Bill Nighy: From 'Love Actually' To 'Page Eight' The British character actor shot to international stardom after playing an aging rocker in the 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually. In his latest project, the BBC drama Page Eight, Nighy plays a British intelligence officer who discovers a state secret.
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Bill Nighy: From 'Love Actually' To 'Page Eight'

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Bill Nighy: From 'Love Actually' To 'Page Eight'

Bill Nighy: From 'Love Actually' To 'Page Eight'

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TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Bill Nighy is a respected actor in British film, TV and theater, who has become better known to American audiences in recent years. In the 2003 film "Love Actually," Nighy played an aging rock star named Billy Mack who's briefly revived his career by doing a sappy Christmas version of the Troggs' hit "Love Is All Around." In this scene, he's doing a radio interview about his comeback.


MARCUS BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Billy, welcome back to the airwaves. New Christmas single cover of "Love Is All Around."

BILL NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) Except we've changed the word love to Christmas.

BRIGSTOCKE: Yes. Is that an important message to you, Bill?

NIGHY: Not really, Mike. Christmas is a time for people with someone they love in their lives.

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) That's you?

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) That's not me, Michael. When I was young and successful I was greedy and foolish. And now I'm left with no one, wrinkled and alone.

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Wow. Thanks for that, Bill.

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) For what?

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Well, for actually giving a real answer to a question. Doesn't often happen here at Radio Watford, I can tell you.

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) Ask me anything you like, I'll tell you the truth.

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Best shag you've ever had?

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) Britney Spears.

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Wow.

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) No, only kidding. (Laughing) She was rubbish.

GROSS: Nighy has also appeared in "The Constant Gardener," "Notes on a Scandal," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Shaun of the Dead," "The Girl in the Cafe," and the acclaimed British TV series "State of Play." Nighy plays a British intelligence agent in the new film "Page Eight," which will be shown Sunday on public TV's "Masterpiece." Nighy spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Bill Nighy, welcome to FRESH AIR.

NIGHY: Thank you.

DAVIES: Let's talk about "Page Eight." This is the new film you've done, which is going to be shown on public broadcasting stations in the States. You play a British intelligence officer who happens upon a document that could lead to an international scandal and prove that the prime minister might have known or had been complicit in some nasty things. And I thought we'd listen to a clip here. This is where you are talking to your daughter, who is played by Felicity Jones. She is an artist and you're talking right after the opening of some of her work. And she's asking you what you thought.


FELICITY JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) For once in your life you might try telling me the truth.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) Only if you insist.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) I insist.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) All right. They look like works of despair. If the despair isn't real, then I don't like them because they're fake. They're unfelt. They're avant-garde protests and nothing more. But if the despair is real, then that hurts too, because you're my daughter and I don't want you to suffer.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) They're not fake.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) That's what I thought.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) So what bothers you? If I'm unhappy then it's your fault, they make you feel guilty, the absent father, the evasive father?

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) The pictures are morbid. They're morbid, Julia. OK, I can see it may be my problem to do with getting older, but why do you want to piss on life before you've even lived it?

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) I don't think you should say any more.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) I was wondering...

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) Yup?

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) That young man you were talking to.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) Which one?

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) I think his name is Ralph, Ralph Wilson.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) You're working. Hell, you're not even talking to me, you're working.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) Oh, come on. Let me take you home.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) No. I don't want you anywhere near me. Do you have any honest relationships at all?

DAVIES: And that's our guest Bill Nighy with Felicity Jones in the new film "Page Eight." I mean one of the reasons that I picked this clip was, she says at the end to her father, your character, you're always working. And there's something about the mentality of a spy, somebody who is never off, always analyzing things from a dozen angles. I mean how do you play somebody in that world?

NIGHY: Well, it's quite tricky, because you are never wholly telling the truth. One of the difficulties about working in the intelligence services is that you can't even allow your family to know, specifically, about what you're involved in. And your children are amongst those who are excluded from knowing the facts of your working life. And the secrecy just goes on and on and on, and kind of grows. And also, whenever you're speaking, you're only telling part of the truth. It makes it very satisfying as a part, because it's quite - it's complex and interesting.

DAVIES: Yeah. It's funny. Now that you mentioned it, when I listened to you in that part, you have this weight to your voice as if you're sort of burdened by all the deception in your life.

