‘It’s sort of bizarre’: Bill Nighy on his first Oscars circus at 73

By Stephanie Bunbury

Credit:New York Times

I don’t really believe I’m going to die,” says Bill Nighy. “I kind of know it’s going to happen, but not with the whole of my mind.” In his latest film Living, set in 1950s London, Nighy plays a middle-ranking public servant – bowler-hatted, softly spoken, rarely smiling, mocked behind his back by his underlings – who is shocked by a cancer diagnosis that gives him only a few months to live and wants suddenly to make up for decades of lost time. By contrast, the actor is 73 and seems yet to reach Peak Nighy. This new role has brought him his first Oscar nomination. He is on a roll.

Living, by South African director Oliver Hermanus, is an adaptation of the great Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, about a Japanese salaryman who realises life has slipped away from him. Like the original, Living is a small, quiet film. Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the screenplay, which is also Oscar-nominated, specifically for Nighy, whose official response to the nomination had the self-deprecating, mildly ironic tone his fans expect and love.

“Everyone associated with Living is honoured by the Academy’s nomination and grateful for the spotlight it throws upon the film,” he said. “We hope it will encourage people to see it. I was surrounded by assassins and this belongs to them all.”

Even before the nomination was confirmed, he had happily admitted to being excited being seen as a contender, even with the endless dinners, receptions and round-table interviews with one’s rivals that are part of any Oscar campaign. There is a thrill in that. “It is an odd situation, acting as a competitive sport,” he told Vanity Fair after an interview where he shared a table with Adam Sandler (who had been tipped as a possible contender for his performance in Hustle). “It’s sort of bizarre. But everybody knows the score.”

Clockwise from main: Bill Nighy in LA in January; with Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; in Love Actually; as Minister Rufus Scrimgeour in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; in Shaun of the Dead.Credit:

Nighy left school early, after the equivalent of Year 11, and worked as a messenger boy on the local paper before he found a place in a drama college. He worked at the National Theatre in London in his 20s and did some television comedy, but acting was never a “dead cert”, as he once put it.

His breakthrough film role came in 2003 with Love Actually, in which he played a washed-up rock star cornered into making a Christmas record. The film won him a BAFTA as best supporting actor; he was 54. “That film changed the way I go to work,” he said later. “It changed everything. I can never be grateful enough to [director] Richard Curtis.”

The following year, he made Shaun of the Dead; he subsequently had roles in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter franchises, along with a string of British dramedies including the ragingly successful Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. He could bring a comic edge to an otherwise syrupy romance; equally, his weathered face and mastery of silences would elevate a laddish comedy by adding a note of melancholy.

But the main thing, really, was that he would be Bill Nighy. These days, there is no underplaying his pulling power. Living is a film in which the main character spends the film dying: hardly blockbuster material. Even so, it has topped box offices across Britain.

Nighy’s character is head of the London County Hall’s public works department, one of a hive of small offices that seem to work largely at cross-purposes, burying every proposed project in protocol and paper for long enough to ensure it never happens. “There’s no harm,” he will murmur as he slides the latest bit of bothersome correspondence into one of the lower tiers on his in-tray. At home, he moves around like a ghost, avoiding getting in the way of his son and daughter-in-law. Widowed decades earlier, he still seems locked in patterns of grief.

Nighy’s performance has been hailed as his best. It is certainly his most recessive, giving him no opportunity to emote; his fear and regret has to be read in the twitch of an eye. When Williams speaks, it is with a formal turn of phrase barely one remove from a business letter. A lesser actor would sound forced; Nighy uses that stiffness to his advantage.

Bill Nighy received his first Oscar nomination for his performance in Living.

“I love the way Mr Ishiguro writes, in a very ordered and restrained way,” he says. “From the performing point of view, it was the same as having to be so physically restrained. To have to express quite a lot with not very much, while talking in a kind of code. But it became very powerful, hopefully, in terms of the acting, because of the tension between the two.”

He was a child in the 1950s, when the film is set – his formative years were the ’60s, with all that implies – but he remembers the atmosphere of the time. “I would have been one of the kids in the playground in those dreadful shorts,” he says. His character has something of his father, a garage mechanic whose impeccable sense of appropriate dress is something Nighy notably came to embrace himself once the ’60s were over.

“He would have had the same commitment to a kind of modesty of conduct. He would never make much noise, my dad; he was a very reserved man and he admired those things, he was a very principled man and would be appalled by the current state of affairs, I think. So many things would offend him.”

Even so, Nighy never thought of Williams as a relic of the past. “I didn’t want it to be a reprise of anything, or nostalgia for anything or even a homage of any kind,” he says. “When I’m doing a period film, I sometimes write in the script, ‘this is not a period film’. It’s semantics, but it helps me, because the film is happening now. I don’t want to have an idea of some other time long ago. I don’t want that to invade my head. In effect it’s contemporary.”

Bill Nighy and Aimee Lou Wood in Living.

Williams doesn’t have the courage to tell his son he is dying. He heads instead to the seaside town of Brighton, with the declared intention of “living a little” before he drops. He has no idea how to go about that.

“In those days, I suppose Brighton would have been a very risque place where you had what was euphemised to be ‘a good time’,” says Nighy. “Which basically meant drinking too much and maybe having some kind of – I don’t know – short, sharp, professional, cruel sex.” A local (Tom Burke) tries to show him the ropes.

“And then – guess what? – a few hours later, he has realised that in no way does this touch the sides,” says Nighy. “It is a discovery many, many millions of people have made all over the world, which is that the drugs don’t work.” Nighy is one of those people. He hasn’t been near a mind-altering substance since he was in his early 40s. Stopping drinking, he said many years later, was the most significant thing that ever happened to him. “I am very grateful that I no longer have to do any of that.”

A day spent with a young clerk (Aimee Lou Wood) who strikes him as “full of life” inspires Nighy’s character to pull out one of those overlooked projects, a desperately needed children’s playground in one of London’s poorest boroughs, and see it through.

“He realises that actually, to concern yourself with other people’s welfare to some degree is apparently part of the antidote to morbidity,” says Nighy. Sloshing through the effluent in a street of workers’ terraces, peering through the rain at a modest vision of swings, slide and roundabout, Williams feels happy at last.

And what of Nighy himself? Does he have ideas of projects he wants to get done? Roles? “I try to be active in my professional life, yeah,” he says vaguely. “I’ve got plans. And I do look at the clock and think ‘well, what now?’ But I’m not running around trying to fit things in. I’m very good at loafing and I like the bits in between. I like when you’re left alone with a book. I like sitting by the fire. I like walking in the park. I like going to the bookshop and drinking coffee afterwards. Those are the things that bring meaning to my life.

“But you know, I’ve been fortunate – beyond fortunate – and I’m able to help other people in certain regards,” he goes on. He has an adult daughter from his 27-year partnership with actress Diana Quick and, according to the tabloids, a more recent alliance with Anna Wintour, the global editor of Vogue. He walks everywhere and is famously willing to talk to fans, especially fans walking dogs. He is out there, in other words, reliably being Bill Nighy.

“I think there’s a balance in my life and I feel OK, I feel pretty good,” he says. “I don’t think I’m going to change the world, but I don’t want to get in the way of anything, either. I just want to grease the wheels.”

Living opens on March 16. The Oscars are on Monday.

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