What happens when you put Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes in charge of James Bond's long-awaited return? You get a pedigreed cast, a top secret plot, and a Bond girl played by a Frenchwoman who loves to be naked. EW quizzes Mendes about all three.

By Clark Collis
Updated August 03, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

”I need a holiday!” exclaims Sam Mendes, sitting in his London office, which, like the director himself, is both welcoming and a tad unkempt. The British director’s exhaustion is understandable. After a six-month shoot in the U.K., Turkey, and China that wrapped in May, he’s now busy editing the 23rd official James Bond film, Skyfall, due in theaters Nov. 9. ”I may seem relaxed, but underneath I’m f—ed,” says Mendes, 46, this July evening as Myrtle, a terrier owned by Joe (his 8-year-old son with his ex-wife, Kate Winslet), slumbers peacefully by his side.

A megabudget action thriller might seem far outside the wheelhouse of an auteur known for lauded but comparatively small-scale dramas like 1999’s American Beauty, for which he won an Oscar, and 2008’s Revolutionary Road. But Daniel Craig, who starred in Mendes’ 2002 film Road to Perdition before rebooting the 007 franchise in 2006’s Casino Royale and 2008’s Quantum of Solace, successfully pitched the director to franchise producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson back in 2009.

Production of Skyfall faced an unexpected delay, though, due to the 2010 bankruptcy of MGM (the longtime Bond studio was later restructured). When shooting finally began last November, both cast and crew remained on permanent lockdown about the hush-hush plot. What we know for sure is that a computer drive identifying all of MI6’s undercover operatives goes missing, Bond returns to the agency after his presumed death in the field, and his loyalty to his boss, Judi Dench’s M, is severely tested. The producers dangled a few more details: Javier Bardem’s villain, Silva, ”knows a bit about M and MI6” and ”is involved in a revenge,” says Wilson, while Broccoli reveals that Albert Finney plays a mysterious character ”from Bond’s past.” There are also rumors — unsubstantiated so far — that M will die and be replaced by a government agent played by another Bond newcomer, Ralph Fiennes.

Mendes says luring actors like Bardem, Finney, and Fiennes was surprisingly easy. ”I’ve spent my life directing actor-led projects,” says Mendes. ”But even with American Beauty, there was always someone who said, ‘Eh…’ But when I did Skyfall, every single actor I went to said yes.” Here, the director reveals much more about his plunge into the world of Bond.

So, if I’m understanding matters correctly, your master plan to become a Bond director involved casting Daniel Craig in a small but memorable role a decade ago…
Sam Mendes Let it percolate slowly…

…and then years later having him suggest you as a candidate to the producers of the Bond franchise.
Mendes Exactly! I’ve often thought, ”God, if somebody had said to me how it would pan out, I’d have been amazed.” Even three or four years ago, it would have surprised me.

The idea of directing a Bond movie never crossed your mind?
Mendes Not until Daniel did it, no. In fact, not until Daniel mentioned it to me. I came from smaller movies. I’ve done movies on a bigger scale, but not as big a scale as this. But it was also what had happened to larger-scale movies in the intervening time. When I was first working with Daniel Craig, there was no Dark Knight, there was no Bourne, there was no Lord of the Rings. There was a dichotomy between large commercial filmmakers and people who made more personal films. And that wall seems to have been broken down in a way that allowed me to feel like I wasn’t going to have to compromise.

Where are you with the film right now?
MendesI’ve been cutting for six, seven weeks, and I show it to the studio in about three weeks. I’m not suicidal [about it], so I guess that’s good. It’s unusual for me to have so many people in the cutting room. There’s usually only two or three people wandering around the room, drinking tea. And with this, there’s a whole floor of visual-effects editors, there’s trailers editors, there’s the music editor, there’s two sound editors, there’s my composer…

Is this because of the size of the movie or the schedule?
MendesThe size of the movie. And it’s a tight schedule. It’s just the nature of the beast. I mean, if you’re not willing to work with people looking over your shoulder, don’t do a Bond movie. [Laughs] Because the level of interest is, uh, high.

Daniel Craig obviously has a lot more experience making Bond movies than you. That must have been an unusual situation.
Mendes It is, actually. It’s weird because you come in and someone has already explored the role, and so you’re not in that position of starting on equal footing. But I was very clear about what I felt he hadn’t yet done. We thought exactly the same about where the character could be taken.

