There is one line people have been quoting at Bill Nighy??? for the past 14 years. He even heard it from a tough-guy customs officer as he entered the US.
“Hiya kids,” it goes. “Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star and they give you them for free.”
That’s Billy Mack talking, the ageing rocker from Love Actually. It’s the role that changed Nighy’s life; the first step to becoming a beloved British actor.
You can still see the impact as Nighy, a dapper 67-year-old in a sharp blue suit, arrives at a Sydney cinema for a screening of his latest film, the British drama Their Finest, which has him playing an actor making a World War II propaganda film.
Outside, a small posse of fans is queuing for photos and autographs. These particular admirers – young, male and dressed mostly in black – know him from playing the squid-like Davy Jones in The Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the Minister for Magic Rufus Scrimgeour??? in the Harry Potter series. “I loved him in The Boat that Rocked too,” confides one.
When a woman gushes that her mother loves him, Nighy feigns a grimace. “It’s always the mothers,” he says. “Sometimes the grandmothers.”
As he enters the cinema for a Q&A session, women considerably younger than grandmothers call out “Bill, Bill” and wave hello as though he’s a real-life Billy Mack.
Taking to the stage, Nighy gives a rock-star shimmy then turns on the comic charm. “They were looking for someone to play a chronically self-absorbed, pompous actor in his declining years,” he says. “And they came to me.”
Since Love Actually became a worldwide hit in 2003, Nighy has never had to audition again. “No more sitting in outer offices at 9am and then having to pretend to be on horseback and fighting with an imaginary sword in the heat of battle in front of three or four not very interested people,” he says later.
His other films include three Underworld instalments, two Best Exotic Marigold Hotels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Shaun of the Dead, Notes on a Scandal,Hot Fuzz, Valkyrie and Total Recall.
BLA – Before Love Actually – Nighy had a respectable life as an actor. “I was doing OK, I’m always desperate to tell people,” he says. “I had a familiar English career; I was on the TV and I was in the theatre. That had already exceeded my expectations. I suppose I had what you might call laughably low expectations.”
When it came to playing romantic roles, which he was often offered because he was tall, Nighy was chronically uncomfortable. “If I was ever required to suggest I was attractive to women, I used to go to pieces,” he says.
But Love Actually showed his talent for getting laughs.
Recently, Nighy enjoyed reuniting with writer-director Richard Curtis and the cast for a short Love Actually sequel that was released for a Red Nose Day fundraiser for British charity Comic Relief. “Richard has done a great job of what might have happened to those characters in the last 14 years,” he says. “And I still fit into the trousers.”
Nighy started acting at an all-boys Catholic school in London. “I was tall, which meant I didn’t have to play girls, which was a result!,” he says.
With his father a works manager for a motor-vehicle garage and his mother a psychiatric nurse, the young Nighy wanted to be a writer. But when he fell for a girl at 17, love actually made him try acting.
“She said, ‘You could be an actor’ and I completely over-reacted,” he says. “She could have said ‘astronaut’ and I would probably have given it a shot.
“Because she kissed me, I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. I had names for our children.”
He studied at the Guildford School for Dance and Drama, which he knew as the School for Prance and Murmur. While that early romance didn’t last, the acting did. He found work in plays then, in 1976, was “third bankrobber on the left” in the police series Softly Softy. Impressed with that television appearance, his father encouraged him to stick with it.
“I was always retiring,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘In a minute, I’ll find out what I’m really going to do with my life’.”
Now Nighy is acting opposite Gemma Arterton??? in Their Finest. She plays a scriptwriter brought in to supply the “women’s dialogue” for a government film to keep spirits up during the Blitz. Nighy is both pompous actor Ambrose Hilliard and, in the propaganda film within the film, boozy Uncle Frank.
“Very fortunately I still get offered quite a lot of roles,” he says. “Since Exotic Marigold Hotel, the revelation for producers was that you could make a film about people of my age and make a lot of money.
“They discovered there were apparently all these people that were over 40 or 50 or even 60 who might want to go and see a film. So I get a lot of films about groups of people of a certain age who are still having fun or haven’t given up – ‘you’re not dead yet’ movies.”
