Bill Nighy is one of Britain’s most beloved character actors, who ranges in diversity from the ferociously hilarious [Love Actually], to the subtle dramatic [The Girl in the Café], through to the dramatically irreverent [Underworld]. Now, as the menacingly ghostly Davy Jones, Nighy takes on a challenging role, in which it is his voice we hear, but little else remains of the actor, who once thought he would become another Ernest Hemingway. That was then, this is now, as Nighy confessed to Paul Fischer that his success continues to surprise him.
Question: Considering that full CGI characters, have been hit and miss, were you ever concerned at all there?
Nighy: I wasn’t really concerned. I was reassured by Gore, the director, who has a background in that kind of stuff. This is the first time of have ever been the process has kind of moved on. This is presumably, currently, state of the art. for instance, there was not a lot of blue screen or that kind of work. I was allowed into the main population, even though I had to wear seriously unsettling trousers and dots all over my face, which is averagely hard to front, particularly when you are standing next to Johnny Depp. I was aware that the creature would be, hopefully, to a large degree, informed by whatever I did on the day. But as for whether it was going to work out or not, I didn’t know.
Question: Did you discover the inner pirate in you when you embarked on it?
Nighy: There is a touch of pirate in me after all apparently. Yeah. Particularly when they showed me my ship. When I first saw the ship … and Gore said, “Have you seen the ship, have you seen the ship?” “No”, I said, “I haven’t seen it”. I stood on the ship and thought how the hell did they let me get away with this? Well you have seen the ship, it is just an insane prop; it is like the biggest, most beautiful thing. It was humbling … and you get on those things, all of those ships, and the level of design and the level of inventiveness with all of it, is kind of daunting at first. It is encouraging obviously, but you also think, “Well, I’d better be good”.
Question: Obviously you are an Underworld and stuff, and these big Hollywood movies, do you enjoy that experience? What draws you to something like this?
Nighy: I certainly enjoyed this one. My background is British independent movies – we don’t get all this kind of stuff. I was very happy. There are moments on this, where you do think, “Well this must be mean by the movies. This is what they call the movies”. I remember driving up to a night shoot in the Caribbean when there were three of the ships on the water; and they’re lit by huge massive Chinese lanterns and they pump movie rain through the light onto these three huge ships. It is a thrilling site, it is the biggest set that I’d ever been on, and I never have been on anything like it. The ships cost enormous amounts of money, or whatever. You think, this must be like the movies, it is thrilling.
Question: What was your previous knowledge of the whole Davy Jones legend? Did you do a lot of research on his character?
Nighy: None whatsoever. No I did a little bit. Everybody in England, knows Davy Jones … I don’t know whether it is familiar. You have the same thing, he tore his heart, and he is determined never to feel that kind of pain again. It is a powerful, great story. The idea that you can take out the organ, you know … the organ that offends you and put it in a box. I love the idea (I don’t know how much I am supposed to tell you), but if he is ever in the vicinity of the heart, he starts to feel stuff, you know what I mean? That is why he knows his heart is nearby. It is a great story and the fact that he is job in the movie to be scary and spooky, but also there is a kind of … he is a tragic figure in terms of love and heartbreak. I was quite familiar with the tale.
Question: Gore told us that your entire face is CGI including the eyes, you know. I thought while I was watching it, at least those were your eyes, because that is what so much performance gets through.
Nighy: I know.
Question: So when you look at the movies and see the mask where your face should be, is there any way can you describe what a view of your performance you see in that?
Nighy: It is surprising actually, I wasn’t entirely convinced. Gore said, “It is going to be the performance … the performance will be the inspiration for the crew ship. It will be truly and properly informed by whatever you do”. I figured, “He is a nice guy. What do I know? Why would he lie to me?” But I didn’t kind of … I couldn’t work out how that would be.
My job was to inhabit, as it were, the creature and to provide something for them to work on and that was the gig. I am fine. To the degree which it is identifiable as me, was not something I particularly concern myself with at the beginning because I figured it wouldn’t be, I just thought it was me informing a creature. Obviously I had seen pictures … it didn’t look much like me, do you know what I mean? I am kind of … I don’t know whether it is just because I am me … I am sort of surprised to what degree it sort of looks familiar. It is spooky, obviously because it’s weird experience; I have never done anything like this before; although I have done animations, but it is not quite like the same thing. It is satisfying to see that the stuff, the movement, the physical stuff and the kind of attitudinal decisions that I made – we made, at the time, survive … they are in it; they are there, even though they are delivered by this weirdo. [Laughter] But they were my decisions, and it is kind of familiar to me in quite a big way.
