Daniel Craig: A poet in motion

Daniel Craig first grabbed attention - and a loyal female fanbase - in the TV series Our Friends in the North. Could his latest role, as Ted Hughes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia, be his Hollywood calling-card?
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There is genuine heat around the British actor Daniel Craig at the moment. Hollywood is paying close attention to his latest film, Sylvia (released this weekend), in which he plays the young Ted Hughes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow as the American poet Sylvia Plath. The New York Times rhapsodised about his sexual magnetism ("Like a rangy, wounded bird of prey") and Newsweek described his performance as "saturnine" and "smouldering".

He burns up the stage, too. Appearing at London's Royal Court in 2002 in Caryl Churchill's two-hander A Number, with Michael Gambon, he gave the most physically compelling performance I have ever seen. Critics debated how Craig - dressed in simple jeans and T-shirt - was able to play three cloned brothers and make each of them appear utterly different. "It was my dream theatre, an hour long, and then everyone's out in the bar talking about it," Craig laughs.

On screen, Daniel Craig exudes a weird beauty, with those extraordinary blue eyes that can switch from innocent to chilling in an instant. In the flesh, the actor is slighter, his blond hair stuffed inside a beanie hat, and he's low-key scruffy in jeans and a sweater.

When Craig first came to our attention in 1996, playing the troubled musician Geordie Peacock in the television series Our Friends in the North, it looked like he'd become conventional TV totty. He followed up Geordie with the period romp Moll Flanders, where he energetically ravished Alex Kingston. Thrilled by his sculpted looks and propensity for taking his kit off, women's magazines queued up to profile him as a gritty Northern sex symbol.

But then, Craig did something interesting. He stopped doing any lifestyle press.

Meanwhile, his profile was raised by daring film choices - including playing Francis Bacon's lover, George Dyer, in John Maybury's 1998 arthouse masterpiece, Love is the Devil (he spent half the film in Y-fronts or covered in surgical sealant for the S&M-themed love scenes).

If Jude Law and Orlando Bloom embody heroic prettiness, Craig specialises in slow-burn sensuality. The sex scenes between him and the 67-year-old actress Anne Reid in last year's The Mother were explosively raw. It was also Craig's best performance yet. I tell him I found his character (who beds a grandmother and her daughter) frankly terrifying. Surely he is exactly the type of man 37-year-old women should avoid? Craig laughs heartily. "Well, that's the genius of Mr Kureishi's script. He digs in to the wound. You think, 'Oh no, don't please. Oh you did? Oh, God.'"

No one does humiliation quite like Craig. Playing Paul Newman's gangster son in Sam Mendes's Road to Perdition, he turned a vicious cameo into a flawed flesh-and-blood character. (The story goes that Mendes was watching television with Patrick Marber when Sword of Honour came on starring Craig. "That's who you want for Connor," Marber insisted.)

Despite this impressive performance, it is Sylvia that will undoubtedly be Craig's Hollywood calling card. He gives a solid, unshowy performance as Hughes, preferring to convey a serious artist and flawed husband than some tiresome Byronic figure. "I didn't want Ted to be an impersonation. I've got hours of tape of his poetry. I've been listening to him for as long as I can remember. But nobody speaks like Ted Hughes any more. His accent is a mixture of Yorkshire-cum-Cambridge-cum London; it's bizarre."

Craig is full of sympathy for Hughes, who waited nearly 40 years before publishing 1998's autobiographical volume of poems, Birthday Letters, about his life with Plath (three months before his death from cancer). "I respect him greatly for keeping his counsel for all those years. A lot of people thought, 'Well, there you go, he might as well have admitted his guilt about killing her', but my heart says no, it's about something far more complicated than that, something we will never know about, something we have no right to know about.

"And I don't think doing this film is about uncovering that element. It's about uncovering an incredible moment in world literature, the coming together of these two souls, these two amazing people and the shit that flew. And the way we moved into the late 1950s, this supposed renaissance of world thinking - the beginnings of feminism, the beginnings of a lot of free thinking, which was incredibly exciting, but incredibly tied down by the rigidity of British society. Sylvia Plath was educated to marry. She was sent to a very good school, but never really to do anything. She had to balance being a perfect homemaker with being an artist and mother. I have a huge amount of sympathy for that because I don't think things really changed a great deal for women until the 1970s."