For all his joviality, Nighy is thoughtful about his work. “I try and involve myself in films that generally speaking, not to be too grand about it, will be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he says. “All my life I’ve been, broadly speaking, in opposition to whatever’s been going on.
“Now it’s an emergency. As evidenced in America, most of the people are in opposition to what’s going on.”
Nighy has never gone back to writing – not even to attempt a screenplay. “I’ve been cowardly,” he says. “I can procrastinate at an Olympic level. It’s a fetish not to write.
“It was the thing that I chose out of all the things one could do with life but I failed because I didn’t have the courage to sit there long enough, which means I’m not a writer. Since then I get a kind of an anti-kick out of not doing things. It’s a very bad habit.”
Then Nigh remembers that’s not entirely true.
“In the old days, when you were on TV and the dialogue was absolutely terrible, you’d be in the make-up chair and you’d think ‘I can’t say that on national television’,” he says. “Then you’d rewrite the line and you’d take it to the director and they’d say ‘yeah, alright, say that.’ But apart from that, no.”
So is he, as he seems, an introvert away from acting? Almost the polar opposite of loose cannon Billy Mack?
“I don’t get out much or anything,” Nighy says, thinking the question over. “I’m not a loner or anything but I do spend a great deal of time on my own.
“But then I always did and actors often do because you’re away from home, usually in hotels or on a train or a plane or a bus. You end up spending long periods away from people you know.
“But my tendency is to withdraw. If left to my own devices with no outside attractions or influences, I seem to end up in a room on my own with a book, with John Lee Hooker playing with Van Morrison on my Bluetooth speaker. That’s my reward for doing scary things.”
Nighy’s favourite writers include fellow Brits A.S. Byatt and Martin Amis, whose new novels he buys on the day they’re released, just like he once did with Beatles records???.
“If I’m in a hotel, I’ll get up early in order to be able to read,” he says. “And those times become the most precious and the most pleasurable part of your day.
“Well … I’ve had days when other things happen. But there’s that bit where you’re alone, particularly early morning and you’ve got a cup of tea and the music playing and there’s nothing else happening.
“You try and arrange it so that you’ve got maybe 25 minutes till the man comes to the door. Those 25 minutes become completely delicious.”
There are also pleasures in acting. “On occasion, and it’s not that frequently, you feel like you know what you’re doing,” Nighy says. “There’s a particular part and for some reason you can tune into it and you think you’re presenting something which is entirely yours.
“If you get laughs, particularly on stage because they’re happening while you’re there, that is addictive. Trying to get laughs, placing them in the air so that you get them louder, better, deeper each time, that’s an endlessly fascinating and pleasurable activity. To have a thousand people all laugh at the same time … that’s gorgeous.”
The actor’s life also has rewards, sometimes experienced in solitude.
“The best bit is afterwards when you think it’s come off and you think you’ve got away with it and you’re back in your hotel room and you just thank your lucky stars. I’m not very good at straight happiness but I’m really good at relief.”
But there was one transcendent moment when Nighy remembers being truly happy – just after opening his first play in New York. “For months, with the rehearsals then previews then you open, I remember just being in a general state of alarm for a very long time,” he says. “Then, the night after we opened, the producer came over and said, ‘It’s fine, we’re going to be OK.’”
Nighy and his driver Andrew had the habit of calling into the M&M store on the way back from the theatre – “I had an M&M problem at the time” – to buy two bags of all five colours for the actor to consume at home.
“I remember coming out of the M&M store and I opened the door of the car and Andrew had Barry White on, playing Never Never Gonna Give You Up,” he says. “Suddenly, somewhere between the M&M store and the car, I came out of this general state of alarm and I realised that we’d opened and it was OK.
“I got in the car and I said to Andrew, ‘Turn that f—er up … Let’s go to Brooklyn for dessert’.
“He put the wheel between his knees and he and I were waving our arms like [we were] in a football crowd. And I was absolutely, uncomplicatedly happy. There was absolutely nothing wrong.
“I knew that the minute I put my arms down, it was over but we just kept it going with Barry singing.”
So kids, don’t buy drugs. The secret to happiness, at least for one transcendent moment, is M&Ms and Barry White.
Their Finest opens on April 20.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.