Bill Nighy has a very odd handshake. The pinky and ringer finger on each hand are curved back into the palm. It’s what’s called “Dupuytren’s contracture,” the English actor tells us with a self-mocking smirk. “It means I’m a Viking. Truly,” Nighy says. “There’s no instances of this in someone who doesn’t have Viking DNA. It turns out it’s just me and Margaret Thatcher.”
In person, Bill Nighy is the embodiment of dry English self-deprecation. But he’s not always like that onscreen. There’s Billy Mack, of course, his star-making, movie-stealing turn in “Love Actually,” whose short film reunion officially airs in the U.S. on May 25th as part of Red Nose Day. (It's already shown in the UK.) And there’s Ambrose Hilliard, his character in “Their Finest.” The new English drama looks at the propaganda films made during World War II, specifically a fictitious one meant to drum up morale as England was routinely blitzed. Nighy’s Ambrose is an aging, fading yet still fatuous movie idol who finds himself starring in a film about a subject far more important than his ego. But again, the real Nighy, 67, is the opposite of egomaniacal.
Have you seen this film yet?
I never watch the movies I’m in. It’s like photographs. I used to hate having my photograph taken. Then I realized: I’m never going to see them. So it’s OK.
You could always watch the parts of your movies that don’t have you in it.
I’ve tried that, but it’s very complicated. Maybe when I’m really, really old, I’ll sit and watch something. But I doubt it, because it will only upset me.
Have you seen any of the films or shows you’re in?
Yeah, over the years. It’s hard to avoid. And you have to do ADR, which is dubbing. That’s always terrible. All actors come out of ADR reeling, thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to do something else for a living.’ Not the least because it’s before the film has been color-graded, so everyone looks their absolute worst. And then there’s the acting. You can’t stand the acting. It’s not so much the way I look or sound; it’s the acting I can’t recover from. There’s little bits of cowardice only I see. And there’s that thing I always do as a default when I can’t pull something off. It occurred to me recently that maybe that thing, which I find so shaming, is probably something members of the audience think, ‘Oh, it’s that thing, we like that thing. He’s doing that thing again, that thing we like.’ Hopefully that’s wishful thinking. But people do keep hiring me, and that’s the hard information we must never forget.
In “Their Finest” you’re playing an actor. He’s the classical pompous type, but having talked to any number of famous actors, I have to confess I don’t really find many of them pompous in that way. Maybe that’s something actors were like in the old days.
I don’t think they ever were like that. They’re often depicted in movies that way. They don’t often bring actors into stories to demonstrate the better parts of people. Same with journalists. Your profession and my profession are often brought on for less attractive purposes. Sometimes we’re heroic, obviously. There are many heroic journalist movies. I even wanted to be a journalist.
In those days, you had to have what they called O Levels. You had to have five exams. I didn’t have them, because I ran away from school and flunked all my exams. But I had a very romantic notion, probably born of movies, that I was going to be a journalist, and wear a very good coat and a very good hat, and I would stand in the rain in Yugoslavia, and there would be a girl and I would write killer sentences and she would love me. Turns out I was an average mess.
And so you became an actor. I did want to ask about perhaps your most famous role, “Love Actually”’s Billy Mack, which you recent reprised for the Red Nose Day reunion short. How was it getting back into character after some 14 years?
I can still get into the trousers; that was a relief. I had to wear some chains and some very odd kind of jewelry, which was unsettling. I wear a bright, white, fake snakeskin leather blouson underneath a full-length animal skin coat. And I’ve got these shoes. The shoes are bizarre. In fact, the shoes are a tribute to Johnny Depp. They have the word “Libertine” written on each sole. And they’re electric blue. They’re massive; they’re like furniture. I don’t know what you’d ever wear them with; I don’t know where you’d wear them. But you can actually bid for them on auction. You could be the lucky person who owns these shoes.
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