Bill Nighy, Master of Misdirection

Though his turn in the drama “Living” is the subject of Oscar chatter, just try getting him to talk about his art. He prefers self-deprecation instead.

Send any friend a story

As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.


By Sarah Lyall

The British actor Bill Nighy was trying to describe how he prepared for his character in the new drama “Living.” He plays Mr. Williams, a buttoned-up, almost catatonically reticent bureaucrat in post-World War II London who, upon learning that he is dying, decides finally to live.

“Anything I say from now on, please treat it with a degree of suspicion or take it with a pinch of salt,” Nighy said. He was speaking from a car en route from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, where he was to receive the International Star Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. He was listening to Aretha Franklin’s “That’s the Way I Feel About ’Cha,” from his playlist.

“I never know how to talk about it,” he went on, speaking of his profession. “When people talk about the mechanics of acting, I’m wary of it. Not because it’s anything fancy or mysterious or complicated or ethereal. It’s all practical stuff. Acting is. …” Here he trailed off. You could hear the humor in his voice, even from 3,000 miles away. “I started a sentence with ‘acting is,’ and that’s a bad sign,” he said.

Nighy, who is 73 and who has appeared in more than 70 movies, is a kind of stealth weapon as an actor, in that his performances are exquisitely calibrated and always memorable, though rarely showy. Whether playing a raddled has-been pop star stooping to record a Christmas song in “Love Actually”; or the title character’s baroquely hypochondriacal father in the 2020 version of “Emma”; or an aging spy in the BBC movie “Page Eight”; or a widower visiting his much younger ex-lover, played by Carey Mulligan, in the West End and Broadway revival of David Hare’s “Skylight”; or even (in a small but vivid part) an art historian speaking lyrically about Vincent Van Gogh in an episode of “Dr. Who,” Nighy fully inhabits his characters while remaining very much himself.

He is a beloved figure to audiences, to Londoners who often see him out and about in the city — one of his favorite things is sitting alone in cafes and reading a book — and judging by the gushing responses when his name is mentioned, to virtually everyone he has ever worked with.

“He’s unfailingly gracious and kind,” said the director Richard Curtis, who cast Nighy in “Love Actually” and has worked with him frequently since. “One of the luckiest moments in life is when you find a really fine classic actor who’s got all that emotional depth and acting skills and who’s also very funny.”

“Living” was written specifically with Nighy in mind. It’s a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” about a paper-pushing bureaucrat in postwar Japan roused out of his paralyzing inertia in the final months of his life. The novelist and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, whose family moved to England from Nagasaki when he was a boy, had long loved the film and recognized the parallels between postwar Japan and postwar Britain — each struggling to rebuild after the devastations of the war, each full of people straitjacketed by cultural repression and societal expectations — and the potential for a remake of the film, to be set in 1950s London.

One night in London, Ishiguro and his wife, Lorna MacDougall, were having dinner with the producer Stephen Woolley and Woolley’s wife, Elizabeth Karlsen. Nighy arrived late. But it was then that Ishiguro mentioned the idea of a remake — and said it would be a perfect film for Nighy.

The Projectionist Chronicles a New Awards Season

The Oscars aren’t until March, but the campaigns have begun. Kyle Buchanan is covering the films, personalities and events along the way.

“It’s quite easy for actors to perform these stereotypes of the English gent,” Ishiguro said in an interview. “But to play that English person and add to it something profoundly, hauntingly human that isn’t just English, but universal — that’s something quite special. That’s why I thought it had to be Bill Nighy. I couldn’t think of anybody else.”

Woolley agreed and cajoled Ishiguro into writing the script, even though the author was in the middle of writing “Klara and the Sun” and said he was bad at screenplays and loath to take on anything else. Ishiguro named the main character Mr. Williams as an homage to Nighy’s first name.

The dialogue — at least in the beginning, before Mr. Williams has a quiet but seismic epiphany about how he should live out his now dramatically shortened life — is spare and stark, full of scenes in which people struggle and fail to express themselves. (Nighy’s character receives his terminal cancer diagnosis from a doctor who notes how awkward the conversation is. “Quite,” Nighy says, all but blending in with the furniture.)

“Bill has the innate understanding of minimalism when it comes to the cinema,” Woolley said. He contrasted the actor’s approach with the more operatic, emotive performance of Takashi Shimura, the star of “Ikiru.” Nighy “has an amazing way of communicating by doing very little, just a small gesture or a smile. He can absolutely floor you with a raised eyebrow.”

