes. That’s never happened to me before, and this movie is not even out yet.
“I’m really happy with the way my career has gone,” the British actress continues. “I’ve gotten to work with amazing directors: Michael Winterbottom, Michael Mann, Danny Boyle and now Sam Mendes. I’ve gotten to play roles that interest me and I like where my journey in this profession is at. So, really, I just want to continue to do the same.
“A few days after I finished Bond, I went off to play Winnie Mandela in a film,” Harris concludes. “That’s what I like and what I want to do. I want to keep on playing different roles.”