Bill Nighy is a chameleon. He’s an actor who can go large and then, as we see in his new film, About Time, craft an effortlessly grounded performance when needed. When Nighy discusses the idea of a performance without thinking about “acting,” it makes for an interesting contrast to his work as Davy Jones. The Pirates of the Caribbean villain is a job that consistently reminds you you’re acting with the tech involved. Wearing those dots on your face and that mo-cap suit probably can’t make your job any easier, and yet Nighy still managed to bring gravitas to Jones and that series as a whole.
There is no transformation in About Time, which, to some actors, is an even loftier challenge. But it’s a task Nighy seems up for any day of the week, especially if it’s Richard Curtis behind the camera. Speaking with Nighy, his fondness for Curtis rang loud and clear.
Not only that, Nighy stressed an important little detail for all the young actors out there. Read on to find out about Nighy’s discovery:
I read that Mr. Curtis sent you the script for About Time immediately after he finished it. Does he always do that?
I know it wasn’t the case on Love Actually, which was the first time I worked with him. I think it was the case for The Boat that Rocked. Actually, I think it is more or less a practice, because in those cases he thought there was a part that might suit me. I was very pleased.
Did he have you specifically in mind while writing About Time?
I don’t know if he had me specifically in mind. He sent me the script with an offer for the role, so I suspect he had me in my mind. You’d have to ask him, but he certainly sent it to me with the idea of me playing it. Also, he was grateful for feedback, but in this case I didn’t want to change a thing.
By now you two must be completely in sync.
Yeah, we don’t have to have…we generally have one lengthy conversation before shooting begins, but after that it doesn’t seem necessary. You know, he’ll come in and tweak a couple of things. He can actually help, because he’s a very cool director. Before we get on set I’ve asked all the questions I need to ask, so we’re pretty clear on it. And the writing is of a high quality, so it usually explains itself. Good writing helps you act.
What kind of questions did you ask?
The big question I always want to ask is about the tone, the style, the level of comedy, and the balance between comedy and authenticity. It’s not that I need this, but if I’ve seen a performance that I admire, I use it for inspiration. For instance, I made a film that Richard wrote and David Yates directed, The Girl in the Cafe. I had just watched Punch Drunk Love, and it was the first time I ever saw Adam Sandler. Adam Sandler’s performance in that was…
Fantastic. It’s one of my favorite performances of all time. I wrote the words “Adam Sandler” at the beginning of the script for The Girl in the Cafe. For this one, this was something I saw years and years ago, but it made a big impression on me: Jason Robards in Julia. He played a relatively small role in this movie with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, but he played this small role in a very simple but powerful way, which was the model. I didn’t want to use any fireworks, no bells, no whistles, or any of that. I wanted to be as normal and natural as possible, and that was a large part of the conversation I had with Richard. I didn’t want too much of what you might call “acting” involved.
Is it difficult to give a performance like that, without thinking about all the nuts and bolts?
Well, in the theater, because you get to repeat it over and over again, that’s one way of getting to that level of performance, where you’re not thinking about the nuts and bolts. The way I do it is to prepare as hard as I can. I learn the lines until I can recite them in my sleep. Then I say them over, and over, and over, and over until I can find a way of saying them like I’ve never said them before. It’s just like anything else, I guess. You’ll have everything at your finger tips and you hope you can jettisoned any technical considerations and find a flow. Then, of course, you wake up some mornings, it doesn’t work, and you have to struggle. One way or the other, you have to do it.
On those days where you struggle and you only have maybe two or three takes–
Oh yeah…Somedays you crave more than that. It’s very reckless, but there’s not a big budget and you don’t have the time. You just hope to God you can get it in a couple of takes. I’m not always the best judge of that. Sometimes I’ll go home feeling very bad because I’ll feel I haven’t pulled things off, but later the filmmakers don’t seem worried. You probably know the story, anyway. I don’t mind that conflict, because it keeps me trying.
Like the scene on the beach [in About Time].
Right. That’s a very key sequence in the movie, but I think we had less than an hour to shoot it. You think, “Oh my God…” We got very lucky. Charlie, who is Richard’s son, played Donald as a young boy. I’ve known him since he was a tiny boy, so that made things easier.
With Richard Curtis, Edgar Wright, and Gore Verbinski you’ve found great collaborators. Do you seek those bonds or do they naturally happen?
