A very particular man

Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse in director Autumn de Wilde's Emma. Photos: Focus Features
Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse in director Autumn de Wilde's Emma. Photos: Focus Features
Famous for his languid charm, Bill Nighy is anything but relaxed. He talks to Miranda Sawyer about acting, anxiety - and the dreadful challenge of casual dressing. 

The first time I interviewed Bill Nighy was in 2004. Sixteen years ago! He has barely changed. He is a remarkably consistent person, in taste and personality, and because of this, he seems ageless. Perhaps a little slimmer and greyer than he used to be, but that’s it. His hair is styled in the same way it has been for several decades — longer on the top, slicked back from his forehead — and no matter what year, what month, what day you catch him, he will be dressed in what he calls “a decent lounge suit”, in navy, with appropriate shirt and shoes. Heavy-rimmed specs nestle in his pocket or on his nose.

As familiar as his outfit is his charm. Nighy is always charming, whether to fans, an interviewer, a waiter. We meet in a hotel bar around the corner from his apartment in Piccadilly and the first thing he does is inquire about me and my life. And he listens to the answer: a nice trait not evident in every successful actor. He bothers to entertain — his stories are delivered well, whether they’re about famous people or someone he met out and about. He still works very hard — often making four or five films a year — and he takes pleasure in his job and is happy to talk about it. In fact, the only major change in Nighy in the years I’ve known him is that he is no longer with his long-term partner, Diana Quick (they separated in 2008, after 28 years together). They remain on good terms and, he tells me, they had a jolly Christmas with lots of people around the table. His daughter, Mary, is married to a Frenchman. “There were charades,” he says. “We sang the Marseillaise. It was great.”

So there you have it: same as he ever was. But Nighy is far from dull. On the contrary, he’s unusual: a very particular person with very particular tastes and habits. What he likes are clothes, music, books, football, city life. He is a modernist — “I do subscribe to that ethos” — with the accompanying purist attitude. He can be wildly funny about his own horror when what he considers to be the correct etiquette is not upheld. Though he’s played ageing rockers on a couple of occasions, this is very much not his aesthetic. Anyway, because of all this — Nighy’s style and politesse, his charisma and wit — he’s often misinterpreted.

“I get called lots of L words,” he says. “Louche, languid, laconic. A lounge lizard, like I’m a nuisance around women.” He isn’t. He avoids romance. In fact, none of those descriptions would be right.

For a start, Nighy is far from the manor born. He grew up in Caterham, Surrey, to Irish parents, in a house attached to his dad’s garage, with petrol pumps outside the front door. (His dad, like him, was courteous and a snappy dresser: he styled himself like Bing Crosby and used a cigarette as an accessory.) In the 1970s, Nighy was friends with other working-class actors, such as Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite, when they all worked at the Liverpool Everyman, and he can get quite angry about establishment attitudes.

Mia Goth (left) as Harriet Smith and Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in Emma.
Mia Goth (left) as Harriet Smith and Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in Emma.
But the main thing people get wrong about Nighy is that they assume he’s relaxed. How could such a cool cat be anything but chill? Actually, he is naturally fraught. You can see it in his posture: he sits forward in his seat; he moves swiftly through crowds, like a knife. He has a tendency to fret, to beat himself up about stuff. His standards, high in everything, are almost insurmountable when it comes to himself. He can’t read his own interviews, for instance, because they send him into a fugue of misery. He can’t watch his own films for the same reason. He doesn’t see what his fans see, which is an intelligent, gifted actor being brilliant at his job.

This is what he sees: “You look terrible,” he says. “Well, you look terrible according to you, unless you’re a weirdo and you look at yourself and you think, ‘Wow, I look pretty good’. But I’m not one of those. So there’s that to get over, and then you’ve got to watch yourself act and see yourself not pulling off all those things you thought you might, this time, have pulled off. Instead, you did that default thing that you always do. You think, ‘I did that again? Are you serious?’.”

These might seem trivialities, but they knock him sideways. “The trouble is that confidence is a movable feast and I’m not famous for it,” he says. “And, therefore, it takes me quite a long time to recover if I see myself on screen. Because all my fears about my inadequacies are confirmed when I watch myself. I know there’s an answer, and the answer is, get over yourself. But that’s hard. I suppose it’s a form of dysmorphia. I mean, I hope it’s a form of dysmorphia.”

All of this means that he’s rarely seen one of his films or TV shows the whole way through (sometimes he sees bits, because he has to record extra dialogue after filming). Which is a shame, obviously, because he’s been in some absolute crackers: State of Play; Still Crazy; Notes on a Scandal; Gideon’s Daughter; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Sometimes Always Never.

And to this long CV of fabulously watchable stuff, we can add the movie we are here to talk about: Emma. Yes, yes, it’s ye olde Jane Austen, but this is a new version, directed by LA rock photographer Autumn de Wilde, and it’s great, even for those of us who are naturally allergic to Austen films. Nighy himself tends to avoid period drama: partly because of the costumes and partly because they tend to provoke a particular type of acting. “Everybody starts standing in a certain way and talking in a certain way,” he says. “It’s the same with Shakespeare, or Chekhov. Or Harold Pinter: everyone’s got a weird voice. It’s odd how that style is handed down. I don’t think it’s even spoken about. And it’s very hard to resist. I mean, I’m not immune.”

