Graphic: Nick Wanserski

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Many Americans were introduced to the disarmingly charming actor Bill Nighy in Richard Curtis’ holiday staple Love Actually. He was playing Billy Mack, a washed-up rocker making a surprising comeback. This is the type of guy who brags about shagging Britney Spears. (Hey, it was 2003.) It turns out Nighy detests doing sex scenes, a fact he learned during his breakout TV role in England, the series The Men’s Room. Though it took him a while, Nighy is now a ubiquitous cinematic presence, popping up all over the place, sometimes in franchise blockbusters, and often in the films of Richard Curtis and Edgar Wright. To that last point, he has the rare distinction of appearing in each film in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. Each of his roles he tackles with a glint in his eye and impeccable timing.

The Limehouse Golem (release date TBD)—“John Kildare”
Their Finest (2017)—“Ambrose Hilliard / Uncle Frank”

The A.V. Club: You had two films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, Limehouse Golem and Their Finest. How did you on these projects?

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Bill Nighy: For Their Finest, they were looking for someone to play a chronically self-absorbed, pompous actor in his declining years, and they thought of me, which on a good day, I can process. There are certain mornings it’s trickier. I was a longtime fan of Lone Scherfig. We had actually tried to work together before, and for the usual reasons, it hadn’t happened. In this case, it was all clear. It’s a lovely part and a really cool script, and everything about it was attractive. It was an easy decision. It’s a film about making a film during the Second World War, when in Britain they made keep-your-pecker-up movies, patriotic stories about the bravery of the British people in times of war. You sort of assume that because they have a single purpose, that they won’t be very distinguished as films. But actually, when you go back, as I did, to look at them, some of them are really cool films with some very, very good performances.

AVC: And Limehouse is sort of a Holmesian detective role?

BN: I’ve waited a long time to play a detective.

AVC: Is this the first detective you’ve played?

BN: I think it’s my first detective, yeah.

AVC: That’s sort of crazy.

BN: I know. I was a spy not long ago, and it had taken my whole life to be a spy. I play—and I always get a kick out of saying this, every time I say it I like it more—Detective Inspector John Kildare of Scotland Yard. I had to say it a few times in the movie, because I have to introduce myself, obviously. Every time I say it, I get a kind of thrill. I have a very distinguished police constable as my colleague, and he and I go around looking for clues. I was once told by a very great man called Ken Campbell, who was a genius who educated me in my early professional life—“if you play a detective, look for clues. Don’t forget to look for clues.” If you watch the movie, you’ll see, I don’t think there’s a moment where I’m not—whatever else I’m doing, I’m looking for clues.

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AVC: Is there a way you convey looking for clues as an actor?

BN: There is, actually. In the great Ken Campbell’s way of it, you actually look under cushions. Whenever anybody is not looking, you kind of check the back of their head or something. I didn’t go that far, but you might see my eyes flicker now and again.

Softly Softly: Task Force (1976)—“Albert Blake”

AVC: Your first credit on IMDB is an episode of Softly Softly: Task Force.

BN: Oh, right. I played Albert Blake, who was kind of third or fourth bank robber to the left. He was the kid in the gang. I was very inexperienced, and I remember that the senior bank robber had to literally turn my body around to face the camera, because if somebody spoke to me, I’d just turn around and speak to them, which would have been a great shot of the back of my head. Very kindly, he would just say, “Favor the camera,” and turn me around quite stridently. We dug a hole from the florist shop next door to the bank. We dug a tunnel into the bank to steal all their money, and it was a big deal to be on TV. I made the mistake of watching it.

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AVC: Had you mostly done theater before then?

BN: I had exclusively done theater. I was working as an actor for about maybe 10 years before anybody pointed a camera at me, which was not that unusual then. The younger actors are probably aghast, but that was not an unfamiliar career path in those days. I’d been out of town. In the days before subsequent governments starved them to death in England, you could work in the theaters. They were robust, lively theaters in the communities, and you could get work. You wouldn’t get any money, but you’d have a gig. That’s what I’d been doing. So, one of the directors I’d been working with—he became a television director, and so…

AVC: Is that how you landed on the show?

BN: That’s how I started robbing banks. But I remember I made the mistake of watching it. I was living in a sort of crowded house, and I said to everybody—the thought of doing this now would kill me—I said, “Hey everybody, I’m on TV.” It was just like, oh my God, and we all sat in the front room. I didn’t sleep that night. I was in Liverpool, and I walked all the way around Liverpool thinking, “I’m now a national joke. What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” Because it was such an upsetting experience watching myself, listening to myself, and seeing all those compromises. The whole thing was one long compromise in terms of trying to act. It was very disturbing for me.

