THE GOR­BALS BACK­GROUND OF A VERY ENGLISH GENT

BILL NIGHY IS TACK­LING GROW­ING OLD BY WORK­ING HARDER THAN EVER, START­ING WITH THE FOL­LOW-UP TO UN­LIKELY HIT THE BEST EX­OTIC MARIGOLD HO­TEL

The Herald Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS JAMES MOTTRAM PHO­TO­GRAPH MAARTEN DE BOER/CON­TOUR BY GETTY

BILL NIGHY had a shock re­cently. The ac­tor un­der­went laser eye surgery. “When I took the first ban­dages off, and went in the bath­room, it was a rev­e­la­tion,” he says, chuck­ling. “I mean, you kind of know how old you are, but I didn’t re­ally know how old I was.” He’s sit­ting in an arm­chair in a suite in Lon­don’s Soho Ho­tel, peer­ing over his black-rimmed glasses. “I didn’t think, ‘It’s all over.’ I just thought, ‘I see – you’re one of those blokes who is old.’”

Nighy is be­ing a lit­tle harsh on him­self. He may have turned 65 in De­cem­ber but he’s in fine fet­tle. As if to cel­e­brate the fact GQ re­cently polled him at num­ber 29 in its list of Bri­tain’s 50 Best Dressed Men, he’s sport­ing his trade­mark be­spoke navy suit, pale blue shirt and silk tie. He’s slim and trim (a lit­tle tread­mill work?) and has an en­vi­able thicket of hair that’s grad­u­ally trad­ing light brown for sil­ver. The only thing at fault is his right hand, which is clenched tight when we meet, due to an in­jury. “It doesn’t hurt,” he as­sures.

Re­tire­ment is not on the cards. If any­thing he’s work­ing harder than ever; the past dozen years have been re­mark­ably fer­tile. Af­ter what he calls “an av­er­age progress” – ra­dio, tele­vi­sion, theatre – he’s found fame in film, in ev­ery­thing from Love Ac­tu­ally to the Un­der­world se­ries of vam­pire movies. “It’s prob­a­bly the right way around,” he says of his late bloom. “I just wish I’d known when I was younger, be­cause I would’ve ar­ranged to be more cheer­ful.”

Yet for all this fret­ting, Nighy has much to look back on. In the theatre, he’s worked with some of Bri­tain’s most cel­e­brated play­wrights – Tom Stop­pard, David Hare and, most im­pres­sively, Harold Pin­ter. “Not that I’m go­ing to bore my grand­chil­dren, but those are some of the things I’ll tell them, if they stay still for 10 sec­onds. I’ll say I knew Harold Pin­ter. I never thought I’d be any­one who’d met, sat down and dis­cussed a play with Harold Pin­ter.”

In per­son, Nighy doesn’t look like his tem­per­a­ture ever gets above freez­ing; blame that dis­tinct vo­cal pat­tern – a calm­ing, charm­ing, al­most dead­pan de­liv­ery. Yet he’s per­fect at ex­press­ing a sort of lived-in louche qual­ity – like his fad­ing mu­si­cians in Still Crazy and Love Ac­tu­ally.

Suc­cess has changed him, though. “I get ex­cited about the world and about peo­ple and things, I sup­pose, be­cause I’m less anx­ious. I had an above-av­er­age ten­dency to un­der­mine my­self and, thank­fully, I stopped be­liev­ing my own s***. It be­comes em­bar­rass­ing af­ter a cer­tain age to be – as it were – tor­tured. You’re re­quired to beat your­self up ev­ery day, and even­tu­ally you think, ‘I don’t be­lieve you any more.’”

Age and the wis­dom it can bring have come into the con­ver­sa­tion for a good rea­son. Nighy is pro­mot­ing The Sec­ond Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel, the se­quel to the 2011 com­edy-drama about an el­derly group of trav­ellers, co-star­ring dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. The first film, The Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel, was a “weird hit”, as Nighy puts it, mak­ing $136 mil­lion around the globe against a $10m bud­get.

