For over 40 years, Debbie McWilliams has been a key figure in one of cinema's biggest blockbuster franchises. Having served as casting director on the James Bond films since 1981, she's cast dozens of colourful villains and leading ladies. She has also been tasked with picking the next 007 three times, playing an instrumental role in the hiring of Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and most recently Daniel Craig.


She is, one might suggest, the unsung hero of the Bond franchise. "You touch a nerve there," she tells "I am a member of the Academy, so I can vote in the Oscars, but I can't be nominated, and I have battled and battled and battled for years over this."

BAFTA, she points out, only introduced an award for Best Casting in 2020, becoming the first major film awards ceremony to do so. The Academy Awards still has no such category. "I find it really surprising – I think the trouble is that we don't assert ourselves enough, but we need to, because nobody else is going to if we don't.

"I've written to the Academy again this year to say, 'There is a glaring omission, chaps, how about it?' – whether it will ever happen or not, I do not know.

"It's really quite shocking, because it means that we remain a kind of second class citizen – although most casting directors now will get a single screen upfront credit, we're the only people who get that who are not eligible for an Oscar... and it's a disgrace, frankly."

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Though awards recognition appears long overdue, McWilliams insists she's happy with just "getting the job done" – she points to the evolving role and changing face of 'the Bond girl' as one of her proudest achievements.

"It was quite a relief that it did start to demand a much more capable actress rather than just a pretty face," she says. "Without naming any names, there are one or two slightly dodgy bits of casting in previous films."

Casting Monica Bellucci, then aged 50, as Lucia Sciarra in the 2015 film Spectre was a particular highlight.

"I've had some incredibly nice emails from people who are just, you know, ordinary folks who've written all sorts of nice things – there was quite a whoosh of middle-aged ladies when it was announced that Monica Bellucci was going to be in it. They all went, 'Fantastic, a 50-year-old actress is going to be in James Bond!' – and, you know, obviously, she's not your average 50-year-old, but it just proved that the age really didn't matter."

The easiest bit of casting was getting Dame Judi Dench to play Bond's superior M – McWilliams was convinced that Dench, a respected Shakespearean actress, would "never say yes" to a role in a blockbuster, but a personal connection between Dench and the late Bernard Lee, who'd played the original M from 1962 to 1979, meant she leapt at the opportunity to pay tribute to her friend.

Eva Green as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale
Eva Green as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. 2006 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation

The most challenging part was Vesper Lynd, Bond's first true love whose betrayal and subsequent demise proves formative for the rookie 00 agent in 2006's Casino Royale. "Prior to that film, there had been a sort of stigma around the 'Bond girl' role and it was very hard to persuade serious actresses to even look at it.

"Eva [Green] had always been on the list, but there had been a certain resistance to her – I don't really know why, but I think they felt that maybe she didn't have enough experience. She'd only done a few films and they'd all been very underground, low-budget type of things, but working with someone like Barbara [Broccoli, producer on the Bond series], who has just such a fantastic instinct, we both really, really liked her."

Green's first screen test, however, didn't go according to plan. "I'm sure she would be the first to admit she was terrible," says McWilliams. "Nobody had put her in hair and make-up and all the rest of it, so it didn't do her any justice whatsoever, and rather terrifyingly we started shooting Casino Royale without having cast that part. In fact, we hadn't cast Le Chiffre [eventually played by Mads Mikkelsen] either...

"But both Barbara and I insisted that Eva came back and had another go – this time, she was in hair and make-up, and she was in wardrobe, and she felt much calmer about the whole thing, and so that's what sealed it."

There's one piece of casting in the Bond franchise, though, that generates more discussion and speculation than any other – that of the lead character. With Daniel Craig having bowed out with 2021's No Time to Die, actors linked to the role of 007 in the press have included Bridgerton's Regé-Jean Page, Henry Cavill, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Idris Elba, Slow Horses star Jack Lowden, Tom Hardy, and James Norton.

Daniel Craig stars in No Time To Die as James Bond
Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time to Die. MGM

McWilliams though insists that the search for Craig's replacement is yet to get under way. "There's no conversation being had at the moment. Barbara Broccoli has been heavily involved in other projects. You know, it's not unusual for there to be quite a big gap between different Bonds, it has been known to have a five-year gap. So, no, nothing."

Most of the rumours make her "die laughing", she says. "I have a theory, which I've trotted out many times, is that when there's a gap in a newspaper, they fill it with a James Bond story, because they haven't got anything else to write about. Why people can't just wait and see, I don't know."

There is "no set process" for casting Bond, McWilliams reveals – the number of actors she's met with for the part has varied with each new search. "When Daniel was cast, I met hundreds of people and travelled here, there and everywhere. Barbara Broccoli was the main advocate – she knew she wanted him pretty much from the beginning, but it was proving to everybody else which was the difficulty."

Once an actor's casting is "pretty much decided", they'll then face a final hurdle of a filmed screen test. "It's really just to see how that person looks on screen, and how they respond, and how they feel sitting in that chair."

As for the qualities that McWilliams is looking for when casting Bond, she says there's "lots to be taken into consideration" – chiefly though, the person in question must simply be "a brilliant actor" with physical ability and prowess. "There isn't an absolute ideal mould," she explains. "There never would be and never should be, because otherwise, it just becomes boring.

"It's the best person for the job and one year it might be one person, one year somebody else – you can't really predict. There isn't an algebraic thing where we say, 'Right, we have this and we have that, and it equals that'. It just doesn't work like that."

Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in GoldenEye
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in GoldenEye. Keith Hamshere / Getty Images

The approach to each new film and the desired tone will impact casting – the desire to have Casino Royale feel "more contemporary" led to Craig's casting, with the desire "to give Bond a bit more of a kind of menace". "You know, let's face it, as good as Pierce was, he's not a menace, whereas Daniel is – you feel a very strong presence in the room with him, and I think that that is incredibly important."

Bond must always be athletic, but also able to blend into a crowd. "He has to look like a regular guy – you can't be Dwayne Johnson. He has to have a great physique – it demands a high level of fitness – but he shouldn't stand out in any situation."

Craig's successor will also be "a thirty-something" in line with franchise tradition. McWilliams explains that while younger actors did try out for Casino Royale, none of them quite fit the bill. "We did look at a lot of younger actors and I just don't think they had the gravitas, they didn't have the experience, they didn't have the mental capacity to take it on, because it's not just the part they're taking on, it's a massive responsibility.

"So we kind of scrubbed that idea and went back to the drawing board and started again."

That said, an older Bond doesn't necessarily mean an established movie star, with McWilliams pointing to the different levels of fame and success enjoyed by previous 007 actors prior to taking on the role. "The gift of casting a James Bond film..." she says, "... is you don't need to cast a well-known name."

When the time comes, it'll be long-time franchise guardians Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson who will make the call on who'll be next to tackle the role of Ian Fleming's spy, though the studio will also have a view on the casting.

"There's always a bit of back and forth and discussion," McWilliams says of her own role in the series. "I can't impose my will too strongly – although I try to! So no, there's always a level of discussion, but it's Barbara and Michael who will have the final say."

No Time to Die is available to stream on Prime Video, with other Bond films also available to purchase – try Amazon Prime Video for free for 30 days.

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