Bill Nighy on playing a 1940s actor in Lone Scherfig’s romantic dramedy
Now playing in select theaters and available On Demand, STX Entertainment‘s Their Finest is a new feature from director Lone Scherfig (An Education, One Day). Set against the backdrop of London during World War II, Their Finest offers a romantic dramedy about a fictional propaganda film production about the battle of Dunkirk. Adapting Lissa Evans bestseller Their Finest Hour and a Half, the film stars Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games franchise, Me Before You) as a film producer who is teamed with Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a woman from the British Ministry of Information assigned to bring a woman’s touch to the project’s screenplay. Bill Nighy (Hot Fuzz, Love, Actually), meanwhile, plays the part of Ambrose Hilliard, the rather conceited star actor of Their Finest‘s movie within a movie.
CS recently sat down with Bill Nighy to talk about the surprisingly light-hearted tone of a film set during WWII. Read on for his explanation as to why Their Finest is exactly the type of film the world can use right now and for his surprisingly detailed response about the acting role he’d still love to play! If you missed it, be sure to also check out our interview with Their Finest‘s Sam Claflin.
CS: Where did “Their Finest” begin for you?
Bill Nighy: It began with a very strong desire to work with Lone Scherfig, who I almost worked with before, but it never worked out. She sent me this and I was so happy. I wanted badly to work with her. I admire her tremendously. And this script was so good. It’s a real cracker. A great script and a wonderful part for me and about something that I’m interested in. I’m sure it’s the same here. People in the UK have a very deep nostalgia for that period. I was not there. I was born very shortly after the war, but it’s a period that was considered “the great event” in our lives. But the script is very entertaining. It’s romantic and it’s funny. It gives you a real idea of their daily lives. It’s odd to have nostalgia for something that was actually a brutal time and during which you never knew who would be waking up in the morning or even what part of the city would remain standing. It went on for a very long time. People were hungry and terrified and nearly everybody was bereaved or at least anxious about their loved ones overseas. I think it’s timely to see a movie where people hang together and treat one another with dignity and compassion during truly dangerous times. Rather than not doing that during strategically invented dangerous times. Any demonstration of how people can act compassionately during dangerous times is very valuable at the moment.
CS: There’s also some thoughts at play about the power and storytelling, which seems particularly relevant to what you do.
Bill Nighy: Absolutely. These films were vital. Films were so big in terms of a national sensibility of where everything stood. There was substitute for these movies. People really clung to them. They were brilliantly made. Under very difficult circumstances, they made some really cool films. Stephen Woolley is the producer of this film. There was a time where he was the British film industry. He’s encyclopedic about those movies. I mean, he’s encyclopedic about all movies, but he’s particularly fond of those films. This was a real passion project for him. They were vital. We came very, very close to losing the war. Dunkirk was the major turning point. That’s what the film within the film is discussing. It could have so easily gone the other way. That could have been the end of us.
CS: Is it enjoyable playing a character who gets to poke some fun at actors?
Bill Nighy: Oh yes. To play someone who is chronically self-absorbed and behaves rather badly is fun, because it’s just all those things that you don’t allow yourself to do. It was easily identified as a great role. It’s like how no one knows what anybody else’s job is like. Or they know two things about it. The second thing that anyone thinks about actors is the general view is that they would probably crawl over each other’s dead bodies to get to the role. Or that they are gregarious or that they are sexually incontinent and a bit stupid. That’s not really true, or at least it’s as true for biochemists or airline pilots or veterinary surgeons. So I’m aware of that, but it’s fun. But he has a kind of — I don’t want to use the word “arc.” I don’t know why, but I’ve taken against the word — but he has an arc. The scene at the end between him and Gemma Arterton’s character was added after we had shot the movie, because they felt they needed resolution of some kind. There’s perhaps more to this guy that someone who is delusional of his age. He’s aware of their situation and of the importance of what they do.
CS: When you’re playing an actor who mentions films that he has been in, do you go back and flesh out his whole filmography?
Bill Nighy: I did to some degree, yeah. I love the fact that he had a kind of franchise. I also love that everyone gets the name wrong. I used to love movies like that when I was a kid. You would have a series of movies with a regular character. They would usually have an American in them in order to get the money. The younger guy would usually be American and then the older guy would be someone like me. But I loved the fact that he had his own little franchise going.
CS: There’s a scene in the film where Hilliard is talking about the inappropriate roles he has been offered. Is that something that rings true for you as an actor?
Bill Nighy: I have been offered some terrible roles in the past. The thing that most think of in that respect is, I remember taking a phone call when I was almost 40. Maybe 39. My agent rang up and said, “Darling, it’s ‘Hamlet.’ It’s 18 months. It’s a tour. It’s Moscow and Tokyo.” I said, “I don’t want to play Hamlet.” She said, “Oh no. Not Hamlet. They want you to play Claudius.” And you realize that suddenly you’re Hamlet’s uncle and that’s all you’ll ever be. That was a watershed. It’s like the first time when you get kids when you’re 32. Suddenly, you’re playing a part with four children. Rachel McAdams had my first movie grandchild. I have actually just become a grandfather. So that’s all as it should be. But there are a lot of those little landmarks as you go along. There’s a tricky period in your late 30s and early 40s where you sort of examine your face in the mirror as you’re sharing, if you can bear to look. Your agent says, “Well, they like you, they’re just looking at other options.” And you’re like “Am I too old? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” Luckily, I passed that stage a long time ago. It’s great! It doesn’t matter how I look. I mean, I don’t have to be in a certain kind of shape for anything. I’m just that guy that is that age and that’s it. It’s a relief.
CS: Is there a role that you’re still longing to play? Or is it more about working with specific people?
Bill Nighy: It’s a lot to do with working with specific people. I’ve been so fortunate. It’s all a bit of a surprise. I never expected to be as fortunate as I’ve been and I’ve been able to play all kinds of roles. I’ve worked with some of the best writers in the world and some of the best directors and actors. There’s not a lot, specifically, I’m looking for other than to just keep going. I recently played a spy. I waited a long time to play a spy. I’ve been a vampire. I’ve played a squid. I’ve got it covered. But if there was one thing? I want an office with my name on the door and a swivel chair. A half bottle of scotch in the top drawer. I want a decent hat. I want to make it hit the hat stand every time I come through the door. I want distraught women to come in and pay me money to find their ex-husbands. I want to sleep on the couch in the office because my girlfriend threw me out. I want to smoke too much. It will have to be herbal cigarettes, but that’s fine. I want a trenchcoat and I want it to be raining a lot, probably after dark.