‘If Agatha Christie was writing now, there’d be a tech billionaire’: Daniel Craig and the stars of Knives Out on the new age of whodunnits

It was the slowburn hit of 2019 that revived murder mysteries for the big screen. Now Knives Out is back with another killer cast – who talk dressing up, their festive plans and the Mafia fiend among them

In the last couple of years, you didn’t need to be sporting a monocle to notice that there were murder mysteries everywhere. On television, you could guess whodunnit on The Afterparty or Only Murders in the Building. On the big screen, Kenneth Branagh worked his way through two starry Poirots with Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. The Agatha Christie love continued with See How They Run, a retro crime caper pegged to her play The Mousetrap. And then there was Knives Out.

Released in 2019 and directed by Rian Johnson, the film juggled a rollercoaster plot with huge names and borderline slapstick, while giving viewers the vicarious pleasure of watching entitled, bratty rich people collapse into chaos. It starred Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, a southern gentleman detective with a “Kentucky-fried Foghorn Leghorn accent” and a Sherlock-esque mind. Blanc was there to crack the case of a dead crime author who died in his mansion, surrounded by his money-grubbing descendants. The film’s cast was all-star, with Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans and Toni Collette joining the melee, and its tone was fresh. It was thrilling, it was brainy, and it was surprisingly farcical and funny. Unsurprisingly, it was a huge hit. Netflix quickly commissioned two more Knives Out mysteries.

The first sequel, Glass Onion, is the film everyone will be gathered around this Christmas. Daniel Craig returns as Blanc, but the rest of the cast is new, and even more starry. This time, it’s set on a luxury Greek island, and instead of fusty country-house aristocrats, it takes aim at the dreaded “disruptors” – vacuous entrepreneurs and celebrities with far too much money, all operating around a tech-bro billionaire type who is not unlike a certain real-life Tesla boss.

I met the cast the day after the film’s London premiere. Janelle Monáe brought Grace Jones with her; the two tore up the red carpet. Monáe had stayed up late dancing with Jones, while the rest of the cast had got an earlyish night. “I used to think I could stay out and then do [interviews],” a dry-witted Craig said. Did that lead to loose lips? He laughed. “Well, you’ve seen what I’ve said over the years! You make up your own mind about that.”

Speaking to the cast, it’s clear they have great enthusiasm – for the film, which was shot during Covid restrictions on a Greek island and then in Serbia; for each other (there is a very active group text thread); for Johnson; and for the whodunnit itself, which is proving so popular again.

Daniel Craig

Rebecca Nicholson: We can’t say too much about the plot of the film without risking spoilers …
DC: It really is one of those things. I would hate for people not to have that surprise, because there are lovely surprises in the movie. To take away that deliciousness from people would be a shame. Obviously, the budget was much bigger this time ... [though] it wasn’t that much bigger.

RN: But there are explosions!
DC: It’s got explosions, for sure, and there was money spent on other things that weren’t spent on the first one, but it wasn’t like we tripled the budget. Except on Leslie Odom Jr’s salary, of course. That actually made a big difference.

RN: If you had to choose: Benoit Blanc or Poirot?
DC: Oh, shush. That’s not fair.

RN: Why is the whodunnit having a moment?
DC: Rian puts it more eloquently than I could. He says that Agatha Christie didn’t write historical novels, she wrote what was happening at the time. If she was writing now, there would be a tech billionaire. Her books are social commentaries, and they’re a good laugh. We all need a good laugh right now.

RN: You described the cast as a “drunken theatre troupe”.
DC: I’ve been in a lot of theatre groups, and they’re mainly drunk. When we got to Greece, we were in lockdown, which curtailed going to restaurants and all the stuff you do to socialise. I thought it was incredibly important that we got together quickly to try and gel. I’d rented a nice place; I got some food, got some booze. I didn’t know these people, but I realised very quickly that they quite like to party. Couldn’t get rid of them.