For the past seven years, Craig has lived with the German actress Heike Makatsch (Alan Rickman's predatory secretary in Love, Actually). He also has a 10-year-old daughter from a brief marriage at the age of 23. But he is touched by the romanticism of Hughes and Plath marrying after only knowing each other for four months. "When you're young you don't think in that way because you think the future can't hurt you."

Arguably, Sylvia offers Craig his least interesting role. Not because the film is bad. On the contrary, its director Christine Jeffs offers a wonderfully interior portrait of grief. Paltrow, almost unrecognisable for once, is dazzling as Plath. But Jeffs, who fought to cast Craig as Hughes, is just not terribly interested in Ted. After the initial courtship between the two poets at Cambridge, we are caught up in Sylvia's trajectory from betrayed wife to suicidal artist. One senses Craig knew this. "To be absolutely honest, it's Gwyneth Paltrow playing Sylvia," he says. "But that doesn't stop me going, 'OK, right, I'll get on with what I'm doing.' And there is a freedom to that, because you can do what you want."

After rave reviews for Love is the Devil, Craig dabbled with the action thriller, playing Angelina Jolie's archaeologist lover in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). He got to travel to Cambodia, and the chemistry with Jolie was terrific, but today he admits that it was not a good career choice. "It's not a criticism, but it's just not my bag." In independent film, he says, you have a freedom with the subject matter. "The ending in the script may not be the one you shoot. There's no debate about 'I don't think the audience is going to like this character'. Tough shit. If you want likeable characters, go and watch Lord of the Rings or Master and Commander."

Craig was born in Chester in 1968 and moved to Liverpool when his teacher mother separated from his father (she is now married to the painter Max Blond). He knew he wanted to be an actor from the age of six and spent his adolescence hanging round Liverpool's Everyman Theatre. His mother packed him off, aged 16, to London's National Youth Theatre. He worked as a waiter and slept on friends' floors before he was accepted by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (his contemporaries included Ewan McGregor and Joseph Fiennes). After graduation, he won a few theatre roles, and was cast as "either a fascist or fop" on TV. It was the era of Merchant-Ivory and his long blond fringe marked him out as irredeemably posh. But then Simon Cellan Jones cast him for Our Friends in the North and everything changed.

Not everyone gets Craig, though. In the February issue of GQ magazine there is a funny interview with Paltrow about the making of Sylvia. While she waxes lyrical about her close friendship with Jude Law, she seems genuinely puzzled by Craig: "It's so funny, women really like him. They're really drawn to him sexually. They think he's a smouldering, charismatic, sexy man. People keep commenting on the chemistry between us. But that's acting... They did a good job of making us seem similar in height, but you can tell he's not 6ft 4in." Ouch.

For his part, Craig is unfailingly chivalrous about Paltrow, but his greatest warmth is reserved for Gwyneth's mother, Blythe Danner, who plays Aurelia Plath in the film. "Isn't she extraordinary? I can't say enough about how riveting she is on screen."

Apart from Sylvia, and the recently wrapped Enduring Love (adapted from Ian McEwan's best-selling novel and directed by Roger Michell) with Rhys Ifans and Samantha Morton, Craig has three other films in production. He recently shot Matthew Vaughan's Layer Cake and next up he's filming a psychological thriller, The Jacket, with Adrien Brody, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kris Kristofferson. John Maybury is directing (his first film since Love is the Devil) for George Clooney and Stephen Soderbergh's production company, Section Eight, so the omens look good.

Craig has said he wants to do more comedy, and watching those first episodes of Our Friends in the North again, the riffs between Craig and Christopher Eccleston are like the best kind of stand-up. Does he see himself as a physical comedian? "Maybe, I don't know. I think The Mother's very funny, but that's just me. At the first cast and crew screening, a few people went, 'Wow this is a bit serious...' And then we took it to Cannes and they started laughing from the word go, because it's horribly dark and funny. And I thought, 'Yes we've got them!"

'Sylvia' goes on nationwide release on Friday