Bill Nighy has played many a diverse character on stage and screen. The softly spoken British actor, neatly attired in suit and tie spending the day doing press for the new Pirates movie, admits that after all these years, he had no idea what he was getting into when approached to play a CGI version of the infamous Davy Jones, “in terms of the technological side of things, but I was never in any doubt about the script,”Nighy says, as we chat in a Beverly Hills hotel room.
“I was certainly very encouraged having met Gore Verbinski, having seen the first movie, Johnny’s performance particularly, and being a part of all that. I like the whole idea of pirates and have always kind of liked that stuff,” Nighy says, smilingly. The actor then pauses, a dry grin settles over him before conceding that “when I got to wear my computer pyjamas with white bobbles all over for the first time, that’s perhaps when there was a slight doubt that crept into my mind. I then thought ‘Are you insane?’ “
That insanity was due, in part, to this classically trained British actor not quite understanding the process. “But once I got into it and Gore and I started to kind of tune the performance, it turned into good fun, because you were allowed to get away with stuff that you wouldn’t normally,” says the actor. Nighy says that playing Davy Jones “was a level of performance where perhaps you wouldn’t normally be sort of encouraged to investigate. The first one was very scary, because nobody knew what it was going to look like, and they didn’t know if it was going to work, whether it would be a successful creature, or whether it would be integrated into the movie properly in a technical way. When we had seen it, and it was so successfully integrated, obviously a world class iconic kind of creature, and so well received, we were emboldened coming into the third movie.”
Nighy, who has appeared in some 80 film and television productions in the past 25 years, admits that doing the two Pirates films kind of reminded him of why he wanted to become an actor in the first place in terms of the way that he had to rely on his imagination, “because the first couple of weeks were among the most daunting of my career. Gore always used to say ‘Whatever you do, don’t worry about it. The performance will arrive on the screen and the creature will be informed only by that which you perform in the first place’. And ‘It will all work out’ and ‘Trust me’.. Then later when it did all work out and I said to him, ‘Well you always told me that it was going to work out’ and he said ‘Yeah but I was lying’. He said ‘I had to tell you something’. When you were a kid, the movies were a big part of anyone’s life and you went in, you paid some money, you came out and you felt considerably better than you did when you went in. That was the deal, not always, but most of the time, particularly when you were young. So that’s how I think Pirates is to people, in that it makes people feel better. From the acting point of view, yes, big broad stroke, because it’s kind of playing around like you did when you were a kid and trying to be scary is always interesting.”
Of course there is far more to Bill Nighy than a Davy Jones. This lauded British actor can easily segue between the Hollywood blockbusters and TV gems such as The Girl in the Cafe and the award-winning Gideon’s Daughter. Such transitions remain important to the actor. Nighy says. ” Well I’ve been lucky and they’re all in their own way and great examples of that form of drama, I mean with The Girl in the Café and Gideon’s Daughter. Steven Poliakoff, Richard Curtis are great men and great writers. The Pirates writers are also brilliant guys and it’s all just top quality stuff. So wherever it is, I am happy to go there.”
Asked if he remains picky these days, Nighy pauses. “That’s an interesting question really. I suppose I get pickier as I get older and more protective of my career. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time or want to be a nuisance around the place. I feel that in later years, but not always, because I’ve done my fair share of things I’d rather not think about, because when you’re young, you’ve got to go to work and you first get a family and a mortgage, you do what you’ve got to do. I’ve done my fair share of stuff that I regret, but lately I’ve been lucky in latter years and for the most part there isn’t anything in recent years that I wouldn’t say, well, you know, ‘That was a good choice and I stand by it’. But I think now, I suppose it gets more difficult as well, so I guess I am quite picky.”
Nighy was born in 1949 and grew up a bit of a mixed-up kid in Caterham, Surrey, just south-west of London. His dad managed a garage, while his mum worked as a psychiatric nurse. He attended school until he was only fifteen and never received an O-level–a standardised test for the General Certificate of Education Ordinary. Instead, Nighy left school, enlisted the companionship of a school chum and the two ran off for the Persian Gulf. They made it as far as the south of France, when poverty and hunger ended their ambitions. Nighy went to the British embassy, where he was wired £25 by his dad to go back home. Upon return, Nighy managed to disappoint the folks again after he graduated to the employment office: he chose as his profession “author”, if only to emulate one of his heroes, Ernest Hemingway.
Nighy dreamed of writing the proverbial grand novel, and even felt he was on the right track when he got a job at The Field as a messenger. Located in up town Mayfair, Nighy’s employ at The Field offered an opportunity to experience a bit of the high life, complete with limo rides and good tea. Then Nighy ran away again to Paris, this time at 17, where he thought he could write his novel. He never wrote a word, and instead found himself a pauper begging for change on the streets. His only job prospect–two hundred francs to sleep with an older woman–was promptly declined, and the shiftless young lad returned to England. It was then that Nighy’s interest in acting was fermented.
