Over six decades and two dozen movies, British Secret Service agent James Bond has been the epitome of the suave man of action, a debonair hedonist in bespoke suits. He’s the brainchild of author Ian Fleming, who based much of the character on his own exploits as a spy for Naval Intelligence during Workd War II. That story behind the story is the basis of the four-part BBC America drama Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, premiering Jan. 29 and starring Dominic Cooper (The Devil’s Double, Mamma Mia!, Band of Brothers, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) in the title role. Here, Cooper reveals how he channeled the screen icon’s creator.

Are you a fan of the Bond movies?
Growing up in the U.K., you can’t help but be a Bond fan. I loved the Connery ones; From Russia With Love I really enjoyed. It’s an amazing franchise that keeps redefining itself so cleverly and brilliantly. I’m always amazed how it’s spread across generations who still love it as much. And I really have enjoyed the recent ones, too.

It’s very hard to feel any empathy for Fleming because he is privileged. But ultimately he had a massive impact on the war and the world.

Why do you think that the Bond character has such staying power?
How they have reinvented him time and time again is astounding. The Bond of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s could not exist now. With the introduction of these wonderful, gritty spy movies like the Bourne films, he had to change. Each actor who has taken him on has each chosen some very specific way in which to play him. This man, the gadgetry, the invention, the ideas behind it—It’s so exciting.

Do you have a favorite Bond babe?
Grace Jones.

How much did you know about Ian Fleming before you did this? What kind of research did you do?
I didn’t know a great deal about him, I have to admit. I was aware of him, but I knew very little about his life. I read two biographies, and the script told me a lot about him. I often questioned how accurate it was and how much I could possibly believe happened in that man’s life. I look nothing like him. There’s no way I could possibly ever, ever be him. So I knew that we were starting from quite a fictitious place. I was at liberty to make him, in many ways, what I thought he probably would have wanted to be, or how he would have wanted to be perceived, which gave me a lot of freedom in terms of what I could do with the character.

Is there anything about his life that you related to?
I come from a very different world that he came from. There is a class system in England, and he is from a very specific background. What comes with that is an extraordinary confidence and arrogance and a feeling of self-righteousness that you deserve [things]. I have observed that from afar. I don’t know what it’s like to be part of that group, but I can understand how they function. It was not my background, but that was what was fun about it and the challenge of it. I had to get that right.

I don’t think he was that man. I think he wishes he was James Bond. It is very revealing that he’s awe of a man who is quite a brute and quite awful to women. It’s very hard to feel any empathy for him because he is privileged. But ultimately he had a massive impact on the war and the world. And he has given us this wonderful character who will exist for all time.

What other challenges did you face?
The amount we needed to do in a small amount of time. We had these huge great stunt sequences to do. It was really a case of finding the location, completely randomly sometimes, because we were often not allowed to be using some of the locations we were at.

You have several movies coming up. What’s next?
Reasonable Doubt has just come out. It was incredible to work with Sam Jackson. That was an independent, very quick fast thing that we did. It’s a thriller. Need for Speed is fast cars and gadgets. It was one of my dreams as a child, to suddenly be driving those cars and getting an opportunity to race them. It’s coming out in March.

What about the World of Warcraft movie?
We just started it. It’s epic and huge and just beyond anything I can quite comprehend at the moment but I’m excited by it. I can’t say what I play. The secrecy is unbelievable!