Why Sam Mendes Turned Down James Bond for...Theater

The director of Skyfall says in a new interview that he's not coming back for Bond 24. But given his career trajectory — and the scope of the two shows he's taking over — it actually makes a lot of sense.

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Sam Mendes, who directed the enormously successful Skyfall, is not coming back to Bond. He told Empire: "It has been a very difficult decision not to accept Michael and Barbara [Broccoli]'s very generous offer to direct the next Bond movie," explaining that he has other commitments, including theatrical productions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and King Lear.

Really? He's leaving Bond for that? With the piles of money likely being offered to him, and the piles of money another Bond film is set to rake in, he's doing theater?

Given Mendes' career trajectory, though, the snub actually makes a lot of sense. He's probably best known for directing American Beauty, but Mendes made his name in the London theater scene and ran the Donmar Warehouse. Mind you, at age 24 he directed Judi Dench—who he would make the center of Skyfall as M—in a production of The Cherry Orchard in the West End.

As far as money and prestige, the shows he cited in the Empire interview offer both.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Though the title brings to mind the ill-advised Tim Burton reboot of the Roald Dahl story, this new West End production has Broadway-bound written all over it, and that means big bucks itself. Baz Bamigboye called the show in the Daily Mail Mendes' "£10 million talent factory." It stars Douglas Hodge, who may not be a household name, but is a renowned British actor who won over American audiences and got a Tony for his performance in La Cage Aux Folles. The music and lyrics for this Charlie are from the same team that wrote Hairspray.

Also, it's promised that the Oompa-Loompas will be really cool.

Kid-related British musicals are becoming commonplace on Broadway. Billy Elliot had success on both sides of the pond, and another Roald Dahl-inspired show, Matilda, is just now making its debut. Sure, it's not the same exposure as Bond, but theater productions like this are both financially and emotionally consuming. The show starts previews in London in May.

King Lear

Now, you've got to be kidding us! We need another production of Lear over a really good Bond? As we said, Mendes has roots in classical theater, and this production is highly anticipated. A National Theatre production of Lear, directed by Mendes and starring frequent collaborator Simon Russell Beale, has been discussed since 2010, but was delayed so Mendes could do Skyfall. Now, it's on tap for January 2014, the same year the next Bond is supposed to come out. Though the production will certainly not draw the same attention that a Bond movie—or even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—will, it falls under the passion project category for someone like Mendes. Beale has called Mendes his "professional soulmate." Their collaboration is so strong that there's even been a book about their partnership.

Of course, Mendes still left open the possibility of returning to Bond at some point, so we may see him on board for Bond 25, also set to be written by Skyfall screenwriter John Logan. Who's next for taking the helm on Bond 24? That's anyone's guess—sectors of the Internet are clamoring for Christopher Nolan or Dany Boyle—but Mendes, for now, is deeply embedded in his first love: the stage.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.