Bill Nighy Stops the Clock

Published November 6, 2013

ABOVE: BILL NIGHY IN ABOUT TIME. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL.

Ten years ago, Bill Nighy played Billy Mack, a reluctantly aging, completely inappropriate, and utterly entertaining rock star in Richard Curtis’ holiday mush-fest Love Actually. His performance endeared him to the public and put him in a category of established, decidedly British talent that includes Judi Dench and Emma Thompson. He hasn’t had to audition since. This week, his third collaboration with Curtis, About Time, comes out in the U.S. Simply known as “Dad,” Nighy’s character is the ideal father figure: compassionate, witty, and erudite. Both Dad and his son Tim (Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson) are able to travel back in time, but only within their lifespan. Next year, Nighy will appear in I, Frankenstein with Aaron Eckhart, and David Hare’s Turks & Caicos. He is currently filming Pride in London.

EMMA BROWN: When did you first become aware of Richard Curtis? I know you’ve worked with him a bunch of times.

BILL NIGHY: I first became aware of him, I guess, was when he wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral. I had never met him and I didn’t see the movie for a long time. Not for any particular reason. I’m not very good at seeing movies. He told a story today which I’d never heard before,  but the part I played in Love Actually, he was going to give it to one of two very famous people. They weren’t actors, so I assume they were rock stars. He needed a read-through to hear the script while he was trying to decide which of these two rock stars to give the part to, and the casting woman, Mary Selway, a wonderful woman who was always trying to get me in the movies, said, “Well, get Bill Nighy to do the read-through. He hasn’t got the job—he definitely hasn’t got the job, because obviously it’s going to be one of these two rock stars.” Then I did the read-through and he was impressed with the read-through and he gave me the job. But I didn’t know that story until today. Which is quite odd. But that was when I first met him.

BROWN: Did you think that you were auditioning?

NIGHY: No, they always say it’s not an audition. It’s just, “Could you just help out, we want to hear the script out loud.” It’s a sort of new thing, well not new, but in recent years. You tell yourself that you’re not auditioning but of course you work like crazy, and you prepare like mad. And you think, “Well, I won’t get that job. But maybe they’ll have another job sometime, and they’ll remember that I was good.” So it’s almost the same thing. You’re just as nervous as though you were auditioning. That’s the job that made it unnecessary for me to audition anymore.

BROWN: Oh, really?

NIGHY:  If you ask any actor “What single thing would make you really, really happy?” Among the top five things they’d say is not having to audition anymore.

BROWN: What did you do to prepare for the read-through?

NIGHY:  I just studied it. I tried to work on delivery, voice. I tried to work out where the laughs were, and when to pause, because I hadn’t done a lot of comedy at that point. I did one called Still Crazy (1998) in which I played another old, sad rocker, which also had jokes in it. Mostly it seems to be to do with knowing when to pause—then the audience thinks, “Oh, time to laugh.”

BROWN: Do you remember your worst audition?

NIGHY: Oh, God. I was useless at auditioning. I was not good at it. Occasionally, I’d have a reasonable one, but mostly they were all disastrous. I mean everyone gets used to the fact—if you’re lucky, if you have a decent agent—you audition maybe 50 times a year, and you get four of them. So the other 46 are all rejections. There’s a great director called John Boorman, who made a film called Excalibur, about King Arthur and the Round Table, and I was auditioning—don’t laugh—for Lancelot. So embarrassing. Very early in the morning, like nine o’clock in the morning, I had to stand in his living room and I had to pretend to bounce up and down like I was on horseback, and I had to have a conversation with another man who was also on a horse, and we bounced up and down. I think we had to sword fight as well, with no swords, obviously. That was pretty exposing.

BROWN: Your character in About Time has elements of Richard Curtis’ dad. Was that strange?

NIGHY: I wasn’t entirely aware of the fact that I was Richard’s dad, but I was daunted by the fact that I was supposed to be kind of everybody’s dad, or Super Dad. I was excited by the prospect of playing a nice man, a good man, a decent man, no bells on, as naturally as I could. Not having to be eccentric, or put any kind of spin on it, or make a name for myself. I just wanted to be somebody’s dad. So I tried to do it as normally as possible. But I was aware of the responsibility and I knew about Richard’s dad. It doesn’t get much more personal than that. And I was very keen to do it justice.

BROWN: I found the speech Dad gives at Tim’s wedding very moving. Have you ever had to give a speech at a wedding?

NIGHY: Yeah. My friend got married and I was his best man. It was horrible, because I couldn’t sit down to write the speech; I’m very good at putting things off. It got to be a couple days before. I could do the serious bit, but I needed a couple of jokes, because you got to have some jokes otherwise people never forgive you. I actually texted Richard Curtis—he was on holiday in Bali—and he said, “Tell me something about the groom.” I said, “When he was 14, he left home to become a roadie for a heavy metal band called Saxon.” And he said, “Okay.” The  next day he sent me a speech on my phone. He’d looked at the discography of Saxon and he’d got all the song titles—they’re all kind of wacky song titles—and he put jokes against every one, including the final one, which is the only one I remember. He said something like, “And who can forget their seminal album, Release the Beast, but we’ll have to ask the bride about that in the morning.” Which was a very bad… but it brought the house down. I actually said, “These jokes are from Richard Curtis in Bali.”

