Bill Nighy
Photo by Aliona Adrianova

Bill Nighy: “If everybody laughs, job done”

Short Profile

Name: William Francis Nighy
DOB: 12 December 1949
Place of birth: Caterham, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Actor

Blue Fox will debut Sometimes Always Never, starring Bill Nighy, with exclusive virtual cinema engagements, as well as via their own virtual cinema platform,

Mr. Nighy, what do you do to ease the stress in difficult times?

I really have two major enthusiasms: I listen to music and I read. I listen to soul music and blues music, I look for the stuff you can live with. I have several playlists, I have one called “Certain Soul Chords,” which is what I would call soul music, but most people these days call R&B. And I have one playlist which is all the versions, I think, ever made of a song called "Be Thankful For What You've Got," which was originally recorded by Williams DeVaughn. And this morning I've been listening to a playlist which is called Calm Down, Gentlemen. And it's called that because there's a line in a Bob Dylan song where he actually says, "Don't get up, gentlemen, I'm just passing through," which is a line that I like. It's all slow blues.

Is that line from "Things Have Changed"?

Yes! Actually, the only artists who have their own personal playlist are Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Mary J Blige, Prince, and Rachael Yamagata. I made a decision recently that if anybody was going to ask me, rather than having to explain what music I liked, I would just say Aretha Franklin. Now, Aretha Franklin, really, is everything I need, is everything I want. So I just thought, for shorthand, I'd just say Aretha. For the past two months though, I listened to Van Morrison and I never could take it off. Then when I did change it, I changed it to Aretha Franklin, which I think Van Morrison would approve of — in fact, I know he would approve of that. (Laughs)

“I like to laugh, and there's lots of things to laugh about. It prevents you from taking yourself too seriously.”

What about humor, does that also help you to deal with difficult situations?

Yeah, I think it's a responsibility to try and remain amused! I don't consciously do that, but I do seem to be drawn to that. And, like everybody I like to laugh, and there's lots of things to laugh about. I suppose it's a mechanism which, you know, prevents you from taking yourself too seriously, and also it's a way of reassuring people, I guess. It’s a habit.

You once said that you don’t want to do plays that have no jokes in them.

Right, I think it's bad manners to ask people to sit in the dark for two and a half hours without telling them a joke! I think it's vulgar. (Laughs) I don't really want to go out there unarmed without any jokes up my sleeve, you know what I mean? Because it's quite scary anyway. I leave plays without jokes to the younger artists. But I do believe that information travels well in joke form. You can deliver stuff very efficiently if it's funny and people will welcome it. You can work on their resistance.

Is this what drew you to act in more comedies lately? Before you turned 40, with an otherwise prolific theater career behind you, you somehow hadn’t had any roles in comedies.

Oh yeah, the turning point was a film called Still Crazy. This was a straight out comedy which required me to deliver a comedy performance and actual jokes. And it felt absolutely marvellous! I operate without any consistent confidence, and when I was young I had no confidence, and it was a kind of secret that I had a world class gift for undermining myself. But if you could make everybody laugh at the same time, and you had arranged it in the way that you delivered the line and the way that you punctuated it, where you paused or where you put the last consonant of the last word at the end, because they would then all receive the word at the same time and laugh… That kind of technical stuff — it felt like something real.

I guess it’s a direct way to actually gauge the effect of your performance on your audience.

Exactly! It's indisputable. If everybody laughs, job done, you know what I mean? It's not airy fairy or, "Is he any good?" or, "Did that line sound like somebody speaking for real?" Those things I had very little confidence in. And it was a surprise because I didn't move in those comedy circles, and I always thought it was a skill that other people had. I never watch my films because I'm squeamish about the acting, but I did watch Still Crazy with an audience. It was excruciating, but they did laugh where I had hoped they would laugh, and that was a big deal!

Apparently the one thing you always want to discuss with a director is the balance between comedy and authenticity.

I mean, I like buried comedy, I like it disguised, so that nobody gets caught trying to be funny, and yet the audience all laugh when you arrange for them to laugh. But you don't telegraph it, it comes out of what seems like perfectly natural behavior. And so it's more delicious because everyone laughs, but it's unexpected — and that's the kind of Holy Grail. For instance, one of my favorite films is Punch Drunk Love, I love that film, and Adam Sandler's performance in that film is a masterclass of kind of integrated comedy. And also it's very moving, and very touching, and all of those things.

It wasn’t your typical formulaic romantic comedy.

Exactly. It's also why I love to watch Christopher Walken. I'm never happier than when I'm watching Christopher Walken act! He's one of my favorite artists in the world, and I had the pleasure of working with him, which was a great honor. He is hilarious. Everything he does is poetic. If Christopher Walken answers the phone, it's poetry. He crosses the room and you're like, "Oh my God. I wish I could cross the room like that."

I actually feel there is a similarity between you and Christopher Walken as actors, in terms of your personality and charisma — even the way you use your bodies.

I'm not being coy, but I am thrilled to be mentioned in the same breath as Christopher Walken, I have to say. I don't think you can be aware of your own personality, particularly… I mean, the only disadvantage of not watching anything you're in as an actor is that you often don't quite know what people are referring to. (Laughs) Nonetheless, when I'm on stage I have been accused of using my body quite a lot. And it's not to everybody's taste, but it's what happens if you put me in front of an audience. I like to claim that it's all in the service of trying to deliver the play and keep the audience's attention — other people might think that it was just me fannying around, but luckily I don't get to hear from them very often. I do like the gruelling nature of theater because you do get very, very fatigued doing plays. They always say, if you're tired you will act better.

Is that true?

It's kind of somewhere near the truth. There's something about exhaustion which just simplifies you and makes it more... I hesitate to use the word truthful because obviously the whole thing is an elaborate, longterm lie, but you know what I mean. Authentic, or whatever. Actually, I was reading about Mike Nichols the other day — who after the actor delivered his lines, said to him, "Yeah, that's really good. Now, do it as you." Or another great note that I heard was in a rehearsal sometime, and an actor came on halfway through the rehearsal to do his bit, and when he finished the director said, "Don't come on and save the day. We're not in any trouble."

“We are in quite a lot of trouble, and I don't want to add to the sum of all our griefs. I try and keep my nose clean and be in things that might just help.”

But there are certain performances that really save the day, don’t you think?

You know, not long ago, I flew to New York to see Christopher Walken and a friend of mine, Sam Rockwell, who I also love and admire, in a play because I thought, "I'm going to be dead and I won't have seen him live on stage." It was a comic masterclass! The whole audience was howling. I was howling! You collect memories like that because they give you hope. It makes you proud to be in the same business. He was completely authentic, completely real, and there were no stylistic concessions made to the fact that he had comedic responsibilities, none whatsoever.

Do you also feel the weight of those comedic responsibilities when you take on a role?

Well, we are in quite a lot of trouble, and I don't want to add to the sum of all our griefs. Therefore, I try and keep my nose clean and be in things that might just help, even if it's only just to amuse you. You know, I feel that there are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought: one is that we should proceed according to all that which is negative that we observe in the human race, and the other that we should proceed according to all of that which we observe in the human race to be positive. That's the most simplified version of politics you'll ever hear, but it's broadly speaking true. And I would seek to be in the things that accentuate the positive.