RN: You ended up playing murder mystery games together in your downtime. Is that a team sport?
DC: No! It’s throwing each other under the bus, as far as I can make out. We played a game called Mafia, which takes quite a lot of organisation, which I’m not very good at. There’s something about going to sleep, and when you wake up someone’s dead, and … I have no idea. Janelle seemed to know that we were going to play these games, because she had a different costume every time. She would just turn up as Sherlock Holmes. Like, you had that in your suitcase? A moustache, pipe and deerstalker?

RN: Who was particularly deadly?
DC: Edward [Norton] was pretty good at it. It’s a lot of lying, basically, and you have to kind of take it semi-seriously. And I can’t take these things seriously.

RN: What makes Glass Onion a good festive film?
DC: It’s a family film. Hopefully, as a family, you can sit down and have a laugh. That’s all we’re setting out to do at Christmas, or whatever holiday season it is for you.

RN: How will you be spending the big day?
DC: Together with family. We’ve got a young one now, so she’s figured out what it is, so that’s going to be pleasant and joyful and all of those things.

Kate Hudson

RN: Your character, Birdie, is a former It-girl who once appeared on the cover of the Face.
KH: I feel like that was actually a real magazine cover of mine! All the pictures they used were from magazines I had done, so I feel like that might have been a cover.

RN: Did you research that late-90s party-girl era?
KH: I don’t ever do that, because I don’t want to mimic anybody. The whole purpose is to create something new.

RN: Did you guess whodunnit in the first Knives Out?
KH: If someone gives me a puzzle to figure out, I’m quick at it. But watching movies, I’m really present. I am like a little kid. I want the magic of being surprised.

RN: In both films, we’re witnessing very privileged people collapse into a mess of their own making. Is that satisfying for audiences?
KH: They love it in real life! That’s every headline you read. It’s clickbait, come on. “Your favourite person is actually terrible.” The world just goes right to that. Someone told me that, once upon a time, someone on a red carpet would slip on a banana peel, and they would turn their cameras away. Now, they’re just throwing banana peels.

RN: Who’s your favourite fictional detective?
KH: Murder, She Wrote and Angela Lansbury.

RN: What’s the best Christmas gift you’ve given or received?
KH: Oh, the best gift I gave was last Christmas. I gave everybody in my family their year in astrology. And I gave them crystals; I gave them all a piece of jewellery they could wear that was very specific to them, and I had someone give them each an astrological reading.

RN: How do you spend the big day?
KH: Honestly, we’re up until 4am putting stuff together. There’s seven kids now and Christmases are so big. It’s really fun. The day starts with the kids coming down early to my mom putting out the salmon and the bagels. Oh, yeah. And then we usually make pheasant that my dad has gone hunting for. This is how we do it at the Hawn/Russell house! It is pretty dreamy – until my mom starts cleaning while it’s happening, and then nobody knows where anything is. Then we get drunk.

Leslie Odom Jr

RN: Before Glass Onion, you starred in Murder on the Orient Express. Did you think: don’t worry, everyone, I’ve got this?
LO: No! Murder on the Orient Express was my first real film experience, so I was just trying to figure out how to act on camera. It’s a very different tone, and a very different company. So this felt different, in all the ways.

RN: Benoit Blanc or Poirot?
LO: Hmmm. I’ll get back to you.

RN: Daniel said that, as a cast, you like to party, which he discovered when he invited you for dinner ...
LO: Not only did Daniel set the tone with that first party, he set our pace for the work day. I remember the day that he had probably the most dialogue. I won’t spoil anything, but there’s one scene where he has a lot to say. And he took great care not to call us to set, not to waste a millisecond of our time. I thought it was so considerate, and that stuff matters.

RN: He also said that you are very good at Mafia.
LO: There’s the one person who hosts, and I’m like, yeah, that’s one of my [skills].

