Their Finest star Bill Nighy talks playing a 'pompous actor in his declining years'
Watching the actor Bill Nighy stroll across a swanky hotel lobby in midtown Manhattan, you’re struck immediately by one inarguable fact: The guy is irresistible.
Tall, blond, blue-eyed, and bespeckled, elegant in his perfectly fitted jacket, and maybe more wirey-handsome now at 67 than he’s ever been, Nighy — the “y” is silent, folks — catches the eye of everyone enjoying their afternoon tea. He returns a few glances as well, including, once we’ve taken our seats in a bar adorned with 40 translucent lit-from-within vases, a beautiful brunette sitting two tables away. (There is a tabloid rumor, too good to not be just a little bit true, that Nighy is the “very close friend” of Vogue commander-in-chief Anna Wintour.)
“Could I bother you for a club soda with ice and fresh lime?” Nighy asks the waiter. “Lovely. You’re too kind.” We’re here to talk about his movie now in theaters Their Finest, starring Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games) as screenwriters of a World War II propaganda flick designed to raise the spirits of the bombed and demoralized population. Nighy plays the hammy 1940s film actor Ambrose Hilliard, who takes on the role of “Uncle Frank” in the silly, sentimental movie-within-the-movie, which depicts the evacuation of Dunkirk.
When Their Finest director Lone Scherfig (An Education) approaches Nighy’s table, he jumps from his seat to embrace her. “I’ve been looking so much forward to seeing you,” she tells him after a kiss on both cheeks. Nighy, most famous to American audiences for Love Actually, impresses upon me what a blissful time he experienced working for Scherfig. STX Entertainment, which is releasing the film in theaters, would be wise to sock away some money for later on an awards campaign for the actor.
Conversation with Nighy flows easily from one topic to the next, during when he enjoys talking about his career — while also applying a self-deprecating touch while looking inward that’s nothing if not dashing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We were just speaking about Love Actually and Red Nose Day. There is some connective DNA between Billy Mack and Ambrose Hilliard, don’t you think? They’re both a bit washed up.
BILL NIGHY: I’m quite good at washed up. And faded as well. Those things are within my grasp. And, yes, there are similarities. They’re older guys who rally even when things should be over for them. I’m fortunate to get these parts at my age.
Yeah. Obviously, they were looking for someone to play a chronically self-absorbed, pompous actor in his declining years. And they came to me. I should just shut up, not ask too many questions, and be grateful.
In the beginning of the film, someone calls you “the man with the glint.”
Yeah, that was tough. I read that part and I thought, “How do you do a glint?”
You’re not aware that you have a glint? A sort of charismatic wink?
Oh, no. I’m not being cute but I’m fundamentally unaware of that. I don’t live in a world where I’m charismatic. I’m very happy to have that word put in the same sentence as my name, but I couldn’t feel less charismatic.
But what about when you’re acting? Are you aware that it comes across?
I go to work and I hope for the best. Honestly, I was worried about manufacturing a glint for this film.
Well, your character also complains about being offered corpse roles. Kind of funny considering you’ve played the undead in a few Underworld movies and Shaun of the Dead.
Oh, yeah. I enjoy playing undead.
But you’re not yourself offered corpse roles, are you?
Not yet. It’s coming soon, I’m afraid, when I’ll be asked to play a dead body. I do tend to die more often in recent times. And I’ve also been a grandfather onscreen. My first movie grandchild was born to the lovely Rachel McAdams [in About Time]. I couldn’t have been more blessed.
You mentioned to me that you’ve recently had your “eyes done.”
Oh, God. Yeah. I had lens replacement surgery. I’m not even sure what they did because I didn’t want to ask. Whenever the doctor got technical, I stopped listening. All I know is, it wasn’t painful and it took 14 minutes on each eye. Anyway, when I took the bandages off, I looked in the mirror and I said, “Oh, I see now. That’s why everybody always acts weirdly around me.”
Oh, come on.
