The Action Man
Sorted talks to author Andy McNab.
Written by Martin Leggatt
I meet author and former SAS soldier Andy McNab in the upstairs room of a private members club in London. I’m not entirely sure that I should be bandying his name about, and I find myself doing this weird checking either side of me thing as I tell the receptionist I’m here to interview him. It doesn’t help that I whisper his name at the end of the sentence. She indulges me with a smile before announcing loudly that “Mr McNab is a member here”. I realise that she knows him by sight – an advantage that not many people have.
I don’t know what he looks like, but I’m betting he won’t be sitting with a black strip across his eyes. She laughs, and I’m introduced to a relaxed-looking man in his early 50s. He looks intolerably fit. He extends a hand and immediately makes me feel at ease. As the interview progresses, I notice how he has that knack of making you feel incredibly relaxed. He’s a very animated talker who punctuates his sentences with expansive arm movements and hand chops to the table top for emphasis.
We talk on a wide range of subjects, from the rising costs of property in London and New York, a homeless man that he’s seen in New York who changes into his business suit to go to work each day, and his recommendation of software to make my writing a lot easier. Mostly we talk about his Nick Stone thrillers and that mission.
Nick must be getting on a bit now.
[Laughs] Yeah, he’s the eternal 35-year-old, he’s one of those guys who never sort of changes … he never has a birthday in the books.
Do you have to make changes to how you write Nick, with him getting older and changes to his physical condition?
Well, no. Obviously over the years he has to change, he has to have different views, he has to mature. He has to make different decisions. But you can’t have him going too far or you’ll have him hugging trees by now. You can’t have that. It’s more about his character art and the way he thinks about things. He’s got to move on; he’s got to be different because people are, aren’t they? He goes off sometimes a bit too extreme and [messes] up and then comes back again. In that way, there’s a change, but as we all do. But not as an age thing – I just try to keep out of that. No, he’s the eternal 35-year-old.
What I like about him is that he’s just like a normal bloke, but with some unusual skills.
Yeah, certainly in the early days, and I never knew he would take off, it was to try to make him a realistic character. He comes from a normal background; he’s got a lot of the same likes and dislikes, but he can do this and then [he chops his hands on the table for emphasis] because it’s a first-person narrative he can explain what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. I wanted to make him as realistic as possible so people would say, “Yeah, I know someone like that.” That can only happen when you know the superpower isn’t a superpower because you’ve already connected with him.
He’s not some James Bond type, then?
No, none of the Dom Pérignon and all that, he’s more of a Big Mac and Diet Coke man.
Is there a lot of you in Nick?
Yeah, there has to be. Purely for the first-person narrative, for all those things to work. Number one because it’s easier to write. Certainly for all the thought processes, so hopefully it becomes a lot more realistic and a lot more personal, so that when people read it they can embrace it a lot easier. So yeah, there’s a lot of thought processes, and that’s the only way to do it. Certainly you can create a third-person character but he has to be larger than life, but with a first-person narrative you have to be slightly more personal otherwise it doesn’t work.
He’s been through a lot over the course of the 17 books: Kelly, Sarah, and a lot of loss. How are you shaping him to cope with that? Is it something that mirrors yourself?
Yeah, certainly about ten years ago he was having therapy and then he thought “I’ll bin that and get on”. He has all those dramas; he has to because they’re traumas that people have. He has to have them because then readers can recognise that trauma and realise that people deal with it in a different way. Clearly he’s got to carry on and get himself into a load more trouble. Nine out of ten times it’s him getting into trouble, trying to get out of trouble, rather than fighting evil. So to represent that we had Kelly, but it got to a point where she was getting so old that I had to make a conscious decision, does she become the parent in the relationship? She was maturing quicker than Nick, and you think, how do you play with that dynamic? The easiest thing was to kill her. And then he’s got to try to deal with it and then start to move on. So he has the drama and then gets on. Otherwise, you have to keep wasting pages explaining the backstory.
And now he’s a family man. I never thought I’d see the day.
Neither did he. [Laughter] Again, he’s got to sort of move on. He’s got to get on and do all these new things, like the providing. There’s a bit of conflict going, which generally happens in life, and we’ve all got to get on with it. He’s in that same situation; it’s slightly more raised because of what he’s got into; he’s got a lot of commitments to fulfil. And that’s certainly what’s driving the whole of this new book on, particularly towards the end. He’s balancing this new commitment against what he does.
I love the names of the characters, for example, Hubba Hubba. Where do you get think them up?
A lot of that comes down to the military; everything’s cut in half or everybody’s got a nickname. In some cases, you can go years without knowing someone’s real first name and you go “Oh, your name’s Jim, or Steve”. Certainly in the book it makes it more personal because we all use [nicknames] in some way and it’s a lot clearer to write. So they’re Hubba Hubba or that guy Slack Pack. Slack Pack is a guy who really exists.
