[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/7649?ns=guardian&pageName=Bill+Nighy%3A+%27I+am+not+suddenly+the+greatest+actor+in+the+world%27%3AArticle%3A1307014&ch=Film&c3=Guardian&c4=Drama+%28Film+genre%29%2CDrama+%28TV+genre%29%2CTelevision+and+radio%2CFilm%2CTheatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section%2CCelebrity%2CLife+and+style&c6=Patrick+Barkham&c7=09-Nov-19&c8=1307014&c9=Article&c10=Interview%2CFeature&c11=Film&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FFilm%2FDrama[/img]The star of Stephen Poliakoff's forthcoming Glorious 39 on his neuroses, playing educated toffs and why he digs David Hare
"A machiavellian dandy . . . Pure coldheartedness . . . Fabulously insincere." As I read out reviews of an old Bill Nighy performance, the actor grimaces and drums his knuckles on the table. "If ever a face was made for villainy, it's Bill Nighy's," I continue. "Wow," he murmurs. "Nighy's decadently long jaw and narrow, sneaky eyes serve him well . . ." He snorts, amused. "Sneaky eyes! Long decadent jaw! My God. I didn't know I had a decadent jaw."
Perhaps it is how Glorious 39 unfolds around him that makes you never quite trust Nighy as Alexander Keyes, a devoted father and aristocratic Conservative MP in Stephen Poliakoff's sumptuous new thriller about appeasement, set on the eve of the second world war. But perhaps Nighy has a singular talent for projecting unreliability into charming characters. His breakthrough role in The Men's Room in the early 1990s was an adulterous professor, which first attracted his "thinking woman's crumpet" tag. One of his most celebrated theatrical parts was an unreliable academic in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. He has played an unfaithful PR guru in Gideon's Daughter, the calamari-faced Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the undead (vampires; a zombie in Shaun of the Dead) on several occasions. And he was impeccably mannered but ruthless as British diplomat Sir Bernard Pellegrin in The Constant Gardener, for which he earned those reviews hailing his decadent jaw.
He is treasured and instantly recognisable, most particularly since playing ageing rocker Billy Mack in Richard Curtis's Love Actually in 2003, but what is it we don't trust about Nighy? How does he exude such elegant deviousness? "If you are supposed to be villainous and have some sort of agenda I like the idea of delivering that kind of character in a perfectly well-mannered way." He sounds doubtful. "It'll be something I haven't thought of that recommends me for those kind of roles, like my decadent jaw, which I was unaware of. Until you pointed it out. And my sneaky fookin' eyes." He laughs.
Nighy's career steadily expanded from regional theatre in his 20s to national theatre in his 30s, television drama in his 40s and international films – Notes on a Scandal, Valkyrie, The Boat That Rocked – in his 50s. In that time he has wrestled with alcoholism. He stopped drinking aged 42 and once called his "unhealthy relationship with mood-altering chemicals, liquids and otherwise" the "central fact" of his life. But he does not talk about this, or his separation last year from his partner of 27 years, actor Diana Quick. Their daughter, Mary, is also an actor, but he rarely mentions her either.
Instead, he entertains and distracts with stories of his passion for everything from Bob Dylan to Crystal Palace, the British weather and texting. He happily chats about his eccentricities but is not sure about his talent for insincerity, partly because he never watches himself in his films. Despite his enthusiasm for Poliakoff, who wrote the part especially for Nighy, he has not seen Glorious 39, a nightmarish little jewel that glitters with Bafta potential. "I try to never watch. It takes me so long to get over it and I'm always so downcast. I find it really distressing," he says. "Maybe when I'm very old, I'll sit down and watch my earlier work. But it will just depress the hell out of me. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. It's not like I'm some weirdo. You just see how far short it falls from where you might have imagined you were heading. I have a perfectly average skewed perception of myself. We often don't know what we're like. I hope that's the case because otherwise I'll kill myself." He chuckles.
Apart from his decadent jaw, Nighy's most distinctive quality is his voice: sonorous, soft and slightly nasal. He does not enjoy hearing himself, any more than watching himself, but his classless accent is a flexible tool. His mother was a nurse and Nighy grew up in Caterham, Surrey, living above the garage where his father worked. Nighy left school with two O-Levels, ran away to France, twice, the first aged 15, with the romantic and deluded notion of becoming Ernest Hemingway, before a girlfriend persuaded him to apply to Guildford School of Dance and Drama (Prance and Murmur, he called it; he has learned to murmur very well).
"My father had what my mother called improved speech. And I went to grammar school so I probably did adjust my vowel sounds but I haven't reinvented my voice. It amuses me that I play educated people when I didn't have any further education. It's satisfying in the same way as if you play a toff," he spits out the word with relish.
A pot of tea arrives. "Beautiful," he whispers, politely. Nighy gets his manners, and impeccable tailoring, from his father. "My dad had a personal style which was very attractive. It was quite reserved and quite elegant and it was infectious." His father modelled himself on Bing Crosby. "He liked a good sports jacket and a good pair of trousers, with one hand in his pocket and a cigarette in the other. He couldn't understand why anybody would use bad language in front of a woman or a child. He would get up if a woman came in the room. I find myself doing that sometimes and I sit back down again because they are just going to think I'm weird. It is kind of over. Like offering someone your seat on the tube. You can't do it any more. It's just seen as condescending and stupid. Which I understand."
