“I wish someone had told me about the Summer of Love at the time”: An audience with Bill Nighy

As he celebrates his 71st birthday, revisit our interview with everyone's favourite national treasure...

Bill Nighy is dancing on a table the first time we meet. Arriving early for our interview, I open the door to a penthouse in the Corinthia Hotel London and Purple Rain almost knocks me over as it blares out down the corridor. Encountering scenes that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Soho studio during the Swinging Sixties, Nighy is doing his best faux-tap number while a photographer shouts: “You’re so handsome, Bill, you sexy, sexy man!” As introductions go, this one lives up to the hype.

Bill Nighy is one of the legendary actors of his generation, thanks to starring roles in franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter. But it’s Nighy’s turn as ageing rockstar Billy Mack in 2003’s Love, Actually that elevated him into the pantheon of British acting royalty. “I do lots of other work,” Nighy points out, “but if you’ve done one thing that has entered the language – and Love, Actually has entered the language planet-wide – then people will come up to you all the time.”

When I ask if he minds still being recognised for a role so many years after the film was released, he has a straight answer. “Not in the least. I walk everywhere, so I get approached at least 20 times a day and 15 of them want to talk about that film. That’s fine with me. If that kind of thing happens to you, you should just continually thank your lucky stars.”

Nighy is the actor everybody thinks they know. He has been on our screens for more than 40 years and the stage for longer still. The British public have warmed to him like perhaps no other male actor. Everyone you meet tells you: “Bill Nighy is a seriously cool dude.” One friend actually said to me: “It’s universal, like gravity.” Having spent time with him, it’s impossible to disagree. But he’s also one of the most humble people I have ever met. At points, he might even be verging on self-deprecating. In spite of his laid-back image, Nighy is the first to say that he ‘doesn’t particularly fancy [him]self’.

“I tend to overdress because I can say to myself: “Well, at least you’ve got the suit,'” he reveals. “It may have me in it, but there we go.”

By now Nighy’s collection of suits, or rather, blue suits, is renowned. For our shoot he brings with him an impeccable collection of Savile Row suits from tailors like Anderson & Sheppard and John Pearse. He’s reportedly even turned down roles because they would have required that he doesn’t wear a suit. “I know it’s all nonsense and I know there is nothing wrong with the way I look,” he says, “but I have never been particularly confident in that area and a suit helps me out.”

It’s an endearing side to Nighy’s personality. He will go from aping around on a photoshoot to worrying about the way he looks without ever making you think there might be two Bill Nighys. What might seem like insecurity on another man slips off Nighy like an ill-fitting coat. “That’s what people pay for with clothes,” he explains. “It’s not uncommon. They just give you some kind of oomph to get you through the door. I desperately try. I think there is a certain age after which you can’t look, however self-consciously, unmade – you have to look made. If I don’t shave nowadays, people think I’m unwell or say, ‘Oh my God, is he not well? Is he depressed?’ I just look sad – so I shave.”

When talking about his role in Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest Nighy says, “They were looking for a chronically self-absorbed, pompous actor in his declining years and they thought about me.” This, of course, doesn’t seem to prevent Nighy spending the next four hours continuously bouncing around the hotel room – dancing, clicking his fingers, and at one point even climbing onto the roof of the building. Reaching his ‘declining years’ certainly doesn’t seem to be slowing Nighy down. His acting CV is, in many ways, the modern British film industry. If there is a quality BBC film being made, odds are Nighy is starring in it.

There’s only one problem. Despite having built a body of work that includes some of the British public’s most treasured films, Nighy reluctantly admits: “I never watch films I’m in and I never, ever read anything about myself. Saying I don’t like the sight of myself doesn’t exonerate me in terms of vanity, because in order to be that affected by it you have to be self-absorbed or vain or something.”