I saw the advertising posters on the train ride up here. The strapline says, ‘What doesn’t kill him, makes him stronger.’ Is this true of you as well?
Yeah, I think there are two ways you can go with drama – you can collapse in a heap, or get on with it. Ultimately no one gives a [fig] they’ve got their own problems. They can give you sympathy, but they can’t really help, they’ve got other things to do. There are only two ways to go from there, you know; blame everybody else, or just get on with it. Ever since I was a kid, I just got on with it. You’ve no control over it, so just get over it. It’s much easier that way.
Is your pseudonym Andy McNab now more of a brand than a security precaution?
No, not at all. The threat is still out there. I was doing a book tour last year over in Ireland, bizarrely a fundraiser for the PSNI. It was doing events raising funds for injured officers and it all got out of control. Death threats came in and there was a bomb scare. So it’s just being sensible, really, but it’s also nice to have that anonymity. You can do stuff, which is great, you can bounce around and do all your stuff. But at the same time you get this benefit of this brand, which is great …
I read somewhere that you’ve moved to New York.
Yeah, in and out. This year’s been quite busy, so most of it’s been in the States, either New York or Los Angeles. I quite like New York, I find LA quite bland, but New York’s fantastic. This last two or three years we’ve been there pretty much full-time. The chances are that’s where we’ll live; I’ve got the American driving licence, all that stuff, so the chances are we’ll be there permanently. It makes sense; that’s where all the work is. And for people like me it’s really true that America is the land of opportunity. Without a doubt.
Do you miss being ‘Herbal Henry’ [a nickname given to him by his neighbours in Norfolk]?
[Laughs a lot] Yeah, I do, actually. Yeah, it’s funny, I do like that. Years and years I had it, ‘Herbal Henry’. Nobody told me, I just heard it; they all thought I was a drug dealer. I’d go into the pub for Sunday lunch and everybody was very polite. Yeah, it was great.
It’s inevitable that you’ll always be asked about Bravo Two Zero. Invariably it’s referred to as a failed mission. You were in the army for 18 years and you must have had hundreds of successful operations. It’s always struck me as being a bit unfair.
Well, you’ve got all these armchair experts who all know better, and nine out of ten times they’ve never been in the military. It’s not science. We’ve got media, film and TV, and it’s broadcast that it’s got to go like this and this and this. In the case of its mission, it was a failure: we didn’t find the fibre optic cables, but the other side of it, and I think this is one of the reasons why people tuned into it a lot … it was a human story. It was a bunch of lads who could be your next-door neighbour as opposed to the memoir of a general. And with all the media I think people just wanted a more intimate account. Yeah, technically it was a failure, we didn’t find the fibre optic cable, but what came out of it was certainly a re-establishment of what the regiment was about. That small group of soldiers getting on with it. And the Brits are very good at celebrating these [mess-ups]; actually, most nations are. So technically it was, but in the big scheme it actually wasn’t. If you look at it in a military context, it’s still used as an example of a mission that goes wrong but actually because of the planning and preparation, the Plan B, the Plan C, and the resistance to interrogation training, that actually works. Because in a military context everyone understands, it’s not a science, you’ve got a group of individuals. You know, if it’s a science you’ve got rules that if you’ve got an element it responds in a certain way, but you can’t dictate that.
At the end of Bravo Two Zero, you mention what would happen if you met the two men who tortured you and who enjoyed it. Is that still the case?
Yeah, yeah, still the case. I’ve been on the board of a private military company for donkey’s years and when the Americans took Iraq in the second Gulf War, as is the nature with all these companies, we’re in there within 48 hours trying to make contracts and all that sort of thing. As that was going on and we were getting established and all the contracts were coming in, you’d get all the fixers coming in and they’d say, “I know who the guys were who did it” and in the chaos you could do whatever you wanted. So it was a case of giving them a couple of hundred dollars and you’re rattling into the city and it wasn’t these guys anyway. They were just after the money. So after that I didn’t bother anymore. But no, if I thought I could get away with it, yeah. It was only a couple of them. The military guys were alright; they were at Sandhurst when we used to train the Iraqi army during their war with Iran. They were all right; they were saying, “You’ve got a job to do, we’ve got a job to do.” It’s the secret police guys; they were the boys really going for it, and they were really enjoying it. So, yeah, those two guys.
Didn’t you go back to the place you were held?
Yeah, loads of times. It was quite hard initially, trying to find it. Certainly the interrogation centre. It was near, again a remnant of the Brits, it was called the something Hunting Club. Bizarre, isn’t it; they’d have guys running around in pink coats and Abu Ghraib was a complex, not an actual prison. So eventually we found the interrogation centre, and by the time we’d found it the Americans had moved in and it had all been repainted and it was really weird. And then we found the wing, one of the sections of Abu Ghraib where I’d been interrogated, and all the metal had been ripped out, all the locals had taken the rails out, all the doors, and it was all canvassed up. It was being used by all the homeless people, people that had been bombed out of the city, they were all living there. It was quite…
Something good had come out of it?
