He’s been one of my favourite actors for a long time and so I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Bill Nighy when he was recently in Australia to discuss Their Finest…
Matt: You have appeared in so many films over the past few decades. I’d love to know – which is the role that people seem to recognise you most for and want to discuss with you?
Bill: It depends on their age and their gender. I’ve got it kind of covered now. If they’re between 13 and 27 and they’re male, it will be Shaun of the Dead or another film from the Cornetto trilogy. If they’re younger then it’s probably Pirates of Caribbean where I play a giant squid. If they’re my age, it’s often The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
The role that often comes up is in Love Actually and I think when I die, on my tombstone they’ll put “hey kids, don’t buy drugs… become a rock star and people will give you them for free.”
Matt: I’ve written several reviews where I’ve described you a scene stealer. You’re often placed in supporting roles but you often outshine the leading cast members with some well-timed wit or a key emotional scene (About Time, Pride, The Boat That Rocked). Are you conscious of that when looking at scripts? Do you even prefer supporting roles as opposed to lead ones?
Bill: Sometimes it’s nice to carry the whole of the can. The responsibility to carry a film is a big deal and it puts you in the front line in terms of popularity stakes and things like that. At my age, I’m grateful to still be operating. You want the part to be of a certain level but if the writing is good and the other people involved are worth working with, it’s very attractive.
Matt: Danish filmmakers have been making a strong presence of late - Lars von Trier, Nicolas Winding Refn, Thomas Vinterberg and Susanne Bier. Here you get to work with Lone Scherfig who I have admired since I saw An Education. What can you tell me about her style? What was she like to work with?
Bill: I can tell you quite simply that she’s a sensational human being and a fabulous film director. I tried to work with her once before and for various reasons it hadn’t come off. I was really pleased to finally work with her on such an entertaining script. She’s straight forward, honest and funny. She gives you big fat gifts every day. She’ll give you some idea about your character that might be funny or interesting.
Matt: It’s an interesting role in that you’re an actor playing an actor – but the one we see in the film is a little bit precious, a little bit demanding. Do you draw on your own experiences from the industry in creating a character like that? Have you come across similar types over the years?
Bill: It’s funny because I haven’t really. In any job, whether you’re a biochemist, airline pilot or florist, you will find people who are not in very good shape. It’s not unique to the acting profession. I haven’t come across too many other actors who are “up themselves” but I note that they were looking for someone to play a chronically self-absorbed pompous actor in his declining years and they thought of me (laughs). No, it’s a great part. Because it’s a film about making a film, I get to play not just my own part but also the part he is playing in the film. I get to play drunk Uncle Frank which is good value.
Matt: There’s often chatter about the amount of influence that studios and producers have over directors and you often see them clashing over “creative differences”. What’s interesting in Their Finest is that we saw that level of influence being exerted by the Ministry way back then in the 1940s. What have your experiences been in the industry? Have you worked on many films where there is that tension between director and producer?
Bill: In my position, I’m generally protected from that kind of friction and it takes place in meetings that I don’t attend. I haven’t come across a lot of that. In terms of the script, which is how it would affect me, those decisions are generally made before shooting begins.
Stephen Woolley, our producer here, is one of the great English producers of all time. He’s made a bunch of films people will have heard of. I’d made two movies with him back-to-back and then another one which is coming to Australia soon called The Limehouse Golem. It’s from a book by Peter Ackroyd and its set in the 1880s and has lots of fog and lots of blood. I am Superintendent John Kildare of Scotland Yard… I get a bang out of saying that… and I’m working with a young English actress named Olivia Cooke who is amazing.
Matt: I was fascinated by this piece of history – filmmakers making propaganda films to help shift public favour about wars – both within the home country and abroad. Do you think we could get away with stuff like this today or do we live in such a cynical world that everyone would see right through it?
Bill: Well, I think if we if we look at the current political landscape, they just did get away with it. They have news outlets dedicated to misleading the public. The films they used to make during World War II would spin reality in order to keep people emboldened. They were in such a terrible situation and there was no good news to report. They had to find a way to keep people’s hopes up. It was propaganda but in a good way.
It’s still scary that we get all our information from television and the internet which is unregulated and like the Wild West at times. If people are organised, they can present a completely different version of reality. People are therefore living their lives according to misinformation and it’s scary.
Matt: You did a lot of theatre early in your career and you’ve since transitioned into film and television. You were back on stage recently in West End and on Broadway with Skylight that received much acclaim. Was that a one off or would you like to get back to doing more work in the theatre?
Bill: It’s difficult to say. I grew up in the theatre and I love and admire the theatre. Every time I do a play, I stand in the wings on opening night and vow with all of my heart, mind and body that I will never allow this to happen again. It’s scary and really hard. Then a new script comes along which is irresistible which has a brilliant part and you sign up again. I don’t have any immediate plans for more theatre. I did Skylight with Carey Mulligan for a year and that’ll do for a little while.
Matt: You’ve won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. What have we got to do to get you an Oscar nomination?
Bill: In England, cab drivers already think I’ve got an Oscar. I’ve had drivers tell me “oh I was pleased about the Oscar” and I go “thanks very much”. I’m getting by without one but if there are any lying around, I’ll happily take one.
Matt: What have you got coming up? What will we see you in next?
Bill: The Limehouse Golem should be out in around September. I also did a film with the eminent Spanish director Isabel Coixet called The Bookshop which is based on the Penelope Fitzgerald novel and stars Emily Mortimer. It’s coming to Australia some time soon.