He’s a maniacal texter who doesn’t own a computer and has a profound fear of daylight and shorts. Is Bill Nighy, star of Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked, just another oddball actor, or one of the last great British eccentrics? Judge for yourself.
He’s one distracted man, Bill Nighy. ‘Just… need… to… finish… ‘The sentence trails off as his crooked fingers move over the buttons on his phone. Texting is an obsession of his, he says (distractedly), because he doesn’t use email, having… no… um… computer. Friends and colleagues of his receive dozens a day, apparently – pithy observations, apercus, updates about his daily goings-on. He invented the concept of twitter long before it had an official name.
Another of his obsessions is going on in his head, and in mine – Bob Dylan. Though we are upstairs in the green room of someone else’s photography studio, it is his music we are listening to. He always has his own with him and it is nearly always Dylan. The actor listens to the singer every day.
Dylan, indeed, is the soundtrack to his life and has been since he first heard him in the early Sixties. This either shows a wilful lack of imagination, or an impressive streak of loyalty, I can’t decide which. What I do know is that when I correctly identify the album, a fairly obscure one from the late Seventies called Slow Train Coming, my stock rises instantly. ‘Oh,’ he says, looking up from his text. ‘You know your Dylan.’
Bill Nighy is a tall and spidery 59-year-old in thick-rimmed, Eric Morecambe glasses, a silk scarf and a tailor-made suit. Though he is easy company – we have met before, in a pub in Norfolk, through a mutual friend – he is, shall we say, a complex fellow. A borderline eccentric, in truth, not only obsessed with Dylan and texting but also with the weather and football (he is a fanatical Crystal Palace supporter).
When in a hotel he likes to keep the curtains closed, even when there is a view to enjoy, and he has what amounts to a phobia about wearing shorts. ‘There are only two people in the world who look good in shorts,’ he says, ‘and I’m not one of them.’
The two being? ‘Brad Pitt and Barack Obama. Summer trousers are cooler than shorts anyway and you don’t have to smear stuff on your legs. I go pink and septic in the sun if I don’t smear. The other problem I have with summer is that I don’t like linen, but I do like to wear a jacket. And I like to wear a jacket because I don’t like my shape. So even in the sun without a jacket I feel… ‘ Pause. A sweeping, off-the-shoulder gesture. ‘… lost.’
Nighy has a pleasingly dry sense of humour and is a fine anecdotalist, telling self-deprecating stories in a deadpan voice so mellow people assume he has just woken up when he answers the phone. He is also refreshingly unpretentious about the business of acting, saying that he loves it when a director gives him something to do with his hands, or, better still, a limp. That time in the pub he entertained us with stories about the drinking culture among the actors of the Seventies and Eighties – the Harrises, the Hurts, the O’Tooles.
I only realised afterwards that he wasn’t drinking himself. That had to go in 1992, or rather be replaced with an addiction to Diet Coke, fruit gums and builder’s tea. He doesn’t like to talk on the record about that period of his life, feeling he has nothing to add to a comment he once made about his ‘unhealthy relationship’ with alcohol, how he ‘drank for England, Scotland and Wales’ and how he never had a button other people seem to possess which tells you when to stop.
Although he has earned a decent living as an actor for almost 40 years – the David Hare and Tom Stoppard plays at the National, the Stephen Poliakoff dramas for the BBC – it wasn’t until his Bafta award-winning performance in Love Actually (2003), the Richard Curtis film in which he played an ageing rock star, that he really tasted stardom.
Since then he has been much in demand, everything from the stepfather in Shaun of the Dead, to the cuckolded husband in Notes on a Scandal and the tentacled Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean. At the moment – the past and coming year – he is appearing in seven films, which rather suggests he finds it hard to say no.
‘There is that,’ he says, leaning forward to fidget with my notes. ‘All actors who have been around for a long time, which I have, and have been skint for long periods, which I have, find it difficult to turn down jobs. If I turn anything down my stomach turns over. I feel sick. It feels like gambling.’
He is teaming up with Richard Curtis again next month for The Boat that Rocked, a comedy about the pirate radio of the Sixties (his co-stars include Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans and Kenneth Branagh). ‘One Boat. Eight DJs. No morals’ – that’s how it is being sold on the posters. ‘Whatever else the film might be,’ Nighy says, ‘it was mainly an excuse for Richard to play all the songs from that period, the Who, the Small Faces, the Kinks. He is a slave to them. It’s funny but at the time, 1966, I just accepted that there was all this good music around. I thought that was the norm but, in retrospect, I realise that it was an extraordinary time for music. Extraordinary.’
The film captures the duality of 1966 Britain well – while some men experimented with sideburns, felt trousers and afghan coats, others were still wearing pin stripes and bowler hats. I ask Nighy how he dressed at that time. ‘I was never a hippy, per se. I just helped them out when they were busy. But yes, we did look very different. I would be refused in pubs for the way I dressed. Other customers found the sight of long hair on men unsettling. I was routinely pulled on my way home. The police would put their hands in my pockets.’
