Empire Magazine interview
Bascially this Tumbly is all about one Bill Nighy
Empire Magazine interview
About Time on set interview
First trailer for “I, Frankenstein”
Antonia and Jane
is a 1991 comedy film directed by Beeban Kidron and starring Imelda Staunton, Saskia Reeves, Brenda Bruce and Bill Nighy. It is about two mismatched woman friends who have had a love–hate relationship with each other since childhood.
Bill out late in London
Bill Nighy has just had his picture taken – by a professional, to accompany this interview, but also by several unscheduled strangers who have recognised him in the street. Nighy had stepped out for some air when a crowd gathered around him, smiling, nodding, staring.
“Would you like a picture?” Nighy said courteously, to break the silence. He put his arm around one passer-by, then another, and another – “it’s much better this way,” he told me between posed embraces, “it freaks me out when they do it behind my back” – until the first one noticed his camera hadn’t worked and went back for more. Nighy finally spotted a pause in the human traffic and ducked back indoors, all jerky and stylish, his characterful exit as pleasing to the masses as their digital trophies.
“That goes on all the time,” Nighy’s friend David Hare said when I described it to him later, “in a way that a whole lot of other actors affect to find tiring – you know, Gwyneth Paltrow hurrying down the street in bobble hats and scarves. Bill is the very opposite. He is unfailingly polite to everyone who approaches.”
Nighy is now 63. He has performed Shakespeare at the National, been feted on Broadway, and appeared in plays by Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. He took the best part in the now-revered television series State of Play. He has been a Pirate of the Caribbean, with most of his face colonised by octopus legs, twice. He has even, finally, appeared in a Harry Potter film, and jokes that he no longer has to say he’s the only British actor not to have done so. But, for better or for worse, none of this has made people stop him in the street as much as his larger-than-life rendition of Billy Mack, the etiquette-exploding rocker in Richard Curtis’s Love, Actually, released just 10 years ago.
Part of the reason Nighy has accepted latter-day fame with such good grace may be that he knows what it’s like to be a fan. He was at a screening once, and as they were leaving, the person he was with asked if he’d seen Ryan Giggs. “Ryan Giggs?!” cried Nighy, and rushed back inside to have his picture taken with him. “The trouble is, I looked so stupid in the picture I ruined it. I couldn’t keep it.”
Nighy is telling me this in a green leather booth at Cecconi’s, in Mayfair, where he is clearly a regular. It’s a hot day, and Nighy (who is wearing, inevitably, a loosely tailored blue suit) is on a break from filming the sequels David Hare has written to their 2008 spy drama Page Eight. In two days he’ll travel to Wiesbaden to play the raffish MI5 officer Johnny Worricker and go on the run with Helena Bonham Carter.
But the film that’s about to be released is About Time, Richard Curtis’s latest. The plot is based on the premise that the men in a certain family have a hereditary capacity to travel back in time, though only within their own lives (“I can’t kill Hitler or s—- Helen of Troy, unfortunately,” Nighy’s character explains). Nighy, the bookish, deadpan father, provides the unassuming emotional pivot by going back to spend more time with his son.
What would he do if correcting his own life were really possible? “I thought this might come up,” Nighy says. “I don’t really know what I’d change – I’ve been pretty lucky. There’s a few haircuts I regret, a few pairs of trousers I’d like to have another shot at. But generally speaking, there are no major things I’d change.” He pauses. “I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d try to arrange to be more cheerful. Because all that stuff you used to worry about, often it was just a lot of unnecessary static.”
When I ask Nighy if he’s close to his 29-year-old daughter, the actress Mary Nighy, he says yes — but also that he never knows how to answer that question, because he doesn’t have anything to compare it to. “When she was growing up she’d say: ‘You wanted a boy, didn’t you?’ I’d say: ‘No!’ and I really didn’t — I actively didn’t want a boy. I thought, let’s fill the house with women, as far as I’m concerned. But she thought I was keeping something from her. She would occasionally sit down in front of a football game with me and say: ‘Do we like the red ones or the blue ones?’”