What I mean is, when I used to shave in the morning without my glasses, I was 46. I’ve been 46 for years. Then I had my eyes fixed and suddenly I knew how old I was. Or nearly knew. So that’s why everybody calls me “Sir.” I realized that I’m one of those old guys. I should be so lucky.
There is a wonderful moment in Their Finest when you sing “Wild Mountain Thyme.” It’s really beautifully done.
That was [director] Lone Scherfig’s idea. It wasn’t in the script originally, if I remember correctly. And it’s a lovely idea, given the brutal time, one of the worst periods in British history. And by the way, that song, if anyone wants to check out how it can really be sung, listen to Van Morrison’s gorgeous version. Check it out.
But as you are singing, Scherfig cuts away to the younger couple and we only hear your voice in the background. Did you feel any actorly jealousy when you saw the movie and noticed that?
Well, I didn’t know she cut away until you told me right now. I really don’t mind, of course. Lone knows exactly what she’s doing and honestly, you don’t want to watch me singing that song all the way through. There’s a bigger story to tell.
You mean you haven’t seen the film yet?
I don’t watch the movies I’m in if I can help it. It takes me too long to recover. It has nothing to do with the movies. I’m comfortable now with the idea that, thank God, there is a disparity between what I think and what other people think. But I stopped watching myself very early on because it was too upsetting. Too uncomfortable-making.
So this was the case even when you were a younger actor?
Definitely. I made the mistake of watching myself then because I thought, “Well, I’m on TV so I should watch!” And then I did and I wanted to kill myself, so I said, “How about I never do that again?”
What was the problem? Did you see things that you wish you’d done differently?
All I see are my mistakes. Nobody else knows about it and that’s fine. It’s only me that knows: those little compromises, those dreadful tics, that default thing I reach for when I can’t really figure the scene out. And I think, “Oh, man, it’s just the same old blues.”
But conversely, can you feel it when everything is clicking? Near the end of Their Finest, your character says, “I was very good.” Can you connect to that feeling?
I think so, though I may be crazy and utterly deluding myself. There are so many elements that have to come together for the conditions to be right. But I think I know when it’s any good. Most of the time it’s half-good. But now and again I feel like, “Yeah, I know exactly how to do this.”
Does that happen more in theater, where you’re maybe a bit more in control?
It does. On stage, very occasionally, I’ve thought, “If anybody has a problem with this performance, it will have to remain their problem.” That’s quite a big thing for me to think.
That’s not your natural state of mind?
Not at all. I was middle-aged before I ever felt that. And now whenever it happens on stage, it’s a wet Wednesday matinée. There are eight people in the audience. Three of them are asleep. And suddenly everything flows out of me perfectly. Why was this ever a problem?
In the film-within-the-film, there’s a hilarious moment where Uncle Frank is on his boat. The Luftwaffe shoots the wine bottle out of your hand and he screams up at the plane, “Hitler, who does he bloody think he is?”
[Laughs] I enjoyed doing that.
And that film you’re making in Their Finest is about Dunkirk. I think you’re one of the only British actors who’s not in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming movie Dunkirk.
No, I’m not. My friend James D’Arcy is in that movie. He’s a major fan of Christopher Nolan, like myself and most people.
Of your character, someone says, “Unless you’ve given him a review or had intercourse, he won’t remember you.”
Oh, I’d forgotten about that one. That’s great.
But how do you handle fame? And the whole media swarm?
I frequently joke, but it’s not really a joke, that I’m completely temperamentally unsuited for my job. I often look jealously at other people in their jobs and think, “They’re happy, they’re fine, why not me?” I would look at the crossing guard lady while I was on my way to be totally humiliated once again during rehearsals for a play, and I’d think, “It’s half past eleven in the morning and she’s all done, she’s laughing in the sunshine, she’s got shelter and food.”
And you think about yourself?
Yeah. Why don’t I just unplug everything and move to the country and buy a dog? But we all fantasize and improvise our lives to a certain degree, don’t we? In the end, I keep going on being an actor. And some days are easier than others, but I always have to kind of persuade myself into it each day. I’m not sustained by precedent. Generally, every morning, I have to start from scratch.