Nighy does not think his manners are exceptional. But he agrees they may help convey insincerity. "In life, if you have an enthusiasm for what they call good manners, sometimes people don't quite believe you. I've had that once or twice before, where they assume you can't be for real. That's useful, particularly for [playing] posh people with sneaky agendas."
I forget to use the strainer and pour Nighy a terrible cup of tea. He protests it is fine. I read he gave up coffee. "I am now back in caffeine management. Somebody said some complete bit of tosh about how it was good for your heart. So I am well back on it," he says with delight. But he advises young actors to stay clear. "One of things I found myself saying was that coffee is the enemy of acting, which is advice I obviously don't take myself. But it is. It slightly removes you from yourself, which is not a good look."
When he is not away filming, he drinks coffee in cafes and strolls around London listening to his iPod (currently playing Love Unlimited by Fun Lovin' Criminals "with the beautiful refrain 'Barry White/Saved my life/Got me back with my ex-wife', which I love"). People say hello all the time. I suggest he puts on a beanie to disguise himself. He sniggers.
"I'm not wearing a beanie. I'm too old for a beanie. I don't know what the cut-off age is for a beanie but it's a long time ago as far as I'm concerned."
A baseball cap?
"No. I'd have to kill myself. There's no need. Because everything is fine. The degree of notoriety I have is fine and easy. There's nothing hysterical about it." If he gets too much attention, he can always hop in a taxi. "I've got a lethal attraction for black cabs," he purrs. "I see an orange light and my arm just goes up."
Nighy does not own a car and I heard he does not own a house these days. Does he rent? Silence. It is like I've opened a door and sent an icy draught over the fun we've been having. I was just intrigued by this idea of you having no possessions, I say. "I don't like owning things. When I was young and in different towns with the theatre I used to walk out of the digs and leave whatever was there. I got a real weirdo buzz from walking out of the door without anything. Just to make you feel very . . ."
Free? "Cool," he finishes. "Well, free and cool. It is worth jettisoning things just for the kick of being empty-handed." And does he own a house now? "I do have my own place, yep," he says, tersely.
All his roaming the streets, listening to his music, makes him seem a loner. "I don't think of myself as a loner. It's true that I walk about on my own. I'm nearly always away from home, so I'm accustomed to going into restaurants with a book. I don't think I'm a loner but then loners don't know, do they?"
Nighy turns 60 next month ("I'm going to even forget you said that") and jokes he will no longer do plays without gags and avoids Shakespeare because it requires baggy pantaloons. "The absence of classical work in my repertoire is due to the fact I can't wear those trousers," he says. "It makes me sound very shallow but I've done some really serious plays in a decent lounge suit."
Although Nighy is almost as reluctant to expose his politics as his personal life ("I have," he pauses as if revealing a dirty secret, "impulses, the same as everybody else") he has undertaken politically infused plays, particularly for David Hare. Nighy has taken roles in Pravda, A Map of the World, Skylight and says starring in the Broadway production of The Vertical Hour, Hare's play about Iraq, was one moment he "wouldn't swap for anything else". Hare is "one of those people like Bob Dylan, I never want him to die. I was thinking the other day, I hope he doesn't die or anything. Because there's gonna be this horrible David Hare-shaped hole in the world like there will be with Bob Dylan. I really dig him, profoundly."
From his track record, though, I would assume Nighy was a disillusioned Labour voter. He lowers his voice. "I vote Labour, obviously. Well, look around you, where else are you going to go?" He raps his knuckles anxiously on the table.
So is his late flowering in international films a reward for all his hard work? Nighy flinches. "I don't believe in equations of that kind. I am not suddenly the greatest actor in the world. I've just been extremely fortunate. And I'm not being coy or modest. More people saw me in Love Actually than had seen me in everything else I had ever done up to that point." That included America, so in casting terms he became "useful" to Hollywood. "That single thing accounts for what they call a late flowering."
Glorious 39 is the second time that Romola Garai has played his on-screen daughter - the first being I Capture The Castle - and the second time "the great Juno Temple", as he calls her, has been his daughter too. What about Mary Nighy? Would he like his real daughter to play an on-screen daughter? "I don't think so, no. I don't think she'd fancy it." His fluency slips from the room like that cold draught again. Would you ever work with her? "I'd love to work with Mary. Maybe one day we will."
After humble digressions – his on-screen marriage to Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal was "an unlikely union that could only happen in the movies"; he doesn't think he could write his autobiography. "It would take me 10 years. It would kill me. Every fucking sentence" - Nighy returns to the discomfort of watching his work. He does not read reviews or interviews either. He doesn't even moan about being misquoted; he blames himself for saying things he regrets. Is it curious to have this degree of self-consciousness at his age? "I don't think so. It's a perfectly normal response to looking at yourself. And then you get older and you [see yourself and] think, 'Jesus, God, he's old, who's that?'" he says. Occasionally, fabulous, fleeting moments arrive when he forgets himself. "In the theatre, there are always a couple of shows where you just forget. Somehow you turn off that part of your mind which is out to get you, the bit that undermines you, the self-conscious bit, and everything happens by magic, everything flows, everything's good, every single action you perform, every word you speak, every time you react to something, it all seems to fly. That's the holy grail."
Glorious 39 is released in London on 20 November and nationwide on 27 November
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Guardian: Bill Nighy: 'I am not suddenly the greatest actor in the world'
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