Bill Nighy gazes around his hotel suite high over Central Park in New York and muses on his success. “I never expected any of the roles. I have embarrassingly low expectations — at least I think I do. I used to keep it a secret because, you know, you’re meant to have roles you burn to play. But I’ve never had a plan.”
He says that he has no interest in lofty roles and Shakespeare is a no-no, which helps to explain why you’ll find him next in Disney’s new 3-D animation, G-Force. He plays the sinister retailer Leonard Saber, who has a plan for world domination involving an army of vengeful consumer electronics. Mercifully, Saber is thwarted by four guinea pigs, a mole and a house fly, working undercover for the FBI.
Nighy is in A-list company in G-Force — among the voices of the critters are Nicolas Cage, Penélope Cruz, Steve Buscemi and the 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan. “This was a very pleasant engagement,” he says. “Will Arnett [who stars as an FBI special agent] and Zach Galifianakis [who plays G-Force’s creator and father figure] are incredibly funny people, so my major recollection is of just laughing. So I wasn’t entirely alone. But there were longish periods when I was in my fabulously expensive house in expensive clothes.”
It’s a populist showcase for the flexible Nighy. “They sent the script — and the script was pristine,” he says. “They’re very rare, scripts that entirely work; and this one was a beauty. And the fact that it’s a Jerry Bruckheimer movie — you have a certain assurance that it will be realised properly.”
The 3-D animation technology from first-time director Hoyt Yeatman is something that we won’t have seen before. Yeatman is a former visual-effect supervisor: “He’s a genius technologically,” Nighy says. “He truly is. He invented a camera — along with his brother — shortly before shooting that has revolutionised the process of putting computer-generated creatures into a live-action background. I don’t even pretend to understand any of it, but it’s this very strange box on a tripod with four lenses . . .”
Nighy can do low art and high, home and abroad, stage and screen. He is the master of the suggestively raised eyebrow. He has been Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. He has played alongside Julianne Moore in David Hare’s Iraq war play The Vertical Hour. Earlier this year he was in the pirate radio movie The Boat that Rocked, working once more with Richard Curtis, whose Love, Actually launched his international career in 2003. And next year he will be Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister of Magic, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
He is known for playing characters of comic charm, men who exude grace under pressure. Certainly, he is unfailingly polite and eager to please, yet when we first sit down he looks a little glazed from his day of interviews. He tells me that he has become accustomed to the difficulties of working on animation: G-Force is a feat of digital wizardry with scarcely a human role. “I’ve got used to it, a bit,” he says. “I remember when I was in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there was one particularly pleasant afternoon when I had to duck as if planets were about to bash me in the head.”
As he talks, he sits erect in his straight-back chair. Ask him a question he doesn’t like and he stiffens further, staring into the corner. But when he relaxes, the trademark black specs come off, and he becomes the urbane charmer that he so often plays. For all the onscreen suaveness, he is eager to persuade you that he’s an ordinary bloke, the son of a garage mechanic and a psychiatric nurse from Caterham, Surrey, who can’t believe his luck, and suspects that at any moment there might be a knock at the door and he will be led off in cuffs.
“It’s a result!” he cries out at one point, gesturing out the window 12 floors down to the lush green of Central Park. “I’ve got a gig! Someone’s flown me to New York!”
William Francis Nighy was born in 1949 in unpromising circumstances for an actor. But he made it to grammar school and took to reading. “The only thing I had any great interest in at school was English,” he says.
His first desire was to be a writer. He entertained vague bohemian dreams, and then one day he and a friend decided to do the kind of thing they thought writers did. They went Awol. “We were aiming for the Persian Gulf, which shows you how long ago it was, that it still said Persian Gulf on the map. I can’t remember why, it just looked good on the map. We got as far as the South of France. I was about 15 and I just got hungry, really hungry. I and my friend went to the British Consulate and said, ‘Please can we go home now?’ It cost about £25 to send me home and it took me three years to pay back my dad — he was furious.”
But Nighy’s return didn’t dampen his ambitions, and soon after, when his mother took him to the employment office, he once again declared that he wanted to write. “My mother put her foot on mine underneath the desk and pressed really hard, as if to say, ‘Don’t be so bloody stupid!’ ”
Nevertheless, he landed a job as messenger on The Field magazine. It was a good time, but it didn’t give him direction. “I was an average mess as a boy,” he says. “I didn’t have a serious thought in my head.” Eventually, however, he was encouraged to try acting, and he went to drama school in Guildford. He would spend his twenties in regional theatre, his thirties at the National Theatre, and his forties in independent British films. It’s a little-known fact that Nighy read for the part of Withnail in Withnail and I: “I worked with Bruce Robinson many years after that and he said it was between me and Richard [E. Grant]. Well, Richard got the part and the rest is cinema history.”
