Bill Nighy is one of Britain’s most recognisable character actors and has appeared in some of the most best loved films on both sides of the Atlantic, from “Love Actually” to “Underworld”.
Nighy was born on December 12th 1949 in Caterham, Surrey. His father managed a garage in Croydon and his mother worked as a psychiatric nurse. At school he gained ‘O’-levels in English Language and English Literature and enjoyed reading, particularly Ernest Hemingway.
On leaving school he wanted to become a journalist but didn’t have the required qualifications. He eventually went on to work as a messenger boy for the Field magazine. He stayed in Paris for a while because he wanted to write “the great novel”, but he only managed to write the title.
When he ran out of money, the British consul shipped him home. A girlfriend suggested that he should become an actor, so he trained at Guildford School of Dance and Drama. Since then he has found continuous work as an actor, on stage, screen and radio. His stage work includes National Theatre roles in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in 1993, David Hare’s Skylight and Blue Orange. programmes.
On the big screen, Nighy also completed another Underworld film, is deliciously droll in the upcoming Richard Curtis comedy The Boat that Rocks, stars with guinea pigs in Jerry Bruckheimer’s upcoming G Force and in the meantime stars opposite Tom Cruise as one of several German officers plotting to assassinate Hitler in the closing days of World War 2, in Valkyrie.
Nighy talked exclusively to Paul Fischer by phone from the film’s New York press junket.
Question: This is a really interesting character for you. He’s very understated, for a Nazi.Was that something that you worked on, or was that in the script when it came to you?
Nighy: It’s something that I worked on, I suppose you could say. It’s how it occurred to me. It’s not in the script, particularly, except that it’s made plain in the script, that the way he’s presented, as much as he’s presented in the script, is that he was a hesitant, diffident, cautious man. So I suppose that the idea of that somehow would to some degree have informed my decision to kind of keep it low key. And I thought that might work, and get people’s attention in the midst of all the hullaballoo.
Question: What was the attraction of doing this, for you?
Nighy: Well, there was Brian Singer, who’s a serious man. Tom Cruise is in it. And it’s a great story. I’m interested in that period.
Nighy: Well, I don’t know, really, why, but maybe it’s an English thing, or a European thing. I can’t have nostalgia for it, obviously, because I wasn’t quite around at that time, but everybody I know of my generation are kind of fascinated by it. I did read once that everyone has a kind of nostalgia for the period 60 years before they were born. I mean, before now, kind of thing. It’s a sort of perennial thing. Everyone has a kind of generalized nostalgia for a period of that length of time before. But, I don’t know. Obviously it’s a very evocative time and it was – you know, the stories are very big there. It was a time when our country, England, was briefly unified and that people were democratized by being in great peril. So it was a very interesting time, socially and culturally.
Question: Are you one of these guys who immerses themselves into the research? Or do you feel that you had enough on the page?
Nighy: I have enough on the page. I’m not famous for research. I did read around the subject, simply because I’m interested anyway. I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is the most extraordinary book. But no, I knew everything I needed to know and notes were provided about all of our characters, so I had a pretty in-depth profile of Friedrich Olbricht before I played him. So I knew the kind of basic, significant events in his life.
Question: Are any of his family still alive, do you know?
Nighy: Yes, I believe they are. And we are taking the movie to Berlin for the European premiere in January, so I’m expecting, perhaps, to meet some of them. It’s a tricky one, because obviously, as history and the film presents it, he was instrumental in the whole thing kind of falling apart, although he was involved in the resistance for they were honourable men. They had to swear an allegiance to Adolph Hitler, but they didn’t become members of the Nazi Party. They came from a very, very strong military tradition and they were shamed by the fact that their Commander-in-Chief was an incompetent corporal. Quite apart from the fact that he was a lunatic.
Question: In fact, it’s interesting, because none of you wear Nazi uniforms in this and I’m wondering whether or not the reality of that period was that they would be able to get away with that.