Question: In some ways it is why you want to be an actor, so that you can completely escape into a character and this is one of the kind of fractional of doing things?
Nighy: I really wanted to escape from getting up every morning and going to work. That was my big thing when I wanted to be an actor. I am not just being glib. I had no idea of what being an actor meant, when I became one. I became one because I met a girl and she said, “You should be one”. [Laughter]
Question: Did it work to get the girl?
Nighy: No I didn’t get the girl, she got married? Anyway she could have said ‘astronaut’ and I would have gone that way. It was not … I wasn’t driven to do it. I literally, honestly, it is absolutely true … I had no plans in that area, it was just that I she was the first girl that every kind of looked at me.
Question: Did you ever work as a journalist?
Nighy: No, because I didn’t have enough, what we, in my country, call ‘levels’. I didn’t have enough exams, I didn’t have enough qualifications, didn’t have any qualifications, because I basically flunked school. [Laughter] I had two big heroes: Ernest Hemmingway and Bob Dylan – they were my big heroes, and the Rolling Stones, but in terms of my life decisions, I was going to be like Ernest Hemmingway when I was sixteen. He went and joined the Toronto Star when he was seventeen, I think, before going to the front in Italy and driving an ambulance. I even volunteered … I went to Paris … I went to the Croydon Advertiser, which is funny if you come from England, but … anyway, trust me [laughter]. Croydon Advertiser is not a big outfit. They said, “You couldn’t be one”, because I didn’t have the levels. [laughter]
I thought I was going to be in a good hat in a decent Mac in the rain in Yugoslavia, and there would be a beautiful woman. I would get information from her. She would sleep with me, probably, at some point. [laughter] I would get the Pulitzer Prize … you know what I mean? I hadn’t got a thought in … basically I was a mess. I hadn’t got a thought in my head really. Then I did get a job. I wanted to be a writer, and in those days you used to have a thing called the National Youth Employment. If you hadn’t got any levels or anything ,you went down there and the guy would sit there with a big book, and all the jobs that were available in your area – they would be in this big book. I went with my mother, and the guy said, “What do you want to be?” and I said … not to be clever, but just to put him straight, I said, “I want to be an author”. My mother put her foot on my foot under this table really hard, as if to say, “Get real”, and the guy was very, very cool and said, “I don’t have any author’s jobs”, and I said, “I didn’t imagine you would, but I just wanted you to know that that is what I wanted to do”, and he looked through and he said, “Let’s see if there is anything in here that might lead to that”. He did, and he got me a job, and I was a messenger boy on Field Magazine, which is hunt and shoot and fishing … in England. It doesn’t exist now. I used to run around all the hotels and give all the new edition … change all the things in the racks and do all that. It was glamorous because it was in London; black cabs … it was cool. It was working, because Sir Geoffrey Harmsworth who was the Governor actually called to see me one day … and I thought I was fired, but he said, “If you get shorthand and typing, I will put you in the sub-editor’s office” and he said … I could have been in the sub-editor’s office. But because I was a mess, I didn’t do that bit because it meant you had to learn shorthand. I cut to Paris where Ernest went, and ran away, left the job, threw my suitcase out the window – literally, went to Paris, didn’t write a word … but I was going to be like him. Be like all the people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or James Joyce, and all the people who have ever been in Paris in about 1920-whatever.
Question: How proud are you that you became as successful an actor as you are given how you began?
Nighy: Well I am completely … I guess everybody must feel this … I am completely astounded by it. Every little bit that has happened to me; every sort of stage of the game has … I have never quite believed it. I know this is not uncommon, and I am sure, in your game or anybody’s game, at some point, maybe, if you are like me, you think that somebody is going to tap you on the shoulder and say, “What do you think you’re doing here?” or whatever. To any degree of success, I find it completely astounding, actually. Not because I don’t think that I have delivered, on occasion, but my expectations were very low. There were no precedents around our way, for actors. I didn’t know any actors. I didn’t know that you could make a living, and my father didn’t know that you could make a living. When I said to my father, “I am going to be an actor”, he didn’t know … he was very cool. He didn’t say, “Are you insane?” He didn’t do that. He said, “Well what do you have to do? What do you do?” I said, “Well I don’t know”. We will work something out. Anyway, this girl turned up, and it was all … [laughter]
Question: Do you know if there is any more recent talk about doing the Underworld Prequel that there was talk of?