NIGHY: Yeah. I tried to give it a kind of a, a different kind of tone. The tone on any part is the difficult thing to hit, and I hope I established one that gave it some kind of - so you can understand the burden of his responsibilities. He has a document, as you said, which incriminates the prime minister, played by Ralph Fiennes, and could lead to big trouble. We're, in fact, going to make two more of these films, so - next year - so the story will continue. So, you know, we laughingly refer to them as "Page Nine" and "Page Ten."


NIGHY: I'm sure they'll have some other, some other title.

DAVIES: Yeah. It is only partially resolved. And there is this wonderful scene where you confront the prime minister, Ralph Fiennes, and it's this raw power against intelligence.

NIGHY: Yeah.

DAVIES: It must've been fun to shoot.

NIGHY: It was great to shoot, actually. And because it's David Hare, David Hare wrote and directed the movie, as you know. And it's because of him that we can attract people like Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes, Sir Michael Gambon. They came because it's David. And Ralph came and played a relatively small role, so he was there for two days and we were locked in a room together. It was truly exciting, because the writing is fabulous. And that particular scene is very powerful and beautifully put together. So it was very satisfying for both Ralph and myself.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Bill Nighy. His new film is "Page Eight." We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is actor Bill Nighy. You might remember him from the films "Love Actually" and "State of Play." His new film, which is going to be shown on PBS stations, is "Page Eight."

You grew up in England. Your mom was a nurse and your dad managed a garage, right? And your home was on the premises, is that right?

NIGHY: Yeah. As you might say in America, I was born in a gas station.


NIGHY: I wasn't actually born on the premises. I was born in a hospital. But we lived in a house where, if you opened our front door, there were the gas pumps, the petrol pumps, as we called them, and my first ever job was serving petrol.

DAVIES: And you left school at an early age, is that right, and left the house at times?

NIGHY: I did. I ran away from home under the influence of Ernest Hemingway's short stories and Bob Dylan's first album. And I went to Paris in order to write the great English short story or something. Didn't write a word, but managed to flunk - on my return - flunk all my exams. I left school around - I think I was either 15 or 16 - which wasn't that unusual in those days for the kind of people around our way. You weren't expected to have any further education really, in those days. It's all a long time ago. So I did leave school pretty early, yeah.

DAVIES: Actors can get typecast and you have a very striking appearance. I mean you're thin. You have these high cheekbones. I mean some might call you patrician-looking. What typical roles did you get cast for earlier in your career?

NIGHY: Well, you go through phases and it's often if you play one part relatively successfully, you tend to get offered the same kind of role again. I used to play kind of working-class boys. I played army soldiers. I played, you know, various kind of working-class characters. And then at some point or other I must've played a middle-class part and then I got a long run of middle-class parts, and now I never really get asked to play much else - apart from, you know, when I get to play octopus people, like Davy Jones in "Pirates of the Caribbean."


DAVIES: A unique role, to be sure.

NIGHY: Quite.

DAVIES: A journalist writing about you after an interview, she said you make everything seem so easy and amusing. And I have to say, looking at your performances, there is an ease about you. It's just, as if this is just so naturally done. I gather from reading, that acting didn't come easily to you.

NIGHY: No. It didn't come easily to me at all. And I, but I do, I think have - and it took me a while to work it out - but I think I have a kind of a tendency to look relaxed, even though internally I'm kind of speeding on anxiety. I have a kind of an anti-talent. I look...


NIGHY: I apparently look as if I'm relaxed, which I'm very, very, very grateful for. You know, because a lot of the time, particularly - in the early years, I used to stand on stages, kind of rooted to the spot - not knowing what to do with my hands and not knowing, you know, all the usual concerns for a young actor. You're not supposed to know what to do with your hands. You have to kind of learn what to do with your hands or what not to do with your hands. So yeah, no, it didn't come easy to me. I was incredibly self-conscious. The great news for anyone trying to act who, you know, has average difficulty in, you know, trying to kind of stay calm, is that they don't know what's going on in your head and you can operate whilst your head is attacking you.

DAVIES: Were auditions tough for you back in the early days?

