He stars in a sweet Brit flick about love, loss and Scrabble, but getting the actor to big himself up in the role? 'No is the answer,' he tells Louis Wise of The Times.
Bill Nighy gets mistaken for all sorts of people. "Adam Faith, Dennis Waterman, Alan Howard, Gary Oldman several times," the 69-year-old actor says in his typically lugubrious way. The person he is mistaken for the most, though, is the designer Paul Smith, which is appropriate considering Nighy's sense of style. With his trademark glasses, natty suit and daunting, angular thinness, he gives off the air of a well-bred Schiele sketch.
"I've been congratulated on Paul Smith's career a dozen times," Nighy admits as we sit in the American Bar at the Stafford hotel, London — which, like most things Nighy, is chic, reserved and well worn in. Once this happened in a Paul Smith shop; once in a taxi. Another time, two men ganged up on him outside a cafe and decreed in unison that he was Sir Paul.
The question isn't anecdotal: many people seem confused as to who Nighy is, not least himself. Or, rather, he doesn't care. It feels particularly paradoxical when you consider just how "Bill Nighy" he is: the flavour is so distinct. Whether he's in hit films like Love Actually or Pirates of the Caribbean, big telly shows such as The Men's Room, State of Play or Page Eight, or top-end theatre — Stoppard's Arcadia, Pinter's Betrayal, Hare's Skylight (twice) — you know you are always getting Nighy in all his deadpan, wry, saturnine glory.
But that core thing, he insists, is a mystery. "I don't know how you arrange to be self-aware," he says. "I don't know how that's done. People say, 'Who I am...' How would that information ever be made available to you?"
This is a typical exchange over our hour together, over delicious coffee in the bar, where Nighy naturally knows the maître d's name. He lives not far away, alone — he separated from the actress Diana Quick, the mother of his daughter, Mary, about a decade ago. Aloneness doesn't bother him. "I'm working on less contact, really, rather than more, and I have been for years and years." Sometimes this kind of romantic hermitism is almost parodic, but he does at least seem aware of it.
He is pleased he has always done a range of work, but eventually, when pushed, will admit a preference. "I mean, there's a part of me that only wants to wear dark clothes, and talk, and sit in shadows and drink coffee, and speak gnomically, and maybe walk in the rain in a good coat and cry," he says, with something bordering on a smile. The coffee, you may have noticed, matters: he likes the finer things in life and selects them well, having given up drinking a few decades ago. Anyway, "It's not gonna happen."
We are here to discuss his latest film, Sometimes Always Never, an endearing British indie by the director Carl Hunter. Nighy plays a widower trying to reconnect with his son (Sam Riley), who has a teenage son of his own to connect with. All are Scrabble-mad. Nighy loves it but finds it hard to sell.
Why was he asked to do the film? "I don't know, you'd have to ask them." No inkling at all? "No inkling whatsoever. Really." How would he summarise the film? "I wouldn't try to summarise it. I'd just urge people to go and see it as something different and charming and funny, a great night out." He squirms at saying what it's "about". "It's got all kinds of elements. I'd prefer to let the film speak for itself, if that's OK."
A lot of Sometimes Always Never dwells on the past, on the evolution of boy to man, and it's set in Liverpool, which is where Nighy's acting career got going in the 1970s, at the Everyman Theatre. So I was very much hoping to draw him down memory lane — but it turns out I'll have to drag him. He claims to remember very little. What we do establish is that Nighy, born in Surrey, got into acting relatively late after various teen escapades, including running away from home a few times (he dreamt of the Persian Gulf — he gave up at Marseilles), then pondering the idea of becoming a writer, but only getting as far as being the messenger for a magazine covering hunting, shooting and fishing.
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In short, he covered the disappointment thing early. He is not particularly forgiving of his young self. "I was a mess," he decrees. "An average mess. And I had no gift for thinking what I might want, or what you might want to do with the whole of your life. I just improvised, like a lot of people."
He does speak fondly of the Liverpool days, of Jonathan Pryce, who gave him a job there, of Julie Walters, Pete Postlethwaite and Willy Russell. It's soon clear, though, that he places them in a different bracket from him, both then and now. He says he wandered into the gig after a moment selling women's clothing at the Surrey Street market, in Croydon. ("It was the cheesecloth summer.") When did he become a good actor? As usual, he doesn't know, but he does say that much of his early work life was spent being "paralysed by chronic self-consciousness", which he eventually managed to shake himself out of, a bit.
"I remember a director coming up to me in a rehearsal room and going, in front of the whole company, 'You have a decision to make.' I said, 'Do I?' And he said, 'Yes. To decide whether you want to be an actor or not.' That was a normalish day. Where you blush from your ankles upwards." He promises this still goes on. "It wasn't that long ago I remember saying a line in the rehearsal room, and it sounded so terrible and so pathetic that I ran to the men's room." He wanted, he says, "to find out the extremity of my blush".
There is a sensitivity around Nighy; I wouldn't call it prickliness, more an all-over bruise that makes prying hard. He says that when young actors ask him for advice, he always replies: "'Don't take drugs and pay your taxes.' They laugh, and you say, 'Well, I know it's kind of funny, but it's a couple of things I passionately recommend.'"
You would assume the passion comes from experience, but before I can butt in, he is off on a further tangent. To be honest, I already knew the answer. It would have been like when I asked him if he was still dating. "No," he replied simply. No dating at all?
"No is the answer." A pause. "I could answer your question more fully, Louis, but if I answered it more fully, I would involve your readers in something very close to gossip, and I know they'd never forgive me for that."
Nighy will be 70 in December. Will he do anything for it? "No, I never do anything for my birthdays." Why not? "Why would I?" Well, because it's good to celebrate... "In what way?" he interrupts, not rudely but calmly. Well, because it's nice to get everybody... "Who would they be, Louis?" he interrupts again. Well, his daughter, for one.
"Oh yeah, I'll see my daughter, sure," he agrees. How about a small dinner with friends, just eight of you? "That's too many for me." Nighy eats mostly alone, reading, which he loves. He does it over breakfast and dinner. "It's one of my great pleasures." So, to be clear, on his 70th birthday, he'll just eat alone?
"I don't know," he sighs, sounding a tad more tired than usual. "Birthdays are totally insignificant." Then he launches into a soft tirade. "Celebrations are under a lamppost, late night, in the rain. Walking home, sitting by a window, spotting a shadow that breaks your heart, something that's mysterious and beautiful.
"I don't know," he says again. "Celebrating is breathing in deeply when the wind hits your face. Celebration is being alive and well."
Recently, someone sent him a list of 10 "how to live" recommendations. He agreed with them, but, of course, says he can't remember any of them. What he will say is that learning how to live is "a never-ending project. There's always a bit of finessing going on, and you want more and more peaceful weather in your mind." He pauses. "That sounds like a line from a very bad song."
It does. Trust him to shrink from anything that seems in poor taste. It's probably for reasons of taste that he doesn't dwell on all the bad weather he has encountered. He suddenly assures me, "I'm always up for anything", and, bless him, I find it particularly hard to believe. But then, more credibly, sweetly: "You know, a cup of coffee is a good celebration."
Sometimes Always Never is in NZ cinemas June 13.
Written by: Louis Wise
© The Times of London