“I find it very difficult,” says Bill Nighy, and there is no reason to doubt him, “not to say ‘for fuck’s sake’. Very few people use the f-word correctly and properly. It’s pronunciation. The insertion of it into a sentence.”
Esquire notes that, a couple of weeks earlier, he had very nearly inserted into a sentence live on television — and before lunch — “FFS”. Speaking from the sofa of ITV’s This Morning, Phillip and Holly probed him on world poverty, and his contribution to Oxfam’s campaign to make it history, when, dander rising, he said: “It’s not like we’re going to give any money to Robert Mugabe, ffffff-if you know what I mean.”
“Yes,” Nighy chuckles, “I almost certainly was going to say it.”
Nighy is a master of long, posh words as well as short, common ones, having learned his trade on the stages of England, from the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool to London’s National Theatre. “I did a load of assistant stage manager jobs, where you get a couple of lines in the play, but mainly you’re there to drive the van. It occurred to me the other day: I actually did use to sweep stages. That’s how old I am.”
He is enviably old enough to have run away to Paris, aged 16, with a head full of Dylan and Hemingway, to write short stories and meet girls. When neither of those happened, he returned to England, where a girl he did meet told him he could be an actor — “she was the first girl who ever paid any attention to me. You know how that can be” — and helped him write the application for drama school. Take that, Bob and Ernest.
He began working in film and TV in the late Seventies, and regular on-screen sightings accompanied his radio and theatre roles throughout the Eighties and Nineties, including first-runs of plays by Sirs Tom Stoppard and David Hare. In 2003, Nighy, then 53, made a triple impact that turned a solid career into a stellar one: playing a vampire overlord in Underworld; a newspaper editor in the BBC’s State of Play; and, most notably, he stole Richard Curtis’s ensemble comedy Love Actually, as the washed-up rock star Billy Mack — a man who expertly (and appropriately as it turns out) says inappropriate things during live broadcasts, among other comic gems.
Three years later, Nighy’s boat really came in with his role of Davy Jones in the Johnny Depp-helmed Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
His most recent film, a fourth collaboration with Curtis, is time-travel romcom About Time. “It has a very satisfying, cottagey sort of science-fiction feel,” says Nighy, a voracious reader who is as happy in the SF section as he is in any other part of the bookshop. “What the film delivers is a simple but profound suggestion of how to possibly be happy.”
This year, Nighy is happily enjoying trilogies. In summer, he appeared in the Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg film The World’s End, and was filming two sequels to Page Eight, the 2011 BBC TV movie in which he played end-of-career spy Johnny Worricker, written and directed by friend and long-time collaborator Hare.
“Page Nine and Page Ten, as we wittily refer to them,” he says. “Either that or The Worricker Supremacy and The Worricker Ultimatum . I loved making the first one. I’ve worked with David [Hare] all my life.”
Hare put his finger on what many people think about Nighy — that he seems to be enjoying himself in his work in a way that is communicated effortlessly and directly to those watching the performance — when he said he admired the way he looks at acting and doesn’t treat it as the be-all and end-all.
“I don’t think it is,” Nighy agrees, “but I do have respect for it, and I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of it, the practicalities of actually selling a line.”
From the October issue of Esquire. About Time is out on 6 September.