Agents of Change: The women of Bond are on a mission in No Time to Die

·19 min read
Agents of Change: The women of Bond are on a mission in No Time to Die

It's October 2019 and, at London's Pinewood Studios, director Cary Fukunaga is shooting an action scene for No Time to Die (out Oct. 8), the latest James Bond adventure and the final to star Daniel Craig. The sequence is a shoot-out with Craig's super spy 007 and Ana de Armas' fellow agent Paloma facing off against a small army of SPECTRE goons at a Cuban mansion. As EW looks on, Craig, 52, and de Armas, 33, repeatedly execute complex action choreography, at one point wrapping themselves around each other in a manner that would look close to foreplay were they not both spraying bullets at those adversaries from their respective guns. In the world of the film, the sequence makes clear that Paloma is as physically effective an agent as Bond. In real life, watching Craig, who is wearing a tuxedo, and de Armas, who is clad in a dark blue cocktail dress, it is hard not to recall that old saying about Ginger Rogers doing everything her onscreen dance partner Fred Astaire did, but backward in high heels. "I only had 10 days to two weeks training, which is not much for everything I had to do," says de Armas. "I told Daniel I was nervous, and he was just like, 'Enjoy it! If you have fun with it and trust the people you're working with, the stunt crew and Cary and everyone, it's going to look great.' In the end, it all turned out very well."

The producers of the 007 franchise seem to have been talking about positively reinventing the idea of the "Bond girl" for almost as long as the series has existed, but Craig's tenure in the role has seen a rejection of the misogynistic streak which can make the '60s and '70s movies an eye-rolling watch for many. With No Time to Die, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and their collaborators appear genuinely interested in dragging the franchise into at least the vicinity of the 21st century when it comes to the depiction of the movie's female characters. While most of the women with whom Bond winds up at the end of a movie simply disappear into the ether before the next film, No Time to Die sees the return of Spectre actress Léa Seydoux a Dr. Madeleine Swann. Seydoux reveals that she did not know she would be back for a second film when she finished shooting Spectre. "I'm lucky to not die!" the French actress, 36, says with a laugh. Naomie Harris is another returnee, reprising the role of the no-longer-stuck-behind-a-desk MI6 mainstay Moneypenny, whom she first portrayed in 2012's Skyfall. In addition to de Armas' Paloma, No Time to Die will introduce a second skilled female agent, and a "00" agent at that, in the form of Lashana Lynch's Nomi. Craig describes Lynch's character as "having a lot of front," meaning that Nomi exudes confidence. "She's just a general bad arse, kick-assery lady," says Lynch, 33.

The film's writers include Fleabag creator-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, although Craig is keen to point out that she was brought on because of her all-around abilities with a script rather than a specific desire to amp up the movie's female characters. "I got her in because she's the best f---ing writer around," says the actor. "After Killing Eve [on which Waller-Bridge was head writer for the first season], it was like, we've got to get her in. Her tone manages to stay serious and emotional and also manages to have jokes. I was like, we have to have her." Lynch says she is indebted to Waller-Bridge for helping develop her character: "Phoebe knew how to take care of Nomi."

One unchanging aspect of the Bond franchise is its cast members' unwillingness to spoil anything about the movies ahead of their release. When EW spoke to de Armas in 2019 about Paloma, the actress describes her as "nothing like we've seen before in terms of being a Bond girl" but declines to say much more. "I can't tell you anything," she says. "You're going to have to wait."

Of course, back in 2019, no one had any idea just how long that wait would be.

The tweet that appeared on the official No Time to Die social media account on March 4, 2020, just over a month before the film was due to premiere in U.S. cinemas, was simple and, in retrospect, inevitable given the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also, for the film industry, seismic: "MGM, Universal and Bond producers, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, announced today that after careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace, the release of No Time to Die will be postponed until November 2020."

No Time to Die was not the first film to be affected by COVID. By the time of the announcement, Paramount had already suspended production on Mission: Impossible 7, and Amazon had canceled its presence at the upcoming SXSW festival. But the decision to push the Bond movie opened the floodgates for a slew of other postponements, ultimately stripping the immediate film schedule of almost all major films not called Tenet. "We finished in March [2020]," Fukunaga, 44, recalls now. "Grading, music, sound mixing. Everything. It was done, let go, and then lockdown happened." Of course, No Time to Die was not released in November 2020. In October of that year, with the pandemic still raging, Broccoli and Wilson announced they were pushing the film to April so that it could be seen by "a worldwide theatrical audience." Then, in January 2021, No Time to Die was delayed yet again to October.

