Most actors spend their rookie years playing characters without proper names: ''Guy on Bus'' or ''Mugger No. 2,'' for instance. But Daniel Craig's very first nameless role in film has come 13 years into his career, in the British crime drama Layer Cake. And it's the lead. ''He might shake hands with people, but he never introduces himself,'' Craig says of his conflicted crook, listed in the closing credits as XXXX. ''His anonymity is so important to him that when he goes into a room, he passes by without making too many ripples.''
The same used to be said about Craig, who for years had been stuck in critical-darling mode with indies like last year's The Mother and Enduring Love. But his ultra-suave turn in Cake which has him dodging Eastern European drug lords when he's not romancing a party girl played by Sienna Miller has caused a stir across the pond and led to rumors that the 37-year-old could be the new James Bond. ''I never tried to be cool in the movie. I really didn't,'' says Craig over a breakfast of fruit and cappuccino in New York City. ''I might have stood up a bit straighter. If I'd gone out to make that character cool, it would have been so uncool.''
The film's director, Matthew Vaughn (currently behind the camera on X-Men 3), says his goal was to cast Craig ''in a movie-star light, not just a good-actor light.'' That's easy to accomplish given Craig's piercingly expressive blue eyes. ''If someone's got great eyes, and meaningful eyes, they're going to be a movie star,'' Vaughn says. ''If they don't, it doesn't matter what you do. Daniel's eyes pop whatever you do.''
Soon after Craig graduated from London's Guildhall School of Music & Drama, his brooding looks earned him cult-star status after he appeared in the 1996 BBC miniseries Our Friends in the North. ''I thought, I could earn s---loads of money doing television. I'll have a house in Portugal, and I'll be an alcoholic, and I'll be fat, and in 10 years it'll all be over,'' recalls Craig, who grew up in Liverpool. ''I went, I don't want to do that; I want to make movies.''
His first taste of Hollywood was as Angelina Jolie's archaeologist love interest in 2001's Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (''I had a horrible time; it was f---ing boring''), followed by his breakout performance as Paul Newman's scarily insecure son in 2002's Road to Perdition. ''We tend to breed actors with a strong feminine streak,'' says Perdition director Sam Mendes. ''When Russell Crowe first hit the scene, you thought, There's a guy on screen. Danny feels like a man who happens to act, rather than an actor pretending to be a human being.''
He's also become a favorite target of the British press thanks to a brief fling last year with Kate Moss. ''I used to get very hung up about it,'' Craig says of the paparazzi attention. ''I don't enjoy having someone go to my mother's door. It's like having the Secret Service on your back. I try to keep my private life as private as possible, that's all I can do.'' Case in point: Though he has a 12-year-old daughter from a past relationship, he won't name either her or her mother.
Since he's lined up to play an Israeli secret-service agent in Steven Spielberg's upcoming drama about the hostage crisis at the 1972 Olympics, the focus has shifted to his professional life for a change. One London tabloid in particular, The Sun, reported in April that Craig had been offered a three-picture deal to play Bond. ''There's always an element of truth in these stories, but you have to look at the source,'' he says reluctantly. (Translation: He's had meetings, but nothing's been signed.) ''The fact is, 20 years' time sitting in the corner of the bar going 'I could've been Bond' is not a place I want to be. But if I'm 20 years down sitting in the corner of the bar going, 'Yeah, and I did this and that instead,' then I'll be happy.''