One of the rea­sons Nighy en­joyed mak­ing the se­quel was the chance to go back and “cel­e­brate” the suc­cess of the first film with the In­dian crew. Then there was the op­por­tu­nity to see Jaipur and Udaipur for a sec­ond time. “When you first go, it’s a lot to take in. It’s nice to go back at your leisure, when your senses have calmed down a bit and you can re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it.” Sur­vival tips for In­dia? “Smug­gle Mar­mite and York­shire teabags in,” he grins.

The orig­i­nal fol­lowed sev­eral over-65s as they left Bri­tain for one last adventure, wind­ing up in a homely ho­tel in In­dia run

by Dev Pa­tel’s ge­nial host. There was ro­mance and ten­der­ness, and lots of peo­ple went to see it, which Nighy is at a loss to ex­plain. “A bunch of old peo­ple go­ing to In­dia does not look like box of­fice dy­na­mite. There must be some­thing where it un­locks a feel­ing of hu­man­ity. And pos­si­bly it re­as­sures peo­ple about get­ting old.” He stops to think. “Or maybe older peo­ple are just funny try­ing to be in love …”

In The Sec­ond Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel, the film largely picks up where the orig­i­nal left off – though with Pa­tel plan­ning to ex­pand his em­pire to two es­tab­lish­ments. There are new guests, in­clud­ing Richard Gere’s writer and Tamsin Greig’s sin­gle­ton. But the real heart is pro­vided by Nighy, as the mildly dither­ing di­vorcee Dou­glas, who is try­ing to pluck up the courage to make a play for Judi Dench’s Eve­lyn.

“It can’t have been easy,” nods Nighy, giv­ing his char­ac­ter’s jour­ney some thought. “They’ve both been beaten up by pre­vi­ous events. He has tried to love some­one [his ex-wife, played by Pene­lope Wil­ton] in the face of great op­po­si­tion for many, many years. Apart from any­thing else, he must’ve been un­der­mined quite sav­agely over a very long pe­riod of time. So any idea of him­self as de­sir­able, at­trac­tive or el­i­gi­ble must’ve left the build­ing some time ago.”

NIGHY has al­ways played the re­served ro­man­tic rather well – think of his civil ser­vant in the Richard Curtis-scripted The Girl in the Cafe with Kelly Macdon­ald for ex­am­ple. And there’s some­thing about him that seems to em­body that. “It’s a cliche, but I do find the strug­gle for cer­tain kind of English­men to ex­press any­thing very funny. It’s what we’re fa­mous for.” Would he class him­self the same way? “Oh yeah. We’re oc­ca­sion­ally de­scribed as un­emo­tional. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. We’re all burning in­side.”

For all his English­ness, Nighy has Scot­tish roots, his mother, Catherine, hail­ing from Glas­gow. “My grand­mother and grand­fa­ther were Ir­ish and they’d come over look­ing for work, un­der a bit of a cloud I think with re­li­gious mat­ters,” he ex­plains. “There were five broth­ers and four sis­ters and they lived in what my mother called the Gor­bals and my mother came down south when she was 15, with two of the other girls and my grand­mother, and they worked as seam­stresses.” Later, they sent money home to bring the rest of the fam­ily down.

The youngest of three, Nighy was born in Sur­rey, where his fa­ther Al­fred, ran a garage. Nighy never vis­ited Scot­land in his youth. “It would’ve been too much [for the fam­ily] to go up there.” Yet he points out that his first pro­fes­sional job – “where I didn’t have to paint the set or drive the van” – was at Ed­in­burgh’s Tra­verse Theatre, in Ol­wen Wy­mark’s Speak Now. “It was a sen­sa­tional place to be,” he says. “That was the first time I was an ac­tor. It was a bit of a re­lief, but it was also that thing … ‘Oh god, now I re­ally am use­less. I don’t even paint the set – now I have to act.’”

