Who’s the real Bill Nighy?
What should I expect from spending an hour in Bill Nighy’s company? Half the interviews I’ve read with him portray him as charming, erudite and wonderfully deadpan; from the others, I get the distinct impression he’d rather be somewhere else.
Today, I seem to get both sides of Bill. Dare I suggest he throw a party for his next birthday or refer to acting as ‘fun’ or ‘a passion’, he visibly shirks. Get him on the subject of BB King or old London, however, and his stories have me chuckling and him smirking.
This is also when the true Billy Mack-mannerisms appear, the beloved character from Love Actually (‘I was a little bit too young for the Swinging Sixties. I was at school when everyone was having ill-judged sex’). And then there are the rare insights into his life that are quite moving. An hour is nowhere near long enough to spend in Bill’s company.
We’re sitting on armchairs in the Soho Hotel. Bill eschewed the sofa opposite me and pulled his chair next to mine, offering me a cup of tea. ‘No? It’s there if you want some anyway.’
We begin by discussing his love of London. Bill lives in west London but has spent years in the north of the city. His latest film, The Limehouse Golem, is a gory, gothic story set on the dirty cobbled streets of 19th century London where his character, Detective Inspector John Kildare, is assigned to solve a series of gruesome murders.
The original novel by Peter Ackroyd was based on actual events and the film features Douglas Booth as notorious performer Dan Leno, and a cameo of Karl Marx. ‘I like the juxtaposition between the fictional context and the real historical figures,’ Bill says. ‘I’ve waited a while to play a detective and I liked wandering London looking for clues.’
Some of Bill’s best-loved places are in north London, namely Hampstead and Highgate. ‘I like feeling high up above London,’ he says. ‘I love Waterlow Park – it’s one of my most cherished places. I have a book of hidden London walks and I’ve done a few of them. The river walks are my favourites. If you walk along the riverside you get all the beautiful bridges and there are lots of nooks and crannies you can creep into.’
For Bill, it really is about the simple pleasures. ‘What I like is reading, music, cafés and walking. That’s all I do and it keeps me busy. I love not doing stuff.’
Bill was born in Surrey in 1949, side-stepping the Carnaby Street revolution entirely. ‘I grew up in a small town excluded from anything that might be described as “swinging,”’ he says, peering at me over his glasses.
He ventured to London in the 1970s though, he says: ‘I was never a hippy.’ He explains: ‘My hair went very violently curly when I reached puberty, which was a bit of a disaster because it meant I could never be in the Rolling Stones or The Beatles.’ What about Led Zeppelin? T-Rex? ‘They had wavy hair, you see, not curly. I’m talking white afro.’
A jobbing actor, Bill toured the country with Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre and the National. But there was one aspect of the career that he hated.
‘I was terrible at auditioning,’ he says slowly. ‘I became overwhelmed. Going into someone’s office at 9am to do an internal monologue while bouncing up and down on an imaginary horse, sword fighting with no sword, is pretty lonely.
‘One audition was in a disused tax office in Pinner. I was 46. They put me in very tight hipster loon pants, 4in fake alligator platform heels, a top that did not meet my trousers, eye make-up and hair extensions. I had to karaoke to Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water. After all that, you really want to go home.’
But you must have loved acting, Bill, to keep going?
‘I don’t love acting; I did acting because I didn’t want to do some other things. When I got into drama school, they [the teachers] said, ‘we hope you realise there may be long periods where you’re out of work,’ and I had to keep a straight face because that’s exactly what I had in mind. Long periods of no work. That’s what I call glamour. It still gives me a thrill to walk around when everybody else is at work.’
BILL IS ALL AROUND
No such luck, Bill. Between theatre and dozens of British TV roles, his career was pretty solid for 30-odd years. Then came Love Actually in 2003. Richard Curtis’ most beloved comedy dominates the channels every Christmas, largely thanks to Bill’s scene-stealing turn as an aged rocker making a comeback with a rendition of The Troggs’ classic Love Is All Around (‘But we’ve swapped the word love… to Christmas’). The days of playing on pretend horseback were over; Bill hasn’t auditioned for a single role since.
‘It changed my life,’ he says. ‘I remember doing several jobs that year – Underworld, State of Play and Love Actually – and I allowed myself to think that if these things even half deliver, then I’ll be OK. Generally I don’t allow myself to think positively.’
