In a suite in the Dorchester hotel, in Park Lane, central London, Daniel Craig, quietly dapper in a crisp shirt and trousers, lights up a cigarette. A cheerful radio journalist wearing an extremely short skirt has just skipped out of the room, and Craig has a vaguely frazzled air, as you might expect of someone giving his 14th interview of the day. "Self-promotion, for me, is like going to the dentist," he says. "But I know I have to do it. It is much easier than it was. I can bullshit better these days."
Until recently, Craig had little need for either answers or bullshit: he was just a promising new talent, not a major star in the making. Now, as the centrepiece of two big new British films, he is hot box-office property, with a publicity machine to match. In the British thriller Layer Cake, he plays a Yuppie drug dealer, and in Enduring Love, adapted from the Ian McEwan novel, he is the victim of Rhys Ifans's deluded stalker, with whom he shares a noisy on-screen snog.
Craig has had better luck with his own love life, having recently been involved in a much-publicised fling with Kate Moss. His appeal is not hard to fathom - he has a smouldering presence, on screen and off, and piercing, light-blue eyes. His roles have tended to capitalise on that appeal: he was cast as a kind of demon lover in a succession of movies. In 1998's Love Is the Devil, he played Francis Bacon's partner, George Dyer, to Derek Jacobi's Bacon, and spent much of the shoot covered in lubricant for the S&M scenes. Then, in 2003, came The Mother, in which he played a builder who sleeps with a 67-year-old grandmother as well as her daughter. This year, he was seen as an intense Ted Hughes, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia Plath, in Sylvia, which focused on the turbulent relationship between the two poets. He was glad to see the back of that shoot: "Well, there weren't many gags," he says dryly.
Craig always gives performances that are real and believable, and comical when the role warrants it, but without trying overly hard. "I think The Mother is funny - darkly funny - and that really appeals to me," he says. "If you can combine that with popular film-making, it is funny, not because it is meant to be, but because of the situations people get themselves into."
Despite appearing to have the world at his 36-year-old feet, the Liverpool-born Craig is wary. "If you are on the front cover of Vanity Fair, it goes a long way with producers. I would be stupid not to think that is the case. It is just that I can't get excited by it. I can't get active about it. But I am happy about that, because I am working and doing stuff that I really want to do. Why change course? I hope to have worked long enough now to have a body of work that stands on its own. When I am cast in something, it is not because I am famous. It is because I can act."
Interestingly, Craig gets some respite from portraying heavy, obsessional relationships in Layer Cake, released tomorrow [1 Oct], the directorial debut of Matthew Vaughn, who produced Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Craig plays the dealer whose plan is to secure enough cash to retire early from the "layer cake" (a metaphor for the crime underworld), and his biggest problem with his sassy and slutty girlfriend, played by Siena Miller (soon to be seen in Alfie, with real-life beau, Jude Law), is that every time they're about to have sex, something happens. At one point, as she slips into Agent Provocateur underwear in the bathroom, to get him in the mood, Craig is kidnapped and taken to the top of a building in Canary Wharf to meet the crime boss Eddie Ryder (Michael Gambon at his flamboyant best).
Is it refreshing to play a less intense character? "It was a very pleasant experience," Craig says. He denies having had any reservations about taking on the part in case it was another Lock, Stock slapstick enterprise. "I went into it with the same attitude I go into everything I do. Matthew and I met up after I read the script. We tuned in to each other. I realised that I could do the film and still apply the same rules that I apply to what I do - which is to try and go for the truth of the thing - while also doing a film that is entertaining and light. It was a relief to know that it would be possible. I love drama. I love obsessiveness in movies. I love being twisted, and that is why I tend to get drawn to those parts. But knowing that we were not going to those dark recesses that I have been to in other films and to find it just as rewarding was a relief."
In Enduring Love, Craig teams up again with the director Roger Michell, who directed him in The Mother, and is definitely back in the world of obsessive relationships. After a day out turns awry, Craig's character, Joe, is stalked by a pathetic-looking Jed, played by Ifans, who conceives the unshakeable, but quite foundation-less, notion that they are in love. Jed, it transpires, is suffering from the obsessive love disorder De Clerembault's syndrome.
"I love acting with people, because acting is about reacting. When you get a good actor in front of you, it is playtime," enthuses Craig with a mildly sick laugh, of working with Ifans. Who else does he enjoy acting with? "A lot of people. Paul Newman was something to behold [in 2002, Craig co-starred opposite Tom Hanks in Sam Mendes's The Road to Perdition, as Newman's character's son]. I watched him work. I could relate to his fears. He was worried about getting it right. What a wonderful, fantastic place to be: 76 years old and still acting. He was still as interested and as excited in doing it. And Michael Gambon is just a dream. He loves playtime."