Nighy: Yeah, no, that’s all pretty accurate. They were able, at that point, to get away with it and I suppose some of it would be due to their usefulness as military commanders. He was a very senior man. He was a bureaucrat, really, although he had seen action, but he was in a very senior position, and therefore could probably get away with it.
Question: Did you guys make fun of Tom Cruise at all, being the kind of American outsider of the group?
Nighy: No. There was never any feeling of that, really. He’s a very easy, satisfying guy to work with. And we all got along pretty well, and we slipped into a nice ensemble feeling. There was never any hint that he was – you know, head of the studio, or any of that kind of status crap. He was a democrat about things. I never felt that, and I don’t think anybody else did.
Question: Did you, Ken Branagh and Terence Stamp kind of sit around and swap stories?
Nighy: Yeah. I have more stories now than – to last me for the rest of my life. Between Kenneth Branagh and Terence Stamp, there’s nothing else you need to know. They have it covered, between show business and music. I mean, the great thing about Terence is, you can go up to him at any time and say, ” Okay, Terry. what about Bob Dylan?” And he’ll say, ” Oh, yeah. What a lovely man.” You know. Or you can ask him, ” What was it like being on the helicopter that took The Who into the Isle of Wight Festival?” There are a million stories he has. And Kenneth, obviously, has many stories, too. So I was well-placed.
Question: Now, you and Ken worked together since, on Boat that Rocks and it’s a very different dynamic, working on a Richard Curtis film. How do you compare working on a pure British film like that, with working on a big Hollywood movie like Valkyrie?
Nighy: Well, in terms of the size of things, it’s pretty much the same, really. I suppose that there wasn’t much difference, in that both have a reasonable amount of money. I don’t know that there’s a great deal of difference, given that most of the cast, or a large part of the cast on Valkyrie were English anyway. But it’s a different vibe although when you’re telling a grim story, people do tend to try and fool around in the meantime, because otherwise, you go crazy. So there was quite a lot of goofing around on the set on both movies. But with Richard – well, you know, it’s obviously a very different kind of movie, but we had some good fun. There are some great people in it. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is marvellous and Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans, loads of young guys and some young comic assassins on board. And we floated around on a boat for five weeks, and then we did a lot of studio stuff.
Question: This is loosely based on history, but you really throw the history away, don’t you?
Nighy: Yeah. It’s incredibly loosely based on events surrounding the pirate radio stations at that time. You know, the main events the main sort of plot mechanics are true. They were – you know, they discovered that you couldn’t – the BBC played, I think, one hour of rock and roll per week in those days. So if you wanted to hear the new music, you couldn’t find it. So then the pirates came along. And they were called pirates, as you probably know, because they were on boats, obviously. And they were three miles outside of territorial waters. And then you could pump all the new rock and roll into England. And it was great for me when I was a kid, I remember, bcause you could finally hear all that stuff. And the government did declare them illegal, and they did chase them, and they did close them down. So, those main events are reflected in the movie, but mostly, it’s a shameless excuse to play all the songs in 1967. And it was a pretty good year.
Question: I can imagine. What kind of groups did he get?
Nighy: You’ve got The Stones, you’ve got The Kinks, you’ve got The Small Faces, you’ve got Jimi Hendrix, you’ve got –
Question: So all that will be in the movie?
Nighy: Yeah. You’ve got The Turtles. We’ve got some Beatles. I’m not sure if they got The Beatles yet, but I hope they got The Beatles. There’s some soul music in there, like some of the Motown stuff. I think there’s a Supremes song in there, so it’ll be a hell of a soundtrack album.
Question: I was about to say. Are they going to release a really good soundtrack?
Nighy: Oh, yeah. QUESTION: Why do you think Love Actually struck such a chord?
Nighy: I speculate, but I figure because it’s a big, big, friendly, good-hearted movie with some very nice jokes. And – you know, it does make you feel slightly better after seeing it. I know people have Love, Actually parties and things, and they break out the wine. And because it’s a Christmas movie, obviously, to some extent, it rolls around every year so it’s become like an old friend. And it’s one of those movies that people dip into, and then they stay there, because they don’t want to leave.
