Standing up to the 00 challenge

Lashana Lynch in No Time To Die. IMAGE: SUPPLIED
Lashana Lynch in No Time To Die. IMAGE: SUPPLIED
Lashana Lynch, star of the new Bond movie, talks to Tim Lewis about ninja training, doing her own stunts and why now’s the time for an agent who’s a "real woman".

Lashana Lynch knew she was on a very short shortlist. She had taped a couple of auditions for Barbara Broccoli, the producer of the James Bond films since 1995. She met and read with Daniel Craig, who would be making his fifth and final appearance in No Time To Die, the 25th 007 adventure. Then, finally, there was the stunt test, overseen by the Bond stunt and armoury teams.

Is that like circuit training? "Deeper than that," Lynch replies. "They hand you a bunch of weapons and they teach you a routine for a few seconds or a minute and then you basically have to copy the routine. So it was like, ‘OK, grab the gun! Shoot! Get down on your knees! Shoot! Roll on your back! Land on your feet! Shoot! Run, run, run! You’ve run out of ammo! Throw that away! Assemble this gun! Shoot!’ And that was the first out of five routines they taught me."

Lynch, as you may well have suspected, got the part.

In No Time to Die, the 33-year-old from west London will play Nomi, an MI6 agent. That much we know for sure. There are persistent rumours that Nomi inherits the 007 designation from Bond, who has handed in the keys to the Aston and retired to Jamaica with the French psychologist Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). Let’s pull this plaster off: are you, Lashana Lynch, the next James Bond? "Nooo! You don’t want me!" she says, with a fit of giggles. "I’d just be like" — she feigns ditsiness —"‘Erm, right, so where do you start again?’."

Who should it be? "We are in a place in time where the industry is not just giving audiences what it thinks the audience wants," Lynch continues. "They’re actually giving the audience what they want to give the audience. With Bond, it could be a man or woman. They could be white, black, Asian, mixed race. They could be young or old. At the end of the day, even if a two-year-old was playing Bond, everyone would flock to the cinema to see what this two-year-old’s gonna do, no?"

Maybe, but the Bond overlords have more immediate concerns. No Time To Die was originally set for release in March 2020, but had three false starts due to Covid-19. It has now been six years since the last Bond film, Spectre, the second-longest gap in the franchise’s history. Whether audiences are ready to return to cinemas to watch No Time To Die is the $250million question. James Bond has become used to saving the world from nefarious forces, but probably didn’t expect to be called on to save cinemas from extinction.

Of course, if we’ve learned one thing about Bond,, it’s that you don’t bet against him. Craig’s farewell will see him square off against the anarchist arch-villain Safin, played by Bohemian Rhapsody’s Oscar-winner Rami Malek. He’ll have some help from two Bond women — Bond "girls" being a thing of the past — in Ana de Armas and Lynch.

The introduction of Lynch’s Nomi is clearly part of a strategy for keeping 007 relevant in the modern world. "I think they were just looking for someone who would be able to be a match for Bond," says Lynch. "Who would be able to stand up and be vocal and forthright and strong and able to handle a weapon, able to handle herself and not someone who takes any crap from anybody at all. Then, as it unfolded, she became this quite complicated, free, open-minded vocal human being who brings a really nice twist to MI6."

Lynch worked closely on the character with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of Fleabag, who was brought in by Craig to punch up the script.

Lashana Lynch and Daniel Craig in No Time to Die. PHOTO: MGM
Lashana Lynch and Daniel Craig in No Time to Die. PHOTO: MGM
Lynch and Waller-Bridge both pushed for extra depth in the Nomi character: that she might have struggled with her weight in the past or be having problems with a boyfriend or be on her period. "I thought there might be a scene where she’s coming out of the toilet and you see her throw her tampon in the bin," she explains. "We don’t need to make a meal out of it! But we’re in the ladies’ room, you’re going to see someone pick their nose or pull out their wedgie. Bottom line: this woman is going to be relatable."

In person, Lynch isn’t remotely awkward. She’s a fast, animated talker with wide eyes and windmilling arm gestures.

Her main present to herself when she finished Bond was a decent juicer. "Yeah, forget all the big, expensive fancy stuff," she says. "I just want juice. And I want it to be green." Lynch was health-conscious before, but working on No Time To Die took it to another level. "I asked the stunt team if they could make me into a ninja and they said yes," she says.

Mercifully, Lynch emerged from filming relatively unscathed, unlike Craig, who has lost teeth, broken his leg and had the tip of a finger sliced off doing Bond.