Woolley added, “He’s just a fantastic actor and a wonderful human being, and you rarely find that in the same person.”

But to try to get Nighy to talk about his approach, or his success, or even his career is to run into a charming wall of beguiling misdirection and obfuscatory self-deprecation. Noting that he has been doing many interviews lately, he said: “I’ll try to think of things I haven’t said before.”

Why did Ishiguro — whom Nighy refers to as Mr. Ishiguro, despite, he said, being invited to call him by his nickname, Ish — want him for the film?

“There’s that kind of depressed, repressed rigorous constraint that we insist on living under,” Nighy said, of traditional Englishmen. “Having met me, Mr. Ishiguro suddenly thought that I might be the link. I don’t know why. I don’t read anything about myself and I don’t get around much anymore, but I’m aware that I am seen to be a certain kind of Englishman. It must be the result of certain parts I’ve played, I suppose.”

But he was thrilled, he said. “I thought this is like Christmas, you know, that someone as distinguished and eminent and brilliant as Mr. Ishiguro should consider me that way.”

Nighy did not set out to be an actor. Born in Caterham, Surrey, he grew up next to the gas station and car repair shop his father ran. When his early, amorphous plan to be a journalist fizzled, he enrolled in the Guildford School of Acting.

“I went to drama school because someone suggested I go to drama school, and the idea of being a student was very attractive,” he said. “I thought I’d do it for a while. I didn’t have any real serious thoughts about acting.” Nonetheless, he said, “I got a gig and I got another one, and I kept going.”

At first, he made so little money that he was exempt from income tax. He supplemented his earnings with other jobs. “I drove a mini cab for a while,” he said. “That was a really bad idea. I used to pump gas, for obvious reasons. What else did I do? I was a dustman — a refuse collector. I worked in a plastics factory. I sold full-length wraparound cheesecloth skirts at the Surrey Street Market in Croydon.”

Unlike most classically trained British actors, he’s not a fan of Shakespeare, at least not for himself.

“I’m aware that he’s the greatest poet that ever lived, but the performing of it I leave to other people,” he said. “I don’t have any interest in the challenges of the iambic pentameter.” Once, he said, he played Edgar in a production of “King Lear,” directed by Hare and starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role. “I used to leap out of the hovel semi-naked every night, shouting impenetrable Shakespearean mad talk,” he said.

He appeared in numerous films through the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2003, when Richard Curtis hired him to play Billy Mack, the scene-stealing has-been pop star in “Love Actually,” that he had his breakthrough.

“The movie was about three-quarters cast, and we did a big read-through,” Curtis recalled. “I asked the casting director to find me someone who there was no chance I would give the role to. I had seen Nighy onstage and thought he was wily and genteel and left-wing and completely wrong for the part.” But five minutes into the read-through, he cast Nighy on the spot, and has put him in nearly everything he’s done since.

Not that Nighy has seen any of those movies, or indeed any movie in which he appears.

“Well, would you fancy sitting down and watching yourself for a couple of hours?” he asked. “I tried it when I was younger and less complicated to look at, and there’s nothing in it for me. I’m not the audience for my work. If I watch it, the whole thing is stolen from me.”

In his spare time, he prefers to read, he said, and to go for long walks around London, dropping in on his favorite bookshops. If he has to go anywhere else, he takes a taxi or the subway to the train station. (“I don’t own a car, because it’s pointless,” he said. “And I’m not a natural motorist. I have a hard time paying attention.”)

His personal life since he separated from his longtime partner, the actress Diana Quick, is a bit of a mystery. Tall, slender and often dressed in beautifully tailored suits, he exudes a kind of old-fashioned, urbane elegance. Alas for his single fans, he is intermittently spotted at dinners and events with Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor, who hosted a screening of “Living,” in New York last month.

He prefers not to discuss their relationship, if that is what it is. When asked, he has a stock response, most recently deployed in The Daily Telegraph. “I’d love to answer that,” he said. “But if I did, I’d be involving the readers in something very close to gossip, and I know they’d never forgive me for that.”

Has Nighy taken to heart the message suggested in the film, that you should live each day as if it is your last?

“A lot of the way you think about your age and mortality is either mythical or marketing,” he said. “Somehow you’re persuaded to think that certain things are outside of your age, or that you should be drawn to things because of your age. But I don’t want to fall into any of those traps where I’m supposed to expect this or that. I’m a lucky guy. I just want to keep it lively.”

Site Information Navigation

Source: Read Full Article