Casting Bond: an interview with No Time to Die casting director Debbie McWilliams

By Davina Catt | 18 Oct 2021 | Culture, Art

The casting guru tells Tempus that when it comes to who will continue Daniel Craig’s impressive run as Bond, the fans will be the last to know

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"When the end credits roll and it says, 'James Bond will return’, it’s always by public demand,” says Debbie McWilliams, who has served as casting director of the 007 franchise since 1981’s For Your Eyes Only. “[Each film] is a behemoth, taking about two to three years from writing to post-production, and shooting for around 22 weeks. I’ve travelled all over the world – I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Bond films are nerve-racking to work on because it’s like shifting sands, so you have to be constantly on the ball, but it’s all so worth it by the end.”

McWilliams is one of the UK’s most successful casting directors, responsible for discovering acting talent for seminal films and TV series for more than three decades. Acting royalty Daniel Day-Lewis was unknown before McWilliams cast him as London street punk Johnny in his breakout hit My Beautiful Launderette (1985),

“I [first] spotted him in drama school and had been tracking him. I had just seen him in a strange little theatre over a pub in East London for a production of Dracula,” she recalls. “That’s why he has the crazy dyed blonde hair in My Beautiful Launderette, because it had been dyed like that for the play.”

This auspicious discovery encapsulates McWilliams’ methods as a casting director. “I have little black books built up over the years, keep copious notes, go to the theatre a lot. I watch hundreds of films, particularly foreign films, and note down people I find interesting and build up a repertoire,” she says. “I rarely cast the same person twice.”

It is McWilliams’ long-running association with the Bond franchise that has garnered her most acclaim and, as No Time to Die finally hits our screens, she admits it’s been her most challenging film to date. “As films become so much more technical, people want bigger and more exciting action each time, so it all gets pushed to the limit.”

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* Lashana Lynch

THE FEMALE LEAD

Having worked on 13 of the 25 Bond films, McWilliams has a close relationship with the franchise’s revered producer Barbara Broccoli – and is one of the few on-set regulars who also worked with Broccoli’s father Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, who first launched Ian Fleming’s creation onto the silver screen.

“I’ve known Barbara since she was 19,” says McWilliams. “She grew up on Bond, working as everything from art director, runner to assistant director. She just loves everything about it. She took over before GoldenEye (1995) and I think there was a big shift then.”

Although with each new Bond film, there is always speculation and critique centred around the evolution and portrayal of the series’ female characters, No Time to Die welcomes the franchise’s first black female double-O-agent, played by Lashana Lynch (pictured above), with acclaimed British screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the writer’s room. Does McWilliams credit Broccoli for these strides forward for female agency?

“Without a shadow of a doubt, women are taking on much more realistic roles, and are no longer set dressing but far more important [to the stories], and I think Barbara had a lot to do with that.” she says, adding she “hates” the term ‘Bond girls’. “But I don’t think it was a conscious choice, for instance, to bring on Phoebe as a ‘woman writer’ – everyone just loved the way she wrote. It’s about who is the best person for the job.”

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* Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen

AN EYE FOR TALENT

So, who does McWilliams see as her greatest casting triumph? She points to 2006’s Casino Royale. “No-one knew Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (pictured above) when I first cast him as the villain [Le Chiffre]. I don’t think he would mind me admitting he wasn’t our first choice. When I got him to meet Barbara in Prague, we had already started shooting; she said get him into costume and introduce him to [director] Martin Campbell. Mads strolled onto set as cool as a cucumber, Martin said, ‘Hi, Le Chiffre’, and that was that!”

For the same film, McWilliams tracked down her “teenage obsession” – long-retired German model and aristocrat Veruschka von Lehndorff-Steinort – for a role, as well as arranging poker lessons for the cast. “A number of people had said that no film had ever managed to pull off poker as it should be, so I set up personal poker lessons with a real-life croupier,” she says. “It became an obsession as they all sat day and night perfecting their skills.”

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McWilliams says that, while there is more access to behind-the-scenes roles for women today, she laments the lack of recognition but, “Bafta finally caved in and created a casting category in 2019; the Oscars are in our sights next”.

“As a child growing up, I was always fascinated by cinema,” she says. “I was extremely lucky to get my first position at The Royal Court Theatre [in Chelsea], which was a hot bed of creative talent. I later worked for the legendary casting director Mary Selway. When she couldn’t do the casting for Superman II (1980), they asked me. That production manager went on to recommend me for For Your Eyes Only when I was only 30 years old – I feel so fortunate.”

Which brings us to the burning question of who will become the seventh actor to take on the role of James Bond, now that Daniel Craig has hung up his sidearm for good?

While under contract to keep her lips firmly sealed, McWilliams does confide that she knows nothing about any new casting yet.

“The speculation, for the most part, is utter nonsense,” she says, before dropping a satisfyingly cryptic hint: “I can pretty much guarantee that anyone discussed in the newspapers as ‘the next Bond’ will not be.”