It may seem strange that a man who ‘doesn’t particularly like [his] look’ ended up staring down the lens of a camera for a living. “I know,” he says impishly when I raise this issue with him. “Odd, isn’t it?” Nighy essentially became an actor because a girl he was ‘desperate to please’ told him he could. “I didn’t ever really think I was going to become an actor, not in a million years.” Then, after two years studying drama, Nighy entered the world of acting as most people do, struggling to get by. “I’d taken a job on a building site because I didn’t have any money and I was about to give up,” he says, describing his plan to travel the world. “If you ran out of ideas in those days what you did was get a Volkswagen microbus, paint it a violent colour and drive it to Nepal.”

When Nighy told his father he was planning to abandon the dream, his dad urged him not to. “He told me: ‘You’ve been on the telly!’ We’re talking ancient history, when there were only four channels so being on one was a big deal to him. I’d been third robber from the right in Softly Softly.” Shortly afterwards a friend recommended Nighy for a place at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, where the actors Jonathan Pryce and Kate Fahy were starting a new company. It was a gig that changed the course of his life. “I was suddenly in a place where it wasn’t an exclusively middle-class pursuit,” Nighy explains. “Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale were the resident writers; Julie Walters, Pete Postlethwaite, Bernard Hill, George Costigan, Antony Sher and Ian Redford were in the company, and a lot of them were on their first-time job, too.”

"I used to suffer on stage — I would stand very still and look moody and hope that it passed for some kind of internal monologue..."

Nighy and his peers had been plucked out by Alan Dossor, who built the theatre and who clearly, Nighy says, had a real eye. “When I walked into this place I literally didn’t know what left or right meant. Then it got too late to ask anyone what anything meant because I would’ve probably got fired. But they were writing about things I understood and that affected everybody, rather than a section of the community.” Ten years of touring after his time in Liverpool meant that Nighy arrived in London just as the 1960s were reaching full swing. For many, the capital back then was a Belle Époque for Old Blighty, when the music, clothes and parties were simply better. Unusually, Nighy has a different view.

“It was a strange time,” he explains. “I hated being an actor for the first few years because I was so self-conscious and I didn’t have a way of dealing with it. I used to just suffer on stages being paralysed by self-consciousness. I would stand very still and look moody and hope that it passed for some kind of internal monologue or internal drama. They were great times, yeah, but I don’t have a great nostalgia for it.”

bill nighy

Nighy claims he regularly spent his days “running around Soho trying to put some money together to get a bed for the night, or just spending the night on other people’s floors.” He continues: “One of my least favourite phenomenons is listening to people my age telling young people that everything was better; that the sex was better, that music was better. It’s not true. Suddenly we seemed to have The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rod Stewart and all the other bands that will kill me for not mentioning them. There was this sudden explosion of young white boys interpreting black American music. But guess what? They also made some of the worst music ever made in the 1960s and 1970s, just like every other time.” As for the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? “To be honest, the pill was the only revolutionary drug,” he says. “Anything that was achieved on all the other gear was achieved despite the fact that people were on these paranoid-making drugs.”

“I wish I could tell you something different,” Nighy adds, smiling, after telling me that London never really swung. “It’s like the Summer of Love. I mean, give me a break! Who thought of the Summer of Love? And 30 years later you get asked earnestly: ‘What was the Summer of Love like?’ I think: ‘Are you actually serious?’ There wasn’t one. Or at least I wish someone had told me about it at the time.”

Of course, despite his protestations Nighy had his fair share of fun during the time. But beyond the stories about blagging his way into the Camden Palace (now KOKO) on a Friday night, Nighy spent much of the 1970s breaking into the world of the London stage and screen. It is at this point that he formed many of the ‘most meaningful professional relationships’ of his life.

I never expected anyone to come up to me in the street, to want my photograph or autograph. I never expected anything like this

“I started to meet writers and directors that I admired in London and it gave me a sense of being a part of something,” he explains. One such writer became Nighy’s lifelong friend and collaborator. “I met this man called David Hare, then I went for a job at the BBC. He’d written a play called Dreams of Leaving, which was unlike anything I had ever read. I’ve been most fortunate in terms of working with David because he’s a million times cleverer than I am and he expresses things that I couldn’t. Sometimes you read things and say: ‘I would have gotten around to saying that.’ No, you wouldn’t. You could sit there for the rest of your life and you wouldn’t.”