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Curse Of The Pink Panther (1983)—“ENT Doctor”

BN: Oh my God. I think I had one line, and I can’t remember what it was. I had to push Herbert Lom in a wheelchair. That was the largest part of my job. I had a day’s work, and I was very nervous. I was in the dressing room, and there was a loud knock on my door. I answered the door, and [it was] half the crew, like eight guys. It was an L-shaped room, so you couldn’t see me. I said, “Come in.” And they came in and said, “Bill! You old sod. Where are you? Come on! Bill!” And I was like, “What?” And then, when they came around the corner and saw me, I was the wrong Bill. They thought I was Bill Nagy. There was another actor called Bill Nagy who I think must have been Hungarian. So, at the beginning of the day, I’d already disappointed the crew by being the wrong Bill.

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AVC: Was he also in the film?

BN: No, they speed-read my surname and came up with Nagy, and I was the wrong Bill. They were like, “Oh, you’re not—Where’s Bill?” I said, “I am Bill, but obviously not the right Bill.” It was not a great start to the day. But I probably made 200 bucks.

AVC: Did you interact with Blake Edwards at all?

BN: No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. I didn’t interact with anyone except Herbert Lom, who I had to push. Somebody with a headset came over and said, “Push the wheelchair. Push the wheelchair.” That was that. “Push it down there, and stop. Now stop.” That was my interaction.

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The Men’s Room (1991)—“Professor Mark Carleton”

AVC: Many people now know you from film, but you did so much work in TV. Did you consider The Men’s Room your biggest part to date?

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BN: Yeah, The Men’s Room was a big deal, because I was the leading male lead in a whole series. Up until then, I had been an episode guy like everyone else—an episodic man—and they gave me a whole series. Also, not that I’m counting—in other words, I am counting—I had to simulate passion seven times with four different women, which is sort of if you fed it into a computer, my nightmare. If you really want to get to me, give me one of those, let alone seven. I used to wake up in the morning thinking, “Do I have to make love to anybody? No I don’t. Oh my God.” I never watched it, obviously. I remember we made the [health page in a paper]. I was in a hotel spa, and somebody handed me the paper, and it said, “If you have a heart condition or anything of that kind, don’t attempt the things that Bill Nighy and the young lady get up to on the TV.” I thought, “What did we do?” Because I was so violently opposed to the whole thing that I had no memory of what we did except that it was intensely embarrassing.

AVC: So, love scenes—not your thing.

BN: Not anybody’s thing unless you’ve got a very specific enthusiasm for being watched by 25 guys. If you simulate passion with noises on national television and nobody laughs, you should be grateful. You don’t even know what you do, hopefully, unless you’re checking yourself out. And you certainly don’t know what anybody else does, so it’s risky. It’s a very risky business.

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Still Crazy (1998)—“Ray Simms”

AVC: Was Still Crazy your first rocker?

BN: Still Crazy was my first principal role in a movie, and therefore was very important, because it meant I could play a principal role in a movie. I think I got it because everybody they really desired turned it down, which is the story of most peoples’ career—the story of most of my career. When you went for auditions, you’d always see the same 12 guys, and if the receptionist looked away, you’d kind of check the list, and yet it would be the same 12 guys. You knew all the guys, and you’d know that six of them were hotter than you were, so you’d know that they’d all have to have turned it down before you got a gig. Anyway, everybody turned it down. It was fun. It was the first thing I ever did with Tim Spall. It was written by Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, who are the comedy geniuses of comedy writing. I did a screen test at about 8 a.m., and I think I was 46 at the time. I had to wear very tight, velvet bell-bottom loon pants.

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AVC: They gave you the pants?

BN: I didn’t have to bring my own. Surprisingly, I didn’t own a pair of skin-tight bell-bottoms and a pair of four-inch, fake crocodile platform heels and a top that did not meet my trousers. I was 46. And they put me in front of a karaoke machine, and I had to lip sync to—no, I had to sing “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple. I nearly didn’t go, because it was so embarrassing. You’ve got hair extensions, and it’s a very lonely place to find yourself. You think, “Who arranged this? And why would I put myself through this?” In desperation, I simulated sex with the mic stand. You know, what are you going to do?

AVC: So, love scenes, no, but mic scenes, yes.

BN: I’d marginally be more comfortable with a mic stand than with a live human being.

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Love Actually (2003)—“Billy Mack”
The Girl In The Café (2005)—“Lawrence”
About Time (2013)—“Dad”

AVC: Was Still Crazy a direct link to Love Actually?

BN: I don’t think it was. I don’t know this, because I’ve never discussed it with [Richard Curtis] or with anybody else, but I think it almost disqualified me. [In Still Crazy] we had a band in the film called Strange Fruit. I get in cabs all over the world, and every now and again, someone will say, “Are the Fruits getting back together?” You know, because, over the years, people have watched it. When it came out, there was a resounding silence. There was a possibility that they would have thought, “Oh, he’s kind of done that, so let’s get somebody that hasn’t.” But, in fact, thankfully, they didn’t think that in the end.

