What keeps Bill Nighy up at night…
e recalls his early humiliations. In 1978 he played a gay man in Mike Stott’s Comings and Goings at the Hampstead Theatre Club and had to walk on nude three times. “On my third entrance one night one woman said, ‘Oh no, not again!’ because she just couldn’t take any more.” Then 13 years later he played a philandering professor in a BBC serial, The Men’s Room, and became – instantly – famous and a little bit infamous. “I think I had to simulate passion seven times with four different women.”
Viewers might see it as a perk of the job. “Oh God, it’s the least erotic thing of all – unless your idea of eroticism is standing in a room with 12 electricians and, you know, seven other people and having your bum made up in between takes.”
In recent years his fictional love interests have matured. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel he was paired with Judi Dench – glamorous, but, for once, 15 years his senior. This year in Their Finest he played a louche actor paired with Helen Mccrory, who is nearly 20 years younger, but was aged up for the part.
“When I was younger… I didn’t have any trouble with women, but I wasn’t besieged by them. Not that I am now. Nobody ever referred to me in those terms. In fact, if anything I wouldn’t get those roles because I wasn’t good-looking enough.” Does he really think that? “I don’t know. I probably looked all right. I mean, I think it was a form of dysmorphia, but it was sincerely felt and sincerely lived. It’s not a pose or anything. I could never take myself seriously in that area.”
From his earliest days out of drama school in Guildford, Nighy has always worked, at first on stage – by 1977 he had already appeared at the National – then also on television and film. He is about to film the BBC’S Christmas Agatha Christie adaptation and has another movie, The Bookshop, based on a Penelope Fitzgerald novel, out later in the year. He is certainly not lazy, although success has come in waves, the greatest of which was probably in 2003 when, as he puts it, Richard Curtis changed his life by casting him as the ageing rock star Billy Mack in Love Actually. This beckoned a golden patch – State of Play, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gideon’s Daughter.
Didn’t his relationship with Quick end around then? “No. Not at all. Those things were not concurrent. I think I was fine. I’d been around long enough, it was fine. I’d always done OK.”
He gave up drinking on May 17, 1992, but will not discuss his alcoholism with the press. All he will say – and he chases me out of the hotel room to add this to the interview – is: “I used to drink and it was terrible. I don’t drink now and it is fabulous.”
Is he where he wants to be? “I’m fine. As Raymond Carver once put it, it’s all gravy. You know, my head is quiet most of the time.”
And death? He recently said that he thought about it 12 times a day. Does it scare him? “Yes. I never like the sound of it. Usually in the morning. The morning’s not good.”
What does he do about it? “Put the kettle on. A bit of caffeine, and it already looks better.”
The more we talk, the more I find that although I would not, after all, want to be Nighy, I like him. He has charisma rather than charm, and charisma is a naturally occurring thing, whereas charm always contains an element of con. His accent, for example, is not something concocted at drama school, but a family timbre – his mother could not tell him apart from his brother on the phone.
Talking of which, his eccentric phone grip on & Caicos was not actorly business. A muscular condition called Dupuytren’s contracture has permanently bent some of his fingers. Using the remaining digits straightened is the only way that he can keep a mobile propped to his ear. Like Nighy himself, the gesture looks cool, but you wouldn’t want to be fussed with the burden of it yourself.