BROWN: Did your friend recognize all of the song titles?

NIGHY: Yeah! He’s probably one of the only people in the whole world who knows any of the titles of Saxon.

BROWN: Do you remember your first paid acting job?

NIGHY: Yeah. I remember my first paid acting job was at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, in Berkshire. I had six lines in a Tennessee Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. I played a bodyguard, that was a laugh. They put me in a singlet, like a vest, which is never a good idea because I’m not that kind of guy. And they gave me a baton—a nightstick. I had six lines in Southern American and I remember wandering on the first night past the box office and I saw the tickets cost two pounds fifty, and I was immediately thrown, because  I thought “God, these people are paying big money. Any money, to watch me act.” It really kind of got my attention. It was a very nice job, once I got started.

BROWN: Have you ever had to wear a doublet?

NIGHY: Shakespearean trousers? Yeah, this is awful. I did play, one time I played Luciano in The Taming of the Shrew. I was very poor in it, and they put me in tights. And it’s never, ever, ever going to happen again. Often in America people would assume that [as an English actor] you’ve had some sort of deep, classical training, or that you’re a Shakespeare enthusiast. I have zero interest in me performing Shakespeare. I gave it up formally in my bathroom 20 years ago. Nobody gave any notice obviously, but to me it was quite important. It meant that I didn’t have to think about it anymore. I used to joke that one of the reasons there was a lack of classical work on my CV was because I couldn’t operate in those kinds of trousers. Which is a joke, but it’s actually also true—if I want to appear in public I want to look my best. If I’m onstage I like to do contemporary work, largely because of the trousers, because of the clothes. I like a decent, what we used to call a lounge suit.  Then I can start to motor.

BROWN: How many Shakespeare plays did you make it through before you gave up?

NIGHY: Two. I played Luciano in The Taming of the Shrew, and I was Edgar in the National Theatre production of King Lear, in which Anthony Hopkins played King Lear.

BROWN: Oh, that’s pretty good.

NIGHY: So if you’re going to do one of two shows, that’s not bad. David Hare directed. I was offered lots over the years, but I declined. Then I actually rang my agent and said “I never, ever, want to be considered for any classical work, ever again.” Because I really have no interest in delivering the iambic pentameter, I just want to kill myself. I don’t mind other people doing it. I say that, but really I don’t want to watch other people doing it. I get embarrassed. There are a few geniuses who can really pull if off. Mark Rylance, he can do it. I watched him do it and laughed so much, it was so funny. But I can’t.

BROWN: And you’re about to work with David Hare again?

NIGHY: I have just finished a trilogy of films with David Hare, which he wrote and directed. I got to work on the second one with one of my American acting heroes, Christopher Walken, who’s probably the funniest man I’ve ever come across in my life. It’s like being hit in the stomach. It’s so funny. He was so cool. And Winona Ryder, who is completely marvelous. She came. And Helena Bonham Carter, and Ralph Fiennes, who is the Prime Minister. And Rachel Weisz was in the first one. It’s a fabulous cast. Rupert Graves. Hopefully they’ll be on American television at some point. One of them’s called Page Eight, another of them is called Turks & Caicos. And the third one is called Salting the Battlefield. Collectively they’re called the Worricker Triology. I’m very happy. David Hare is the other person I work with a lot, and I’m a lucky guy. David Hare, Richard Curtis is a pretty cool situation to be in. I’ve worked with David all my life, and he’s a great director as well.

BROWN: Christopher Walken was so wonderful in that Fatboy Slim video.

NIGHY: Yeah. That’s fabulous. What a brilliant idea. He’s a proper dancer. You’ve seen Pennies From Heaven?

BROWN: No, I haven’t.

NIGHY: Well, when this is over, when you have a quiet moment, just Google Pennies From Heaven and watch it all the way through.

BROWN: Could you be persuaded to dance in a video?

NIGHY: Yes. I would dance in anyone’s video, frankly. Well, there are certain things you can dance to, some things you cannot. As long as it suited me, I’d be very happy to dance, actually.

BROWN: Is there a song that will always get you on the dance floor?

NIGHY: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” by James Brown and His Famous Flames. I’m crazy about James Brown. I’m crazy about soul music. And then the blues. Rhythm and blues. But “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is one of his tunes that is absolutely irresistible. “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by The Temptations, would probably do it for me. “Roadrunner,” by Jr. Walker, is great. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the Stones, is a pretty good dance number. My brother gave me, two days ago, an album I’d overlooked, and it was Dylanesque by Bryan Ferry, and the first track is a version of one of my favorite Dylan songs, which is called “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” He’s kind of rocked it up, a touch. I have yet to dance to it, but it makes you want to jump up and just hit the floor. I’d like to dance to that, that’s a very cool thing.

ABOUT TIME COMES OUT IN WIDE RELEASE THIS FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 8.