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AVC: You’ve done a lot of projects with Richard Curtis. Do you have an favorite memory from any of them?

BN: I have many, many memories of working with Richard. I love working with Richard. Particularly, he’s a wonderful director as well as a writer, obviously. The Girl In The Café is one of my favorite jobs. David Yates brilliantly directed it, and Richard wrote it. I loved that job. I have many fond memories of me and the band in Love Actually.

AVC: Oh really?

BN: The girls were so cool and so happy. They were all from a model agency. They were all obviously very beautiful models. I don’t think they got treated too well most of the time, so when they were on the film set, they got treated really nicely. They got brought cake and coffee. We had a laugh. And then I remember they got very excited about the premiere, because we turned up in the stretchiest of all stretches because it was a seven-piece band or something. We walked in formation down the thing.

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AVC: Did you go to the premiere in costume?

BN: I think I wore the suit from the movie. I didn’t wear lycra trousers or anything, and they were in their outfits. They were in their Ms. Santa 2000-and whatever outfits, and it was very sweet.

And About Time, which was the last film I did with Richard, is a particular favorite of mine. It’s definitely entered the language, because people everywhere come up to me and it’s made a big impression. A guy came up to me yesterday in London and said, “I’ve seen you in the street a couple of times, and I thought, if I ever see him again, I’m going to tell him.” So, he said, “I had the worst breakup of my whole life. All I did was sit and watch About Time over and over and over again.” People obviously came out and phoned their dad and all that. I think it really pulled off exactly what it was trying to do, which was to get us to emphasize the good stuff rather than chase the stuff that’s only good because it isn’t here or something isn’t there. Somebody said it was a huge hit in South Korea. Somebody asked somebody from South Korea, and they said, “It very closely follows our Buddhist guidelines.” And also—I mean, I guess it’s the same here, really—the father-son relationship is kind of key and all that. That was a wonderful summer in Cornwall. It was a beautiful summer.

AVC: Most of your scenes were at that house.

BN: Yeah, that beautiful house. Unbelievable house. That family, I think the people who live there have been there for 100 years or something. It’s as dreamy as it looks. And you just walk out, and there are the cliffs, and there’s the ocean. It’s completely divine.

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Doctor Who (2010)—“Dr. Black”

AVC: Speaking of cult followings, you were Richard Curtis’ iconic episode of Doctor Who, “Vincent And The Doctor.” Was that just a call, “come and do this scene?”

BN: He needed somebody to play that scene at the end, and it’s a wonderful idea, you know. Everybody has wanted to bring Van Gogh back to the present day and say, “Look! It’s worth 20 million bucks. Look! They’re having an auction. It’s now worth 180 million bucks.” For a certain genre of fan, that’s the only thing I am famous for. I was in it for 10 minutes, but if you’re on reasonable terms with Doctor Who, that puts you in another place.

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Shaun Of The Dead (2004)—“Philip”
The World’s End (2013)—“The Network”

AVC: Another director and writer you worked with a lot is Edgar Wright. Is there a favorite of his films for you?

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BN: Well, I like them all. I guess the first one, Shaun Of The Dead, because I was getting to know Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar. You know, that triumvirate. They call it the Cornetto trilogy, as you probably know. In one of them, it’s only because there’s a Cornetto wrapper floating across the screen.

AVC: But isn’t there a Cornetto wrapper in all of them?

BN: Oh, I think there probably is. I am, I think, only one of four or five people who are in all three of the Cornetto trilogy, so that’s a pretty cool distinction.

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AVC: In The World’s End, you just play a voice.

BN: I’m the voice of God. They were looking for God—I suddenly sound like Christopher Walken—and they thought of me, as it should be for young men. They should think of me—no, but it was great. I love working with them, and they just used to make me laugh all the time. I mean, a large part of my job in Shaun was to bleed to death in the back of a Jaguar, and it was very sticky, and it was very hot. You’ve got a blood-sack at your ankle, you’ve got a tube going up your leg, and the blood comes out of the top of your shirt, and you have to sit there for hours in the heat with no air conditioning, and it pools beneath you after a while. So, you’re sitting in fake blood on leather seats in the very hot summer, and it’s not the greatest spot, but they made me laugh all the time. So, it was okay. But they’re not relentlessly funny, you know? Certain people just try to be funny all the time. They’re just incredibly good company.

The Last Place On Earth (1985)—“Cecil Meares”

AVC: Speaking of unpleasant experiences, was there any project in your career that you had a particularly bad time doing?

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BN: Well, you know. You’ve made films in sort of very cold places and very hot places. I prefer very cold to very hot.