NIGHY: Auditions were an absolute nightmare for me. Yeah. I mean, they are for anyone. It's a horrible process. And one of the greatest things that ever happened to me certainly, you know, professionally certainly and on a personal level, is that I don't have to audition anymore. And I can't tell you how thankful I am for that. I mean sitting in those rooms, waiting to go in on some cold winter morning and pretend to be a knight on horseback or something or, you know, or go and have a nervous breakdown in front of people who don't smile, it's very, very tough.

DAVIES: Do you have a particularly memorable or forgettable audition?

NIGHY: I do remember for John Boorman, who is a great English director, who made the movie "Excalibur," "Hope and Glory," he's a great English director. And he was very, very nice to me, but I did have to, in his living room, pretend to be on horseback, that means bumping up and down...


NIGHY: ...and I have to pretend to have a sword in my hand and fight with Lancelot, I think, or maybe I was being Lancelot. I didn't get the part, as is now, you know, if you watch the film "Excalibur," I'm not in it. But it was one of those lonely moments. Also, I mean I did a movie once, called "Still Crazy"...


NIGHY: In which I played another rock-and-roll idiot. And they got me up very early in the morning, put me in a disused tax office on the edge of London town, and they put me in a pair of velvet, flared, lune pants, which means they sit very low on your hips, gentlemen. I was 46 at the time and they gave me a top which did not meet my trousers. They then put hair extensions on me and some very weird rock 'n roll makeup.


NIGHY: Put me in front on a karaoke machine and played "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple, and I had to mime to "Smoke on the Water." Luckily, I remembered that it was supposed to be funny. If I'm ever required to be, you know, people say be attractive or be charming or god forbid, be sexy or anything, I go to pieces. But if it's supposed to be funny then, you know, maybe I'm in with a chance. I did, you know, I did some high kicks in four-inch heels and I ripped the trousers. I did a high kick and pretend to hurt my back. That's always a good one. You want to get a cheap laugh? Do a high kick and then pretend it's hurt your back. It's in the movie, actually.

DAVIES: So through the '70s and '80s, I mean you developed a career, you got into television, you did some film, and I know that you developed a drinking problem. But you managed to keep working. I mean, did that hold you back at all, do you think, keep you from getting better?

NIGHY: I don't want to talk about this at length. But I will say a couple of things, and if you'll forgive me, I won't say anything further. One is that I didn't develop a drinking problem. I am one of those people who is built in such a way that I have, from the very beginning, an unfortunate relationship with alcohol. So there was never a good time for me to have a drink. Then there's one further thing I will say, but I'd rather not say anything further, just for reasons that we don't have to go into it. Not because I have any shame in this area; I'm a sober alcoholic, it's a perfectly respectable thing to be and I've made arrangements about it. But I will say that I used to drink and it was absolutely terrible, and now I don't drink and it's absolutely marvelous. And that's as much as I'd like to say. Thanks.

DAVIES: I want to talk about "Girl in the Cafe," a 2005 film that you starred in, written by Richard Curtis, directed by David Yates. One review said, it's the best romantic comedy at a G-8 summit you'll ever see.


DAVIES: You play this...

NIGHY: Very good.

DAVIES: ...very inhibited man, I guess in his 50s, who's a kind of a high-ranking figure in the British Finance Office, the - what the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

NIGHY: The civil service, yeah.

DAVIES: Right. And you meet this young woman, who is played by Kelly McDonald, at a cafe, and you're this very inhibited fellow and a relationship develops. And I thought we'd play a clip here. Fairly early in the film where you're taking a walk and getting acquainted and you're outside. You'll hear some ambient noise, I think you're walking by a river. And I believe you're telling her about a dream.


NIGHY: (As Lawrence) Well, on the whole, in my dreams people are begging me to join the Rolling Stones. I'm, I'm sitting at home and the phone goes and it's Mick Jagger and Ron Wood together on speaker phone, I suppose, pleading with me to inject a bit of new blood into the band. Or, I'm at the office and they say, someone's waiting for you downstairs, and I get in the lift down and there's Keith Richards waiting on the sofa in the lobby.

And he - he gives me his guitar and says, come on, man. You have the music, play. We'll, we'll give you as much heroin as you like. Just lend us your hot licks.

DAVIES: And that's my guest Bill Nighy playing the lead in the film "Girl in the Cafe." This character, if there's an opposite to the exuberant rocker that you play in "Love, Actually," it's this guy.

