Dominic Cooper on Ian Fleming: He saw himself as James Bond

"Bond is Fleming’s idealised version of his own personality,” says the star of the Sky Atlantic drama

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Dominic Cooper on Ian Fleming: He saw himself as James Bond
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The rain drilled into the Mayfair pavements, driving blank-faced, damp-hatted office workers scurrying on their way.

Desperate weather, desperate lives, he thought. As water puddled irritatingly over his Church’s Chetwynd brogues, he reflected grimly that London had never felt so… repellent. Fortunately salvation was at hand.

Dukes of St James, just ahead. A meeting with a contact, and the promise of a drink. A proper drink. A man’s drink. A martini. Shaken, not stirred, of course.

“Can I have a cup of tea, actually?” says the dark-haired, too-pretty fellow who introduces himself as Dominic Cooper. Well-spoken, well-suited, but also, somehow, a puppyish romantic. Mamma mia, as our European friends might say. “That would be lovely. Oh, you can’t do hot drinks in the bar?” A puzzled look, then an eager-to-please smile. “OK, I’ll have a sparkling water.” Hmm. Perhaps this contact isn’t quite the chap his handlers described. Hard-boiled? Perhaps. If he’s given the right script.

We’ve arranged to rendezvous in Dukes with Dominic Cooper, the star of a new four-part biopic of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, with good reason. This drowsy, old-money, Establishment establishment was a favoured haunt of Fleming – the suave naval intelligence officer turned book and film franchise-begetting novelist. It was in Dukes’s small, discreet bar that 007’s preferred tipple was reportedly formulated. Surely the 35-year-old actor will be game for an afternoon libation that honours both author and spy?

But no. For research, Cooper may have dug deep into Flemming’s torrid private-life – we’ll come to the flagellation in a second – but the Method only goes so far.

“With Fleming we’re looking at a man we know something about. And we are all aware of the iconic character that he created,” says the star of Mamma Mia!, The History Boys and Captain America.

“But what I found revealing is that the character of Bond is what the author saw himself as being. Bond is Fleming’s idealised version of his own personality.”

If that sounds like a stretch, the reality is that Fleming’s pre-Bond life was far from dull. Born into a rich family with interests in banking and politics, he attended Eton and Sandhurst (the military academy expelled him after he contracted gonorrhea from a prostitute), studied in Europe and worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters before joining the City. It was a picaresque, dilettantish life, studded with womanising and carousing, and only subsequently validated by distinguished service in the Second World War. Fleming’s experiences running espionage missions in occupied Europe formed the blueprint for the future adventures of Secret Intelligence Service operative 007.

“There was a certain amount of relief, having spoken to the producers and director, that actually what we could make is a version of his life that Fleming thought he had,” says Cooper, because it was a fascinating tale. “I think sometimes, with biographical pieces about a famous person, or someone that we know, we expect them to have had an entirely entertaining and thrilling life.”

So, the real-life back story was in place. But what of playing the man who played at being his own fictional creation?

South Londoner Cooper is the first to admit he looks nothing like the heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking, patrician Fleming.

And any romantic turbulence in Cooper’s life (he dated his Mamma Mia! co-star Amanda Seyfried for two years, and is now in a relationship with Misfits actress Ruth Negga; he says “all of my relationships have been with people who have acted or performed in some way”) is nothing compared with Fleming’s adventures.

Still, he thinks that, in his audition tape, the producers saw “some element of roguish charm that they liked. I suppose that has relevance to the Bond that Fleming was writing about.” Cooper has read all 12 Bond novels, and reflects that Fleming “wasn’t a particularly nice man”. And he is well aware of the casual misogyny Fleming’s books contain. In Bond’s first adventure, Casino Royale (1953), Fleming wrote approvingly of the “sweet tang of rape”.

David Walliams, an authority on all things Bond, has recounted to RT how, in Goldfinger, Pussy Galore is gay. But the none-more-manly Bond is so accomplished a love-maker that he “turns” her heterosexual.