AVC: Was there a particularly cold one?

BN: Actually, it was not an unpleasant experience. The first time I came to Canada, I was taken to Baffin Island. I was put on a frozen sea with a sled with five dogs, and given a whip, which I never used on the dogs, and the Inuit words for “left,” “right,” and ”stop.” [“Stop”] surprisingly is “whoa.” They said head on out.

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AVC: What was the project?

BN: The project was called—It’ll come back to me in a moment. But it’s about the race to the Pole between Captain [Robert Falcon] Scott and [Roald] Amundsen, the Norwegian party. I was a dog man, Cecil Henry Meares, so I had the sled and the dogs. It never got really dark. It was a kind of twilight world, and the ice used to change color, and the sea was frozen over for several months every year. It was just a dreamy job. Why did I tell you about that? Because it was cold, oh yeah. One actor’s jaw froze. They had to take him back to his trailer to warm up his jaw.

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)—“Davy Jones”

AVC: What is the difference for you in doing big studio films? Do you like doing them?

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BN: Yeah, I mean, when somebody says “action” it’s pretty much the same job. You know what I mean? But the difference is usually time and the size of everything, the number of people there. I remember driving up to do a night shoot on Pirates Of The Caribbean. You’re on an island in the Caribbean, and just slightly offshore are moored two $10 million ships surrounded by rain boats so they can rain on it, and then also with several light boats which hang big, green balloon lights the size of buses over the thing, and that’s the set.

AVC: What did you have to wear?

BN: I had 250 dots painted on my face every morning for the compute tracking, and I had to wear computer pajamas.

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AVC: Computer pajamas?

BN: They spared me the lycra. I was too old for the lycra. That was my nightmare. I didn’t even know that I had to wear that. I phoned up the wardrobe designer, and said, “When is my wardrobe fitting?” She said, “Has nobody told you? You don’t get a costume. You’re in these.” And then they sent around this pajama outfit with white bobbles all over it and a skullcap with a white bobble on the top and trainers, which is enough to kill me anyway. It’s a generational thing. And they had bobbles on the trainers. You look like you had some rare skin condition, and you were dressed like a soft toy, like a sort of clowny, soft toy. And then they say, “Act,” and “Be the scariest thing on the ocean wave.” That’s a stretch. For the first couple of days, it’s like, “What will I do?” and “What am I doing?” But it was fun. It was a great gig. But what I mean is the size of everything—you go, “Oh my God.”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—“Douglas Ainslie”
Absolute Hell (1991)—“Hugh Marriner”

AVC: Recently, you’ve done the Marigold Hotel films. What is it like being part of that group?

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BN: I’ve been married to Penelope Wilton probably twice before. I’ve been her doctor. I’ve had letter sex with her on the radio.

AVC: What was that in?

BN: I can’t remember the name of it, but it was about a Bavarian gentleman who wrote very racy letters to 19th century English woman. I was her doctor in Harold Pinter’s A Kind Of Alaska [onstage]. I was married to her in Shaun Of The Dead. I had known Tom Wilkinson, he reminded me, since we were 25 from the radio. First time I had ever met Tom, we were on the radio. I still do a lot of radio. I’d known Celia Imrie since she was 16 from drama school. I’ve been Judi Dench’s love thing about three or four times. Absolute Hell on TV, which was a play by Rodney Ackland. If you—which I’m sure you do—want to see a great performance by Judi Dench, check out Absolute Hell. You can get it on disk.

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I was also in The Seagull by Anton Chekhov at the National Theatre, and I played Trigorin. I was her lover in that and twice for the Marigolds. And [Ronald] Pickup, he was in Absolute Hell as well. For The Seagull I wasn’t going to grow a beard. If any English actor gets called to play Chekhov he starts growing a beard the minute they put the phone down. I hate beards. I was determined to be the only English actor of a certain age who was in it who didn’t have a beard. Judi Dench every morning used to come in and feel my cheek and say, “I don’t understand.” Helen McCrory would say, “If you grow a beard, I won’t come anywhere near you.” So, I had to decide between the two, and with all due respect to Helen, Judi won out. [Marigold] was like the traveling supper club of Great Britain, and the anecdotes were—you can imagine the stories. I love working with Dame Judi Dench. She’s an extraordinary artist, but she’s also dreamy to do business with. She’s very funny, and she makes me laugh. I would always go if she was part of the deal.

So do you prefer rock stars to detective inspectors these days?

BN: Well, I think I’m entering my detective phase. I like the trousers better. They’re more generous. And I like wearing a decent lounge suit. I operate best in what we used to call a lounge suit. People used to ask why there’s a chronic lack of classical work, Shakespearean work on my CV, and I usually say, I kind of joke, “It’s because I can’t operate in those kind of trousers.” But it’s actually true.

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