Debbie McWilliams: Casting James Bond (interview, 2012)


Even though casting director Debbie (Deborah) McWilliams is one of the longest-standing members of EON Productions' Bond family, her media appearances have been few and far between.

Hence, it is my great pleasure to present this interview that I conducted in 2012 with the esteemed British casting director, who has cast every EON Bond film from "For Your Eyes Only" (1981) to "SPECTRE" (2015), with the America-based "Licence to Kill" (1989) being the only exception.

In the interview below, Debbie McWilliams discusses her casting of several Danish actors in the Bond series: Mads Mikkelsen, Jesper ChristensenUlrich Thomsen and Cecilie Thomsen.

McWilliams also offers her opinion on the durability of the James Bond character.

Debbie McWiliams (publicity photo, 2011)
Debbie McWiliams (publicity photo, 2011)

James Bond•O•Rama: So what's the secret? Why do you think James Bond has endured as a cultural icon for so long?

Debbie McWilliams: Bond is part of the blood stream. Any child, from the age when they can walk and talk, know him and make a hand like a gun, even if they haven't seen any of the films. It's inherited through our genetic system, quoted and referred to endlessly. My generation grew up with Bond, and younger generations take him for granted. He's sort of an unclassifiable hero, played by actors from different backgrounds, with different accents and hair colors. Also, he's a troubled hero. Even though we know he's going to win, he has a struggle that we like to watch. Finally, the films set a high standard. They always look good, whether the script is good or not. And even if the series has faltered from time to time, I think ”Skyfall” is gonna put it back up there again.

You've now been part of EON Productions' Bond family for more than 30 years, starting out on ”For Your Eyes Only” in 1981. This makes you one of the longest serving members of the Bond team along with producer Michael G.Wilson and production designer Peter Lamont!

Debbie McWilliams: Yes, I'm part of the furniture, as they say. The producers, Barbara and Michael, are very loyal to the people who work with them, and they've kept the family atmosphere on the Bond series. That all stems from Cubby [Albert R. Broccoli, co-producer of Eon's Bond series 1962-1974 and main producer 1977-1989; father of current co-producer Barbara Broccoli, stepfather of Michael G. Wilson, ed.]. He was fantastic, warm, always on the set, not shut away in his ivory tower. He threw parties, played jokes, cooked food for the actors and crew, and Barbara is much like that. They look after people. It's just the way they think people should be treated, and it produces good work.

Could you briefly describe how you go about casting parts for a film?

Debbie McWilliams: It all starts with the script. In Bond's case, we're always looking for good actors the world haven't seen. I'm very aware of who the good European actors are, and I've always watched lots of foreign films. There's a pureness to them, in the sense that I don't know anything about the actors. My opinion of their performances is not colored as [it would be] with more familiar British actors, so I'm able to consider them only for their acting abilities.

Debbie McWilliams' credit in Octopussy (1983)

You once told me that you were impressed by the level of professionalism among Danish actors.

Debbie McWilliams: Denmark breeds really good film actors. It's always a pleasure to plunder the next big thing out of Denmark. A great benefit is, that they speak such good English with an accent that could be from any European country. It's not a very specific accent, so it doesn't sound Danish to our ears.

In the book ”Agent 007 - de danske forbindelser" (Agent 007 - the Danish connections, ed.), Mads Mikkelsen and Ulrich Thomsen are interviewed about their parts in the Bond series. For some reason, your name isn't even mentioned once, even though you're the person responsible for casting the Danes.

Debbie McWilliams: Well, I didn't cast the Danish actors for their Danishness, but for their acting. Also, they'd all worked with really great directors before, so you know you're not plucking innocents from the jungle, so to speak.

The first Dane that you cast in a Bond film was 23-year old model Cecilie Thomsen. She appeared as a linguistics professor who teaches Bond Danish at Oxford in ”Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997). Her character name, Inga Bergstrom, sounds rather Swedish, though.

Debbie McWilliams: I believe the character was called Danish Pastry in the original script, so I thought, let's look along those lines! Cecilie was a well-known model and was just the right girl at the right time, I guess.

Next up was Ulrich Thomsen in ”The World is Not Enough” (1999) as Davidov, King Industries' chief of security. He's listed 16th in the credits, as was Cecilie Thomsen. In the book, Ulrich says that he was cast because the Bond producers ”liked my face”.

Debbie McWilliams: It's not only his face, that's just the starting point. An extra can have a good face. Their acting skills are paramount. I'd seen Ulrich in Thomas Vinterberg's ”Festen” (1998), where he gave the most extraordinary performance. Sometimes you don't have good parts to slot the [foreign] actors in, but you want to help them up the ladder internationally by casting them. I don't know if it helped Ulrich.

Jesper Christensen & Mads Mikkelsen in EON Productions' "Casino Royale" (2006)
Jesper Christensen & Mads Mikkelsen in EON Productions' "Casino Royale" (2006)

You then cast Mads Mikkelsen as the main villain, Le Chiffre, in ”Casino Royale” (2006). Mads claims in the book that his casting was Barbara Broccoli's idea. Apparently, Susanne Bier's ”Open Hearts” was one of Barbara's favorite films at the time.

Debbie McWilliams: When casting a part for the Bond series, I always have a book of possible choices, and I keep tabs on these actors, where they are and what they're doing. I had followed Mads in ”Pusher” (1996) and ”Open Hearts” (Elsker dig for evigt, 2002) and thought he was amazing. We'd almost chosen someone for the part of Le Chiffre, a French actor (Romain Duris, ed.). But in the end, the producers didn't go with him. This was quite late in the process. I then went to Prague, and as it turned out, Mads was there as well. I met him and put him on tape, and very quickly thereafter, he got the part. He just has a fantastic presence.

I think we considered around 20 actors for the part of Le Chiffre. But the director of ”Casino Royale”, Martin Campbell, was certain of Mads from the minute he saw him. He thought he had a great look that fitted the story. In the original book, the character was French, but we took a bit of poetic licence and didn't play him as such.

Jesper Christensen also appeared in ”Casino Royale” as well as the sequel, ”Quantum of Solace” (2008).

Debbie McWilliams: I saw Jesper in [Sydney Pollack's] ”The Interpreter” (2005) and thought, I haven't seen him before – who's he? Jesper was a new face to me, even though he wasn't a new actor; he had lots of knowledge and credits.

Production-wise, the Bond films have almost always been based in England as opposed to America. Is this why the series has a tradition for casting actors from the European continent as villains?

Debbie McWilliams: Well, 007 is British, and the villains are often meant to be European or, in the olden days, Russian. I believe Ulrich Thomsen played a Russian. This means that European actors are well-placed in the Bond universe, though I think we've had far more German actors than Danish. As hard as American agents are trying to push their actors, there aren't many places for them in the Bond films.

All text © 2012/2015 Brian Iskov, James Note: Permission to use, copy and distribute parts of the above content is hereby granted, provided that the above copyright notice appears along with a prominently placed link to the website's URL:

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