Lynch admits the last year-and-a-half has been a frustrating period. "It's been like having a really good friend that you really want to introduce to the rest of your friends," says the actress. "And your friends are like, 'So when are we going to meet them?' 'I don't know, but maybe at some point?'"

Several cast members, including Craig and Seydoux, have been part of the waiting game even longer than Lynch. Danny Boyle was the first director who signed on to make No Time to Die, which was originally set for release in the fall of 2019. "They called me when it was Danny," says Seydoux, "but the story was different, and my part was different." In August 2018, it was announced that Boyle had departed the project because of "creative differences," and the producers recruited Fukunaga, who rewrote the script with longtime Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, as well as Scott Z. Burns and Waller-Bridge.

Wealthy and devoted to the cause of the Bond movies, it is easy to imagine the franchise's producers living remote, insular lives, possibly in a dormant volcano. But Broccoli, in particular, is assiduous in keeping her ear to the ground when it comes to young acting talent. She first met with Rami Malek, who plays the No Time to Die villain Safin, after seeing him in the 2013 indie Short Term 12, and Broccoli came across Lynch when she produced the play Ear for Eye for London's legendary Royal Court Theatre in 2018. Fukunaga reveals that Lynch received another thumbs-up from the directors of 2019's Captain Marvel, in which the actress portrayed Air Force pilot and Carol Danvers chum Maria Rambeau. "We were looking for someone to be another '00,' and she came on our radar," says the director. "A couple of friends, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who did Captain Marvel, I've known both of them since our indie days, they spoke very highly of her."

No Time to Die Digital Cover
No Time to Die Digital Cover

Pari Dukovic for EW 'No Time to Die' star Lashana Lynch

Lynch still had to audition. And then some. "There were months of tapes and face-to-face meetings," says the actress. "Finally, the last meeting was a test at Pinewood with Daniel, Barbara, and Cary present. We talked for probably about an hour, read the scene once, and Cary was like, 'Cool, I've seen what I need to see.'" Lynch then had to successfully complete the second half of the audition. "The stunt test was an hour later, and it was a stunt test like no other," she says. "They set up maybe five different scenarios, whereby you had to change a clip of magazines, run out of ammo, grab another gun, change the magazine on that, load up, run across the room, roll on your back. It was like an assault course as a test for a movie." Lynch finally found out she had the role after seeing Cillian Murphy in the play Grief Is the Thing With Feathers at the Barbican Theatre: "I came out and said, 'Oh, that was great. Oh, why is everyone calling me? What's happened? Ten missed calls?' That was the indication that maybe I'd got this thing. And I did!"

Lynch describes the training she undertook for the role as very vigorous. "They taught me everything from wushu to boxing to armory to everything under the sun, really. They just prepared me for any eventuality, so if choreography should change, I was ready, and that's exactly how I felt, completely ready."

De Armas had an easier entry into Bondland, thanks in part to knowing both Craig, with whom she appeared in the hit whodunit Knives Out, and Fukunaga. The actress also had the advantage of hailing from Cuba, whose proximity to Jamaica, where the director planned on shooting one of the film's early sequences, fired Fukunaga's imagination. "I had met with Ana on another project and really found her intriguing and was very impressed by not only her work ethic but her intelligence," says the filmmaker. "I was in the early stages of writing this project and, knowing that Cuba was right next to Jamaica, I was like, how cool would it be if we had a little Cold War chapter in this story, including some agents from Cuba. Of course, I knew the best Cuban actress, so I wrote Ana and asked her if she'd be interested in doing a cameo, and she was down."

Waller-Bridge came late to the party, starting to work on the screenplay in the spring of 2019. "There was no script when I joined, it was a complete wipe-the-chalkboard-clean, start over again," says Fukunaga. "Barbara and Michael had some things that they wanted to take place in the story, some characters they were excited about but didn't know what their part was in the story. I sat down with Purvis and Wade initially, and we hashed out a treatment and a screenplay, and I took that screenplay and worked on it a bit myself, and then we brought in Phoebe some time around March, which was when we started shooting. I really like her mind; I really like the way she thinks about character, and especially scenes. It's almost like a science for her. We talked about what we had; I talked about what characters I wasn't happy with yet, and about situation and dialogue. Dialogue is often times the last thing you do, it's the most cosmetic thing, but great dialogue just elevates a scene to a whole other level. So we talked a lot about the different characters and how to sprinkle in some better dialog throughout, and it was a lot of fun actually."