Yeah, yeah, and all the tanks, they’d all been repainted, and by then people were living in them, like flats. I’m serious; they had flowers on them, and families would move into a taxi, rip everything out and live in there. Incredible.
Did that help – going back?
Yeah, it was more curiosity than anything. I think it was more trying to identify, and by then I’d been up to Al-Qa’im. Well, a couple of the lads from the company went up there and I just jumped up there with them. By then there was this cairn that had been built during the second Gulf War, but I remembered the village and the bridge by the Euphrates and the general areas and managed to find it [the place where he’d been captured].
After reading your books, I read Frank Collins’ [a colleague of Andy’s who left the SAS and became a Church of England vicar] book Baptism of Fire. It was a huge shock to me that Frank had taken his own life; it must have been terrible for you.
Yeah, yeah. Well, he died about the same time as Nish [another former SAS colleague who sadly took his own life]. We were having this party for the Eurovision Song Contest and it was fancy dress. Frank turned up in costume with these huge stick-on sideburns and all that. So that was on a Saturday night, and then he turned up on the Sunday afternoon and said he’d come to eat up all the pasta or something. But what he’d actually turned up to do was say goodbye. So we’re all asking him what he’s been doing, and basically he’s just doing the rounds and saying goodbye before he topped himself. So all planned and then he’s got on with it.
I think Frank was so confused. There was that movement to Christianity, going through all that from happy-clappy to trying it all, you know the Pentecostal and getting ordained, all that, and it wasn’t enough. Which was really weird. Cos that’s the sort of bloke you’re supposed to be going to with your problems, isn’t it? And that’s why it was such a shock. The last person you’d expect.
In his book and yours there’s mention of Frank giving you a Bible.
Yeah, when I first went into the regiment he’d already got into Christianity, he’d been over with the Americans where there’s a strong movement and he’d come back with God. And we were all reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail [sic] and trying to find ways of catching him out, but we couldn’t. When we were in the troop, and about nine or ten months later, we were in Northern Ireland and he’d give us this book and it was the Bible. We’d all tell him: “No, not interested mate” and he was increasingly getting into it. And after that tour was when he left the regiment.
Back to Bravo Two Zero. In the two films of the mission based on your and Chris’ books (Chris Ryan, author of The One That Got Away), you were played by Sean Bean and rather unflatteringly by David Morrissey.
[He laughs] Yeah. It’s interesting, because at the time, what happened was, I was approached by the producers and took some advice and said no. And then they went to Chris and with all the Paul Greengrass stuff, he’d just done Spycatcher and was into all these conspiracy theories, and then the BBC came to me. At the time it [cheesed] a lot of people off and a lot of people were angry with Chris, but now I can realise that it was the business, that’s just how it is. I’ve been really well advised, and actually you can just get carried away with all this [stuff] and it gets taken away from you and it gets turned into something else. So at the time – yeah, I was quite [cheesed] off but now I understand that that can happen.
Now I’m involved in TV and film, especially in America, and it can be a nightmare. So it’s understanding how those things can be hijacked. It’s easy to sign on the dotted line, but you’ve got to take all the hassle if it gets out of hand. At that time, we were all upset with Chris, especially for the way Vince was portrayed, but now I can understand how easily these things happen.
I see that there are still plans in the pipeline to make a film of Firewall. Is that true?
Yeah, it’s one of the things we’re doing now. Basically, the film business is fantastic in that you can make a load of money without actually making a film. I’ve sold the options three times over the years, but you get to the point where the studio won’t make the film because the balance of payments is too great to proceed, and that’s where we are now. So we’re not making a film, because there’s more money in TV, certainly American TV. So, we’re in negotiation with the Weinstein Company, Big Bad Harvey. We’ve got director Antoine Fuqua [Training Day] on board as producer with me and Bonnie Timmermann and we’re nearly there. And that will be ten hours of American TV, Nick will still be a Brit and all that and it’ll come over here. That’s been a brilliant learning curve. It’s nearly there.
Who’ll play Nick?
Who knows? That’s the next step.
Detonator is published by Bantam Press and is available in hardback and eBook.
Open Doors – 60 Years On and Still Smuggling
Imagine not being able to meet with your mates, not being able to visit your local park or café with them for fear of drawing attention to yourselves. Imagine having to meet in secret, in the dark, reading by candlelight in case harsh electric light gives you away. Imagine having to memorise phone numbers, in case the police confiscate your mobile.