RN: Why is the whodunnit having a moment?
LO: Having been an audience member for the first Knives Out, it was just so richly layered. I could feel that this was a film-maker who really valued that cast. You could tell, because he tried to hold so many of them in a frame at any given moment. It’s great fun for the audience to have that experience.

RN: How did you get involved in the sequel?
LO: Most things, I’m clawing and fighting for, but every now and again, there’s like a match.com situation where there’s a little setup. I knew Rian was out looking for this particular part, so our agents set up a meeting. He wanted me to know that he didn’t feel he had [my character] all the way figured out.

RN: What was it like to go to the cinema with Grace Jones?
LO: I was two rows ahead of her. She really got a kick out of Janelle’s performance and then the whole film. What a cool experience, to get to be in this movie with a rock star, and to have Janelle bring all that.

RN: How will you spend Christmas this year?
LO: We live a few blocks from both sets of our parents. Usually my parents come over in the morning as the kids open their presents, then we find our way to grandma’s house, and the kids get a whole other Christmas there, so it’s a long, wonderful day. A looong day.

Janelle Monáe

RN: Your roles have been pretty serious until now. Were you prepared for how silly this was going to be?
JM: When I read the script, I knew that this was exactly what I needed to do. I’ve always wanted to work with Rian. I came in to his career on Looper. I was blown away by that film; it was super innovative for the sci-fi genre. And this is a whodunnit, but what he’s been able to do is modernise the characters and do something innovative in this genre as well. That’s what was cool about it.

RN: Your character is very mysterious.
JM: She is super mysterious, right? And she has so many layers, so being able to sink my teeth into that as an actor was so fun. We talked a lot about hiding little Easter eggs for people to find. We hope you see something different each time.

RN: You smash a lot of stuff in the film. Was that cathartic?
JM: Absolutely. It was so fun. And big shout-out to the crew, because when you’re smashing things, somebody has to pick it up so you can do another take. We didn’t have a lot of takes, because we only had a set number of those items that could be broken. So you had to go for it.

RN: Daniel said that you packed costumes for the murder mystery games.
JM: Absolutely. I had a moustache in my suitcase. I had a pipe. I had a top hat, a cane, a cape.

RN: Just in case, or were they your usual clothes?
JM: [Gestures at her immaculate monochrome outfit] I live this life, you know? We got to be our most childlike selves. Outside of filming, we had even more fun. When we did the murder mystery games, we were in this bubble, because of Covid. So we had to entertain each other.

RN: Why does this work as a festive film?
JM: It crosses generations. Kids, grandparents, no matter what age, will be able to go on this ride two, three, four times. It’s that sort of movie where I don’t think people will leave feeling, oh, I just watched everything that is wrong about the world. I think art is best when it’s escapism, when you can just watch something and enjoy those 90 or however many minutes without feeling heavier. You should be lighter. You should be laughing.

RN: What do you want for Christmas this year?
JM: I am usually the Grinch at Christmas. But I love a good holiday party. I love an ugly sweater party. Any experience where it feels like people are going into character and having good time. I love all that.

RN: Do you know about Wagatha Christie?
JM: Who? Now I’m going to go Google it. Wow.

Madelyn Cline

RN: Your character, Whiskey, is a YouTuber. How much do you know about that world?
MC: I can’t say I’m a YouTuber. I don’t smash that “like” button. I don’t even have an account. I just go and find the videos I like, or people send them to me. But I use Instagram, and it’s the same thing. It’s social media. I did do some research. And my search history was a little mortifying on YouTube.

RN: If you were to smash that like button, what would it be for?
MC: It’s very specific, but I really enjoy some ASMR [autonomous sensory meridian response]. Also the videos that I would subscribe to are on shelf organisation. It makes sense, because I’m horrible at organisation.

RN: Who was best at the murder mystery games?
MC: Kate was really good at moderating and leading the charge. Leslie and Kathryn [Hahn] were the funniest moderators. Kathryn would get killed in the game, and she would stand up and co-moderate with Leslie. Honestly, at that point, I would try to get killed just so I could just watch them. They are so funny.

