Maryam d’Abo’s James Bond Days

© Sunset Boulevard / Corbis

After an aneurysm changed her life, the former Bond girl once again documents 007’s sexy costars in a new film.

The person in the corner booth of this chic London restaurant looks familiar, a presence once glimpsed in a movie, perhaps. She seems at home here, too: a beautiful woman with a Continental accent, her animated face framed by blonde hair.

Then Maryam d’Abo pulls back her wavy mane to reveal the painful truth behind the image of perfection: A faint, J-shaped scar skirts her left temple, where surgeons entered her skull five years ago to fix what she calls her “broken brain.”

“I’m lucky to be here,” says the 51-year-old actress and documentary filmmaker with a wry smile. Lucky that she didn’t die immediately after suffering a hemorrhage. Lucky that the long-term effects include forgetting names or where she’s left her car and not much worse.

But the fact that she recently produced two major documentaries? That’s not so much luck as perseverance. The latest is an update of her 2002 Bond Girls Are Forever. “Being a Bond girl, I wanted to look at it from the point of view of the women’s experiences since the ’60s,” d’Abo says, “and how the evolution of women’s roles in society reflects how Bond women’s roles have evolved.” She persuaded a host of actresses to appear: Ursula Andress talks about Dr. No’s flimsy script, Maud Adams remains horrified by the sexism of Octopussy, and Michelle Yeoh smiles as she recalls kicking Pierce Brosnan’s butt in Tomorrow Never Dies.

D’Abo’s Bond was Timothy Dalton, with whom she costarred in 1987’s The Living Daylights. She played Kara Milovy, a cellist who flees with Agent 007 down an Austrian mountain with the Czech army in pursuit. “I was terrified doing that scene,” d’Abo says. “I have a phobia of gunshots and explosions, and here I am in a Bond film.” The only thing more terrifying for the actress, who until then had only a handful of credits, was facing the press. She was the untested leading lady for a new Bond; at 26, she had no experience in the spotlight and wasn’t prepared for its heat.

For the 2012 Bond Girls Are Forever—which coincides with the release of the new 007 film, Skyfall, as well as the 50th anniversary of the movie franchise, and will air on U.S. TV this fall—she interviewed the most recent Bond beauties, Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe. It’s too early to know if these actresses will suffer the double-edged sword of Bond fame. As Thunderball’s Luciana Paluzzi says in the documentary, “To do a Bond picture is a blessing but also a curse.” Being 007’s sultry sidekick, at least in decades past, has meant magazine covers but few opportunities for more serious roles.

D’Abo certainly felt both sides of the blade. After The Living Daylights, she moved to Los Angeles, where she was cast as an alien in the short-lived NBC series Something Is Out There. A string of unmemorable thrillers, miniseries and racy romances followed. “I don’t regret doing The Living Daylights,” she says. “If I hadn’t done Bond, I wouldn’t have been in America doing my series, and I would have had a different life.”

D’Abo was born in London and raised in Paris and Geneva by her Georgian mother, who ran the European greeting-card division of unicef. Her English father had been permanently debilitated by meningitis when she was child.

Early in her career she met with Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson to discuss the role of Jane in 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, but, she says, “in his head he’d already cast it.” They met again at a dinner party in 1999 to a more successful outcome: They were married in 2003.

During an L.A. vacation in 2007, she noticed that headaches she had been having for weeks were getting worse. Then, while exercising, she felt a series of explosions in her head. Only about 50 percent of those who suffer similar aneurysms survive—with roughly 80 percent of them becoming severely disabled.

Her other recent documentary, Rupture: Living with My Broken Brain, examines the science, mystery and aftermath of such trauma. “She was the one who nearly died, but it’s important not to ignore the family,” says Hudson, who directed Rupture. “Families always suffer, never knowing what the final result will be.” But in the end, he says, d’Abo’s illness and the film that resulted from it were a “life-enhancing and marriage-enhancing journey.”

It’s a journey that also includes being part of a club she’s not sure she would be asked to join today. “It’s more competitive, because the Bond movies are edgier and more realistic,” d’Abo says. “The Bond girls’ roles are much tougher now.”

Agent 007’s Magnificent Seven

• Britt Ekland in The Man with the Golden Gun, 1974
• Caroline Munro in The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977
• Claudine Auger in Thunderball, 1965
• Kim Basinger in Never Say Never Again, 1983
• Jane Seymour in Live and Let Die, 1973
• Talisa Soto in License to Kill, 1989
• Halle Berry in Die Another Day, 2002