That is what life is like for millions of Christians around the world. In many countries, Christianity is forbidden and freedom of religious belief simply does not exist. Being found with a Bible can lead to imprisonment or execution, and being a Christian is literally a matter of life and death. In these places, the Church has been forced underground – to become secret.
For 60 years, Open Doors has been helping persecuted Christians around the world. In 1955 a young man called Andrew went behind the Iron Curtain to discover hidden believers in communist Europe. Very few of the Christians in these places had Bibles, so Brother Andrew, as he became known, started smuggling copies across the border. He was running a huge risk: his car – a blue VW Beetle – drew a lot of attention in lands where Soviet cars were generally the only ones on the road. Gradually others joined him. Today the organisation he founded, Open Doors, supports persecuted Christians in over 50 countries around the globe.
From drugs to Bibles
Bible-smuggling remains a core part of Open Doors’ work. Last year, millions of Bibles in many languages and forms were smuggled to dozens of countries.
Take Pablo,* in Colombia. As a teenager, Pablo did a different kind of smuggling: he drove a truck around Colombia, smuggling cocaine and delivering propaganda for FARC, the communist guerrilla army. Then he was captured by enemies of FARC. To save his own life, he told them everything he knew. Pablo escaped, but he was now on the run.
In this hour of need, he met some Christians who told him about the hope he could find in Jesus. Pablo realised that God had spared his life for a purpose. Pablo gave his life to Christ and promised to serve him.
How, though? The answer came through a pastor who was also an Open Doors volunteer. He encouraged Pablo to take up smuggling again – not smuggling drugs, but Bibles. Since then, ‘Brother Pablo’ has worked with Open Doors, taking shipments of Bibles into the most hazardous regions of Colombia.
It is dangerous work. The gospel message he delivers stands in stark opposition to the violent political doctrines of the guerrilla leaders. For them, Christians are enemies, pastors are military targets, and the Bible is a lethal weapon. There is a price on Pablo’s head, and several times he has had to go into hiding.
But he remains undaunted. “God wants fighters to know and accept him,” he says. “For that I was called – to bring the Good News to people who need the light of the Word.”
As Eddie Lyle of Open Doors says: “We are hiding hope, smuggling it into countries in suitcases, in clothing, in the backs of vans and in other ways I can’t talk about. Many of these places are where the Bible is banned or burned. Places like North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Maldives and Yemen. Yet these places are where the Church continues to grow and the Bible continues to be read. Our smugglers continue to get their cargo through.”
Danger in Korea
Last year alone, Open Doors distributed 3.1 million Bibles and Christian resources. These are often smuggled across borders into North Korea, Afghanistan and other countries where such things are prohibited or difficult to obtain. In North Korea alone, Open Doors distributed over 21,000 Bibles and pieces of literature (usually smuggled) and also increased special radio programmes for secret believers.
Han-Mei,* is a North Korean Christian. One night he was so engrossed in reading his Bible that at first he didn’t hear the knocking at the door. It became a loud thumping. Hurriedly, he hid his Bible and opened the door. Three members of the security forces burst in, demanding to search the house. To his horror, Han-Mei saw one of the men go straight to where his Bible was and pull it out of its secret place. He thought he was going to be killed, but the man just hid the Bible in his own clothes and said to his colleagues, “There’s nothing here.” The three men left. But then the man who took the Bible returned, alone. “Because of the current situation I’m keeping my faith to myself,” he said. “But God the Father guided me to your house yesterday and gave me this opportunity. I’m so grateful for it. I have brought your Bible back.”
Feeding people with hope
Open Doors is about more than Bibles. They train and equip Christians to face persecution and attack. Their staff work with local churches and partner organisations to provide, food, shelter, medical care and trauma care for victims of persecution. They help persecuted communities become self-sufficient through drilling wells. They offer microloans to help Christians forced out of business or jobs to build a sustainable future for themselves and their families.
The most urgent need at the moment is in the Middle East. Open Doors supports some 10,000 families in Iraq. There, families who have been driven out of their homes by Islamic State (IS) are trying to rebuild their lives, to build a future for their children, or even trace loved ones who have been taken captive.
Open Doors works with church leaders like Martin. Martin is a refugee himself: he left the village of Karamles, near Mosul, when it was overrun by IS. He and many others from his village found refuge in Erbil, in Kurdistan-controlled Iraq. Despite being just 24, he now helps to look after hundreds of families from his village, all living in exile. He oversees the distribution of the food Open Doors provides through local partners, as well as providing pastoral care.
The bishop who encouraged Martin to become a leader in the church was among the many clergymen killed in Iraq for their faith. Martin knows the path he is choosing to follow is dangerous – but this hasn’t stopped him. In moments of doubt, he says that he imagines that Jesus is standing with him. “I remember that I am called to serve as he has served.”