Nighy had dis­cov­ered act­ing when he was young – school plays and the like – but in his mid-teens fan­ta­sised about be­ing a jour­nal­ist. “I had a com­pletely ro­man­tic idea. I was go­ing to have a good hat. It

would be rain­ing. There’d be a beau­ti­ful woman. She’d be in trou­ble. I might be able to help. I’d have a notepad. I would write stunning sen­tences – beau­ti­ful, flaw­less, unas­sail­able sen­tences.” He de­cided to go to Paris and live the artist’s life. “My goal was to write the great English short story. I didn’t write a word, pre­dictably.”

Af­ter wind­ing up beg­ging in pid­gin French, he re­turned home, hum­bled. Aban­don­ing his lit­er­ary dream, he joined the Guild­ford School of Act­ing then moved into theatre. “I never ex­pected to do any­thing but the theatre. I never ex­pected to be on tele­vi­sion – cer­tainly not in a film. Things were dif­fer­ent then. It would never have oc­curred to you.” But grad­u­ally things changed. His first ap­pear­ance on tele­vi­sion was played a bank rob­ber on the BBC po­lice drama Softly Softly. Three years later, he made his first movie – a bit-part in the 1979 Joan Collins saga The Bitch, play­ing a flower-de­liv­ery boy. He was paid £150 for a day’s work, and met Ms Collins briefly. “It was bloody mar­vel­lous,” he smiles.

Like most ac­tors, Nighy has paid his dues. “I used to go to au­di­tions with­out the tube fare. You’d lit­er­ally try to bor­row the tube fare. I was a mess, but the the­ory is they [the cast­ing di­rec­tors] can smell des­per­a­tion and you won’t get it. You sit out there, it’s a room like this, you come in and th­ese peo­ple say, ‘Go ahead, do the thing.’ And you do the thing.” He still re­mem­bers the worst au­di­tion of his life. “I had to have a sword fight as if I was on a horse. I was in a front room and I had to come in and do the lines and [pre­tend to] ride the horse.”

While he worked steadily through the 1980s, he of­ten en­dured months of no work. “Most ac­tors know what it’s like to be skint,” he shrugs. He also strug­gled with al­co­holism. “I worked with him way back when he was drink­ing,” re­calls Ken­neth Branagh, who first ap­peared with Nighy in the tele­vi­sion play, Easter 2016, in 1982. “He was so glam­orous and rock ’n’ roll, and had that wild­ness then. He al­ways had that ex­plo­sive, danger­ous thing.” NIGHY quit drink­ing in 1992 with help from his then part­ner, ac­tor Diana Quick. A year ear­lier, he’d en­joyed a con­sid­er­able break­through, star­ring in tele­vi­sion drama The Men’s Room, when he played a wom­an­is­ing aca­demic, but it wasn’t un­til 2003 when he be­came a house­hold name. Five pro­duc­tions, in­clud­ing the supreme tele­vi­sion drama State of Play and Richard Curtis’s hit rom-com Love Ac­tu­ally, both of which won him Baf­tas, were re­leased. “That changed the way I go to work.”

Since then he’s been a fix­ture in Hol­ly­wood, from play­ing a ten­ta­cle-faced Davy Jones in two Pi­rates of the Caribbean movies to act­ing op­po­site Tom Cruise (and Branagh) in Valkyrie. He ad­mits there’s a part of him that en­joys the pam­per­ing. “There was one pe­riod where I thought, ‘I’ll live in ho­tels. Some­one else will be pay­ing and they will lead me around through air­ports, and I’ll just do that all the time.’ Which is pretty much what I do, ex­cept that I have breaks. It’s a priv­i­leged sit­u­a­tion.”

