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Byline: By ROB DRISCOLL Western Mail

Actor Daniel Craig is not shy in coming forward. This unsung sex symbol has kissed Gwyneth Paltrow and even Rhys Ifans. He tells Rob Driscoll about his latest conquests

DANIEL CRAIG has had to kiss an intriguing array of co-stars in some of his recent movies, from Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft, to Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia, to sexagenarian Anne Reid in The Mother.

But they all probably pale into insignificance compared to his latest on-screen snog, with none other than Rhys Ifans.

Not that this is some shock-your-granny gay romance; it's more an unsettling, psychological chiller as the Welsh star of Notting Hill fame plays an obsessive stalker to Craig's tortured and imploding hero in Enduring Love, the eagerly-awaited cinema adaptation of Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel, due for release in November.

'It was actually quite a traumatic scene to film,' says Craig, referring to the moment when he and Ifans locked lips for the cameras. It's certainly not a romantic moment; without giving too much away, Craig's character is being coerced by his mentally unhinged follower, and it's a matter of life and death as he pretends to enjoy the intensely intimate gesture.

'We shot it towards the end of the movie, and we'd been taking the p*** out of each other for ages; it was all over in a moment, thank God! We couldn't look each other in the eye.'

With his electric-blue eyes and chiselled jawline, Chester-born Daniel Craig is surely one of Britain's most unsung sex symbols. Yet his eclectic choice of film roles - frequently dark, independent, arthouse fare - and his avoidance of the showbiz-party, red-carpet circuit means that he's not as well known as his fellow Britpack heart-throbs Hugh Grant and Colin Firth.

Not that he hasn't dipped his toe into Hollywood blockbuster fare; Craig has had notable roles in The Road to Perdition, and of course Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ('I did it for the money,' he smiles). And earlier this year he featured in many a tabloid gossip column thanks to a fling with model Kate Moss.

But this week, a major new British movie, Layer Cake, gives him the kind of meaty leading role that will surely bring him a whole new level of recognition, and indeed it's a part that cries out for his particular brand of brooding.

Ironically, the character that will catapult 35-year-old Craig to proper stardom has no name - rather like Clint Eastwood in those lauded spaghetti Westerns - and neither does his role have any background or back-story to draw upon.

The directorial debut of Matthew Vaughan, the whizzkid producer of Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Layer Cake is another British gangster movie, but this one has none of the larky feel of those semi-comical outings with ducking-and-diving geezers and their cheeky-chappy jolly-ups.

No, Layer Cake is deadly serious, with style to boot. Craig stars as the nameless, sharp-suited cocaine dealer who has made a fortune for himself without ever getting his hands dirty - or losing his anonymity.

Sleek, well-dressed and polite, he looks like any other businessman. Now he's looking at retiring while he's still young enough to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. He reckons a couple of days should see him clear of the business. That's the plan, anyway.

'It seemed to me that he was a very normal man doing a very unusual job,' says Craig about his character, who was referred to as XXXX in the script.

'The old idea of criminals and drug dealers is not the way that these people do business anymore. They do business like business people do business. They look the same way as stockbrokers. They speak the same way. Their commodity happens to be cocaine, but as far as my character's concerned, it's no worse than selling stocks and shares in the city.'

The title is a metaphor for different levels of British society, whether it's the crime world or anything else.

'It's less of a gangster movie and more of a crime movie,' says Craig. 'It really does go against the grain as far as gangster movies are concerned.

'I've had quite a few scripts thrown at me about British gangster movies, and they've never appealed to me, because ultimately you're standing round in shark suits with sawn-off shotguns going, 'Come on, you slags!' There is some of that in the movie but it's only part of a bigger picture.'

Matthew Vaughan first met writer JJ Connolly, author of the novel Layer Cake, on a train to Belgium, on his way to watch the England vs Germany football match at Euro 2000. Vaughan obtained a copy of Connolly's book and knew he wanted to make it into a movie.

A lot of well- known actors were keen to play the lead, but when Craig's name came up, it was virtually a done deal.

'When I met Matthew, I was intrigued,' recalls Craig. 'He just charmed me and I liked his ideas about the film, I liked which direction he wanted to push it in. We just clicked on ideas.

'Matthew's got a lot of experience, not a lot of directing experience, but he's got an awful lot of film experience. He worked it all out while we were filming and he got it and he got it right.'

Shot on location in Holland and London, with interiors at Twickenham Studios, Layer Cake was a tight and demanding shoot.