Open Doors has just launched a £10m appeal worldwide to support these families for another year. If you want to help, go to opendoorsuk.org.
Sixty years on, the issue of persecuted Christians has not gone away. Communism has crumbled, but in its place, militant Islam is threatening to wipe Christianity from the Middle East. There are many challenges, but with the help of its supporters around the world, Open Doors remains committed to supporting the right of individuals to worship freely and openly. Throughout the world, the organisation dedicates itself to supporting Christians to remain in the places where faith costs the most.
There were originally 800 Christian families in Martin’s village. Around 250 of them have left Iraq – and Martin could do the same. But he remains devoted to the people of Karamles. “How can I leave them in this time of crisis?” he asks. “I have decided to follow my calling and stay in Iraq, with them … I am needed here at this moment to feed my people with hope.”
*Names are changed to protect identities.
Why not travel with us and see what we do? Help us with our work
Each year Open Doors organises trips for supporters. Some are to see our work and meet people that our supporters have fundraised for. Others are to smuggle Bibles and resources into areas of need.
For more information, call 01993 460015
From issue 49 - October 2015
Jason Mercier: Poker Face
By Samantha Rea
What came first, poker or faith?
Igrew up going to church all the time, all my family are Christian, but I struggled in my late teenage years. There was never a point when I altogether didn’t believe. It was more that I went through a phase when my belief system wasn’t as strong. I felt like, “I don’t believe the same way you guys do” or “it’s just not for me” or “I’m not really sure”. I just kind of lived my life not thinking about it.
Two years ago, I had some experiences that have led me back to God. It’s personal, but I now have a renewed faith in God and Christianity. I’m much more open to talking about it. I get into conversations fairly frequently about God, Christianity and religion.
Do you ever talk about Christianity at the poker table?
It’s rare to get into discussions or religious debates at the poker table, but when I have done, it’s been very friendly, it’s never been hostile.
I feel like I don’t know enough to debate it. A lot of times, I’ll be left wanting to ask someone, like my dad or my brother, so I’m better prepared. I’ll ask them: “If somebody says this, what do you say back?” They usually have pretty good advice.
I don’t try to convince anyone, because most people you get into conversations with aren’t really the type to get swayed by your opinion. Sometimes I get into arguments – sometimes it’s unavoidable. It starts out like, “Let’s just have a discussion.” Then it turns into: “YOU’RE WRONG.”
In general, I try to not get angry or upset, I just explain my point of view and what I believe. I might ask them a question or two to make them think about what they believe and why they believe it – to question if what they believe is accurate.
A lot of people try to argue that the earth is 4 billion years old, but in the Bible it doesn’t say how old the earth is. Besides, time doesn’t apply to God – God doesn’t operate on time, it’s a man-made instrument.
If someone quotes Nietzsche and says, “God didn’t make man, man invented God,” I say that’s just an opinion. My opinion is that God made man, and all men stem from Adam and Eve, the first man and the first woman. That’s from the Bible, so it leads to all sorts of arguments about whether the Bible is accurate – and that’s a whole new debate.
How do your parents feel about you playing poker?
Initially, it was a major issue. When I first started playing, I knew they’d be against it, so I kept it a secret. I played poker with my friends and didn’t tell them.
When I was 18, I started playing online. When my parents found out, it was a big problem and it became an ongoing struggle between us. There were multiple issues – it wasn’t just poker. I was missing classes and flunking out of school, so they were very much against everything I was doing. They told me I couldn’t come home… so I had to figure out what I was going to do and where I was going to live. I stayed with a friend for the summer, then went to my parents and told them I was going to stop playing poker.
I stopped for two months. Then I started playing again, and kept it from my parents. After a while, I couldn’t hide it anymore – I told them I was playing. I said they could kick me out if they wanted to, but I explained why I thought it was different to gambling and why I wanted to keep doing it.
We agreed on some terms. They said as long as I was going to school, getting good grades and working a job, I could play 15 hours a week. But to me, that was a green light to play whenever I wanted to.
I felt like I was lying to them, and not being honest about what I was doing, so it took a little bit before I was finally like, “I gotta tell ’em.”
It wasn’t until I moved out and I was making a very good living from cards, that my parents were much more supportive of it. Once they saw the potential for travelling and playing live tournaments, and understood it as a sport, rather than a casino game, they were much more accepting of it.
What was your parents’ main concern about you playing poker?
My parents were against all gambling. I remember when I was 11 or 12, I made a $10 bet against my uncle on the Super Bowl. I won, but when my parents found out, I got in so much trouble. They made me give the money back to my uncle. They were very much against all forms of gambling.
How were you able to persuade your parents to consider poker as a career?
It took a while for my parents to understand it. They’d been asking me where I was going to university in the fall, and I kept saying, “I don’t know.” I was playing poker, trying to make a living, and my plan was to not go to university. So at this point I had to tell them I’d been playing 50 hours a week, making x amount.