Question: I was quite surprised when I heard that you were going to be in another Underworld movie. I was just wondering why, basically, you wanted to go back to that world.
Nighy: I’m really pleased to be in the Underworld movies, honestly. I was very happy to be in the first one. I love the guys. I love Len Wiseman. I love Danny McBride. I like all the guys involved, including Patrick, now, who’s the new director, who’s seamlessly taken the helm. I love the whole vampire shtick. You know, if you’re in the movie for a vampire werewolf movie, you’d have to go some to find anything as satisfying as this series, in my view. I like the character, and I was very happy to be in number three. I’m going To be even happier if there’s a number four.
Nighy: Yeah. I’d be very happy playing Viktor for as long as they let me. I just like the whole thing of it. It’s fun, the part for me.
Question: Do you like the physicality of it?
Nighy: I’m not mad about the action part of things. My action career, as you may have noticed, is – basically, the amount of action in my career is thin upon the ground, so I have no great enthusiasm. You know, if you show me a stunt, I want to lie down and go to sleep. I have zero interest in fighting, zero interest in horse riding. I have minus interest in anything to do with physical aggression. It just makes me – you know, it’s like juggling. I don’t mind if you can juggle or not, you know what I mean? In the same way as, I don’t mind if you can blow up a building, I don’t mind if you can jump off a flaming tower. I only like the bits in between. I like the bits where they talk, and where the story is told. So that’s not the side of it. And fortunately, I have a brilliant man called Paul Shapcott, who when it gets physical, he takes over, and looks extraordinarily like me.
Question: And you get to go to sleep.
Nighy: And I get to go and lie down in my trailer, yeah.
Question: This is a prequel to the Underworld movies.
Question: Can you sort of explain the timeline, then?
Nighy: Well, I’m about 2000 years younger, and it’s gone back in time before Kate Beckinsale’s character was born. Rhona Mitra, our new leading lady, plays my daughter in it, so we’re way back. I like to think that one of the reasons we went back in time is to get me in it, because strictly speaking, I’m dead, but I can’t guarantee you that that’s the case, but it was fortunate for me that they did. And it goes back to the beginnings, the origins of the Underworld story, of the great rift between the vampires and the werewolves.
Question: Do you need to have seen the other movies to get this?
Nighy: No. No. Not in the least, no. You could start here, and be perfectly happy. It’s completely self-contained. And if there are any bits that need it, there are flashbacks that keep you up to scratch.
Question: Tell me about G-Force that sounds like a sort of action movie.
Nighy: Well, I suppose it is an action move, but again, thankfully, I don’t have to do any of it. Most of the action is performed by guinea pigs, hence the G in the title. It’s a Jerry Bruckheimer, very big production. Apparently the director’s son at one point got a guinea pig, and said, ” Hey, dad, why are there no guinea pig movies?” So he wrote one, took it to Jerry, and now there is one. And three guinea pigs and a fly save the world.
Question: And you play?
Nighy: I play an Australian industrialist bent on world domination.
Question: Tell me that you do not do this with an Australian accent?
Nighy: Paul, I do this with an Australian accent.
Question: So how is your Australian accent? Am I going to be cringing in the aisles?
Nighy: Probably, yes. [LAUGHTER] What can I say? Obviously you’ll be cringing in the aisles, but you’re just going to have to open your heart, and let me in and just going forgive me. For once, you know, I did a bad thing. I don’t know. I mean, I figure it’s good, oherwise I wouldn’t have attempted it. But you may – you will almost certainly. Next time we meet you’ll be saying, ” It was quite funny, but God, where did that accent come from?”
Question: Did you study any Australians to get into character?