"The stunt team were like, ‘Who are you? An alien?’," says Lynch. "Everyone who does stunts always has some kind of injury."

Lynch was born in Shepherd’s Bush in 1987, a second-generation Jamaican child of a Windrush family. Her father was a social worker for young teens and her mother is a housing manager. "They were both in service, both helping people," she says. They separated when she was young, but Lynch continued to see a lot of both of them. She also had a formative period, between primary and secondary schools, when she lived with her grandmother.

Coming from a Jamaican family continues to be a touchstone for Lynch. "My house was strictly Jamaican," she says. "I think spag bol was the most British we got in our house. Being Jamaican is ... there’s an attitude and a swagger that comes with just being born into a Jamaican family. You know how to stand up for yourself. Pretty instantly, like out of the womb, you’re already taking charge."

As a teenager, attending Sylvia Young Theatre School at weekends, she zeroed in first on singing and then acting. "A lot of people used to talk about: ‘You must have a Plan B.’ I was like, ‘That doesn’t exist.’ There was never a plan B."

The wisdom of that hasn’t always been obvious. There have been a few times in Lynch’s career when she’s been convinced she was on the verge of a breakthrough, only for the air to be sucked from the project. The first time was her film debut, in 2012’s Fast Girls, a drama about rival sprinters that didn’t quite capitalise on that summer’s Olympics fever. She had effusive reviews for Educating Rita with Lenny Henry in 2015, but the production didn’t transfer from the Chichester Festival to the West End. It happened again when Lynch was cast in 2017 as Rosaline Capulet in Still Star-Crossed, a drama billed as a Romeo and Juliet sequel. Made for the US network ABC and produced by Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, it was cancelled after one season.

In between these roles, Lynch hopped from job to job: temping at a courtesy-car company and behind the reception of a doctors’ surgery in central London. "When I did Still Star-Crossed, I was working for the NHS again," she says. "I remember when I went away, I didn’t have any money; I literally had about 2p in my bank. And when you work you don’t get paid straight away, so I’m the lead in this show, but still can’t afford my rent. And that was my last hurrah of, quote-unquote, normal work."

Lynch’s real break, when it came, was unmistakable. After years of auditioning for roles in Marvel films, she was finally cast opposite Brie Larson in 2019’s Captain Marvel. It would become the first female-led superhero film to gross more than $1billion worldwide, and Lynch had an eye-catching part as Maria Rambeau, a single mother and air force pilot. "When I finally got the role in a Marvel film, I knew I’d stuck to my guns and it had worked," she says.

Marvel launched Lynch, but Bond could take her stratospheric. All of which must have made the 18-month delay — and the quasi MI6-level secrecy that surrounds the release — almost unbearable.

Has she been climbing the walls? "You know what? No, weirdly," says Lynch. "I’m a true believer in everything having its time. And for whatever reason the world needed its time to reset. So I feel a little weirdly unshakable at the moment. Like, if anything else was to happen tomorrow, I’d be like, ‘OK, cool, how do we get present to what’s happening?’ So I’ve had to calm down everyone else around me."

If — or, let’s face it, when — the attention for Bond comes, Lynch thinks she’s ready. She had an introduction to it back in July 2019 when reports first emerged that the 007 codename had been reassigned to her character. "The response was generally positive, but there were some very personal messages to me, like Insta DMs and Twitter," she says. "And just conversations that my friends had heard or overheard on the tube that were really mean, dark and reminiscent of an age I wasn’t even born in, where women and black people weren’t allowed to move in certain spaces. So it also reminded me about the work that I still have to do to try to change the world in a little way that I know how."

These incidents have emboldened Lynch as an actor and an activist: they tell her that she’s on the right course. And that she has to be the best she can be, not for the sake of internet trolls, but because she has a responsibility "to young people, young girls, and my community". She says, "To have a female agent who is a black woman, and who is young and new and fresh and very modern in her approach to her work, I think hasn’t exactly been seen before in Bond movies. And I didn’t want to mess it up."

Opportunities are already starting to line up for Lynch. She’s shot a radical film adaptation of Debbie Tucker Green’s play Ear for Eye, which premieres in October, and will play Miss Honey in next year’s movie of Matilda the Musical. Plus, she isn’t confirming, but there might be more Bonds. "I’m entering a place where I’m very grateful I’m an adult who has had hardship in my career. I had a chance to hear all of the ‘no’s for nearly 10 years, and now I’m hearing ‘yes’s, it’s something I’m deeply grateful for."

 — Guardian News and Media

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