My parents were shocked at how much money I’d made and the potential that was there – I had tournaments lined up in Monte Carlo and the Caribbean. They didn’t know what to say except, “Looks like you’ve got it figured out, so we’re just gonna let you do your thing.” At this point, I bought a place, moved out and started playing full-time. Nine months later, I won the European Poker Tour in San Remo for over a million dollars, so then it was like, “OK, we’re just gonna let him play.”
It took some time for them to come on board, but now my dad follows the live updates when I’m playing. He’ll stay up all night and sweat. My dad’s asked questions, so despite never playing, he has a very good grasp of Texas Hold’em and what happens in tournaments. My mom doesn’t really know what’s going on, she just looks to make sure that I’ve won.
Do your parents ever come and watch you play in tournaments?
Sometimes – they both came to watch me play the $25K in Florida last week, so they were very excited about that. It was the first time they’d seen me win, which is crazy because I’ve won so many tournaments. It was pretty cool for them to be there for a win, but they’ve actually come to Vegas a couple of times for the World Series of Poker and to the Bahamas for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.
Poker tournaments tend to be held in casinos – how do your parents feel about coming into casinos to watch you play?
I don’t think that’s an issue. My dad used to work in production, so he’s had to work in casinos before. They’re not necessarily against casinos in general, it’s rather that they’ve always viewed gambling as a slippery slope. It’s something you don’t want to do because you don’t want to get addicted to it – work hard for your money, don’t just give it away.
You spend a lot of time travelling on the poker circuit – how often do you manage to go to church?
I go to a non-denominational church about once a month – just because I’m on the road so much. I’ve gone a few times when I’ve been in Vegas and here in Barcelona I’ve been to the Sagrada Familia. It wasn’t for a service – it’s more like a museum – but it was a very beautiful and cool experience.
I think it would be nice if I made a little effort to visit some churches, especially over here in Europe. It’s difficult because I have tournaments to play and I have to fit in sleep. I can be playing poker until one in the morning on a Saturday – then on a Sunday, I have a tournament starting at noon. I’d also have to find a church to go to, so I just try to go when I’m home.
In Christianity it’s not like you have to be at church every Sunday. You should go, if you can, but I think a man has a responsibility to his family and to himself to make a living and sometimes that comes with sacrifices. There’s family time and church time. I only feel guilty for not going on a Sunday if I’m home. If I’m up all night and miss church because I sleep in, then I’d feel guilty, but I don’t feel guilty about not going when I’m on the road.
I can see you’re wearing two crucifixes. Can you tell me about them – do they have a special meaning for you?
They both have special meaning. This smaller one, I bought it off my brother, when I was nine or ten years old. It represents working hard and earning what you want. It represents family to me, because it was my brother’s originally. This larger one, I actually found when I was 15 years old. I was bagging groceries in a parking lot. I should have probably turned it in, but I decided to keep it.
My parents were so strict, I didn’t even show them that I found it when I did, because they’d have made me return it. I ended up finding it in my stuff two years ago. I was like, “Wow, this is really cool.”
It’s crazy I kept it all this time. I only recently started wearing it out. A lot of people keep saying, “Oh, nice Jesus piece.” I just say “Thanks.” For me, anything that brings forth the name of Jesus and encourages people to talk about him, or see that I represent him, I think is a good thing.
How do the people who go to your church feel about you playing poker for a living?
Most people view it as really cool. I haven’t had anyone say they’re against it. If anything, they’re excited to see me and ask me how it’s going.
Is charity an important part of your life? Do you give away a certain amount of your winnings?
Yeah. It’s not exactly charity, but I give to the church that I go to. I usually give a lump sum, once a year, based on how the year’s going for me financially. They use that money to either support the church, or support missions trips or other churches.
Looking to the future, when you get married, is it important to you that it’s to someone who shares your beliefs?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve gone on dates with girls where they’ve told me they think God doesn’t exist, and right away I know that’s not the right person for me. It’s very important to me that my significant other would have the same belief system as me.
Does your Christianity affect your poker – or vice versa?
There can be a lot of temptation in this industry. Gambling, women, drinking, drugs – they’re all prevalent in poker, and avoiding them is sometimes difficult. I don’t cut out alcohol completely, but I’ve gone through periods when I haven’t drunk any. I just try to live as a Christian. Sometimes it’s difficult, but I try my best.
What does living as a Christian mean to you?
The most important thing about being a Christian is having faith. It’s believing that Jesus died on the cross and was brought back to life and is the Son of God. That’s the beginning – the rest is how you live and why you do what you’re doing. It’s about being kind and generous and living the right way – just trying to be how Jesus was.
… but not as we know him. The cast of Spectre explain how the latest 007 movie brings Bond bang up to date.