They just naturally happen, but I treasure every single one of them. David Hare is the other one, who I just made two films to form a trilogy that’ll be on television next year. I’ve worked with David all my life, Steve Poliakoff twice, and Gore Verbinski is a fantastic director. I’m a lucky guy. I’m not exactly what you call a proactive actor. I’ve never been particularly good at reaching out. I come from an older tradition where you sit and wait for the phone to ring, which I’m trying to get out of but it may be too late. The writing is the thing. The writers are a huge part of what I enjoy about my job, as well as very cool directors.
Speaking of writing, you moved to Paris at the age of 16 to be a writer. Do you still have an interest in writing?
Oh yeah…that was very embarrassing. I wish I had shut my mouth.
[Laughs] It’s a good story.
Yeah, it’s all true. I mean, I’m not the only man at my vintage who was enthralled by the startlingly spare sentences of Ernest Hemingway. It was also about getting a girlfriend. I was 16 at the time. I can procrastinate at an unlimited level. The way I look at my acting career is that it’s one long monument of procrastination, in other words: I’m just avoiding writing anything. It was so long ago now, but now there are people who ask you to write a memoir, which I’m not particularly interested in. When I get very, very old one day I may do that, but I don’t have any particular enthusiasm for it.
I just enjoy reading now. Reading is what I do apart from work. I’m reading a book at the moment I think is just so brilliant. You may know it because it was a movie years ago, but it’s “Possession” by A.S. Byatt. It’s such an incredibly good book. It just makes you…well, I had a friend who was a really, really good guitar player and one day I asked him, “How’s the guitar going?” He told me he sold his guitar. When I asked why, he said, “Have you heard Eric Clapton’s new album?” I said, “That’s no reason to stop playing the guitar!” You know what I mean. You just read certain books and think, “Are you kidding yourself? Are you crazy? You want to be a what? A writer? Shut up.” Maybe I’ll shut up.
[Laughs] Even though you’re embarrassed by that 16-year-old in Paris, that must’ve been a great life experience.
It was a good time. I mean it was an anxious time, because I literally ran away from home, threw a suitcase out the window, and all that stuff. You know, I begged on the streets of Paris. It was one way of leaving home, but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. I was tormented by the desire to be elsewhere. I had stumbled upon all those writers who happened to be in Paris in the 1920s, so that became the destination. It was a cool thing, because there are great moments I will never forget. It was exciting times.
Do you remember when you went from writer to aspiring actor?
Well, I became an actor because I fell in love with a girl. She was going to drama college, so she suggested it and wrote the letter to the drama school. Then I went to drama school and she got married to someone else, which was…you know, shocking at the time. I never really thought I was going to be an actor. When I started to get really interested was when I did a play of David Hare’s at the National Theater, A Map of the World. It was when you got to say things in public you actually believed in yourself. You were saying things you were thinking about, but they were so much better expressed by a great writer like David Hare. That was something I hadn’t come across before: a contemporary play discussing what was happening in the world in a way you might have said it if you ever got around to it. I played a leading role, which was very scary, but it galvanized me. I worked very hard, focused, and got interested in acting, not the idea of acting. I just got over myself and, to some degree, my self-consciousness.
There was a man in England named Ken Campbell, who was routinely described in the papers as a lunatic genius, which always irritated him. He’d always say, “Why can’t I be a genius like all the other geniuses?” Anyway, he used to never rehearse. The thing about acting in the early days is I couldn’t bare to rehearse, because you had to do in front of the other actors. I didn’t mind acting with an audience in the dark. I didn’t feel like an actor, because I was deeply self-conscious. He used to throw me on stage and I’d have to make it up as I went along. I didn’t have time to be scared, so you had to get over yourself. That was a crash course.
Do you still feel self-conscious as a performer?
Oh yeah. There are days where it’s unbearable. For some reason, something gets in your mind which you can’t get out of your mind, but you have to go to work anyway. I’ve got accustomed to the possibility that the audience won’t know. The audience doesn’t really know what’s going on in your mind. You can operate while your head is attacking you. I have made this discovery. It’s big news [Laughs].
[Laughs] I’ll share it with the world.
[Laughs] It’s big news to any young actor. I remember thinking being scared of my job made me a bad actor, but it doesn’t make you a bad actor; it makes you a normal human being. It’s just what you do after that that counts. You have to find a way of going to work, even on the bad days where you’re feeling paranoid or self-conscious. You have to find a way of operating while your head is sending you some violently negative version of yourself. It’s possible. Trust me, you can do it. Otherwise, I’d be out of business.
About Time is now in theaters.