Did he ever get the rubber glove treatment? ‘On one occasion, I’m afraid so. The finger up the… whatever.’ Really? In London? ‘Cornwall. A detective was crawling over my half of the tent looking for drugs and I was protesting that he was wasting his time.’
Was he wasting his time? ‘Nothing was found, certainly not up there. I was never that ingenious. It was an occupational hazard being searched. Nothing remarkable about it. You’d expect trouble.’
As far as I know there is nothing on the record about him taking drugs, but that appears to be what he is talking about. Does he remember his first spliff? ‘I smoked marijuana for the first time on a beach in Folkestone with a bloke I had never seen before and have never seen since. It was big and it made me feel sick and if I’d had any sense I would have left it there. I didn’t. I don’t do it anymore. We’re at liberty to change our minds, if you will pardon the pun.’
But at the time it must have seemed like us and them, as the Pink Floyd song puts it. ‘Yes, we used to divide the world up into straights and heads. We were the heads, the freaks. If anyone got a new girlfriend in our gang, the first question was “is she a head?” And if she wasn’t, there would be a problem.’ How old was he when he realised his ambition to become a bohemian? ‘Wow, that’s a nice way of putting it. You’re right, I did aspire to a bohemian life. I wanted to live like a writer. A bohemian writer. I knew that was what I wanted from an early age, my mid teens probably. But I didn’t feel sure enough about myself to know what I was looking for. What could you call it, self-expression? I thought that sounded too posh.’
I ask whether he can see the Counter Culture more from the perspective of the Establishment – the straights – now that he is older. Surely they had good reason to worry that a student revolution might flare up at any moment – it did in Paris – and their sense that the moral fabric of the nation was being eroded was, if nothing else, well intentioned. Wasn’t that why the government wanted to close Radio Caroline down?
‘Certainly the subversion was all to do with music. Radio Caroline was seen as a threat and was chased all over the seas. The best thing about them was they had a good signal. Radio Luxembourg was great but it would always drift off the signal. I would listen to it on a beautiful old wireless that I kept by my bed. It gave off heat. But it was also the television. I remember sitting in front of Top of the Pops and Like a Rolling Stone came on. I found it breathtaking. My dad just shook his head. It was beyond his comprehension. I wanted him to understand because he was a good man, and we would talk about music. We often had the Bing v Frank debate. But this was too far, he couldn’t get it. Now I am older I can see why he didn’t get it.’
His father ran a garage and died of a heart attack when Nighy was in his twenties. It left him with a sense of ‘something missing’. His mother was a nurse and the family – he was one of three children – lived in the suburbs (Caterham, Surrey). He left school shortly before he turned 16. ‘I was into soul and Motown and the Stones, but Dylan was the one who changed my life. I left home on the strength of Dylan.’
Did he buy a guitar and harmonica? ‘No, too lazy. I did pick up a guitar once, but the strings hurt my fingers so I put it down again. Anything I had to work at I abandoned. Actually I’m grateful I didn’t learn because I’ve got funny hands.’ His condition is called Dupuytren’s contracture. It causes some of his fingers to bend in towards the palm. He holds them up to show me. ‘I know some guitar players who have the same condition and they find it deeply irritating. It’s hereditary. My mum had it. I first became affected by it in my twenties. There are two glamorous facts about it. It only affects people with Viking blood and Frank Sinatra had it in one hand.’
He did join a garage band at one point, as the singer, ‘but it was all too scary’. His hair was partly to blame for his shaken confidence. ‘I had a catastrophe when I hit puberty in that my hair went violently curly. I tried putting some gunk on it to keep it down but nothing worked. One day a teacher pulled me by my hair to the front of the class and let go, saying: “Nighy, what horrible hair!” ‘ Pause. Gloomy face. ‘The whole class thought it was Christmas. I was called Horrible Hair after that. No one cool had curly hair. This was a disaster because it meant any prospect of my joining the Rolling Stones was gone forever.’
Could have joined the Who, I point out. Look at the footage of Roger Daltrey at Woodstock. ‘Yeah but his curls fell. They looked great. They had movement. Mine went sideways and up. It wasn’t a good look, trust me.’
Looks pretty straight now, his hair. ‘It’s funny, I can’t remember when it went back, yet it must have been one of the best days of my life.’ He brushes his hand over the crown of his head. ‘Even if it had been straight then I would still have been disabled with self-consciousness. I used to walk the dog a lot, that was how I tackled my self-consciousness. He was called Riff. It legitimised my late night walks. I found it easier to be on my own.’
So, hang on, as an 18 year-old crippled with self-consciousness, he decided to go on the stage? ‘One of the things that is assumed about actors is that they are extrovert, which is almost never the case, in my experience. Anyway, I didn’t really decide to be an actor. My plan was to become a writer like my hero Hemingway, but I didn’t have the courage.’ Though he threw away his underwear – because that was what Hemingway did – and left home with the intension of reaching Persia, he only got as far as France. Part of his problem, he reckons, is that he has always been ‘a world-class procrastinator’.