By Fergus Ewbank
Carving out one of the greatest legacies in British film, it was over 50 years ago that Sean Connery first played James Bond in Dr. No. In the following decades, a handful of actors have shouldered the 007 codename, putting their own spin on Britain’s least secret agent. Since taking on the role in 2005, Daniel Craig has won over audiences and critics alike with his own stamp on the iconic character. His is a postmodern take on Ian Fleming’s Bond; one that embraces the best of the author’s suave spy while adding an air of weariness and conflict. Craig’s Bond is gruffer, meaner and more explosive than those before him. Gone are the cheesy one-liners and shaken martinis of predecessors Connery, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan. Instead, with Craig, we see a character pensive and existentially troubled, barely suppressing the rage within him.
The 24th Bond film since Connery’s first face-off with Dr. No, Spectre marks Craig’s fourth and likely final time playing 007. Directed by Skyfall’s Sam Mendes, Spectre marks the return of the eponymous extra-governmental organisation that figured prominently in the early Bond films. The film also stars Italian bombshell Monica Bellucci and French actress Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Colour) as two Bond girls who subvert the somewhat dated role women have taken in the franchise thus far. Returning cast members include Ralph Fiennes, taking over as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny, while Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz plays the arch-villain Franz Oberhauser.
With Craig on camera and Mendes behind it, the pair’s first outing together in Skyfall as a hugely successful one. Any scepticism towards either of them was soon forgotten as box office figures reached a dizzying $1.1bn – nearly twice that of both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace – to become the 12th highest grossing film of all time, and the most successful Bond to date.
As Craig is all too ready to agree, Mendes knows how to put together a good 007 movie. “Sam Mendes was the only guy for the job,” says the actor who, much like the Bond he depicts, doesn’t seem inclined towards overstatement. “He did such a wonderful job on Skyfall,” he continues, “he was the obvious choice to direct the next one.”
An Englishman himself, Mendes grew up with Bond in the same way that Craig did. They both like the same movies and, as both will cheerily add, they like the same bits in those same movies. Given the anticipation that already surrounds the film, Craig’s endorsement of the director could be founded on YouTube trailer views alone. Speaking to him, it seems that his preference for Mendes is based on more personal reasons. Working with the director, Craig has been given the freedom to explore the once camp, detached spy on a deeper level. “What happened in the last movie was a big kick, bringing Sam in,” he explains. “We took the movie in a new direction. We created a language that was different from the other two, but that was faithful to Bond.”
For him, stepping into James Bond’s shoes meant lacing up for a role within one of the most treasured British franchises in film history. By the time the actor made his 007 debut in Casino Royale, Sean, Roger, Timothy and Pierce had already given their interpretation of the spy. He admits, “I couldn’t come in and go, ‘Hmm, Martini,’ or whatever. It’s not who I am.”
While the early Sean Connery films were able to exist within a league of their own, in what was then relatively uncharted space, the secret agent motif now makes for the basis of a fairly commonplace screenwriting template. As such, the Bond of today joins a string of spy film franchises and, thereby, always risks becoming somewhat of a pastiche.
Craig was keen to rethink the formula and take things back to the start. “The original Bond was always in turmoil with himself, always questioning,” he explains. “Maybe he got smoother as the books went on. But going back to the beginning, it’s the way I approach my work. I’m aware it’s a Bond movie and always remains a Bond movie. I’ve just always felt there should be an element of truth or emotion in a movie, so that the audience can hook in. If it’s only action, then it’s not the complete picture.”
While discerning viewers might once have picked up on an occasional storyline or character link in past films, they were, for the most part, unconnected episodes. During Craig’s 007 residency, this has changed and an overarching narrative has begun to emerge. Better thought of as S.P.E.C.T.R.E, the title for his latest film is an anagram for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion – a global terrorist organisation that featured heavily in Fleming’s novels and in Dr. No.
Speculation of a return from Blofeld, the infamous cat-stroking villain of that movie, has turned out to be wrong. However, clued-up fans will notice that by going back to the beginning, there exists a link within Fleming’s novels. The villain of Spectre is Franz Oberhauser, the son of Hannes Oberhauser. A friend of Bond’s father, Hannes was an Austrian climbing and ski instructor who briefly became the young Bond’s guardian after the tragic death of his parents – in, no less, an Alpine climbing accident. Death, family ties and characters racked with inner turmoil – it all feels a little Shakespearean. Then again, it’s probably fair to say that the essence of much modern drama has its basis in The Bard.
So often in big-budget action films, the conflict is played out visually – with machine guns and big explosions – which is all well and good, but 24 films in and viewers begin to expect a touch more substance. In Spectre, Craig delivers weight and meaning to his character – there’s still a licence to kill, but it’s accompanied by a significant level of inner turmoil.