Nighy’s own father died of a heart attack when Nighy was 26. The budding actor was in Liverpool at the time, working with the so-called “lunatic genius” Ken Campbell, and had to check himself out of hospital. He’d been in there for weeks, after “a vision of a girl” had tried to take him home and wrapped him around a tree in her mother’s Fiat.
“My dad was a lovely man,” Nighy recalls. “He was very gracious, and principled, and reserved.” Alfred Nighy ran a garage in Surrey, and based his style on Bing Crosby; whether or not they’re alike, Nighy couldn’t say, though “if I ever played a part where I had short hair, after my father died, my mother would go very quiet, and it was because she was moved by the resemblance”. That his father hasn’t been around to witness what has happened to him is something Nighy regrets enormously. “That,” he says, “I quite passionately would like to have happened.”
That the “unnecessary static” of his youth has died down is something Nighy is very glad about. While he is never 100 per cent confident of his abilities (“I find it difficult to be reassured by precedent”), he is no longer permanently paranoid that someone will turn up and say there’s been some terrible mistake. “I just ran out of energy to be that wired, that uncertain – it’s gruelling. So I have managed to some degree to unplug it.”
He wasn’t always going to be an actor. “Like anyone in the world who’s ever read a book,” he says, “I wanted to be a writer.” Nighy left school at 16, and became a committed autodidact. “I read everything you’d expect, from F Scott Fitzgerald to Dostoevsky, but also random reading all over the shop. Ford Maddox Ford became an early favourite of mine, and remains one.” He wanted to write fiction? “Oh yeah, I was going to write Great Literature. Obviously. I was going to write killer sentences that were, you know…that would get me a girlfriend.” And? “Well, eventually I got a girlfriend. But I didn’t write a single word.”
David Hare suggests that one of Nighy’s greatest assets is his “100 per cent nose for good writing. I would say this of course, because he does my plays, but he has impeccable literary taste.” It was Hare who first cast him as a romantic lead, in his television play Dreams of Leaving. “He had a fringe,” Hare remembers, “And he looked a little bit lost, and sweet. In the Eighties he suddenly clicked into place with the female population because the ‘new man’ was coming into vogue. You didn’t have to be a rugby-playing macho to be a leading man. It would have been difficult for Bill if he’d been born 20 years earlier.” By 1997, when they were looking for someone to replace Michael Gambon in Hare’s play Skylight, Gambon suggested Hare ask “that handsome chap who’s always in your work”. His roles in Skylight and in Hare’s more recent play The Vertical Hour remain Nighy’s favourites. Both are men past middle age who come wrapped in some kind of regret. Nighy can suggest the past with his presence: he can wear it, without flaunting it. But beyond that, he had 800 people laughing as one when The Vertical Hour opened on Broadway. “He believes jokes are really illuminating,” says Hare. “Now, he’s in huge demand. Everybody wants him to come along and do 20 minutes, because 20 minutes of Bill kicks a film up the a—- and gives it life.”
When Richard Curtis met him, he thought of him as “a slightly tense, intellectual sort of actor”. He was asked to come to a read-through for Love, Actually precisely because he wouldn’t expect to be offered the part, and then this “great big benign rock ’n’ roll thing” happened, Curtis recalls. “He utterly dominated the read-through, and we cast him two minutes later. That was the start of our friendship.” “The thing he didn’t have as a young man,” says Hare, “was self-irony.” Whereas now “he sort of knows that at some fundamental level he’s a joke – a joke that he shares with the audience”.