Nighy: I did at one point study Australian. I had to play an Australian in a play at the National Theatre in England called Pravda, with Anthony Hopkins, when I had to play an Australian, so I went to the place to find Australians in London, I was told, is the Chelsea Arts Club. So I went directly to the Chelsea Arts Club with my tape recorder and my script. And I had a very, very, very good time. I went in the bar there, and I put the tape recorder on the bar, I put the script next to it and I bought them all drinks, and in exchange for them reading the script into the tape recorder. I had some hysterical tapes, I must say. Very funny.
Question: And I understand you’re going back into World War Two territory – you have sort of a nostalgic English movie set in the late ’40s.
Nighy: Yes. I’ve just finished a movie with Stephen Poliakoff, who I’ve worked with before and he’s written a thriller. It’s a kind of Hitchcockian attempt – dare I say it, at a sort of Hitchcockian suspense thriller. It’s set in 1939. It has no title at the moment. It has Julie Christie, and Romola Garai, Juno Temple, who’s been my daughter before in Notes on a Scandal, and Romola Garai, who was my daughter in I Capture the Castle. So I have two of my daughters back as well as the young Eddie Redmayne and Charlie Cox. It’s an atmospheric conspiracy thriller set against an appeasement background. In other words, those people who didn’t want to go to war, because they felt we would be annihilated. There was a huge feeling in England that if we went to war with Germany, we would be annihilated. I mean, people truly believed it was a matter of life and death.
Question: Which is why Chamberlain was defeated.
Nighy: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. I mean, it was largely to do with the German Air Force. They viewed the German Air Force, it’s suggested, in the same way as we now view nuclear war fare. And they were wrong, as it turned out, because although he had a lot of planes, they didn’t have the range or the – the capability, to actually do what was feared. But when Chamberlain came back, grown men cried in the street, because they thought their children weren’t going to die. It was a pretty black and white affair. But it divided families. and it divided people politically and socially. It was a very, very live issue. So that’s the background to a good old-fashioned thriller.
Question: You play the family patriarch in this.
Nighy: I do. I am a Tory sort of Grandee, who is also a sort conservative philosopher. He writes books and he’s very much a part of the Tory establishment. He is one of the people that thinks that should we go to war, we will be destroyed. Everything we value will be destroyed.
Question: Are you taking a break now, Bill?
Nighy: I’m having a little bit of a break. I’ve also made a movie called Wild Target, with Emily Blunt, which is a remake of a French film that starred Jean Rochefort, and it’s about a lonely, anal middle-aged hit man who has never had a girlfriend or any feelings in that area, and is proceeding quite efficiently, until he’s required to kill Emily Blunt. And he can’t pull the trigger, because she’s basically too good-looking. But he doesn’t understand that, because he’s never had feelings of that kind before. And it takes him the whole of the movie to work it out.
Question: How do you get into a character of such introspection like that? I mean, is it very difficult?
Nighy: Well, I told my daughter — she said, ” What are you playing?” And I said that he was an anal middle-aged man who lived in minimalist glory. And she said, ” Well, no research there, then, Dad.” [LAUGHTER]
Question: Lovely. Are you having Christmas with the family back home?
Nighy: Yeah. Christmas with the family back home. We go LA next week, I think, and then we go home and have Christmas in the cold. And then we’re going to take Valkyrie to Berlin, to open it for the European premiere, which is a big deal. I think it’s a wonderful thing to do, to take this story back to Berlin, where we shot it, and to present it, as it were, to the German people. I think it’s a really, really, really good idea. And it’s an event, anyway, because it’s a Tom Cruise movie, but it will be even more of an event, having it there, I think.
Question: Are you surprised that for somebody who at one time, strove to be a journalist, that you are a successful working actor?
Nighy: I never cease to be – honestly, I’m not saying this to be cute. I never cease to be amazed. There’s always something, most days, that gets my attention and I just think, ” How?” No, you know, I never had, as you may – I never had a plan. And I’ve improvised most of it. Like most people, I guess. But – no, I had no idea that I would ever – you know, have the kind of professional life that I currently enjoy.