Why? He peers over his glasses, again. ‘I don’t know, Scarlett. I’ve never delved into that. I don’t think there’s any interesting reason for it. It became a bad habit.’
I suggest that in an industry so full of inflated egos, perhaps being self-deprecating is his form of preservation.
‘It’s not anything attractive like modesty,’ he argues. ‘The tendency to think badly of one’s self is an inverted form of egoism. It’s still all about me, which is still self-absorbed and not healthy. I’ve had to starve that to death a bit. I have put in some time on that over the years. I’ve never done any therapy. But I’m not against it.’
At this point, Bill steers the subject back to acting. After Love Actually came Pirates of the Caribbean, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End (‘the Cornetto trilogy’) and his favourite Curtis film, About Time.
Domhnall Gleeson, who played Bill’s character’s time-travelling son Tim, gave Bill an original screenplay of Punch-Drunk Love, as a ‘leaving present’ because it was their shared favourite film.
‘About Time was a wonderful job in Cornwall over a beautiful summer and the script was fabulous,’ says Bill. The last scene shows him strolling hand-in-hand down the beach with a 10-year-old Tim, ‘who was actually Richard’s son, Charlie. We had about half an hour to film that, but it was magical.’
I remind Bill that his character, James, has a poster of BB King in his study, and he lights up. He’s a devoted blues fan.
‘I think I asked Richard to put that in! My favourite singer of all time is John Lee Hooker,’ he continues. ‘I’m not into blues shouting. Any form of machismo makes me want to lie down, I find it so dull. But John Lee has a powerful motherf***ing voice, but a tenderness I find very moving.’
Love Actually’s Billy Mack, though, is the role most people stop him in the street for. ‘But then they speak with me and I feel like I’m disappointing them because I’m not Billy Mack, I’m just a normal bloke,’ he says, ‘I’m very fond of that part, although’ – with typical self-deprecation – ‘I think I could have done it a whole lot better. I always think that.’
THE TIME IS NOW
Being thrust into the public psyche when you’re 53 and having been an actor all your adult life must be bizarre. I wonder if he’d have handled fame differently had he been 23 when it hit. He has, after all, reportedly struggled with alcohol issues in the past.
‘The quick answer is, “no, I’d have handled it very badly,” but I don’t know that’s true. I think I would have been alright. I’ve always been lucky because I had a job nearly all the time. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a result.’
Bill has a filmmaker daughter, Mary, 34, from his 28-year relationship with actress Diana Quick. Aside from strolling through Hampstead with his pals Andrew Scott or David Hare, Bill has no desire to settle down, and certainly none to marry.
‘Why would you want to get married?’ he asks. ‘Nobody got married when I was young. We put a stop to it. It’s back now.’ For security, assurance, companionship, perhaps, Bill?
‘There’s no such thing as security or assurance in a marriage,’ he says. ‘I’ve got many companions to grow old with. It’s not going to happen to me.’
You could find one in an app, I suggest. ‘You’ve got to be f***ing kidding,’ he mutters. ‘Anything with the word “singles” in it makes me want to leave the country.’
Listening to him rant is priceless, so I goad him on. Is he going to celebrate his 70th in three years with a huge party?
‘I haven’t had a party since I was 21 and I missed my 21st anyway,’ he says with a half-smile. ‘It was a bit of a whoopsy daisy but don’t worry about it because I’m not going to tell you. Parties are my nightmare. I don’t get why you’d walk into a room of people when you could, uh, not.’
But Bill is forever a contradiction: Though he despises parties, he loves a dancefloor. ‘I’m always looking for somewhere non-aggressive to dance,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to go into a nightclub, because they’re a vision of hell. Everyone is cruising, looking to see who they’re going to eat.
‘I dreamed of setting up a series of booths where you’d swipe your credit card, get a set of headphones, be in a pleasant enough room with a really good floor and there would be water on sale but nothing else. And you’d have half an hour of whatever playlist you wanted. Somewhere you could go in, dance, and come out again without any palaver.’
There you have it: A dancing, strolling, charmingly modest movie star. No palaver.
The Limehouse Golem (cert 15) is in cinemas now.
Bill Nighy had been acting since his 20s, however, it was Love Actually – made when he was 53 years old – which brought him world fame. And he’s not the only star who became a household name later in life…
Read more: Meet the real Simon Pegg…