“Who should play James Bond?” is perhaps the ultimate casting conversation. Since 1967’s You Only Live Twice, which starred a grown-tired Sean Connery, the question has floated in constant orbit around the series. Connery’s exhaustion with Bond led to the one-and-done casting of George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, then saw the OG 007 return for Diamonds Are Forever.
This back and forth, which eventually culminated in Roger Moore starring in Live and Let Die, established Bond as a malleable role, one which would and could change shape with each actor. And in the wake of 2021’s No Time to Die, which wrapped up the Daniel Craig era of Bond, the debate has cropped up again. Who should be Bond? Longtime franchise producer Barbara Broccoli has wonderful things about a perennial replacement candidate: Idris Elba.
“We know Idris … he’s a magnificent actor,” Broccoli told Deadline’s CrewCall podcast last week. She noted that The Wire and Luther star has “been part of the conversation, but it’s always difficult to have a conversation when you have somebody in the seat,” Broccoli said.
That somebody has been Craig, who broke a much smaller barrier than “First Black Bond” by becoming the first blond Bond in 2005’s Casino Royale. That such a detail was even noted — “Connery backs blond Bond” went the Guardian headline — gives a sense of how carefully the character’s identity has been tracked.
A lot has happened between 2005 and 2021, when Craig’s run ended in explosive fashion in No Time to Die, including the 2008 election of Barack Obama, which seems to have kickstarted the first public discussions of a Black Bond. When attending the Italian premiere of Quantum of Solace, Craig said that “after Barack Obama’s victory I think we might have reached the moment for a colored 007,” using language he would probably change in 2022. He also added that the “eventuality” of a Black Bond would probably make original Bond author Ian Fleming “turn in his grave.”
(To the point of his personal evolution, in 2021, he weighed back in on the Bond identity issue, saying, “There should simply be better parts for women and actors of colour. Why should a woman play James Bond when there should be a part just as good as James Bond, but for a woman?”)
Jumping on Craig’s comments, the media began scanning for possible candidates. Elba, who had fascinated critics and the small core of original Wire viewers as Stringer Bell, was also making headway in mainstream American TV on The Office in 2009. When his movie with Beyonce and Ali Larter, Obsessed, came out that same year, the question Elba heard from The Guardian what would become an oft-repeated one: Would he want to play Bond?
“Who wouldn’t like to play Bond?,” he responded. “Do I think it will happen? No, but I’ve got what it takes to do it. I can run around, flirt with ladies and drink. Plus I’m English.”
Elba specified his desire to The Mail on Sunday in 2010. While it would be a “huge compliment to be asked,” he “wouldn’t be interested if it was simply a case of them deciding it was time for a black James Bond. I can do without ‘the black James Bond’ label.” After all, Elba reasoned, “they didn’t call Daniel Craig the blond Will Smith.”
By the next year, NPR was reporting that “chatter has circulated for years that Elba could one day wind up playing one of the most iconic British film roles there is: James Bond.” Elba gave a similar answer, delving more into the character’s casting history, noting that “Sean Connery wasn’t the Scottish James Bond.”
But when asked if he would get into a cab to take a meeting, he began to show some excitement for the role: “I’d take the taxi driver out of the car, hostage, jump out while it was moving, jump onto a pedal bike that was just past the door as I got on it, and then get onto a plane — on the wing — land on top of Sony Studios, slide through the air conditioning, and land in the office.”
Craig’s tenure as Bond lacked the drama of the Connery-Lazenby-Connery-Moore years, but the actor wasn’t always happy with the role. By 2012, when Skyfall finally premiered after delays, Craig had mentioned to Rolling Stone how he had “been trying to get out of this from the very moment I got into it, but they won’t let me go.”
Hacked Sony emails in 2014 revealed that Sony chief Amy Pascal had written an email stating her preference, saying that “Idris should be the next Bond,” which sent the rumor mill into overdrive, including a cultural backlash. First led by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, the backlash pointed directly to Fleming’s character: “he was white and Scottish, period. That is who James Bond is,” Limbaugh said. “I know it’s racist to probably even point this out.”
This backlash found some allies in Bondworld, including the first Black American to play a Bond villain, Yaphet Kotto. “James Bond was established by Ian Fleming as a white character, played by white actors. Play 003 or 006, but you cannot be 007. A lot of people say we should be allowed to play everything. Don’t be ridiculous. If I say I want to play JFK, I should be laughed out of the room.
“Black men should stop trying to play roles created by whites,” Kotto told The Big Issue.
There was also backlash against Elba specifically from Anthony Horowitz, the writer chosen by the Fleming estate to write Trigger Mortis, a new Bond novel published in 2015. “For me, Idris Elba is a bit too rough to play the part. It’s not a color issue. I think he is probably a bit too “street” for Bond,” Horowitz told The Mail on Sunday. He later apologized to Elba, saying Elba’s performance in Luther had been in his head when choosing his words.
Though the culture war moment surrounding Elba-as-Bond died down, rumors have kept up. In 2016, the man who once said he could run around, flirt, and drink enough to be Bond, told Good Morning America, “I think I’m too old for that man, running around in cars and ladies and martinis. Who wants to do that? Sounds terrible.”
In 2018, when rumors began circulating yet again about Broccoli wanting Elba, eventually proven to be false, the man himself took to Twitter for two posts. The first was a stylized selfie captioned with, “my name’s Elba, Idris Elba.” He then tweeted, “Don’t believe the HYPE,” doing his best to calm the rumor that has as many lives as a certain secret agent. With roles ranging from Bloodsport to Knuckles, another franchise isn’t exactly a thing Idris Elba needs at this point.
Here’s how long Idris Elba has been rumored to play James Bond: Two of the most outspoken critics of the idea, Limbaugh and Kotto, are now dead. Elba was first asked about Bond when he was 37; he’s now 49. Craig was able to exit the franchise on his own terms. If Elba were to ever join, the time is fast approaching.