Nighy: I don’t. I only heard about this the other day, and I hope so, because I am very keen on vampires. I am very keen on Len Wiseman, and I am very keen on Kate and the whole thing. I enjoyed being … although one of the great …You know, but I was very pleased to be in the first two. I am very happy in this, that no one will ever put me in a prosthetics truck ever again. It is never going to happen. It is medieval, and it shouldn’t be allowed. I had six hours of makeup for Underworld 1, and one of the cool things about this film, is that you just get a few dots on your face and you don’t have to do all that stuff. Apart from that, I am very keen on vampires. I have a thing about vampires.
Question: What is next for you then?
Nighy: What is next for me is …
Question: Hot Fuzz?
Nighy: Hot Fuzz I have just done … I literally, like every other actor in England really, pop in and out … because everybody dug “Shaun of the Dead” so bad, the boys are back, and they have got this script and it is called “Hot Fuzz”. It is basically city cop goes rural, and Simon plays the cop and it is stupidly funny. If you liked Shaun of the Dead, it is just stupid. They have got everyone in it, and I am in it for like … ten seconds. Jim Broadbent’s is in it … considerably in it.
Question: Are you a perp?
Nighy: No actually … I don’t know whether I am supposed to tell you this, but I am a very, very high ranking police office. In fact I think I out rank everybody – largely because I am older than everybody else.
Question: How much more of Pirates 3 do you have to do?
Nighy: I have quite a lot, actually.
Question: Are you going to go back to any small films for British Television? You did the Girl in the Café, which was lovely …
Nighy: Thank you …
Question: Do you like going back to those kinds of films?
Nighy: I don’t mind what … I am happy … very happy. Everything that might have happened has happened, and as long as there are things … I have been extraordinarily lucky, and I know they all say that, but it is the truth. Wherever there is good material that might just help … to put it broadly … then I’m very, very happy. I don’t mind where it is. I am going to do a play at the end of the year in New York, in fact. I am going to do a play called, “The Vertical Hour”, written by David Hare, with Julianne Moore, directed by Sam Mendes …sounds good doesn’t it, and then there’s me! [laughter] Anyway … I’ll fuck it up.
Question: What fun things do you get to do in Pirates 3?
Nighy: If I tell you that they will fire me. Pirates 3 is nuts … very nuts. It is completely nuts. The story and the plot are completely insane. It is brilliant. It is convoluted to the point of … it is so funny. It is not like comedies where you get lots … you don’t get … they make a feature of the fact that it is so funny. It is funny that it is so … it is part of the joke. It is brilliant, but I don’t think I am supposed to tell you anything about it. except there is one bit … nah. I can’t tell you.
Question: But you still just get the dots on your face when you go back to shooting, right? Does it get any easier that time?
Nighy: You see you know the questions to ask, don’t you? Most of the time.
Question: They said there is seventy more days to shoot. They haven’t come up with a new process in that time?
Nighy: No, no.
Question: So you still have to have the bad pants and the dots?
Nighy: Most of the time.
Question: Now that you have seen it, can you do that kind of acting better knowing what it is going to come out looking like?
Nighy: Yes. I think so. I hope so. I was astounded when I actually saw … when I first saw stuff I had done, because it is quite … you know, it is quite broad, in terms of performance. It is quite big. Our choice to do it Scottish, was also kind of radical, in terms of that accent, but I was quite … actually for once in my life … I am not a fan of myself, I am happy that other people like it, but I don’t watch myself very much. I saw some of this, even with the dots and stuff, and I thought, “That is kind of like even what a Scottish Pirate …”
Question: Well you must be pleased with your performance in Constant Gardener?
Nighy: I was very, very pleased with Constant Gardener because it is such a big story, and it is such a brilliant idea to give that script to that director … Fernando and César – Cinematography, did such a brilliant job, and that is the big scandal. It is one of the great scandals – the way the pharmaceutical companies use Africa as a laboratory, and I was very pleased. It was a wonderful project all together. As far as I know, it went at number 3 in American, and for a movie like that, that’s some achievement … it is big, and it is such a big story.