Waller-Bridge consulted with both de Armas and Lynch about their respective characters. "I met Phoebe at the beginning of the shoot because they were still working on scripts," says de Armas. "She did a great job, and so did the other writers, [but] she brought some fun things to the story."

"I love Phoebe. I'm very excited that I got to work with her," says Lynch. "When we had a conversation about who Nomi was going to be, I broke down a few things. I wanted her to be relatable, but also maybe slightly awkward. I wanted her to have a life. I wanted to see that she had experienced things, but also that she has things that she wants to say but maybe doesn't know how to say it. Phoebe literally just put her pen down and said, 'Great, we're on the same page, there's literally nothing else I was thinking other than what you're thinking.'"

Seydoux explains the Madeline Swann audiences will see in No Time to Die is more "developed" than the character introduced in Spectre. "We get to understand her more," she says. "She's not sexualized and objectified. She has become a more interesting and complex character, and I think that was needed; it was really needed."

Waller-Bridge's remit extended far beyond developing the film's female characters, as Malek is keen to make clear. "I'd have long conversations with her in the evenings, giving her context as to what we were essentially looking for in the scenes, and she would turn things over incredibly quickly," says the actor, 40. "She had quite an impact on what I was doing. We got on well, so I ended up seeing Fleabag [onstage] in London while I was there shooting." Was Waller-Bridge able to get the Oscar-winner cheap tickets? "Relatively cheap, yeah, you could say that," he replies with a smile.

Principal photography on No Time to Die finally began in Jamaica on April 28, 2019. When Lynch is asked to talk now about what her first day of shooting was like, the actress bursts into laughter. "The first day of shooting was years ago, that's what it was!" she says. "So the first day of shooting was a scene that you see in the trailer with myself and Daniel with a line that everyone seems to really enjoy, the 'I'll shoot you in the knee, the one that works.' That scene. I think we shot that all day actually, and spent some real time on it, and eased in, and got used to the environment. It felt really organic and really nice to be in Jamaica, because I'm Jamaican, and really nice that the first thing that I was doing in the film was connecting with Bond, having a direct conversation with Bond. It wasn't explosions and guns and running and jumping, it was just, yeah, normal dialogue, which felt really easy. It felt like an indie with loads of money."

The agents played by de Armas and Lynch have very different wardrobes in the film, with the dress worn by Paloma as she battles the Spectre agent standing in stark contrast to the more utilitarian outfits often sported by Nomi in the film. Not that Lynch is jealous of her costar's slinky look. "I'd much rather run and jump with boots on," says the actress. "Ana did an incredible job of making that really natural and strong and bold. I couldn't imagine anything worse for tall me. I'm already higher in the sky than most women, so I felt really good and grounded being able to shape a costume that was very bold and strong but also very functional and stream-lined and feminine. That was all down to the conversations I had with our brilliant costume designer, Suttirat [Anne Larlarb], who really understood that and took that seriously. I didn't want to just be one of the dudes or be deemed as one of the dudes. I wanted to be a woman, a classy, very competent woman, who also just happens to be able to shoot you down if you mess with her."

No Time to Die Digital Cover
No Time to Die Digital Cover

Pari Dukovic for EW 'No Time to Die' star Léa Seydoux

There would be one more major speed bump before the end of shooting. In May 2019, Craig ruptured a tendon in his ankle while filming a scene, which resulted in the schedule getting rearranged and de Armas' remaining shoot days being postponed. In her hiatus, the actress played Marilyn Monroe in director Andrew Dominik's drama Blonde, based on Joyce Carol Oates' 2000 novel. De Armas describes that experience as completely different from shooting the Bond movie, "emotionally, mentally, and physically. Then three months later I had to go back to London, and go back to being a Bond girl, and that training I did was kind of gone and forgotten!"

Lynch was enduring stresses of a different stripe. In July 2019, the Daily Mail published an article about Lynch's role in the film, with a headline ("The black woman who will be the next 007") implying that the actress had been chosen to be the next James Bond. While the piece itself made clear that wasn't the case, the article inspired a large amount of negative online commentary.