RN: Daniel said that Janelle brought costumes with her.
MC: She was the one who spearheaded the costumes, and the dressing-up of the games. I miss those Mafia nights. It was so much fun.

RN: Who is your favourite fictional detective?
MC: I think Benoit is amazing. In a similar vein, I also love Clue [the 1985 murder mystery based on Cluedo] .

RN: Are you any good at Cluedo?
MC: I love it. I haven’t played in a long time, though.

RN: Why is this a good festive film?
MC: I saw this on Twitter, so I don’t take credit, but it made me laugh: what better time to release a movie about a murder mystery than during the holidays when everybody wants to kill their family? You gather around the table. Knives are out.

RN: What’s the best gift you’ve given or received?
MC: I like really little thoughtful things. Someone got me a rock from somewhere. And then we painted it.

RN: You’re going to get sent so many rocks.
MC: That’s bad. Never mind! Flowers? Money? One time, my nana gave me some money. When I moved to LA, she sent me $20, because she thought I was starving. That was a sweet gift. Sometimes receiving gifts is like receiving compliments. I have a hard time knowing what to say, because I am so grateful, but also, I’m a little overwhelmed. I love giving gifts. I love the thought that goes into, like, what can I do? What inside jokes are there? How can I give someone something that’s meaningful?

RN: Agatha Christie or Wagatha Christie?
MC: Agatha and Wagatha would be [clasps hands].

RN: Are there any unsolved mysteries that haunt you?
MC: [long pause] Where is Amelia Earhart?

Edward Norton

RN: You got involved in Glass Onion pretty early on.
EN: I had coffee in New York with Rian right after Brick came out [in 2005], because I’m a big noir detective film fan. We bonded over that. I was talking about doing his film The Brothers Bloom with him, but I was doing another film and I broke my back doing a stunt. So I fell out of doing that. Finally, he rang me up. He said: “It’s the next of the Benoit Blanc series.” I said: “We’ve been talking about this for 20 years. Let’s do it.”

RN: What gruesome facts did you unearth when you were researching tech bros?
EN: There’s a great deal of stuff that’s pulled specifically from interviews you can watch, and documentaries. There are malapropisms, or people purporting to be intellectually brilliant, who can’t even grammatically construct a sentence. We had so many. Too many.

RN: Your character is particularly daft.
EN: There’s a bit where I’m running around, afraid of certain things, and I had this impulse, when I’m hiding behind Daniel, to spin and grab him by the belly. It’s just a funny thing. It’s Daniel, it’s James Bond, and you sort of go, how’s he going to react if I just do this? I was like, oh, fuck it. I did it. Sometimes you have to gently test the limits of how high it could go.

RN: After Fight Club, you know a thing or two about movie twists. How good is Rian at a twist?
EN: Rian’s twists are great. To be honest, he likes to play with the baggage people bring in. In my case, he knows the things I’ve done in the past are going to set people into a mental analysis of, “Should I expect this?” But then that would be too obvious. He’s really canny in that way, and funny.

RN: Why do you think this works as a festive film?
EN: It is medicine for an anxious world. Sometimes, it’s very, very nice to look at scenery and funny costumes and have a proper laugh. It’s nice to put that out.

RN: What do you want for Christmas this year?
EN: Even when you say that, it rattles me. I get flummoxed and start thinking, That can’t be coming up already. I’ve got so many things I need to do before the end of the year. I usually want more time before Christmas, that is what I want for Christmas. All the way through making this film, Janelle and I had been talking about our love of Bowie, and we rallied a bunch of friends to see the David Bowie documentary at the Imax. She got us the Imax screen at its headquarters. So I think we should do a Christmas party screening of it at [Monáe’s HQ] Wondaland. That would be fun.