Actress Léa Seydoux, who plays Madeleine Swann alongside Bond in the film, agrees. “I think this is what’s new in the film, it’s not what you can expect from a Bond film. It’s more much intense, complex and deep.” She talks not only about Craig’s redefinition of the leading spy but also how this ties in with Mendes’ more modern treatment of the ‘Bond girl’ role. The decision to cast 50-year-old Monica Bellucci does away with Hollywood stigma regarding age and beauty. The oldest actress ever to be cast as a “Bond woman”, as she puts it, Bellucci’s character not only proves that beauty is ageless but also lays bare the misogynistic tendencies that have run a course through the films to date.
As one of the very few love interests to be older than Bond rather than a decade his junior, Bellucci’s part levels the playing field. It serves to suggest that women should take charge of their sensuality, and that being desirable is much more a function of one’s sense of identity than pure physical attractiveness. Admittedly, given that her character, Lucia Sciarra, ultimately succumbs to Bond anyway, there’s still some distance to go but, for Bellucci, it’s a move in the right direction. “I think it’s a sign that women deserve to be respected and considered beautiful at any age. Sensuality and sexiness does not just belong to women in their 20s or 30s,” she says. “We shouldn’t be made to feel as if we are no longer interesting or sexy at 50 as compared to when we’re 30.”
So what about the ‘feisty’ Bond girl played by Seydoux? “Yes, she is different,” says the actress. “My character, she’s something important, she’s Bond’s equal. She doesn’t need Bond, she doesn’t want to be part of his world. She’s not impressed.” As with Bellucci, Seydoux is keen to emphasise how the role of women has shifted in the film. Far from the stereotypical Bond girl, Léa’s character, Madeleine, is not only uninterested in Bond’s protection, but is also the daughter of his enemy.
Like Bond, Madeleine is not without her complexities. When Seydoux took on the part, there was, at that point, no script to be read, and only the bare bones of a plot. Mendes encouraged his cast to develop their characters subjectively, as Craig has done over his past three films. It worked for Seydoux as it did for Craig. “When I act,” she says, pausing for a moment’s thought, “it’s always about the emotions you give. It’s even subjective. It’s a sensation. It’s not I want to play that, play this, it’s much more mysterious in a way.”
The idea of interpretation is an important one when it comes to modern Bond. On the one hand, Mendes, Craig and fellow cast members are faced with the task of creating a contemporary Bond that’s relevant and attuned to the society in which it is set. On the other, the film cannot be allowed to stray too far from its conception. Though Spectre displays a Bond refined for modern viewers, Ian Fleming’s original novels were reading material for director and cast alike. “We always go back to Fleming,” says Craig. “We just do it. You have to.”
For him, Fleming “literally changed the face of movie-making in the 60s. The legacy is incredible”. And in nowhere, perhaps, is that legacy more apparent than Bond’s choice of vehicle. Generations have been left captivated by all manner of kitted-out cars, but it’s the series of Aston Martins that have come to define 007.
Happily for Craig, it’s business as usual in Spectre. “I literally have to pace myself,” he says, describing his return to the seat of the latest car. “I was driving an Aston Martin around Rome and I’d be numb not to get excited about that.” Something for Bond and only Bond, the DB10 car featured in the film will never go into production for public sale. A one-of-a-kind, the model was designed to celebrate the franchise’s 50th anniversary and the equally long relationship with the manufacturer. That relationship began with what is now the most famous Bond car of all, the DB5, and in designing the latest model, the Aston team and Mendes have paid much homage.
A sinister, modern machine, complete with a featherweight carbon fibre skin for added ferocity, the DB10 is a fitting analogy for Craig’s portrayal of his character. In its simple, sleek lines, there’s an undeniable resemblance to Bond’s first machine and, in that, an allusion to the films in which Connery drove it. Through the ancestry of its design, the DB10 traces the lineage of every Bond car before it. As the latest offspring in a bloodline of gizmo-laden vehicles, the DB10 is a particularly fitting celebration of half a century of James Bond films. As with the majority that have come before it, the car has its fair share of weaponry and gadgets – a complex series of hidden guns, and a flamethrower in the boot – handy additions from Bond’s tech-guru Q.
Q’s seemingly infallible ability to predict what Bond is likely to come up against (even before Bond does) remains as important to the storyline as ever. While Craig’s character may well be more complex, more conflicted, perhaps even a little weary, in each of those gadgets exists an opportunity for escape and survival. Though the modern Bond seems to teeter ever closer to breaking point, there is never a moment where the audience believes he won’t survive. How long the franchise will continue is uncertain but, as we reach the release of Spectre, we can be sure of one thing. Through suicidal driving, megalomaniac supervillains and terrifying henchman, Bond will always emerge at the other end – shaken, not stirred.
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