Bill Nighy talks about his knack for playing earnest but funny in his latest role as a MI5 spy, writes Scott Kara.
You can just imagine actor Bill Nighy pacing up and down, wearing the carpet out at his house as he rehearses his lines over and over to himself.
His famously taut, yet somehow funny face, constricting ever so slightly as he recites his latest script which, says the 62-year-old on the phone from London, would ideally be made up of "both serious and funny stuff".
"I like things to be amusing. And I do genuinely think that everything, well, not everything, but nearly everything is potentially, if not funny, then ironic or amusing and that's what I am interested in."
He is the master of these sorts of parts, be it as newspaper editor Cameron Foster in excellent six-part series State of Play or ageing rock 'n' roller Billy Mack in Love Actually to more recent roles as Douglas in this year's hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and as MI5 agent Johnny Worricker in BBC's moody and politically charged spy thriller Page Eight, which screens here soon.
He has no idea where this acting style, that can be off-hand and funny at the same time as it is authoritative and cutting, came from.
"You pick up things over the years," he says, sounding exactly like he does on screen - a little bit posh, slightly flippant, and also with a low-key lilt to his voice.
"But the idea is to try and make it sound as if it has just occurred to you, and it's the first time you have ever said these words. And for me that takes a lot of rehearsal on my own saying the lines to give you the impression that I've never said them before. That's my job," he says.
Of course Nighy also has another side to his acting with his big bread and butter roles in blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean (as Davy Jones) and as Vampire Elder Viktor in the Underworld films. He filmed the third instalment of the latter, Rise of the Lycans, in New Zealand in 2009 and loved it here.
"It's a great relief to go to New Zealand because if you live in London where you can hardly move for people and then you go to New Zealand and people are just beautifully sparse and thin on the ground."
But it's roles like long-serving spy and ladies' man Worricker in Page Eight that he relishes most.
"It is one that's dear to my heart. If you want to know what I like, Page Eight is it."
The story revolves around Worricker's predicament about what to do with highly sensitive information his boss, and oldest friend, Baron (played brilliantly by veteran actor Michael Gambon, best known recently as Dumbledore in Harry Potter) has uncovered in a top secret report. The juicy, yet sinister stuff Worricker reads on page eight of this report implies that the prime minister has concealed information that could have saved British lives.
The play-like drama and atmosphere of Page Eight appeals to Nighy's formative acting years in theatre. But it is also written and directed by renowned British writer and director David Hare, whose most recent film work since Page Eight was 2008's The Reader.
Hare has been a big influence on Nighy throughout his career giving him his first big roles in theatre in the 80s.
"He has been probably the biggest single influence both in terms of my career, and personally he has been a vast part of my education in terms of my political education, not that I'm particularly political, well I am political, because everyone is political whether they say they are or not, because you can't not be: breathe and you are political.
"And from an aesthetic point of view I love his directing, and I love the way he expresses things, it has the familiarity of great writing. It's like a lot of great art, you experience it with familiarity. When you look at a great painting it's like you knew that painting was somewhere in your mind.
"And with David's work it's like: 'If you'd have given me some time I would have got round to saying it like that too'."
And Hare writes great jokes which Nighy says he has had the pleasure of delivering on many occasions.
There is a classic Hare-Nighy scene in Page Eight where Worricker is in the lift at MI5 head quarters with Baron. The pair are surrounded by people and Baron, doing a bit of deadpan stirring, asks Worricker, "What are you thinking Johnny? What have you been thinking?"
Johnny looks across at his mate with a look of disbelief and disdain before the lift opens and they wander off and proceed with a delightful bit of banter.
Worricker: "Why did you ask me what I was thinking? Someone who is responsible, and someone who is meant to be my boss."
Baron: "I thought it was funny."
Worricker: Well it isn't funny. Not in a f****** lift."
Baron: "Anger management Johnny. I can send you on a course if you like."
"Page Eight," says Nighy, "is my ideal situation. I've watched David Hare all my life and I admire him as much as I admire anyone in the world. He's a very cool guy and he's funny and relaxed. I think he's one of the greatest writers, and one of my favourite writers, and a great director."
Though the role was initially not written with Nighy in mind, apparently Hare soon came to realise who he was writing it for.
"I think he phoned me when he was on page 20 of the script," remembers Nighy. "He said, 'I'm writing a screenplay and I'm stuck, but I just wanted you to know that if I do finish it the part is for you. But I probably won't ever finish it'. I said, 'For Christ's sake finish it'."
Worricker initially comes across as an old school but cool spy who loves art, jazz, and the ladies. Or, as Nighy puts it: "He has never recovered from the whole phenomenon of women. To say Johnny is a romantic doesn't quite cover it."
Almost every women in the film falls doe-eyed in love with him, including actress Rachel Weisz who plays his neighbour, political activist Nancy Pierpan.
But Worricker also shows his loathsome, cold side following a scene where he tells his daughter her artwork is depressing and sad. Yet Nighy still manages to keep you on Worricker's side, mostly because of his dry sense of humour and as a spy he is dedicated and clever.
"Johnny's part in the movie, along with Michael Gambon, is to show how difficult it is to remain intact in the world as you get older. And to remain honourable and stick to your values is tough too, and he's done it in a world where it's not even desirable because people don't want you to stay honourable."
But Worricker, much like you'd imagine Nighy might do, remains honourable - and funny - to the bitter end.
Who: Bill Nighy
What: Page Eight, UKTV, June 9, 8.30pm
Key roles: State of Play (2003), Love Actually (2003), Underworld (2003), Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006); The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)
Check out a teaser of Page Eight here:
- TimeOutBy Scott Kara @scottkara Email Scott