1492049259505 - Bill Nighy: how he overcame his self-hatred to become Britain’s best-loved old rocker

Bill Nighy: how he overcame his self-hatred to become Britain’s best-loved old rocker

THE night before Bill Nighy would start work on a new role, he would stand by his back door and stare into the garden beyond. Then he would begin to list all of the parts he’d ever played which, despite his worst fears, had turned out alright.

As an attempt to silence the radio which played in his head, broadcasting a constant playlist of self-doubt, loathing and criticism, it sometimes worked.

“I remember one time,” he says, “standing in the wings, about to go on in a show that was doing very well, and standing there feeling ashamed, thinking: ‘it is all going very well, but in a minute, I am going on and I am going to disappoint 800 people’.” 

At some point in his career, somewhere among the two BAFTAs and one Golden Globe, the work with David Hare, Richard Curtis, Stephen Poliakoff, Edgar Wright, Gore Verbinski and Lone Scherfig, he managed to somewhat conquer the voice. “I am happy now,” he says, “in as much as I am familiar now with the disparity between what goes on in my head sometimes and what is in fact happening.”

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He learned several things. For example, that he could still work regardless: “I have stood on stage feeling as unhappy as I have ever felt anywhere whilst still acting. And the big discovery is that the audience don’t know what is going on in your mind.”

That the radio, which seems to loom like the voice of The Party in Orwell’s 1984, wasn’t telling the truth: “It used to manufacture negative propaganda about myself. I managed to wean myself off it, to a degree, by having small victories against it. And as you get to a certain point, you think ‘I don’t believe you, I am too long in the tooth, and how come all the news is bad?’ And anyway, people’s response to me isn’t like that, and I don’t mean the audience in particular, but friends and family. It’s a reverse kind of vanity, almost like an arrogance turned in on itself. It’s very corrosive.”

And that what you wear can make a difference. His trademark designer suits were “borne of a basic insecurity, because I don’t like my shape. I have a tendency to project negativity about myself, to put it mildly. I am better than I used to be”. We should add that there also part of Nighy’s devotion to the Mod movement, and an interest in Mod brands like John Smedley. He tells me about being cast in roles that required a suit, towing the stylist around town, and when they were almost beaten, taking them into Paul Smith and bargaining with them to go halves on a suit. “I’d have no money, living in a squat, but I would have a Smith or a Yves St Lauren suit. And it would be the only thing I had, apart from a couple of shirts and a pair of DMs”.

This all sounds very dark, and it shouldn’t. We’re sitting in an anonymous hotel room in downtown Auckland, and Nighy is smiling broadly and in sparkling form. 

He’s in New Zealand to plug his latest movie, wartime romantic drama Their Finest, about the making of a propaganda film about the Dunkirk Landings. Nighy’s character, ham actor Ambrose Hilliard, starts proceedings as an inconsequential comic turn, but by the conclusion, is central to events. A final scene in which Hilliard delivers a pivotal speech to Gemma Arterton’s heroine was actually added some months after the first cut was delivered. 

It all looks rather fun: Nighy gets to sign, be a pompous bore, roll out a mock American accent, and even play his character playing a drunken seaman. “It’s like feed it into the computer: what more do you want?” he says. “It’s got a bit of everything and it’s Christmas when you see something like that. And I get to play drunken old Uncle Frank too. So it’s a great part. It’s quite cool to play people who say appalling things, particularly when it is well written and funny.”

Nighy took the part, he says, to fulfil a longstanding desire to work alongside the Danish director Lone Scherfig (whose previous work includes An Education and One Day). Agreeing to do a publicity tour of Australia and New Zealand, he says, is partly because he likes this side of the world (having made movies in both countries) and partly because of his belief in the film. “It gets harder for independent films. It’s fine once people get in the cinema, because this film will take car of them – it is not a film that forgets to be entertaining, it is not a film that forgets it has a responsibility to be a good night out. So that’s covered – but people need to be encouraged, so I am on the case.”

Nighy hopes that his junketing drags in a younger crowd than might otherwise turn up. The film’s main plot is about how Arterton handles herself in a misogynist world where dialogue between women in movies is dismissed as ‘the slop’. “I think it is really good for young people to see … just how far we have come and to see what it was like not that long ago,” he says. He draws a comparison to the 2013 movie Pride, in which he played a closeted Welsh miner during the 1986 British Miner’s Strike and wove together two great social themes of that time – gay emancipation  and the oppression of the striking miners, who were mercilessly treated by Britain’s right-wing government. “It was totally misrepresented at the time, and it was one of the great scandals of my lifetime that decent working men and women were invented by Margaret Thatcher as quote, ‘enemies of the state’. It was a disgusting period.” 