What helped Nighy most, as “a chronically self-conscious” young actor, was working with Ken Campbell, who was too avant-garde to believe in rehearsing. “Ken’s catchphrase was: ‘Rehearsal? You’re all grown men!’,” Nighy recalls. With Campbell, Nighy performed in Illuminatus!, which Peter Hall saw in Liverpool in 1976 and booked to open the new Cottesloe Theatre. “It was eight hours long,” Nighy laughs. “The intervals were sometimes longer than the play. The audience and the actors would go to the wine bar together. By the end of the show, everybody was seriously chemically undermined. It was hilarious, one of the longest jokes ever told.” The play, described by Brian Aldiss as something Bertrand Russell and Genghis Khan might have dreamed up while rewriting Monty Python, had 450 speaking parts. “Ken would say: ‘You’re playing a man in Yorkshire who’s seen a UFO, you’re playing a man in 16th-century Bavaria who’s had his tongue cut out, you’re playing a Chinese ambassador, you’re playing a man who smoked opium with Ouspensky and a Gestalt therapist called Ralph in California.’”
Nighy’s energetic reminiscences remind me of a theory I once had about Revels. It was to do with only a certain kind of ready-for-anything temperament being able to handle unpredictable varieties of chocolate.
Somewhat randomly, I try it out on Nighy. His face lights up. “I’m crazy about Revels,” he says. “I’m going to quote – I hope she won’t mind – Julianne Moore. Because I was in a play with her [The Vertical Hour] and she made a deeply philosophical remark. She said to me: ‘You see, some days, you just have to accept that it’s the coffee Revel day.’ I mean, there are some weirdos who really dig the coffee Revel – for them it’s their favourite Revel. She’s not one of them. She loved Revels, and if anyone was coming from London, I’d say, ‘Pack some Revels.’ I became very popular. Unlike me, who devours them in one shot, she’d stagger them. So some days, it was the coffee Revel day. You just have to roll with that.” He takes a breath. “But yeah,” he says, “That’s not a bad theory.”
Despite his air of recklessness, at home Nighy is, by all accounts, an ascetic. “His house is one of the most under-decorated venues in the world,” remarks Curtis. He doesn’t keep much — mainly books; he’s got rid of all his vinyl. But he does, rather famously, care about his clothes. (When asked why he doesn’t like to perform Shakespeare anymore, Nighy likes to say he can’t operate in those kinds of trousers.) He announces, entirely deadpan, that he is “a pioneer of John Smedley leisurewear”, and says he dreams of having an identical suit for each day of the week. “I do like the anality of seven identical suits. You just open the wardrobe and everything’s the same.”
Nighy likes sleek packaging so much that he has been known to receive expensive gifts from Hermès or Smythson after films have wrapped, and leave them untouched.
“Why wreck it by opening it when it’s just perfect?” he says. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, I suggest. He shrugs. “It’s probably a metaphor for my whole life: Why unwrap it when you could just sit there and not do anything?”
To hear him tell it, not doing anything is Nighy’s favourite occupation. “I’m world- class at not getting around to stuff,” he says. Five years ago, he split from the actress Diana Quick, his partner of 27 years. Now he lives in Soho, and rarely goes out. “I’m very happy on my own,” he says. “The one thing I do feel I might have to do is, I don’t think I can get through the rest of my life without a dog. Which means I’ll have to move, because I can’t have a dog where I am. You’re supposed to move to the country, aren’t you? You get to a certain age, you’re supposed to move to the country. No parties. A big fire. A dog. A reasonable television so that I can watch football. Alan Hansen at half-time. Near the kettle.”
After we’d met, I was puzzled by my inability to make sense of these two aspects of Nighy’s character: the antic daredevil and the quiet homebody. I told David Hare on the phone that I couldn’t add it all up. “Er, no,” he said with a chuckle. “They both absolutely exist. It hasn’t all been suits and quietude. There’s been a lot of rampaging around.”
Yet what his friends agree on is that Nighy is, as Curtis puts it, “a man of high principle”. Last week, when it was revealed that Nighy had once turned down the part of Doctor Who, it was fairly typical that he wouldn’t say when —in other words, he refused to reveal which successful actor had unwittingly been second best. By all accounts, Nighy’s decency is his overriding influence. As Hare says: “Nobody wants to arse around in front of Bill. They look silly.”
Bill on the new Doctor
About Time premiere part 3
About Time premiere part 2