Nighy says that he has been lucky to have always had work (here he flamboyantly touches the coffee table). Yet it would be wrong to assume that his life as an actor has always been calm and secure. He once told an interviewer: “The central fact of my life is that I have an unhealthy relationship with mood-altering chemicals, liquids and otherwise.” He has also said that he put his former partner, the actress Diana Quick, through very difficult spells. He has been sober since the early Nineties, but today — swigging only mineral water — he is in no mood to clarify. “I’ve nothing to say about that, thank you. I’ve nothing to add.”
He met Quick in 1981 when they were co-starring at the National Theatre. Quick was swiftly propelled to fame with her role as Julia Flyte in the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. But he later eclipsed her entirely, and while no one has suggested that it was this that led to the ending of their partnership last year (the two never married, but have a 25-year-old daughter, the actress Mary Nighy), there was speculation that Nighy had been working so hard that a distance built up. Again, however, Nighy is in no mood to unburden himself.
Now that he is single there must be offers aplenty. So what about his reputation for genteel sex appeal? “Well, now come on!” he says, suddenly animated. “Listen, I’m amazed. I’m astounded. But it doesn’t make any difference to my life. I don’t get out much. I really don’t get out much. I could frighten you with how little I get out! But, of course, if someone wants to consider me in that way, it’s absolutely OK by me.”
Have women ever thrown themselves at him? “Once,” he admits. “Years ago. A woman jumped out of a cab. She was wearing a leather jumpsuit. She said something like, ‘Hey, gorgeous, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go!’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going up the Archway!’ ” He roars with laughter. “I was! So she just got back in the cab. She looked rather disappointed.”
Nighy insists that his life has changed little since the success of Love, Actually. He is pleased, at least, no longer to have to audition. As for the fame and attention, it hasn’t upset his ways. “I’ve been lucky. If I was young, there might be more heat in it.”
He sees a distance between himself and his roles. I read to him a description I had found of Rufus Scrimgeour: he looked like “an old lion”, a wiseacre with a greying beard and a slight limp. Does this even barely resemble the Nighy who once said, “I can only really operate in a decent lounge suit”.
“Why should it?” he said, shrugging. “None of those things are out of the range of somebody who makes Harry Potter movies ... It hasn’t even occurred to me to be worried about it.”
Nighy says that he is still a jobbing actor, bending himself to whatever comes — albeit, nowadays, with the luxury of turning a few things down. But hasn’t age changed his perspective? I ask him whether, facing his 60th birthday in December, there are still things that he wants to achieve. Does he feel he has missed roles and opportunities?
“No,” he says, emphatically. “No. I really, sincerely don’t.” Nor does he yearn for the classics. “I have zero interest in performing Shakespeare. I tried it a couple of times and didn’t take to it. I much prefer contemporary roles.”
What did excite him was his stint on Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39, a period conspiracy thriller starring Romola Garai, Juno Temple, Eddie Redmayne, Julie Christie and Jenny Agutter. “It’s set against the background of the appeasement crisis,” he says. “It’s about a family conspiracy to silence anti-appeasers. I knew very little about the appeasement crisis — other than what we were taught at school, that Neville Chamberlain came back with a piece of paper that humiliated him and shamed us. Then I read around it, because Stephen gave me books, and it is the most disgraceful period of recent British history.
“I play a Tory grandee, the father of the family, a kind of Tory philosopher who fought in the First World War. You have to remember that that war was only 18 years prior, and people feared the German air force rather as we might today fear nuclear annihilation. Men wept in the streets when Chamberlain said ‘Peace in our time’ — they thought they had been saved. Anyone who suggested we should take on Hitler and the Nazis was violently opposed.”
Glorious 39 will be released in the UK later this year; in the meantime, new engagements keep coming. Nighy says that, contrary to perceptions, he isn’t working as hard as he once did, and when he has a little down time he likes to relax with a novel — Hemingway or Kingsley Amis — and Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones, always the Stones. If anyone has any suspicions that Nighy has pretensions to grandeur, you only have to get him started on the Stones.
“I was listening to them on the way here this morning. I bought the disc for me and Frank the driver, ’cause he likes the Stones. We were listening to When the Whip Comes Down, from Some Girls.”
Don’t know it, I say.
“My God! What a track! Just check it out.”
I promise I will, and then it’s time for his photograph. A groomer and assistant are hovering. “OK, hang on, I’ll just use the bathroom,” he says and disappears.
I nod at the groomer, clutching her make-up bag, and smile at the assistant. There is total silence.
Then, distantly from the bathroom, we all hear, “When the whip comes down! When the whip comes down!” The assistant coughs gently, and starts thumping keys on her BlackBerry.