Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Bill Nighy Actually: The British Star of “Living,” On His Way to An Oscar, Has Seen All of Adam Sandler’s Films


“It’s kind of my area. Repressed men, or at least suppression. Useless with women. All of that. That’s what they call me for,” said Bill Nighy of the major roles he’s offered. The 73 year old British broke through in the US back in 2003 as the incredibly endearing rock star of “Love Actually” and just kept going. (He’s also pretty well known from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”) He was nominated in 2015 for a Tony Award on Broadway in “Skylight.”

Nighy charmed an audience at a post-screening Q&A of his new film, “Living,” last week in SoHo. “Living” is a remake by writer Kazuo Ishiguro (who was at the Q&A) of the 1952 Akira Kurosawa classic “Ikiru” or “To Live.” Directed by Oliver Hermanus, “The Remains of the Day” writer has moved the story to 1953 London.

Nighy plays Mr. Williams, an uptight civil servant who heads a Public Works office where he and his subordinates mainly shuffle around piles of documents, but in reality accomplish nothing. Procrastination is the order of the day.

A six months to live diagnosis by his doctor makes Mr. Williams realize he’d been dead until that moment anyway. He was nicknamed “Mr. Zombie” by a former underling, which amuses and doesn’t surprise him. After failed attempts at debauchery, he decides there’s something he might still accomplish to leave an imprint: he wears down city authorities to fund a little children’s playground, for which mothers had been stonewalled by ineffectual bureaucratic cogs like himself.

Bring your Kleenex.

“Living” will probably also net the veteran English actor his first ever Oscar nod.

Nighy said the kind of man Mr. Williams represented, buttoned up and stoical, was familiar to him. 

“I was born into that post-war atmosphere, and everyone was recovering from a brutal traumatic time, and London had been brutalized daily, and although I was unaware of these things, he was the first kind of men that were familiar to me. I’m not playing my dad or anything,” he added. “But I am really interested in him, because I find that very moving, it’s also funny, but there is an element of heroism. It’s not obviously desirable or healthy, and I’m aware of that, but I am very moved by people attempting that degree of restraint, which is,” he added, “bonkers, but that’s the atmosphere into which I was born.”

As to the question of how he prepared for the role, the physicality and how softly he spoke, Nighy said:

“I can’t really remember, but I’m going to speculate to be sociable. I used to make stuff up, but I’m going to intrigue you with this. I think the preparation was pretty much the same as always, it’s me walking up and down the living room carpet saying the lines over and over and over and over again, until I can give the impression that I’ve never said them before, which is my job. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not nothing either.

“As for the stillness, however, I didn’t consciously think about that… I mean he is somebody who’s been institutionalized in grief, having lost his wife at a very early stage of the marriage, and his personality, his response to the world, everything has formed around that like coral forming around an ocean floor.

“I suppose in terms of the physicality and in terms of the vocal thing, I spoke the first line on the very first day, ’cause you never know and you go, ‘Fucking hell.’ It came and I tried it really quietly, and I thought, “In a minute, the sound man is going to come up and say, ‘Bill, really? We’re going to seven weeks of this?’ but he never came near me, so I just kept going.”

(Mr. Ishiguro said the reason Nighy couldn’t remember these physical details is because he never watches himself on screen.)

As for whether Nighy had seen the Japanese film before he got the script:

“No, I hadn’t seen the Kurosawa, I’ve never seen the films you’re supposed to see. It’s like if you say, “What’s your favorite film?” I know you’re supposed to say ‘Metropolis.’ I’ve never seen ‘Metropolis.’ I’ve seen all the ‘Die Hard’ movies and everything with Adam Sandler, and a lot of sports movies where it goes into slow motion at the end. Those are supposed to be my guilty pleasure, but you know what? I’m not that guilty about it, but no, I haven’t seen it.”

A few minutes later Nighy admitted he had seen the Kurosawa film.

“Which was reckless in retrospect, because I don’t know, it could’ve undermined me or something, but it didn’t in fact. I admired it tremendously, and the central performance, I think because it was so different from anything I would imagine myself delivering, that I didn’t feel oppressed by it or daunted by it, and perhaps I should’ve been but I didn’t. I did watch it just once, and then I got superstitious about it… it’s too much information I don’t need and it’s not the film (I’m making)… I’ve never done a film that was an adaptation of a film before or a reimagining of a film before, so it was a unique situation.”

As for the urge to procrastinate and how this movie reminds us to make the most of our time, Nighy said,

“I procrastinate at an Olympic level, where when I die there will be a long list of things I just didn’t quite get ’round to. I get a kind of kick out of it, I get an obviously sort of toxic bang out of it. I actually love not doing stuff, and I’m not even ashamed of it because I do quite a lot of other stuff because people arrange for me to do it… Anyway, I am seriously interested in the way that an individual tendency, a personal tendency of that kind can be expressed in society, and that you have institutions of that size and complexity that are designed simply to prevent stuff from happening, that governments are involved in to a large degree.”

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