What fresh areas are you exploring?
Mendes Um, perhaps his past a bit more. And also…no, I can’t say!

Even by the tight-lipped standards of the Bond franchise, Skyfall has been kept remarkably under wraps. The good news is that I spoke with Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson this morning and they said to tell you it’s okay to reveal the whole plot.
Mendes But I talked to them and they said, ”Look, you really can’t say very much at all.” I mean, you get to the point where it’s like, ”Oh, come on now, it’s just silly! It’s only a movie!” But one of the things I realized, being in this position for the first time, is that people are trying to read the movie through the materials that have been released and reviewing what they see as if it’s the movie itself. The coverage when the Bond teaser came out — it was like, ”Are you serious?”

What was it like working with Javier Bardem? You said previously that while there were good villains in the last couple of Bond movies, you were determined that this one should stand out more.
Mendes Yeah, I felt like a certain colorlessness had crept in. Or rather a brutality, a sort of straight-ahead violence. Although we didn’t want to have an ”I’ve got a nuclear device that’s going to blow up the world, Mr. Bond”-type villain, we wanted somebody who had a little bit more flamboyance and complexity. I sent Javier the script, but I didn’t think [his character] was quite there. And the first thing he said was ”I love everything about it except him — he’s incomplete.” I said, ”Well, that’s perfect: Let’s complete him, you and me together.” Using the fact that the role is incomplete to attract the actor is slightly arseways, but on this occasion it worked. There was a lot of excitement. Daniel was excited because Javier was there. Javier was excited to be there with Judi. Judi was excited because Javier was there.

Speaking of Dame Judi, earlier this year she talked publicly about her deteriorating eyesight. [In February, the U.K. newspaper Mirror quoted the actress as saying she suffers from macular degeneration.] Has that altered her process at all?
Mendes I’m not sure how publicly she’s actually talked about that. I don’t know whether that was deliberate on her part. That happened while we were shooting, and she was certainly very upset. But it didn’t factor. It really didn’t. It’s like working with someone who needs glasses. It’s like, ”Can you see [a potential obstacle on the set]?” ”No.” ”Well, someone put [an X mark] on it.” She is completely in possession of every marble and really on the ball.

There are rumors that M dies in this film. Is it fair to say Skyfall concerns M more than, say, the last couple of films in the series?
Mendes She is a central part of the plot, and MI6 is a central part of the plot, and London is a central character in the movie. There’s a huge sequence in the middle that is very much set right in the middle of London.

Naomie Harris from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later plays a field agent in the film. How did you come to cast her?
Mendes I had seen her in 28 Days and I had seen her also in Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre [in London]. She’s exactly the right mixture of sexy and dynamic — there’s a lot of action she has to do.

There was a rumor she is playing Miss Moneypenny — or a Moneypenny-esque role.
Mendes No, that was… [Myrtle, still seemingly asleep, starts pushing this writer’s recording device precipitously close to the edge of the couch with one paw.] The dog has been trained to do that when you ask any difficult questions.

Fair enough. I understand that Bérénice Marlohe, the French actress who plays a character named Severine, is happy being naked.
Mendes Yes, she’s very unself-conscious. Remarkably unself-conscious. She has a kind of sensuality and danger that is quite out of fashion. You sort of remember why you fell in love with European actresses, you know what I mean? It’s very un-English. Very un-American. It’s the sort of thing that the Bond franchise has traded in over the years.

Finally, there are people who would hate me if I didn’t ask this: Is Daniel Craig presented as a hot individual in this film?
Mendes[Laughs] How can you not present him as a hot individual? He is a hot individual! You mean, are there any bod shots?

I guess that is what I mean.
MendesHow can I put this? Yes, I guess there are moments when he is [hot], absolutely. But the truth is… It’s tied in… There’s a reason in the story why… I can’t say!

Does he become a male stripper?
Mendes Yeah, he does. It’s Magic Mike 2. [Steven] Soderbergh beat me to it. When I saw that movie, I just thought, ”You motherf—er!” So I had to take that out. I had to take out the Chippendales homage. It’s taken 20 minutes out of the movie at least. Now at least it can play five times in Poughkeepsie rather than four.