By the time the strike happened, Nighy was well established as a stage actor and enlightened enough to understand its significance. The son of a mechanic and a psychiatric nurse, Nighy had left school in Surrey with two O-Levels but enrolled in an acting school at a girlfriend’s suggestion after twice running away from home. Two years in service to the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, where the political dramatists Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell were in residence and the roll included Julie Walters, Pete Postlethwaite, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Sher provided his real education. “I was this southern tart, the token southerner who didn’t know what he was walking into and just got very lucky … when I went there, I didn’t know what Left and Right meant, and it got too late to ask anyone because there was no one to ask without looking stupid. That was the level of my education. I had a Liberal sensitivity, but all I knew you didn’t vote Tory – and that’s not rocket science…”

His background left him always feeling “slightly outside” the acting world, and that seemed to set him up for half a lifetime of insecurity. “If you wanted to make me feel uncomfortable, put me in the company of people who went to university,” he says. “Or posh people. Or rich people … it took me a long time for me to relax in that sort of company. There was no need for me to feel uncomfortable, people were very very nice, it was just me.”

After the Everyman, he began a long association with the playwright David Hare, who has now cast him as his leading man on ten occasions. That reliability provided vital evidence during the back-door confidence drills. Hare gave him lead roles when nobody else would, and trusted him. He’s a genius, says Nighy. “He has got some of the best jokes I’ve ever had the pleasure to deliver. They are built like clocks on the page and if you don’t observe all the punctuation, they won’t work, but if you do everything right… it is like a diagram for a bomb, they explode very satisfyingly.”

‘They could have had anyone’

When Richard Curtis’ Christmas rom-com Love Actually came around in 2003, Nighy had a CV packed with stage and television credits that was far too polished for the humiliation of being “introduced” to American studios as some newcomer. 

He’d had no expectation of being cast in the movie, having been asked to read the part of washed-up rock star Billy Mack at a run-through as a favour to a casting agent. “They could’ve had anyone for the job, they could have had a rock star… so there was an enormous amount of expectation which, of course, put the fear of God into me,” he says. “And I knew if I didn’t mess it up, it was going to make some kind of difference.” Earnestly, he tells me it screens every Christmas now back home. I tell him it does here. He looks completely non-plussed. “Does it really?” he says.

But while Nighy, then 47, was no newcomer, it’s clear the perceptions of both the public and the industry altered afterwards. More people, he says, saw his turn in Love Actually than in everything he’d done to that date. “If you asked me how I dealt with it, and you would be better asking the people around me, I think I did okay.” Hare once said that Nighy is now mobbed wherever he goes. Nighy says that’s simply because he doesn’t drive a car. He doesn’t mind the attention. “It is not like I am pestered for sex. There is no great hysteria involved.” 

His CV lists 13 feature film credits in the four years which followed Love Actually, a range that encompassed The Pirates of the Carribbean, Shaun of the Dead and Notes on a Scandal. Nighy has spoken before about giving up alcohol and cigarettes. Work may be his last remaining addiction. “I’ve often been accused of being a workaholic, and I am often quite defensive about it, which probably means its true. But I don’t know why I have to defend myself?” He says he’s lucky to get offered “irresistible things” with people he admires.

Happy. Alone.

In almost every interview, Nighy is asked about solitude. He’s been single, it seems, since an amicable 2008 split from his partner of 28 years, actor Diana Quick. Usually, he talks about his happiness to be alone while watching Champion’s League football, going for a coffee or strolling around looking at plane trees. Perhaps, given the tenor of our conversation, he wants to make a different point this time. “I am fine,” he says. “I think because I live alone [people assume he’s in trouble] but there is nothing wrong with it. It’s just the way things have turned out, and I am perfectly happy…I am accustomed to it.” 

His default setting, he says, is to be alone, listening to music and reading a book. Recently, he says, he has had to stop visiting a couple of restaurants where he would dine because the proprietors had assumed he was lonely and came over to chat. “They must think ‘poor old sod, he’s on his own, I will go and cheer him up’. And I am sat there with my finger on my place in the book thinking ‘please go away’.”

Their Finest is in cinemas now.