Bill Nighy loves a good suit. Everyone knows that. That’s why it’s no surprise to see him this afternoon sharply dressed in a navy ensemble that’s too bold to be off-the-peg. It’s also why the actor’s sartorial style, already the subject of numerous interviews over the past two decades, is low on the agenda for today’s conversation—and why, in our limited time, I can’t follow up when Nighy, when he goes. me to the door, picks up the burner, holds it to his mouth like a microphone, and explains his penchant for formal wear in his signature deep drawl: “Because I hate my body.”
It’s not something you expect to hear from the famously charming 72-year-old as in Love indeed ripped off his leather trousers to reveal what Billy Connolly once hailed as his “rock’n’roll legs”. The same man who played the cocky sea demon Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and the exuberant time-traveling father of the year in About time. But he has spoken of feeling uneasy in his skin in the past, once revealing that he showers in the dark. And coming from Nighy now, in person – standing and pulling out a seat for me when I arrive (as well as a great agency, Nighy is known as a gentleman) – the confession is more believable. Because while yes, Nighy carries himself with grace, there’s also an endearing, youthful awkwardness about him. His best roles often play on the off-kilter dynamic, as in his latest film Live.
The film – a 50s remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru – was written by Kazuo Ishiguro with Nighy in mind. He plays Mr. Williams, a repressed bureaucrat who binds all his emotions in bureaucracy. When he is diagnosed with stomach cancer and given six months to live, he tries to do just that: to live for once in his life. The film has received rave reviews so far, with almost everyone singling out Nighy as a highlight. For the first time ever, he is within earshot of Oscar talk.
There is a moment in Live where Nighy talks to himself in the mirror. He practices telling his son and daughter-in-law about his impending death. His voice trembles like a candle in a drafty room. “It’s kind of boring, really,” he begins. For most Live, Nighy plays Mr. Williams as shy and sensitive, a maelstrom of emotion unbuttoned in a starched lace collar, but in this moment the vulnerability peeks through. So real is the emotion on his face, it’s hard to believe Nighy doesn’t imagine himself in the same situation telling his own daughter, Mary. Nighy assures me he is not. “You do not have to feel everything,” he explains. “Acting is work – and that doesn’t diminish it in any way.”
Nighy is fortunately unpretentious about his profession. Summon inner demons and invoke childhood traumas for a two-hour movie? Pssh. “If you’re in the company of someone who suggests that an actor must feel everything that they’re portraying, then you’re talking to someone who’s basically an amateur,” he enthuses. “Often it is a way of punishing actors. I think drama teachers sometimes do that to control the students. To just stand there and say, ‘You don’t feel it.’ How do you know I don’t feel it? What should I feel? You don’t have to have been grieving to act someone who has grieving – otherwise, well, how would we go on? You know, acting is acting.”
As for method actors, he is not bothered by them. “That’s fine, as long as there’s no pressure on anyone else to do it the same way. And that it’s not weaponized as a status thing, obviously. And that it’s done on your time. In other words, not on a film set or in a rehearsal room for a theater play.” He mutters an apology for being swept up in the subject; it’s something of a pet peeve of his.
He is like this. Despite the actor’s reputation as a laconic speaker and all-round mild-mannered fellow—a quality he once described as “exhausted disco charm”—Nighy can get energetic on the right subject, however unexpected. Like, for example, ice cream. “There is no limit to how much I can eat.” He loves strawberries but is not a fan of chocolate although he loves it actual chocolate. “Oh!” he exclaims when I say I feel the same way. “I thought I was a weirdo.” He doesn’t mind pistachios or hazelnuts. “Honeycomb!” he suddenly remembers. “There’s a restaurant I went to where they made honeycomb ice cream and it was pretty unbeatable.”
Nighy has what you might call a sweet tooth. “Sugar,” he muses. “I’m an animal when it comes to sugar. I used to eat a four-pack of Magnums and a four-pack of Soleros in one sitting.” He raises his eyebrows past the rim of his glasses.It is my relationship with sugar.” About 15 years ago, he gave up sugar and carbs completely after noticing he had put on some weight. (He’s also been sober since 1992 after struggling with addiction.) “I gave took up cigarettes and I took up sugar. I had never had any extra weight and when I put on some weight it’s absolutely…” he widens his eyes in disbelief. “I didn’t think about anything else. I thought, ‘What the hell is that?’ It wasn’t much but nobody believed me because I have a thin face so they say, ‘Yeah, you’re fine.'” in his love of suits. “It’s basic insecurity. You’ll think, ‘At least I can look well-sorted in a suit.’
Nighy grew up the youngest of three in a flat above the garage his father ran in south London; his mother was a psychiatric nurse. He attended an all-boys Roman Catholic school where his drama teacher (“A very nice fellow called Father Richards. We used to call him Little Richards”) encouraged him to try acting. “I was tall so I didn’t have to play girls and I had a good memory so I got long games.” It was at the behest of a girlfriend (“the first girl who ever paid attention to me”) that he applied to drama school. “I think she wrote the letter… I was the first person in our family who was ever a student. Not everyone went to university in those days, it was basically just the middle class.” On a charming side note, Nighy recently met Father Richards for lunch after the priest wrote him a letter, delivered along with a photograph of young Bill in a school play.
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Despite a drama school education, the idea of being an actor seemed unthinkable. In the mid-seventies, Nighy was selling women’s clothes from a stall in Surrey Street Market in Croydon when he was called to audition for the Everyman Theater Company in Liverpool. “It was the summer of cheesecloth,” Nighy recalls, rising from his seat and swinging an invisible hem around his ankles; shoulders hunched, swayed with knees together. “We had these long cheesecloth wrap skirts. I used to wear one to sell them and the man in the egg stall opposite thought I was absolutely disgusting.” When the opportunity arose to audition for Pryce, Nighy abandoned his post for a bid to play against Pete Postlethwaite and Julie Walters. And luckily he did, because that’s where “things got a little serious”. Or at least, he smiles, “I made some money and I didn’t have to go to one regular job, which was kind of the idea.”
As for the second R-word, he is uninterested. “I have never heard any good news about retirement and I have no plans to retire. I have a job that you can happily do as long as you can be upright,” he smiles. “And yes, actually you don’t have to stand up straight. As long as you can deliver a line sitting, you can probably get some kind of employment.”
After about a decade of treading the boards, Nighy made his way to the big screen and in 2003 landed the role of Billy Mack in Love indeed. On paper, the part of a washed-up pop star might pale in comparison to the romcom’s ample wagon of hunks (Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman), but in Nighy’s hands, Billy was its grisly sex symbol—and a role worthy of kick-starting a brilliant second act of Nighy’s career still ongoing.
The part changed his career—and his life. When Nighy recently joked that his tombstone will read, “Don’t buy drugs kids—be a pop star and they’ll give them to you for free,” it had a ring of truth to it. Funny epitaphs aside, Nighy doesn’t think much of his quote-unquote legacy. “Sometimes, I think, I’ve left all this lying around.” Sometimes, Nighy laughs, he imagines his films being broadcast under the cemetery. “I used to imagine they’d come at three o’clock in the morning and people would say, ‘Who’s that guy? What’s his name? He was on that other thing.'” He doesn’t feel any resentment about this, by the way. It’s just a observation—or rather an afterthought. “Because I won’t be there anyway. I find it difficult to think long about a world where I don’t exist. What is it about?”
‘Living’ is released in cinemas on November 4
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