NIGHY: Yeah.

DAVIES: You want to talk about - I mean, there's a rhythm to his speech. How do you get this terribly inhibited guy?

NIGHY: Well, it's one of my favorite roles. It's something I absolutely understand and also there is an element in it which reminds me of my father. My father was - he was not unlike him in terms of he had a very uncertain kind of charm, but he wasn't overly sure of himself. He was a principled man and he conducted himself impeccably and was - and functioned, you know, very successfully in terms of his life.

But he was undermined in a fundamental way. So it's not a portrait of my father or anything, but it is reminiscent of him and it was - in my mythology, it was my kind of tender thank you to my father because he's somebody I admire and I admire anyone who is similarly undermined and yet they are victorious.

DAVIES: And when you say undermined, do you mean what?

NIGHY: I mean what they would probably currently call self-esteem problems. Or they would call, you know, a basic kind of insecurity, where your head sells you a negative idea of yourself. And you have to work out that, if you're lucky, that anything negative that happens in your head is probably a lie. But you have to - but it doesn't stop manufacturing this kind of negative propaganda and you have to operate anyway.

So I find that kind of struggle, I find it very moving and I found it very affecting in my father. And in that character - my father would, incidentally, would kill me if he could hear me talking like this. But I mean it with all respect. And with that character, you know, it was very satisfying to play and very satisfying to play with Kelly MacDonald because she was so minutely responsive to everything you did. That's rarer than you might imagine.

DAVIES: I mean, were you undermined in that way? I mean, were you someone who...

NIGHY: Yeah. I don't - yeah. I had a whole kind of factory in my head, which with a lot of, you know, negative propaganda machines working overtime. And I did have an anti-talent for describing myself negatively to myself.

DAVIES: Wow. Not the kind of thing that you would think an actor would...

NIGHY: Well, you'd be surprised, actually. You'd be - I think you might be surprised. The people who are attracted it to often aren't the people you would imagine would be attracted to it. They're not the gregarious ones. They're not the life and soul of the party. I know people who are household names who really have to put themselves through serious kind of discomfort in order to do their job.

And, you know, they are rarely at peace with anything they've done. And it seems to be - I don't know that it's an equation that you have to be like that in order to be any good. I know that there is that terrible irritating equation they come up with, which is that if you're not scared on stage, for instance, if you're not scared opening a play, you won't be any good. And I think that's probably true.

If you're onstage with somebody who seems completely unconcerned, I think you're in trouble. That's my view.


DAVIES: Well, you know...

NIGHY: Because I know some great, great actors who, you know, they have no idea why they're - Sir Michael Gambon, who is in "Page Eight" is categorically a genius. I've seen him many times on stage and on film. He is one of that rare group who are, as they say - it's a cliche - but they are touched by genius. He doesn't know that. He doesn't want, probably, to hear me saying it.

But he's not emboldened by that because he can't experience it. I can stand there, as I do often with Sir Michael, and I - and I rarely use the, you know, you don't call people sir this or sir that. I mean, David Harris, Sir David, yeah. But people don't - with Sir Michael I absolutely make a point of it because I think of him as one of the leaders, if not the leader, of my profession in England.

And, you know, like me, you know, he has to persuade himself that he can be an actor, you know, every now and again as well.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Bill Nighy. His new movie is "Page Eight." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Bill Nighy. He stars with Rachel Weisz in the new film "Page Eight," which will be shown on public television stations. I wanted to ask you also about "State of Play," the British TV series, 2003. You know, an American film was later made starring Russell Crowe. I would - if folks haven't seen the British version, it's a terrific video rental.

And Bill Nighy, you play in this series. You play a newspaper editor, Cameron Foster. And the story surrounds the death of a woman who is the staff member of a member of Parliament with whom the member might have been having had an affair and there are all kinds of sinister connections. And we're going to listen to a scene here in which a police investigator arrives and he's looking for reporters on your staff who have been looking into this murder.

And they believe that your staff and your reporters may have information relevant to the investigation. You're the editor and you're kind of trying to deflect their inquiries. Let's listen.


NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) I'm not in the habit of lying. She's not here.

PHILIP GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) She's working on the Kelvin Stagg murder.

