The Scandalous Bill Nighy


Bill Nighy must be used to stealing scenes by now. He’s left a lasting impression on moviegoers by playing rock stars, zombies and vampires, not to mention the squid-faced undead Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a character he pulls off without you ever seeing his real face!

In the British thriller Notes on a Scandal, Nighy plays a more low-key role as Cate Blanchett’s older husband, who has to sit back while she has an affair with a younger student. Sadly, Nighty has been criminally ignored by the various awards-givers for his most explosive performance to date in favor of his equally-talented female co-stars. interviewed Nighy last summer for “Pirates,” but talking to him on the phone just isn’t the same experience as being in the room with the actor who has become one of England’s most underrated talents. In person, he’s so genuinely humble that it’s obvious that any scene-stealing is unintentional, something found out when we talked to him about “Notes” and the upcoming “Pirates” 3-quel late last year. How was it doing a role where you don’t need a lot of CG or make-up to bring your character to life?
Bill Nighy: Well, it’s a bit of a holiday, actually. It was a relief. It was very nice to play a regular human being, having played zombies and vampires and squids. It was also very nice to play somebody who was, broadly speaking, in reasonable shape until events overcome him, and somebody who was generally a good thing in the world. My job wasn’t to indicate how damaged he was or what kind of a nuisance he might turn out to be. He was just a regular guy with a family and it was nice doing family stuff and being a dad.

CS: Can you talk about the evolution of your character from the novel? He seems somewhat sympathetic but he also says a lot of nasty things to others.
Nighy: I think that’s just a function of having an actor on board; you try doing it without comment. You just try to deliver the role without moral judgment or comment, because that’s not my business. That’s not always the case. Patrick [Marber’s] script is very superior. He’s a wonderful writer, as you know, and therefore, the writing helps enormously; it doesn’t need any help from me. Also, to work with Cate, and to work with Judi obviously. I really did enjoy the environment they gave us. They gave us a very witty, very accurate set, a representation of a certain kind of upper-middle class English environment, where you have the passport in the fruit bowl, which always made me feel very uneasy. I wanted to put it somewhere safe, but that was a very witty touch. That’s the kind of household we have. I think it’s referred to as shabby chic or Boho.

CS: Where you familiar with the book?
Nighy: No, not when I got the script, but I familiarized myself with the book, and I enjoyed [it] very much. Zoë Heller was apparently very cool about Patrick Marber taking the book and turning it into something else: in other words, a movie. That was a very good idea, because then, with a writer like Patrick, it is a successfully-achieved different entity and he was able to free the characters, particularly Sheba and my character from Barbara’s perspective as seen in the book.

CS: Were you surprised how funny the movie was after they put Judi’s voice-over on top of it?
Nighy: I was quite surprised. I didn’t expect it to be quite a funny as it was. Although, now you think [that] I should have known. I did think that there would be moments of levity even though it’s a grim tale.

CS: How long did it take to shoot the movie and where did you shoot it?
Nighy: I filmed in between the two “Pirates” movies and another movie called “Stormbreaker,” which was an adaptation of a James Bond kind of children’s book. For me, it was scattered over a couple of months and I did maybe three or four places. It was right around the corner from my house in North London. It’s the only time I’ve ever worked anywhere near my house. The house was in Bellsize Park and I live in Kentish Town, which is just by Hampstead. I could have literally walked to work. I think I did on one occasion, so that was nice.

CS: Did you do any research for your role of Richard?
Nighy: I never seem to get around to research. I could lie to you, but I’m not going to. If the script’s any good, the research is in there, unless there’s specific, practical things that you have to know, like how to operate a crane. (almost to himself) That’s kind of bizarre thing, like it’s going to happen. I can be a crane operator! So the answer is “no.”

Did you bring any of yourself into the character in terms of the way he dressed?
Nighy: My major crisis is that as I get older, things overtake me and wearing one’s shirt outside of one’s trousers, which is generally the territory of the younger man, is unsettling for someone of my years. It was only because Richard Eyre, who’s slightly older than me and he wears his shirt outside of his trousers, I was finally emboldened to do so. I really, really, really didn’t want to wear my shirt outside my trousers. Now, I’m over that. It’s okay.

CS: Was your impromptu dance sequence in the film choreographed?
Nighy: No, we didn’t have any choreography. Max, my son, who’s particularly adept, felt dissatisfied with that particular scene because he didn’t get all of his dance moves in. He actually did quite vigorously complain that he hadn’t finished yet. They arranged for people on the set to stop working for a while, they put the music back on and Max just got all his moves in. The whole set just stood and they watched, and at the end, you can imagine, went nuts.

CS: Did working with a director, a writer and a cast that had a theatrical background help with the experience of making this movie?
Nighy: Everyone including Cate and Judi and Patrick all have a healthy theatrical track record, and Richard Eyre had directed me in the theater when he ran the National Theater, in a David Hare play it so happens, called “Skylight”. There was somewhat of an awareness of that, but I don’t know to what degree it informed the end result, but it was certainly something I was aware of.