But this new Emma, while it uses old-fashioned language, avoids such cliches. The emotions are understandable. Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton wrote the script, and the cast is not as you might predict, meaning it’s not an English luvvie-fest. Nighy is great. It’s hard to think of him being bad in anything, despite his self-criticism. His character, Emma’s father, Mr Woodhouse, is constantly worried about draughts and the cold. There’s an amazing moment at the start of a dinner party where someone mentions that there might be snow, and he immediately starts panicking and insists everyone leaves.

“He’s a valetudinarian,” says Nighy. “Not to be confused with a hypochondriac. Hypochondria is being selfishly concerned with your own health. Valetudinarians are obsessively concerned with other people’s. And therefore he lives in terror of draughts and any kind of change in the weather. He’s always thinking that everyone’s going to die. Which is ridiculous until you start reading anything about 1815, and you realise he’s got a point.”

Nighy chose to do Emma because he liked de Wilde. “I’d never met anyone like her — she is very unusual. This California person with a punk ethic.” He went for a meeting with her and instead of opening a laptop and showing him her vision on a screen, de Wilde presented him with a wooden box, tied with a bow. Inside were around 60 paper frames, like Regency portraits, with pictures inside. One was of him: Nighy was her first choice for Woodhouse.

De Wilde is one of several female directors Nighy has worked with. He is baffled as to why anyone might see it as a male occupation. “I mean, what? Why on earth would one set of genitalia recommend you, rather than another?” Anyway, he loved her. He enjoys other people’s idiosyncrasies. He tells me about Emma’s director of photography, Christopher Blauvelt, who comes from a skateboarding background, which Nighy thought was “deeply impressive”.

“He has a punk band with his wife called Rat Shit!” he says, delightedly. During filming, Nighy once caught Blauvelt lying on the ground, checking a shot. “Maintain the bonnet,” Blauvelt said, in his LA skater drawl. Nighy found this so delicious that he had a Fred Perry shirt especially altered for Blauvelt: he got Maintain The Bonnet embroidered over the pocket. Maroon, on blue.

Nighy is not designed for leisurewear, nor for leisure-life. When he was shooting Pirates of the Caribbean (he played a giant squid with a Scottish accent) he stayed indoors in his room, with the curtains shut, while the film’s other actors spent their days off cavorting in the warm sea. By the end of the shoot, he still didn’t know which way the beach was. He’s just done another film, Minamata, with his old Pirates chum Johnny Depp, whom he describes as “completely charming, gracious as ever — everyone gets treated impeccably”.

Nighy finds most actors easy to get on with. “Ninety-five percent of everybody in my world are decent, smart, funny people,” he says. “Everybody rubs along together because they’ve got very used to getting to know people at some depth quite quickly and over a short period of time, and then going on to do it with another 100 people. And if anybody is sort of an obstacle of any kind, often they don’t prosper.”

Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse.
Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse.
He works a lot, because he gets asked a lot. “It’s a job,” he says. “I still get more than four weeks off a year, which is more than most people.”

When he’s not working, Nighy likes to mooch around. He goes to bookshops, has a lunch, reads the newspaper at a cafe table. He’s just made a playlist for Maison Assouline, a cafe he frequents in Piccadilly. Because he’s in there so often, he asked the waitress if she was sick of hearing Lovely Day by Bill Withers (“It’s a great song, but it was on a lot”). The waitress confessed that she was a bit bored, so Nighy spent weeks making a playlist. It has more than 100 songs on it. He shows me it on his phone, reading out the tracks with intense delight. Angie Stone, Dr John, Prince, Mary J. Blige ... He has a separate playlist of Mary J., which he also shows me; and another that just features several versions of one song, Be Thankful For What You’ve Got (original by William DeVaughn, he informs). The man is a proper music spotter.

He made the playlist partly because he enjoys it, but also because he loves cafes. “I’ve spent quite a lot of time in New York, because of doing plays,” he says. “And for a while I couldn’t work out what was slightly unsatisfactory about it. And it’s because they don’t really have cafes. They have bars and they have diners, all of which are great. But they’re not cafes. There were a few, but they don’t have many where you sit out on the pavement.”

It’s what he loves. He walks everywhere, because he hates feeling encumbered and he associates having a car with that feeling, an extra thing to think about, some more keys to carry. “I can always get a cab if needed, and I’ve got my Oyster card, you know.” The countryside doesn’t appeal: “I pop in now and again and have a look.” The sea is OK, for a short while. “For an outing. Outings are the way forward. An outing to the seaside and then back home for tea.” It’s the city life for him. He doesn’t mind being recognised, or having his photo taken with fans. “People are perfectly gracious. And it all happens very quickly and it’s nice.”

Before he goes, I feel we should discuss Nighy’s other love: football. Characteristically, he has an individual approach to fandom. He’s a Crystal Palace supporter — it’s the team whose results he checks first — but he flatly refuses to get involved in the macho, tribal aspect of football. “Only because I’m greedy,” he says. “Last year, mostly I was watching Italian football. Because I love all of the names and I love the strips and I love the glamour and I love that they’ve got great hair, they’re all better looking than us. I’ve been watching Inter Milan since Antonio Conte went with them. He’s got a very interesting team, with Sensi and Barella and all these wonderful players. I love that Ancelotti is in England ... Ancelotti at Everton, for me, it’s just a wonderful thing. He’s such an incredible man, unparalleled in his career as both a player and as a manager. I love Liverpool, too. They’re great to watch; they use the young players. Jurgen is some kind of maestro.”

I don’t know quite how he does it, really. Who else could manage to express support for both Everton and Liverpool and make it utterly logical and charming? But Bill Nighy is a very particular man. And he’s not going to change. Thank goodness for that. — Guardian News and Media


 

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