NIGHY: Correct.

GLENISTER: With your chief reporter, Cal McCaffrey.

NIGHY: Also correct.

GLENISTER: Is he here?

NIGHY: I believe not. Mr. Bell...

GLENISTER: It's Detective Chief Inspector Bell.

NIGHY: If you want to talk to busy people you make a date or risk disappointment.

GLENISTER: Do you know the extent of their investigations into that murder?


GLENISTER: Well, you're their editor.

NIGHY: They haven't filed a story yet.

GLENISTER: Oh, what? So they just, what, run around spending your budget without recourse?

NIGHY: Seniors do. I know. I don't like it. I'd rather be a dictator but no one would work for me.


GLENISTER: One of my officers was murdered. Don't piss me about. Now Della Smith warned Stuart Brown that the patient he was guarding was a potential target for reprisals. Now where did she get the authority to present that theory?

NIGHY: I could've. My mother could've given you that from the TV reports. A gunman tries to kill a witness but not quite. It stands to reason the motive for shooting the guy's still valid.

GLENISTER: Well, she sought him at 11:00 P.M. to tell him that.

NIGHY: You've met Della?

GLENISTER: Interviewed her.

NIGHY: Beautiful woman, recently dumped by long-term boyfriend. It's a lonely job. Maybe she took a shine to your Stuart Brown. I really can't speculate. Well, I can, obviously I just have. But it's not helpful, is it?

DAVIES: That's my guest Bill Nighy from the British TV series, "State of Play." You want to just talk a little bit about this role?

NIGHY: Sure. It was a great role and it went down very well, guess what, with journalists. And I had a couple of requests from journalists, one from The Times newspaper here and one from The Guardian newspaper in England saying could they come and work for me.


NIGHY: Because they like that. I think that what journalists liked about it and quite right too, was that they, for once, they were given an heroic role and they were seen to be, you know, courageous and righteous. But it was a great role and a great series and it was one of those you knew you were in a hit because people you hadn't heard from for years would phone up and say, what happens in the end?


NIGHY: 'Cause I'm going on holiday and I've really got to know before I leave. You know, it became like a cliffhanger for the nation. So it was very cool to be in it.

DAVIES: There's a wonderful moment early in, I think it's the first episode, where there's a news planning meeting and one of your senior reporters kind of gets in your face and gives you a, you know, kind of a profanity-laced kind of barb.

NIGHY: Yeah.

DAVIES: And then you say, ooh, don't try that at home, kids.


NIGHY: Yes. Right.

DAVIES: You know, you bring...

NIGHY: Yeah, that was a sweet one.

DAVIES: You bring a lovely touch of irony to a lot of this and you have that little chortle. Are you a practitioner of deadpan humor in your private life?

NIGHY: I guess I am, yeah. I guess I - that is my flavor of comedy. You know, that's my enthusiasm is for that kind of dryness, is what I like and that's what I enjoy watching in other performers. I like when humor is kind of buried but still, you know, it's still effective, it still makes you laugh, but it's kind of disguised as naturalism. You know, as it's perfectly integrated into the story, in tune to the dialogue and everything. You disguise it till the last minute.

I remember when I did "Girl in the Cafe" which had proper jokes in it, beautiful jokes, as you'd expect from Richard Curtis. But I'd just seen a film that became one of my favorite films immediately. It went in like top five, if not number one, which was called "Punch-Drunk Love."

DAVIES: Oh, yeah. Adam Sandler. Yeah.

NIGHY: Yeah. And Emily Watson in the Paul Thomas Anderson movie, which I absolutely revere that movie. It's kind of - and one of the things I love about it is Adam Sandler's performance because he's absolutely deadpan and yet it makes you laugh. So I wrote the words "Adam Sandler" at the first page of "Girl in the Cafe" because I wanted to - I aspired to the kind of undercover light comedy performance.

That's what I like. Where there are no concessions made to the fact that you're trying to be amusing. You don't sell it in any way at all. You do, but the audience don't get to hear about it until they laugh. That's as best as I can describe it.

DAVIES: Well, Bill Nighy, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

NIGHY: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Bill Nighy spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Nighy costars in the new BBC movie, "Page Eight," which will be shown Sunday on public television. I'm Terry Gross.


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