CS: Are you able to distinguish between actors who come from the theatre and those who don’t?
Nighy: I never really ask, and I don’t always know. The answer is no, I suppose. Sometimes there’s a slight difference between generations. I suppose maybe there are differences, but I don’t really feel it, because the situation is so different. Apart from the basic job remaining the same whether you’re on stage or in front of a camera, which is to broadly speaking, make it sound as if you’re saying it for the first time and it’s just occurring to you in that second, there’s nothing you can bring from [your experience in] the theater that’s going to help you. The job is pretty much the same. At some point, everyone’s going to shut up and you’re going to be the only one speaking, and then you have to pretend that it’s happen now. There isn’t anything fundamentally different apart from the technical considerations.

CS: What distinguishes Richard Eyre from other directors you’ve worked with?
Nighy: He’s incredibly bright. That’s what you want from a director. You want somebody cleverer than you, mind you, that’s what I always hope for. I’ve been very, very lucky. He has the thing that I lack. I can do my bit, but I’m no good at an overview of any kind. I have a couple of bad habits. One is that I always want to play the end because I can’t bear the suspense—I always want to indicate to the audience in a minute that something else happens and that I’m a really nice guy, which may or may not be part of the gig. He’s very good at tuning your performance. I think he did a little bit of acting in his university days, and sometimes that helps a great deal. It doesn’t matter if you’re particularly good at it or not, just the fact that you ever attempted it does really help when you’re trying to communicate something to an actor. He’s extremely good on the text and how to get the most value out of the nuances. He also has great taste and is a great bullsh*t detector. Whenever I wanted to sell it like some kind of salesperson, he was very good at politely suggesting that I stop that.

CS: Do you consciously choose roles that might be Oscar-worthy?
Nighy: No, I don’t have that luxury. I often have to choose a role depending on other more mundane considerations.

CS: Which roles have you enjoyed the most?
Nighy: I’ve had so many, really. I like it when it gets a little bit daft. The dafter it gets, the less harm I’m doing. I like it when it gets silly. “Love Actually” was a very cool thing.

CS: What was the experience of the “Pirates” movies like in terms of doing something that will later be replaced with CGI?
Nighy: I was quite proud of myself that I was able to operate in very sad, gray white bobbled computer pajamas with white dots all over my face and a skull cap with a white bottle on it. This is a lonely place to be. With trainers (sneakers) with bobbles on them, and then they put you next to Johnny Depp, which is hard enough on a good day, and he looks fabulous. And there’s Orlando and they all look like pirates, human. I’m the only guy [wearing this] and then they show you this picture of this incredibly fantastic, the most dangerous and terrifying thing on the ocean waves, and then they say, “Act!” (laughter) Short of putting a sack over your head or putting a chain around your ankle, it’s like being given a serious handicap. Then between Gore Verbinski and myself, we came up with a way of doing it. I was amazed when I saw the creature, because it had evolved from the pictures I was originally shown. They were pretty much the same, but it was much more beautiful. It was brilliantly achieved, and all those stupid things I did on the set, trying to be scary and weird, they actually had translated them onto the creature. They always said they were going to do that and I know they meant well, but I didn’t think it was possible, and in fact, they pulled it off.

CS: Was everyone on the set sensitive towards you about the fact you had to wear all that stuff?
Nighy: They were sensitive the first… people would just look at you, say “Hi” and then they’d look away. The crew were ashamed on your behalf, and then after you’ve been around for a few days, then the jokes would start, and then the jokes ran out after about the second week. Then it’s completely normal that you’re standing there talking to a man with dots all over his face. It’s only every now and again when someone takes a photograph that you realize that you look incredibly lame. It was my first big day on a big American film set and they dress me like somebody who didn’t get into Devo. (huge laughs) There was a good day also, because I had a crew that also had to look similarly stupid, so there was a day when I walked around the corner of the set, and I saw six other guys dressed like me, and I nearly kissed them. It was such a big day.

CS: Did you get a chance to form any kind of support group with Andy Serkis?
Nighy: Yeah, we’re thinking about it. He’s the only other man who understands my pain. Funnily enough, when I was an albino ex-lab rat in “Flushed Away,” I was part of a double act with Andy, so we actually got to commune, and it was just before I started “Pirates” so he was able to tell me how things might pan out.

CS: What are you working on now?
Nighy: I’ve finished “Pirates of the Caribbean 3,” and I’m here doing David Hare’s “Vertical Hour” until April. Sam Mendes is a tremendous director, and David Hare I admire as much as I admire anybody else in the world. I’ve worked with him six times ever since I was very young. He’s one of the most important people in my career. I love what he does and it’s a really timely piece and it’s funny, too. You get a good night out and nobody suffers. Opening a play, such as “Vertical Hour” with Julianne Moore is beyond tough. We’re open now, it’s a hit [and] we’ve sold out, thank God. There is a God. I wasn’t quite sure before now, but I know. I got through it and thank the Lord and it’s beautiful, because the alternative doesn’t bear thinking. I’m very, very grateful and satisfied that should be the case.

Notes on a Scandal is now playing in limited release and will expand nationwide on Friday, January 26. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End hits theaters on May 25.