Bill Nighy knows his career has a very clear dividing line: Before Love Actually and After Love Actually. Richard Curtis‘s 2003 rom-com “changed everything,” says the 67-year-old Nighy, striding into his fourth decade as one of England’s most in-demand character actors. “More people saw Love Actually than had probably seen the whole of the rest of my career up until that point. It’s a very big part of what people think of when they look at me.”
And Love Actually fans will see Nighy — currently starring in the World War II drama, Their Finest, along with Gemma Arterton — back in aging rocker Billy Mack’s trousers very soon. The cast (minus Emma Thompson and the late Alan Rickman) recently reunited for a sequel that will be the centerpiece of NBC’s annual Red Nose Day charity special, airing on May 25. “Richard’s done a really good job,” Nighy promises. “It’ll give you an idea of where those characters might be now and what happened in the intervening 14 years. This reunion has already generated so much publicity and interest, it will hopefully be reflected in the amount of money people send.”
Yahoo Movies recently asked Nighy about the movies he’s most recognized for besides Love Actually, why he wouldn’t necessarily mind being typecast, and more; see our conversation below.
You were born in 1949, four years after the end of World War II. What did you learn about the war as a child?
I grew up on [war] stories. My father was in the RAF [Royal Air Force] and my mother was working nights on buses. They had lots of stories during that brutal time. So I was thrilled when I read the script for Their Finest, because not only is it very funny and romantic and all of those things, but I thought it did a really good job of giving you a proper sense of what it might have been like to live through that period.
Their Finest is specifically about the way the British film industry mobilized to produce features that could both entertain the masses, but also give them the will to fight.
Films were important, because it was largely all that the people at that time had. They had the radio, but they didn’t have TV, which is a big collective experience. Going to the cinema was a huge event, and movies were vastly important during that period, not only for keeping people’s spirits up, but also trying to instruct people as to how to conduct themselves during certain circumstances. And I think the big thing was that they were received collectively and that everybody got a sense of being involved in something together.
You play Ambrose Hilliard, an aging actor who has settled into a comfortable rut churning out B-grade detective movies. In your own career, you’ve been able to play a wide variety of roles. Was it interesting to embody an actor who basically does one thing?
I’ve always wanted to be that kind of actor. I’ve longed for it! [Laughs] When I was younger, other actors always used to complain, “I don’t want to be typecast.” I couldn’t wait to be typecast! Because it meant you just had to do the same thing all the time and you’d be fine. Everyone would go, “Oh, that’s the thing he does. He does that thing,” and I’d love to be like that. Instead, they always come up to me now and ask, “Will you play an octopus?” Or “Will you play a vampire? Or “Will you play a zombie?” I’m kidding, because it’s fun to play different parts and I would probably hate [being typecast]. But it was good to come to a part like Ambrose. They were looking for someone to play a chronically self-absorbed and pompous actor in his declining years, and they came to me. On a good day I can process that. [Laughs]
British cinema has a proud tradition of the kinds of detective yarns that Ambrose would have made, like the Bulldog Drummond series. Do you have a soft spot for those movies?
I loved all those films. I used to love the fact that, when you went to the movies, you got a double bill with a B-movie and a main attraction. I loved the B-movies. They were always on TV, those black and white movies. There’s a channel now in England that plays virtually nothing else, so those films are still around. And you got used to the fact that the romantic lead would be an American, because you had to have an American in order to get funding during the war, obviously, in order to encourage America to join the war.
Your career seemed to head in a more comic trajectory after Love Actually. Do you point to that film as a turning point in terms of how people perceived you?
I’d already started getting comedy calls before Love Actually thanks to another film in which I played a rock and roll idiot — Still Crazy. But it’s great that Love Actually has entered the language to the degree that it has. Over the years, I’ve had people come up and tell me how that movie has cheered them up in hard times. It’s now an institution. It’s kind of like the Queen’s Speech in England. You get the Queen’s Speech at Christmas and then you get Love Actually. It’s very satisfying.
Bill Nighy in ‘Still Crazy’: Watch a trailer:
Is Billy Mack the character you’re most recognized for?
If they’re from between ages nine to 90 it’s Love Actually. But for young men between 14 and 27, it’ll be Shaun of the Dead. Anyone in retirement is obviously The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And then it’s everyone in the world for Pirates of the Caribbean. So I’ve got it covered really, because I’ve got all age groups. I like to present a moving target. [Laughs]
Speaking of Shaun of the Dead, you’re one of the few actors to appear in all three entries in Edgar Wright‘s Cornetto Trilogy, which also includes Hot Fuzz and The World’s End.
I am! I think there are only four actors apart from Simon [Pegg] and Nick [Frost] who are in all three. I love the fact that it’s known as the Cornetto Trilogy. I remember in Shaun of the Dead that a large part of the gig for me was bleeding to death from the neck in the back of a Jaguar car. I remember having a blood sac and having to press it with my foot. So I was sitting in a pool of fake blood on a very hot day in a very hot leather car!
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