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Jeffrey Wright on the evolution of Felix Leiter from 'Casino Royale' to ‘No Time to Die’
There’s a lot of celebrating of Daniel Craig these days — rightly so, with his James Bond run wrapping up with this weekend’s No Time to Die. But while we’re out here feteing the Bond we’ve known since Casino Royale, let’s not overlook the incredible contributions that Jeffrey Wright, the actor behind Bond’s CIA liaison, Felix Leiter, has made to the franchise during that time.
While their characters met at a poker table during Casino Royale, Wright was there for Craig’s journey as Bond well before that fateful game. When news broke of Craig’s casting, the two were making a different film together, The Invasion. If you don’t remember that one, that’s okay with Wright. While speaking with SYFY WIRE for No Time to Die, Wright said it was “probably better if folks out there haven’t seen it.”
Fortunately for all involved, Craig and Wright’s next film together, Casino Royale, paved the way for a compelling 15-year run on a franchise that has lasted 60. It’s done so by constantly reinventing itself, particularly with the actors involved. Indeed, when we spoke with Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, she was quick to point out how important a role Wright has played throughout Craig’s run.
“You know, Felix Leiter is such an important character who’s run through many of the movies since Dr. No. Jeffrey is ... a magnificent actor, an extraordinary guy, and it was really important for the brotherhood of that relationship to come through,” Broccoli said of the special relationship between Leiter and Bond. “You know, they’ve been through the wars together, they’ve been in the trenches together, there’s that brotherhood that comes, and the profound kind of relationship that goes along with that.”
Though he’s reticent to discuss having such a profound impact himself, in our talk with Wright, he was effusive about Craig’s ever-growing importance to the franchise, while relaying some enlightening context around their initial casting, the evolution of their relationship, and the evolution of his Felix Leiter, from Casino Royale to No Time to Die.
How has Felix Leiter’s relationship with James Bond changed in this film?
I think it’s grown from the first film, in which they didn’t know one another, and they’ve come to rely on one another and come to trust one another over the course of time. And so they find themselves once again in the mix together, because of that trust. And I think they exist in a time and in a place when there’s not much to be trusted, and I think we see that play out as our film unfolds.
Does that trust extend between you and Daniel as well?
Oh certainly, as actors, 100 percent, yeah. We both, I think, rightly assume that the other one knows what he’s doing, you know? [Laughs.] And that just makes it all the easier.
I was with Daniel making a movie when he was cast as Bond; we were doing a movie called The Invasion. ... [W]e were making that film in Baltimore together when he was cast, so I’ve been there from the start of this journey for him. And it’s been just really gratifying, really wonderful to see the ways he’s evolved as these films have evolved over the past 15 or so years.
How have you evolved over the past 15 years?
Oh God! [Laughs.]
Specific to Felix, I mean!
Oh, specific to Felix, yeah! Well, it’s a different story for me. Daniel’s responsibilities to these films go beyond just what he does as an actor. Yes, he plays this role, but that implies that he’s got to be the central pole in this very expansive tent. So his responsibilities because of that are much greater than mine.
The one thing that I remember very distinctly is how suspicious numerous voices were with his taking on this role at the beginning, and there was so much unnecessary negativity around his being cast, and at the end of the day, he just slapped all the suspicions and criticisms down with not only his performance but how he’s carried himself throughout this thing. And it’s been really gratifying to watch.
Do you specifically remember him speaking of that during Casino Royale?
I think here and there, but you could certainly see him trying on this suit, and trying to understand his place within this massive machine that is this franchise. You could see him at the beginning of a journey.
And now, watching the ways in which he has taken on the larger responsibility of leadership of this franchise to an extent… there’s been a huge leap, just in his demeanor on set, and in the way he carries himself, it’s been super cool. And he’s put a lot of himself into it, a lot of effort; it’s not an easy thing, and I think he’s done it with aplomb. I think the ways in which he’s perceived on set by the crew, which is largely the same crew from year to year, really speaks to that too, the level of respect, mutual respect, that they view him and he views them, is really wonderful.
Over time, how has your approach to Felix changed?
Well, it’s just changed with each script really. Just read the script, do what’s expected, do that, and try to do it within the context of a Bond film. You know, I watched so many Bond movies growing up that I knew what it meant to perform inside one of those, at least in my head, and I just tried to do that from the start.
I guess it’s evolved from that first one, as I too, I guess, have gained a bit more confidence in what I”m doing, at least on screen, those are primarily my responsibilities. And it’s become easier to some extent because it’s been clear that fans have really dug what we’ve been doing with this. And so you kind of relax and then carry on doing what you’ve been doing, and try to do a little bit more on the next film. I’m quite pleased with the way we were able to button up this last one, so I’m psyched for people to see where we’ve gone with it.
Fifteen years later now, looking back, what has this role meant to you? What does it mean to you?
If I’m clear-eyed about it, I’m pretty fortunate to be a part of this franchise, because it’s a singular franchise. There have been many who have been a part of it, but not everyone who’s in our business gets to be a part of something like this. I’m definitely fortunate.
And the franchise has lived so long because it’s so beloved, and because these characters are so beloved. That I added to that, as opposed to stealing away from that, is gratifying too. And I’m pleased that people appreciate what we’ve tried to do with these characters and with these films over the last years.
No Time to Die opens in theaters everywhere this Friday, Oct. 8.