“I know!” laughs Cooper on hearing this. “And that says so much about him and his attitude towards women.” Yet while Fleming does present the author as callous in his treatment of women, it shies away from the true darkness at the heart of the man, who was haunted by the death of his father in the First World War and overshadowed by the frontline wartime heroics of his older brother Peter (who was also an author).

“You have to make a decision on how you want an audience to perceive this person,” explains Cooper. “He was a very melancholic figure, I think, and never reached where he wanted to be as an author. I think he really was desperate for respect [as a novelist] – he didn’t think any of the Bond books were good enough.”

Fleming opens in Goldeneye, the Jamaican retreat where the author lived out his days. Majorca stood in for the Caribbean, but still, insists Cooper, Sky didn’t stint on the budget.

“It needed to look filmic. Given how incredible the Bond films look, you can’t have this be a kind of pastiche. It had to be big and bold and make a statement.”

Part of the narrative revolves around Fleming’s relationship with his wife, Ann, played by Lara Pulver (Irene Adler in Sherlock). Judging by their sexually explicit correspondence, which also makes it into the script, it was an intense relationship, to say, the least.

“Actually, I thought the letters were touching; quite poetic and beautiful, more heartfelt than his cold writing. But, yes, there was an element in their relationship of danger and violence.” Flagellation? “Yeah,” he smiles, crossing his legs and smoothing his jacket. “They definitely did that. And it’s in the film! It’s all there.”

From its opening scenes, Fleming provides Cooper with plenty of shirt-off, playboy-shaped moments – something with which the actor has some form on screen. Is this, Mr Cooper, another film in which we see your bottom? He chuckles his assent. “Every one, without fail!”

Cooper may have come far from the glory days of Alan Bennett’s play-turned-film- turned-phenomenon. His upcoming Hollywood roles include computer- game-to-movie adaptation Need for Speed (in cinemas in March) to compu- ter-game-to-movie adaptation Warcraft (filming now with director Duncan Jones, of Moon, Source Code and son-of-David-Bowie fame).

In other ways, however, he’s not come far at all: he still lives in the same north London street as fellow History Boys alumnus, former flatmate and best friend James Corden. Indeed, he has only just moved out of Corden’s home after introducing him to his future wife, then overstaying his welcome by hanging on until after the couple were expecting their first child – despite already having a place a few doors away. “When there was a cot at the end of my bed I thought, I really have to go to my own house!”

Corden and Cooper are still friends, and can’t help but compare notes on their successful but divergent careers. Both found themselves in New York at the same time in September 2012. Corden was taking a workshop for the big-screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods (which Corden stars in alongside Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep). Cooper was auditioning for an early incarnation of the film version of the Broadway/West End hit Jersey Boys.

“James turned round to me one day and said: ‘Dom: you can’t sing, you can’t dance, your American accent’s crap – what are you doing here?’” Cooper laughs. That, he acknowledges, is what friends are for.

The jukebox musical’s loss was the spy-who-whipped-me’s gain. Cooper agrees that now is both the best and the worst of times for a drama about the man behind James Bond. “The last block-buster movie was the most lucrative 007 film ever, with star Daniel Craig becoming a global hero/icon/stud. But the box-office success of the 23rd cinematic outing casts a long shadow.

Yet the chipper Cooper is taking the positive view. “If there’s that much excitement, still, about this character, people must want to know about the man who created him. I hope!” he laughs.

But now the barman was hovering, his hand behind his back. Perhaps he held his cocktail shaker; perhaps it was time for a martini after all. And yet... a bead of sweat drifted down his forehead. It could only mean one thing.

“Which one of you gentlemen is covering the bar bill?” The two fellows at the table exchanged grim glances... Damn these Mayfair prices.

See Fleming, tonight 9:00pm, Sky Atlantic