Its cast includes Michael Gambon as crimelord Eddie Temple, whose drug addict daughter has gone missing, Kenneth Cranham as crime boss Jimmy Price, and Jamie Foreman as a wild-cannon crook called The Duke. Sienna Miller, best known these days as Jude Law's girlfriend, co-stars as Craig's love interest, Tammy.

Daniel Craig had no worries about working with a first-time director.

'Matthew was desperate to learn, and he surrounded himself with really good technicians, really good crew and a good bunch of actors who knew what they were doing. That's one sign of a good director and it's a real skill of directors, empowering people to get on with things. Matthew does that very well, but then I suppose that's because he's a good producer. We had moments but we got through them.'

Whether he likes it or not, the somewhat self-effacing Daniel Craig looks well cool as the anti-heroic drug dealer. But his 'cool character' was not inspired by anyone, or any look.

'That's not the way I work,' says Craig. 'I think I just stood up straight in this movie! Of course we discussed the look, and what I was wearing was very important, but it was also to try and keep it as subtle as possible.

'I had a couple of very nice suits made, and I was wearing nice shirts and so on - and as soon as you put stuff like that on, you tend to just hold yourself differently. But I didn't go out to make him cool. If he is, then that's a by-product.'

Craig got the acting bug growing up in Liverpool. His mother is a graduate of Liverpool Arts College and his stepfather is artist Max Blond. As a child, he was introduced to theatre at the Liverpool Everyman.

'I just wanted to be an actor - you know, from running round the playground playing games like you do,' he says. 'But I always had an idea that I wanted to be an actor, and I think the fact that I was taken to the theatre so young had a major influence on me.

In his late teens he moved to London to join the National Youth Theatre and

He first gained notable fame in BBC2's epic '90s drama serial Our Friends in the North. Regular television work followed, as in Moll Flanders, The Ice House, Sword and Honour, and Sharpe.

But cinema is where Craig been busiest over the past few years and it has earned him rich rewards. He received the British Performing Award at the 1998 Edinburgh Film festival for his role of Francis Bacon's bit-of-rough lover, opposite Derek Jacobi, in Love is the Devil, while his performance as a schizophrenic in Some Voices won him a British Independent Film Award in 2000.

Other notable roles have included John Bullard in Elizabeth, co-starring Cate Blanchett, though many millions more will have seen him flexing his muscles in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and likewise playing the vengeful son of gangster boss Paul Newman in 2002's The Road to Perdition, with Tom Hanks.

Last year Craig starred in one of his most controversial roles in The Mother, which tells the story of an affair between a 65-year-old woman (played by ex-Coronation Street actress Anne Reid) and her daughter's builder boyfriend (played by Craig), who is half her age. Earlier this year, he took on the powerhouse, unlovely role of womanising Poet Laureate Ted Hughes in Sylvia, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia Plath.

Next up is Enduring Love, alongside Samantha Morton and Rhys Ifans, and he has recently completed The Jacket, a film produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, and co-starring Adrien Brody and Keira Knightley, about an institutionalised Gulf War veteran, convinced he is travelling through time in search of his ill-fated lover.

It's no doubt a punishing schedule, back and forth across the Atlantic, making one big Hollywood product and then a smaller, British work and Craig makes no distinction between both types of movie.

'I prefer working on good jobs, that's the only criteria I have,' he says. 'I mean, yes, my heart's here. I do feel that I'm connected with not only the UK but Europe and European film-making, because there's a true independent spirit. It's usually because of lack of money, but you do have more choices.

'But it's job to job, and I would take a job in America for the same reason I'd take a job here - I'd like to think I would, anyway. There's always the offer of money, which is sort of the devil himself. But it's never that clear cut. It's clear cut in the sense that if I read a script and I like it and I like the director, then there's no argument.'

Still the big jobs line up, as he casually mentions that Steven Spielberg has already been on the phone to him, and next year Craig will start working with the world's most famous director on Vengeance, a thriller based on events at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where Israeli athletes were taken hostage.

Craig is clearly one of Britain's busiest movie stars, but you won't find him on chat shows. He says he doesn't like being interviewed, and that he's shy and reticent, although he's perfectly charming today.

'I just don't pursue 'celebrity', for want of a better word. I've got nothing against it, it's just not for me. You know, I've got other things to do, and if I'm not working, I don't want to be sitting around talking about myself.'

Just one thing, though, Mr Craig - who is the better kisser; Anne Reid or Rhys Ifans? He pauses meaningfully. 'They're both different, in very special ways!'

Layer Cake opens on Friday. Enduring Love opens in November
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 30, 2004
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