Coming from such a working class background, Nighy wistfully concedes that acting was ultimately a means of escape for a young man with little direction. “I wasn’t very good in what I wanted to do, but I was tremendously good at what I didn’t want to do,” Nighy says, laughingly. “I was born in a gas station, my father was the works manager who was apprenticed as a boy as a car mechanic and then worked his way up. My brother was also apprenticed as a boy and the plan for me would have been the same. I grew up around mechanics and cars and I played around in the workshop and I made an early decision – I arranged to know almost nothing about the combustion engine.”
Nighy recalls that he didn’t want that to be his future. “The only thing I knew that I didn’t want to do was that I didn’t want to get up every morning and go to the same place and I didn’t want to know what I was going to be making in twenty-five years.” Young Bill wanted to gamble a bit and wanted to be a writer because of the romantic in his soul. “But I didn’t have the courage or the mental discipline as it turned out, so somebody suggested that I be an actor. It was a way out of, because I didn’t want to go and do a regular job, so I stupidly thought it would be easier than working.”
It has been a tough journey for the 58-year old, who discovered fame on screen late in life thanks to Richard Curtis casting him in Love, Actually. Now, Nighy has reached the pinnacle of a career, defined by the diverse likes of Shaun of the Dead, Underworld, and Notes on a Scandal. Nighy says he remains genuinely astonished at how successful her has become, “because I sometimes think that I had low expectations of myself but actually they weren’t low expectations. When I was a kid and I got to work in the theatre, that was, in itself, quite a high expectation for me and I was very happy with that. I never imagined for a moment that I would be allowed to make a living doing plays and I certainly never thought I’d be in a movie. I wasn’t even on TV for the first decade of my working life, I didn’t know anybody who was on TV and I certainly didn’t know anybody who was in a movie. I mean my generation of English actors didn’t meet anyone who was in a movie because they were in America. We didn’t make many films any more and it was just not on my list of things to dream for, you know what I mean? The fact that I’ve been many times on television and now that I get to be pretty regularly in movies is actually astonishing to me. And to be involved in something as big as this, for instance, is not something that I ever anticipated.”
Nighy has no acting projects he can discuss, though squashed internet rumours of his involvement in the screen version of the hit musical Mama Mia. Nighy says that his next project is a little bit different from a Pirates movie. “What I’ve actually been involved in is something close to my heart which is my own project, an audio books thing which I’m setting up called ‘Silk Sound Books’ and he idea is – myself and some colleagues – to deliver great books on audio-tape, read by famous people basically, brilliantly and entertainingly, by great people which you can download for a couple of bucks onto your iPod. You can look it up up on www.silksoundbooks.com. We have the complete works of Arthur Conan-Doyle – all the Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, Henry James, Edgar Allen Poe, which I read personally. We’ve got the murders of the Rue Morgue, Oscar Wilde and all kinds of stuff. The idea is that it’s cheap and quick, so if you’re on a car journey or whatever you’re doing, it will be great books read by some of your favourite actors. It’s quite good because you can say to actors ‘What’s your favourite book? Do you want to read it?’ Or if they’ve got children you can say ‘Do you want to read something for your kids?’ So it’s a simple idea. And there are other outfits doing it but it’s just that it’s cheap and it’s easy to access and we’ve got a great list.”
As for putting pen to paper and writing his own memoirs, Nighy may finally become the writer he yearned to be since late adolescence. “Now I’ve reached an age where people start to ask you that and I have been asked, I don’t know, a dozen times if I’ll write a book. I was actually asked the other day if I would sit down with somebody for 21 days and they were offering me an enormous amount of money just to talk into a microphone. But then I realised that I don’t want that to happen, because if anyone’s going to write a book I want it to be me. Then you think ‘Well why would I be writing the book? What am I writing the book for?’ I’m certainly not going to do it for money. If there was a book with my name on it I would want it to be respectable and I think the only honourable thing for me would be to attempt to be amusing. Also my nightmare is those books that begin ‘I was born under the sign of Taurus on April the 21st’ and you just want to kill yourself, then you cut to chapter 5 where they get their first job, you know what I mean?”
Nighy has no interest in taking his film career one step forward as a director. “I don’t think I’ll threaten the world with that. I don’t know how directors do it. It’s bad enough being an actor, but being a director? My god.” So what are Nighy’s unfulfilled ambitions, one finally asks. “Nothing in terms of acting. I’ve been incredibly fortunate, have worked with some of the greatest writers working in my lifetime, and some of the greatest actors and directors. There isn’t anything left I burn to play.”
Behind the slimy tentacles of Davy Jones, lay an actor whose life on screen continues beyond the Hollywood blockbuster.