Bill Nighy (pronounced “nigh”) came to prominence in middle age. A hardworking stage and character actor, he suddenly found himself, starting with 1999’s “Still Crazy,” with a flood of high profile roles: as Viktor, the vampire elder in “Underworld,” aging rocker Billy Mack in “Love Actually” and octopus-faced Davy Jones in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, among others. “About Time” reunites him with “Love Actually” director Richard Curtis, who cast him as a dad who informs his son (Domhnall Gleeson) that the men in his family have modest time traveling abilities.
If Richard Curtis asks you to do a movie, do you just jump at it?
I sort of pretend to have to read the script first. I could just say yeah. He’s never let me down. I’m sad to hear it’s probably the last movie he’s going to direct. But I don’t believe it. I hope it’s not true. I don’t blame him, though. Who needs it? Being a film director is such a tough gig.
Does he write for you?
I don’t know that he writes with me in mind, or with anybody in mind. But I don’t think so. He writes in a particular way, particularly in terms of humor. And it’s very dry and it makes me laugh. I get a bang out of trying to deliver his lines as well as I can.
Some of your line readings, especially the one where you tell your son you two can time travel, are like jazz.
I’ve used that same expression in describing another actor I’ve worked with, an English actor called Michael Bryant, who used to play like jazz. He would never hang onto his line readings. He would do beautiful things one night, and you would never hear them again. He was committed to playing jazz every night. He didn’t improvise the lines, but he would improvise the tune, or the intonation. And it would be fresh every night.
Were you attracted to the mundane way “About Time” treats time travel?
I was grateful you didn’t have to get into strange clothing or speak in ancient tongues or get into a machine. I like the idea that you just get into a cupboard and make a wish. It’s about something that is everyone’s concern, which is how to get the best out of the day without losing half of it in your head, worrying about yesterday or tomorrow. That’s something I’ve been actively thinking about, because you get to my age and you start looking at the clock and think, “I better pay attention. I don’t want to lose any more days to the static in my head.” And I’ve been actively checking my surroundings and looking or beauty. If it sounds lame, my apologies, everybody.
This is going to sound like a terrible journalist question —
Go ahead, I don’t mind.
— but if you had the Richard Curtis time travel power, would you do the same thing your character does and just reread Dickens?
Sure. I’d like to go to concerts I didn’t make. I was reading a book about James Brown and it talked about the now legendary Apollo gig in 1962, which became the “Live at the Apollo” album. Well, you know, if I could time travel that’d be the first place I’d go, probably. I’d go back to when I was first offered a cigarette and I’d very firmly say, “No, thank you. Are you out of your mind?”
How long did you smoke for?
About all my life, up till about 10 years ago. I smoked for 30 years or something, like a passionate fool. That would have made my life a lot easier. If there was a serious answer to your question, I would go back to my younger self and say, “Lighten up.” If I’d have known things would more or less work out, I would have arranged to be more cheerful throughout my life.
Did you draw on your own parenting for the relationship between you and your son in “About Time”?
I didn’t have to draw on anything. I never draw on anything expect the script. Obviously, I’ve been a parent and I know what that’s like. I don’t know if that helps you act anything, otherwise any parent could act being a parent. And maybe they can. Domhnall came super prepared, which is how I like it. Then you can just relax. Or feign relaxation and feign spontaneity.
How much do you have to feign relaxation?
Oh, quite a lot. When the adrenaline is pounding in my system, I can apparently appear to be relaxed.
You didn’t become a name till middle age. Do you think that was for the best, rather than achieving fame in youth?
I think it’s worked out a bit well for me. I really wouldn’t want to change. I always more or less had a job. There were times when I didn’t have any money. And I don’t think it would have been a good idea if early on I had become too visible. I don’t know if I’d have been comfortable with that then. I think it’s nicely scheduled. Whoever schedules these things: Thank you very much.
Speaking of successes, your Davy Jones toy from “Pirates of the Caribbean” sold quite well.
The Davy Jones toy did do very, very well. You wouldn’t think so. I think you can also get pajamas. I mean, who wants to sleep with Davy Jones on? Nobody. Except another octopus. I think you can get a pillow case and a duvet cover. I was very impressed with becoming a toy. My first toy was an “Underworld” toy. It gave me a kind of ancient thrill when I was middle aged and got the toy.