About his female co-stars, he is less forthcoming ("Let's face it: if I single one out, it would sound a bit glib"), and he is equally tight-lipped about the roles he has turned down. "My agent is pretty good at filtering the weirder stuff," he says, "but I was offered a lot of money recently to play Biggles. I hope mentioning that isn't a problem. I shouldn't say that really."
Craig first made an impact in the Nineties, in the television drama Our Friends in the North, as Geordie Peacock, trying to make it in the porn industry before falling flat on his face. He went on to play the evil priest John Ballard in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth and, more surprisingly, starred opposite Angelina Jolie in the Hollywood blockbuster Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. He is also a stage actor, seen most recently in Caryl Churchill's A Number at the Royal Court, directed by Stephen Daldry and co-starring Gambon.
Next year, Craig will star alongside Adrien Brody and Keira Knightley in The Jacket, a film produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, about an institutionalised Gulf war veteran who is certain he is travelling through time in search of his ill-fated lover. "I play the nutter in a hospital," Craig laughs. "Oh God, that's going to stick, isn't it? That will be the headline of your feature.
"In that new German film out about Hitler [The Downfall], there is this big furore because they have given Hitler a human face," Craig says. "It would make sense that you have to give evil a human face at some point. We will never understand, unless we do. It is the same with anybody sick or obsessional. You have to find that human face. What I do is I go to that place - we all have demon thoughts - but it is just finding that thought and expanding it. I try to explore it."
Did he ever feel that the big time might elude him? "Yes and no. There is always that pessimistic optimism in actors, because you deal with so much refusal. But as soon as I left drama school [he was in the year above Ewan McGregor at Guildhall], I went and did a Warner Brothers movie, The Power of One. It was the first job I ever did. It threw me into a bit of spin. It was an experience. Suddenly, I was on a shoot in Zimbabwe, on huge sets. It didn't work out in the sense of propelling me forward -thankfully - because it wasn't the right time or place. But I always had blind faith. I swore to myself I'd never go back to being a waiter. It was arrogance that made me stick at it."
Of working on Layer Cake with Vaughn, who is married to Claudia Schiffer (you may have seen the wedding pictures in Hello!), he says: "I was really intrigued that Matthew was making this step. He was very clear that he didn't want to make another Lock, Stock or Snatch. He wanted to do a big British movie using London as a big character." Apparently, there was a lot of serendipity involved. The day it was suggested that Vaughn should read JJ Connolly's Layer Cake, he found himself sitting opposite the author on a train journey. Does that story surprise Craig? "I tend to think like that about life anyway," he replies. "Things have a way of fitting together - there is a serendipity about everything. You ignore the signs at your peril, and those situations make you make the right choices. I had no problem getting involved with this film and throwing myself into it - which Matthew allowed me to do."
While in LA recently, Craig saw the film What the #$*! Do We Know!?, a docu-drama about quantum physics and how our thoughts can shape our destiny. He recalls: "These scientists sit around in the film and say our reality can be changed by every thought. We have a major influence on what happens around us. In Washington, DC, they got 400 people to come in and meditate on the idea of lowering the crime rate. The people who ended up paying for it were the Washington police force. They did it nine times, because the crime rate fell by 25 per cent. There was another study, in Japan, about how talking to water angrily changes the molecular level of it. I am absolutely certain that we shape our own destinies and we have to take care of it."
Does it become harder to make intelligent choices as you grow more famous? "I met Roger Michell, Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes all because of the work I've done," Craig says, "and that's the way I'd like it to continue. Certainly, you have to be careful you don't do anything where you blow it for yourself. You have to take care."
OK, but if push came to shove, would he ever play James Bond? "Yes, it's film to film, for me. But I would still have to apply the same rule: if you go for something that is incredibly exposing, is that going to be detrimental to what your ambitions as an actor are? That is the only criterion."
Bond aside, then, what is his ambition? "To continue testing myself, but also trying to find what I do as political as possible. I think every piece of cinema is a political message. The Mother was a tough decision to make. It broke taboos of older people and sexuality, and said that liberation and communication are important - she wants to live before she dies. Thank God I did it. I met Roger Michell, and that whole experience has resulted in the making of Enduring Love."
'Layer Cake' is released tomorrow; 'Enduring Love', on 26 NovemberReuse content