It’s a sit­u­a­tion, re­cently at least, he’s faced alone. Af­ter 27 years and a daugh­ter, Mary, who fol­lowed her par­ents into act­ing, he and Quick called time on their re­la­tion­ship in 2008. Since then, he’s been sin­gle, living in Soho. “I’m very happy on my own,” he

says. And there’s ev­i­dently a part of him that wanted to strip back his life to the bare essen­tials. Richard Curtis, his four-time col­lab­o­ra­tor, re­ports that he even ditched his vinyl col­lec­tion and lives in “one of the most un­der-dec­o­rated venues in the world”.

If you were to en­ter Nighy’s house, you’d prob­a­bly find a well-thumbed copy of Ford Ma­dox Ford’s Pa­rade’s End – his favourite novel. His film tastes range from the Bourne movies to Paul Thomas An­der­son’s Punch­Drunk Love and he “loves any­thing” with Gene Hackman or Den­zel Wash­ing­ton. As for mu­sic, he digs James Brown. “I have on my phone his per­for­mance at the Teenage Mu­sic Awards,” he says, tap­ping at his chest, “when he was sec­ond on the bill to the then rel­a­tively un­known Rolling Stones and he wasn’t happy about it.” Some­how his love for the God­fa­ther of Soul seems fit­ting. SINCE com­plet­ing his In­dian so­journ for Marigold Ho­tel, Nighy has been tread­ing on hal­lowed Bri­tish ground – the forth­com­ing big-screen re­make of Dad’s Army. It’s the sort of no­tion that might ap­pal fans of the clas­sic sit­com about the Home Guard in the fic­tional Walm­ing­ton-On-Sea; cer­tainly Nighy had his doubts. “I was very, very ner­vous, and I re­sisted it at first.” Then the cast started to as­sem­ble, from Toby Jones as Cap­tain Main­war­ing to Michael Gam­bon as the frail God­frey. Nighy was asked to play Sgt Wil­son, orig­i­nally played by John Le Mesurier. “I’m never go­ing to be John Le Mesurier,” he says, be­fore mus­ing on just how “strange” it is to re­boot a clas­sic char­ac­ter. “It would hardly ever hap­pen where you play a part that not only has been made fa­mous but is beloved. But I would look at Toby and think, ‘We might just make it. We might be OK.’ He is bril­liant as Cap­tain Main­war­ing. What’s bril­liant is, it’s noth­ing to do with Arthur Lowe and ev­ery­thing to do with Arthur Lowe. It’s per­fectly pitched. Then again, peo­ple may not for­give us for not be­ing them.”

Af­ter a short break, Nighy will head to New York for the Broad­way run of David Hare’s Sky­light, which he suc­cess­fully did in Lon­don last year. Again, he will be on stage with Carey Mul­li­gan and di­rected by Stephen Daldry. His last foray on Broad­way was in Hare’s The Ver­ti­cal Hour with Ju­lianne Moore and team­ing up with him for this was di­vine. “It’s one of the great plays in the English lan­guage,” he says. “It’s daunt­ing and it’s gru­elling do­ing it. But once you’re up and run­ning, it’s won­der­ful to de­liver such a play.”

While Nighy’s suc­cess in the au­tumn of his ca­reer runs en­tirely con­trary to the way Hol­ly­wood tends to dis­card older ac­tors, it gives hope to us all. “I am an op­ti­mist, in terms of hu­man na­ture,” he nods. “I don’t think it’s pe­cu­liar to me. The thing to dare to as­sume is that there’s a be­nign fu­ture up ahead, rather than view it with a name­less dread – an as­sump­tion things are go­ing to go wrong. I’ve had my ups and downs but mostly I’ve been very for­tu­nate.”

The Sec­ond Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel (PG)

opens on Fe­bru­ary 27.

From top: Nighy with Diana Hard­cas­tle, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith in The Sec­ond Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel; as the vam­pire Vik­tor in Un­der­world: Evo­lu­tion; and as age­ing rock and roll singer Billy Mack in Love Ac­tu­ally

Nighy in his trade­mark re­served ro­man­tic mode along­side Kelly Macdon­ald in The Girl in the Cafe, writ­ten by Love Ac­tu­ally writer and direc­tor Richard Curtis

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