The pair have continued to work together throughout their careers and, in 2015, Nighy was honoured with a Tony award nomination for Best Actor for his performance opposite Carey Mulligan in Hare’s Skylight. Although Nighy credits this to ‘good fortune’, ‘keeping his nose clean’ and ‘not becoming a nuisance’, it is a testament to the type of man Nighy really is. He has worked closely and prolifically with the greatest writers of his age – and that’s no accident.

Another of Nighy’s semi-legendary friendships is the one he shares with Richard Curtis. As a duo, they have become as much a symbol of Britishness as tea and scones. “Actually,” Nighy says when I probe him for news of the next Notting Hill, “I haven’t spoken with him about the next “Richard Curtis movie”. But lately we have been talking about music, because he is a fool for music and so am I.

“That’s another great relationship that changed the course of my life. If a Richard Curtis script comes through the door – and I’ve been lucky enough to have had that happen to me on multiple occasions – it’s Christmas. Working with him on things like The Girl in the Café, About Time and The Boat That Rocked made all kinds of other things possible. They were great jobs and I’m extremely proud of my association with him and that he’s used me that many times. He is a brilliant and wonderful director and a brilliant and wonderful man.”

With friends like these, Nighy has had the rare actor’s fortune of being able to consistently produce work that ‘has real dignity for everyone involved’. “That said, I’ve done some right stinkers over the years,” he laughs, “but I don’t worry about that.” It all boils down to a good script. “The whole thing is gambling,” Nighy says. “A friend of mine says you get to a certain age and people start sending their children to you to discuss becoming an actor. I ask them: ‘Are you prepared to live your life as a professional gambler?’ Because those are the odds, and they’re worse than for a professional gambler.”

Nighy has undeniably made his own luck, not just by being friends with some of the greatest actors, directors, and writers of our time, but moreover by keeping the most rigorous of personal quality filters. You could say Nighy has adopted the same high standards he reserves for Savile Row suits in his professional work. Half a century of being strict with himself has made Nighy far more humble than he deserves to be. His ambitions are moderated by the fact that, as he says, “I never expected anyone to want to come up to me in the street, to want my photograph or autograph. I never expected anything like this.”

His story ranges from ‘sweeping the stage at regional theatres to Hollywood’, encompassing legendary stories of performing and partying (in his youth) with some of the most esteemed veterans of Bohemian Soho. “But it was all so long ago,” he says. “It becomes longer and longer ago, so it becomes harder and harde”r. The only bits of my life that I can actually remember are the bits that I’ve made into anecdotes. And we know how reliable that is. It’s just the stuff that I’ve worked up for stories in a bar.

“I’m supposed to be working on a book,” he says mischievously. I’m supposed to write one but I can’t see it ever happening. I just can’t ever picture myself sitting down for long enough to get that done. I have the time – it’s the same as anything, if you really want to do something you can make the time – but I procrastinate at an Olympic level and I have managed not to write anything my whole life. Actually, I am quietly pleased with myself!

“If I live to an old age and have absolutely nothing to do, I may sit down and do it,” he continues. “But the problem is you can’t explain yourself to the world, half of it I can’t remember, you can’t grass anyone up, and you can’t tell the stories that people would want to hear because it would make you sound like a scoundrel. The only excuse for anyone writing at length about themselves is to make it amusing.

“The same thing applies for interviews,” Nighy says when I ask why he doesn’t just get a biographer to turn his pub stories into a bestseller. Unleashing his wicked sense of humour, he leans forward and says, “I don’t really like being interviewed.”

Want more from Hollywood’s greats? Here’s an essay on Willem Dafoe’s face

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