‘I don’t watch anything I’m in. I tried that when I was young and it was awful. I wanted to retire ... I’m not even kidding’
Ahead of his turn in a BBC1 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, Bill Nighy talks to Gerard Gilbert about fame, Crystal Palace and not watching himself on TV
Bill Nighy strides into the London hotel room dressed exactly as you’d expect, the famously dapper 68-year-old actor in a sharp navy-blue suit, a crisply ironed skyblue shirt open at the collar and his face adorned with Michael Caine specs (“I’ve never worn T-shirts,” he once confided. “I’m the wrong shape to do a T-shirt justice”).
He is promoting his latest role, in BBC1’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation. Ordeal by Innocence was supposed to have been broadcast at Christmas, but (strenuously denied) allegations of sexual assault against one of its cast, Ed Westwick, meant that it was pulled from the schedules and — echoing Ridley Scott’s removal of the disgraced Kevin Spacey from his film All the Money in the World and replacing him with Christopher Plummer — scenes involving Westwick were refilmed with Christian Cooke in the role.
Now, after a technically challenging 12-day reshoot on the same locations in Scotland, the drama is ready to be shown.
Set in the 1950s, the decade Christie wrote her original story, Nighy portrays the head of the aristocratic Argyll family, which is shaken when it becomes apparent that one of their number is a murderer.
“I play Leo Argyle, and he and his wife have adopted five children, four of whom have what you might call very shaky pasts,” he explains. “Everyone looks very shifty, and hopefully the audience will bounce around trying to work out who’s the culprit.”
Even Leo himself might be in the frame, it seems. “He’s an amateur Egyptologist who hasn’t got much money, but his wife has, which is the one thing that would probably make him look shifty,” says Nighy.
“She [Christie] is very good at making a scene where you’re completely convinced it must be him or her.”
Although he has appeared in TV detective shows from Bergerac to Boon and Wycliffe to The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Nighy is unusual for a once-jobbing British actor of his vintage in that he’s never previously been cast in any of the countless Poirot and Miss Marple adaptations. He has, however, read all of her books.
“I discovered the books when I was young,” he says. “I gave them to my daughter when she was about 12 or 13, and she read them all. It was very satisfying to see.”
Did he remember reading Ordeal by Innocence, one of Christie’s better later whodunnits and one of her own favourites? “I barely remember my name,” quips Nighy. “I’ve actually got to point where I buy books, get to chapter three and think, ‘Oh no, I’ve done it again — I read this in 1995’, so no, I don’t remember. “I didn’t go back to the book either. I’ve done a lot of adaptations of novels lately, and I don’t read them while making the film because you don’t need all the information that may or may not have survived in the script.” The recent adaptations he is referring to include The Bookshop (co-starring Emily Mortimer, and based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald), The Limehouse Golem (based on Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 murder mystery) and Their Finest (with Gemma Arterton, based on a novel by Lissa Evans). They are the sorts of roles in the sorts of productions that Nighy could perhaps only have dreamed about in his thirties and forties. The big uptick in his fortunes came in 2003, when Richard Curtis cast him as ageing rocker Billy Mack in Love Actually, Nighy stealing the limelight from the likes of Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson and becoming one part silver-fox sex symbol and three parts national treasure. “Love Actually, who knew?” he says. “I thought it would be a successful film, but to have entered the language in that way.” It’s also a movie that Nighy finds hard to ignore because it’s on television so much. Otherwise, he says, he goes out of the way not to see himself on screen. “I don’t watch anything I’m in,” Nighy admits. “I tried that when I was young and it was awful.”
That “awful” experience was as a young actor in Liverpool in the 1970s, when his first TV job, in the police series Softly Softly, was shown on BBC1. “I was staying in digs and I said to everybody in the house, ‘Hey, I’m on TV’ and they all crowded in the front room to watch,” he recalls. “I was just completely crushed because it was so terrible. I hardly had anything to do. I was the third bank robber from the left.”
“I went on Richard and Judy once and they said, ‘We’ve got a bit of a surprise for you’, and they had a TV brought in and they showed Softly Softly. If you fed it into a computer to find the perfect way to wind me up, this was it.”
Nighy’s delivery is so insouciant and deadpan it’s hard at times to know how serious he’s being, but he insists that his hatred of looking at himself is genuine. “I wanted to retire — I’m not kidding,” he says of his first seeing himself on TV. “I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess I didn’t have anything else. I flunked school — not that prevents you from doing anything in life — but I didn’t have any other idea.”
He left grammar school in Surrey with only two O-levels, his roots being humbler that his screen persona might suggest. His mum, Catherine, was a nurse from Scotland while his dad ran a family chimney-sweeping business before opening a small garage.
After drama school, Nighy slowly began getting stage parts, eventually becoming a regular at the National Theatre. But since his success in Love Actually, he hasn’t stopped working in the movies, including the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films about British retirees to India — riding around Jaipur on a motorbike with Dame Judi Dench on the back. “I’m still hopeless on a motorbike,” he says. “I don’t know why they didn’t use a stunt rider in long shot.”
In 2008, Nighy finished a 27-year relationship with actress Diana Quick, the mother of their 33-year-old daughter, Mary, who now
You get satisfaction from acting when it’s over, but it’s also hard work
WHODUNNIT: Bill Nighy (also inset left) as Leo Argyle with Belfast actor Anthony Boyle in Ordeal by Innocence