He doesn’t think he is an introvert, though. ‘Not exactly, and shy doesn’t quite cover it, because that suggests a degree of arrogance, a mixture of extreme vanity and self-disgust. No, acting for me wasn’t so much a matter of knowing what I wanted to do, it was more about knowing what I didn’t want to do.’
Which was? ‘Work hard in a nine-to-five job. Now I come to think of it, when people warned me that there would be long periods out of work if I became an actor I couldn’t keep a straight face because that was exactly what I had in mind. Yeah baby. That sounded like a result. And you could go around saying: “I am an actor but I’m not currently working.” Result again.’
Although Nighy manages to make everything seem light and effortless in conversation, he does suffer from nerves and his repertoire of twitches tells a different story. He says he has to mug for photographs, deflecting attention away from himself and from his anxiousness. He is often mistaken for someone who is relaxed, he adds, which is hardly ever the case. And he accepts that, with his quirks and compulsions, he is probably not the easiest person to live with.
Nevertheless, for 27 years, he did live with the actress Diana Quick, the mother of his daughter, Mary (who is in her early twenties and an actress). They separated last year and nowadays he seems to prefer his own company. Tellingly, he often seems to combine contradiction in his roles, between swagger and bathos, between tension and relaxation. And when he is standing on a stage his abiding feeling is one of – a curious choice of word this – ‘shame’. As for the inevitable rejection that comes with being an actor, ‘you don’t know about it till it starts happening, then you do get used to it. If you are lucky you are seen for 50 jobs a year and you get five of them’.
Nighy found himself working for the Everyman Theatre Company in Liverpool in the mid Seventies, alongside several of the subsequently famous: Pete Postlethwaite, Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce, Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale. He remembers his time there fondly. The drama was edgy and experimental and he thinks it is harder for theatre companies to shock these days. Certainly the f-word has lost its power. ‘Certain people have a gift for saying it well. I’m not sure whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that people say it in public more now. I imagine it is probably best kept for certain occasions. Writers who are brilliant know how much more powerful – and often how much more comic – the f-word is if it is used sparingly. It can be deeply satisfying, especially if you are the one saying it on stage.’
Like he did in Love Actually, when his character was doing a live radio interview. ‘Exactly,’ he gives a slow and deep chuckle at the memory. ‘I used to be quite bullish about its use when I was younger but now I take that view that if the word offends people then it offends them. There is no point saying to people you shouldn’t be offended… Can you believe it is more than 30 years since Kenneth Tynan first said the f-word on air?’
He is not very good on his decades. ‘Oh yes, sorry, I tend to miss out the Eighties, so I think everything was 30 years ago when actually it was 40 years ago. I went to drama school in, when, 1968? It was the Summer of Love, apparently. It won’t have been a freak who came up with that description, it must have been a newspaper editor.
‘I wish someone had told me it was the Summer of Love at the time because I don’t think I was particularly promiscuous. I certainly thought everyone else was at it though. It was another example of men getting away with it, as Martin Amis would say. We would always turn to our girlfriends, or the girls we wanted to sleep with, and say “baby, be cool”. It was a scoundrel’s remark, like “don’t be paranoid”. You can’t deny being paranoid because the minute you deny it you sound paranoid. If your girlfriend had caught you in bed with her best friend you would say “baby, don’t be paranoid”.’
What about all that public nudity in the Summer of Love? Presumably, given his aversion to wearing shorts, he wasn’t all that keen. ‘It was a tough time to be young, having to take your clothes off and be cool about it. I didn’t have the shape so nothing would have persuaded me to do it.’
Didn’t he strip off in Gideon’s Daughter? ‘Did I? Oh yeah, I did have to take my top off. It was a lonely moment, I tell you. I had to lie on top of a naked Ronni Ancona. Had to simulate passion with noises. You wake up and think, “Ah, what am I doing today? Oh yes, today I have to simulate passion with noises.” It’s never a good start to the day. It’s very exposing to make noises because you never know what noises other people make. It’s bonkers. Ludicrous.
‘The only way to get through it is to think that your job is to look after the girl – that is your responsibility, protect her from the crew, obscure parts of her body. The trouble is, you end up in positions from which it is impossible to make lurve. But playing the gentleman helps take your mind off your own predicament, off your puny body and your non-existent genitalia. Having someone making up your bum with half a dozen sparks watching is not my idea of eroticism.’
Sounds like the stuff of anxiety dreams. ‘Oh man. And it’s always so unnecessary. There is never a justification for it in the plot. It is all to do with budget and having a chance to show breasts.’
He once had to do a naked scene on stage, he says with a shake of his head. ‘That was even worse. The deep winter in the Hampstead Theatre Club which had no central heating and I was supposed to come on as if emerging from a shower. One of the female stage hands had to pour a bucket of water over me just before I came on, and the water was always ice cold. What there was of my manhood would retreat into my torso. In the matinee you could hear the audience talking and one day I distinctly heard a woman say: “Oh no, that’s disgusting!” ‘ Couldn’t he have objected? ‘Yeah, but they would have told me I was being paranoid. Too right I’m paranoid. I’ve nothing on and there are 200 people staring at me.’
Baby, be cool? ‘Exactly. Baby, be cool.’