"I had to really take myself out of it and remind myself that it actually isn't anything about me," says Lynch. "It's not personal. If it was another Black woman, they would have reacted I think in the same way. But some of the conversations definitely reminded me of the world that we live in today. With casting a Black woman in this movie, Barbara and Michael have pushed against where the world is, and I think this movie really represents where they want the world to be. In a way, it's sadly a fantasy. But, yeah, I took myself out of it. People send me links and stuff, and it's none of my business what people are talking about. It's all of my business to do a good job on this movie."

After the film wrapped in 2019, the cast began fulfilling their publicity duties for the movie (including EW's photoshoots). Then, early the following year, came COVID and the film's initial postponement. In October 2020, Bloomberg reported that MGM, which holds the movie's U.S. distribution rights, had held discussions with Apple and Netflix about the possibility of acquiring the film and premiering No Time to Die via streaming. (MGM declined to comment at the time except to say that the film "is not for sale.") The possibility of future Bond movies bypassing cinemas seemed to increase in May of this year when it was announced that Amazon had acquired MGM, but Broccoli and Wilson swiftly released a statement saying that the producers "are committed to continuing to make James Bond films for the worldwide theatrical audience." In the end, No Time to Die is being given the kind of global theatrical release that its creators always hoped it would receive. "It's great that the film is coming out in cinemas and not on a platform," says Seydoux. "We need cinema. Cinema is one of the greatest joys. It's an art form we have to stand for."

No Time to Die Digital Cover
No Time to Die Digital Cover

Pari Dukovic for EW Léa Seydoux and Lashana Lynch

The No Time to Die actresses have been busy over the past two years. Lynch appeared in a film version of Ear for Eye and is currently portraying the role of Miss Honey in a big-screen adaptation of the musical Matilda. "We've been filming with 200 kids for the last two months," she says. "It's a joy to come from something like Bond and Ear for Eye, very intense projects, to something really light and beautiful. I feel very lucky to be a part of it." Seydoux had four films play at the Cannes Film Festival this year, including Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch, but couldn't attend the event after catching COVID. "I was sad because I really wanted to celebrate with all the directors that I've worked with," says the actress." But it was a serious matter, so I couldn't travel." More recently, Seydoux has been working on David Cronenberg's new film, Crimes of the Future. "He is such an iconic director," she says. "I love to work with directors that have their own language, that have their own perspective on cinema. I think that David is unique in this landscape." After wrapping No Time to Die, de Armas filmed the erotic thriller Deep Water (dating costar Ben Affleck for a spell), the first film from Flashdance and Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne in two decades. "It feels like I'm in good hands," de Armas said back in 2019, while the film was in production. "There's no one better than him to do a film like this."

Close to two years after shooting wrapped on Not Time to Die, Lynch, Seydoux, Craig, and Malek reconvened in London, where they have been promoting the movie ahead of its world premiere at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday. Craig, in-between confirming that No Time to Die really will be his last time at bat as Bond, has made it his business to compliment the contributions of Lynch and de Armas. "They definitely are great," he told The Sun. "Both of them are brilliant in different ways, and both do kick a lot of ass."

Seydoux is delighted that she got to reunite with her costars in person rather than virtually, as she had feared would be the case. "I'm happy that we got the chance to be all together for the premiere because it's such a big event," says Seydoux. "Also, it's Daniel's last film, so it will be a very emotional moment for him and for all of us."

The release of No Time to Die is a massive milestone in the COVID-era pop culture universe, and the movie's box office receipts will be scrutinized for what it says about both the future of the franchise and that of the big-screen experience as a whole. Regardless of the film's ultimate grosses, Lynch is thrilled to have been given the opportunity to play a very different kind of Bond universe spy. "I am really proud of the franchise for making this step," says the actress. "With the time that they had in the film, they, I believe, have done her justice and served Black women and my culture very well. It was nice to be able to have conversations with the producers and the director about how we're going to best represent this Black woman in a way that is completely authentic and completely in line with my beliefs. I think we achieved something that could really stand in good stead in cinema history and Bond history."

Direction and photography by Pari Dukovic for EW. Set design: Andrea Huelse/Art Department; Seydoux's styling: Leslie Fremar/The Wall Group; Blouse, Skirt: Louis Vuitton; Lynch's styling: Karla Welch/The Wall Group; Dress: Anouki.

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