Kathryn Hahn

RN: You worked with Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days ...
KH: The fact that we were able to reunite! We hadn’t really seen each other since, and it was mindblowing that this was happening, and that she was playing this part. I can’t tell you how excited I am for Kate. Every time she opens her mouth in this movie, I’m like, ahhhhh. It’s so delicious.

RN: What makes this a good film for the holidays?
KH: It’s thrilling. It also does feel like you’re on a vacation. It’s beautiful, fun, fabulous costumes. I mean, why not?

RN: You have previous experience of festive films. How did this compare with Bad Moms 2?
KH: Bad Moms 2 was a blast and so fun, but this – I mean, I’m not comparing anything in any way, but because of the nature of filming this, no one went back to their trailers, we were together all day, every day. When we got to Serbia, we were in a green room together, all day long, and then on Saturday nights we would just see each other, socially, to hang out. Then we would have a little vacation together. It was the best. And there was really no movie-star crap. It felt like everybody was in the same sweaty theatre ensemble together.

RN: Who inspired the beige-wearing politician you play?
KH: It’s all there in the script, so I didn’t need to go outside of what Rian had written. I mean, there are so many humans right now one can draw from, so I had all that ... bleurgh. It was all there. I didn’t need to go far.

RN: Did you guess the twist in the first Knives Out?
KH: I definitely did not.

RN: What’s your favourite movie twist?
KH: The Sixth Sense. Fight Club, Primal Fear. Edward has been in a lot of them.

RN: How will you spend Christmas this year?
KH: Well, we always have to have a family staircase photograph, before we go down and see the tree. My husband is Jewish so we do both Hanukah and Christmas, if they line up at the same time, which they usually don’t. We do stockings first, and there’s always clementines in the stockings.

Jessica Henwick

RN: Why is Glass Onion a good festive film?
JH: It’s a group of people who are forced to be together, once a year. It’s Christmas taken to the extreme, isn’t it?

RN: Peg is the straight woman in a film of clowns ...
JH: I think you always have to have someone playing it straight. She works as a touchstone for the audience. This is how the normal person reacts to this situation. This is how a normal person of normal wealth would behave on this crazy island full of billionaires.

RN: Who was the stone-cold killer at Mafia?
JH: I don’t want to say. I refuse this question.

RN: I heard that Janelle had costumes.
JH: She did, but she wasn’t very good at the game. Everyone is ignoring this. She would always guess wrong. She would always kill the wrong people.

RN: Did you figure out whodunnit in the first Knives Out?
JH: Yeah. I figured it out probably 20 minutes before it was revealed. It was not because I’d figured out the plot, but because I’d got the vibe. I realised, oh, [Rian’s] doing this to make me feel this way about this character, which must mean that’s the killer. But Rian knows that, so he’s playing a different game this time. Audiences are getting smarter and smarter.

RN: Who’s your favourite fictional detective?
JH: Jessica Fletcher, from Murder, She Wrote.

RN: Why is the whodunnit having a moment?
JH: Everything’s cyclical. Everything that is out of fashion comes back into fashion. Look at how many escape rooms there are in London alone. People love to solve things. Murder-mystery is probably the most immersive genre there is. It encourages you to listen and take notes, because if you go to the bathroom and miss two minutes, it is going to fall apart. You have to be an active participant. It’s not backseat viewing. Some things are made for doing the laundry. And this is not one of those films.

RN: Are there any unsolved mysteries that haunt you?
JH: If I had a fantasy dinner party, I would invite Agatha Christie. I would ask her what happened in those 11 days that she disappeared.

RN: What’s the best gift you have given or received?
JH: My brother got me a Harry Potter wand. It was beautiful; it was in this glass case and it was amazing.

RN: Do you know about Wagatha Christie?
JH: Yes. Fucking love it. So funny. I love this. It’s such a British question.

RN: So – Wagatha Christie or Agatha Christie?
JH: I think Agatha. would support Wagatha.

• Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is out on Netflix on 23 December.

Contributor

Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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