Today, there are more rave reviews, Oscar buzz and a Golden Globe nomination for Nighy for his performance in “Living.” And as you see, it is the reason he joins me today. Bill Nighy, welcome to “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.
MR. NIGHY: Good morning, Jonathan. Thank you for having me.
MR. CAPEHART: Oh, it is a thrill for me to be able to talk to you about a lot of things, but we have to talk about how this movie came about, which, and correct me if I wrong, it starts with you and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel Laureate in Literature, sharing a taxi after a dinner party? What happened?
MR. NIGHY: Yeah, I went to dinner, and in fact, I fell asleep on the sofa and missed dinner, which was a bad time to fall asleep, because I knew that the other guest was going to be the Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, who I didn’t know. But at the end of dinner, he and his wife went into a kind of huddle in the taxi, and then they came out of the huddle, and they said we know what your next movie should be. And I said, well, you know, when you’re ready, let me know, and it turned out to be this. He came to England as a five-year-old Japanese boy, and he grew up in England, and Japanese movies and artifacts became very important to him. The most important possibly was it “Ikiru,” the Kurosawa movie from which our movie is derived.
MR. CAPEHART: And I’m glad you brought–you brought up that history, because it saves me from having to do it in this next question, and that is, was the idea of you starring in a British remake of a Japanese classic, intimidating, enticing, or both?
MR. NIGHY: Well, in retrospect, I think I should have been intimidated. But in fact, I wasn’t. I don’t know quite why. Maybe I was just having a good–a good week. But I saw–I had I hadn’t seen the movie, and then I did watch the movie. And I think possibly I was undaunted because the central performance, which I admired tremendously, is so different from anything that I might come up with. So, I didn’t feel oppressed by it. And I felt that I was in good hands because I–Ishiguro is a great man and a great writer. You know, I must have been very good in a previous life, because to have someone of his eminence write you a screenplay specifically for you, it’s–you know, it’s an extraordinary development. And also, Stephen Woolley, the great English film producer, with whom I’ve made a couple of other films, I knew I was in, you know, safe hands.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, there’s another bit of this history here. It said “Ikiru” was in part inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Bill, what about this story do you think makes it resonate with people across three centuries, three countries and three cultures?
MR. NIGHY: I think because the themes are timeless and universal to use a couple of cliches in one sentence. But you know, I think for instance, you know, it’s about mortality. It’s not a depressing movie. I’ve had my–you know you’re in a hit when you get messages from people you were at school with or people who haven’t heard from for 35 years. And people–my phone has been blowing up with messages. And they’re not–you know, they haven’t been affected negatively by the movie in terms of sadness or–it is basically a tragedy, I suppose. But what seems to happen is they hit the street after seeing the movie, and they’re galvanized, and they’re inspired to do things. The universal themes are obviously mortality, and the other is procrastination, which is perhaps the great corrosive element certainly in my life. I procrastinate personally. I procrastinate at an Olympic level. I can put off anything you want for as long as you’ve got. So, I think that that speaks to everyone, and I don’t think we’ve ever been any different.
MR. CAPEHART: Well, I’m also an Olympian, so I’d be–I would be happy to compete with you in the procrastination Olympics. But, Bill, tell me about what appealed to you about the character, your character, Mr. Williams? It’s one thing to have someone write a character for you, but it’s another to play that person. So, what was it about it about Mr. Williams?
MR. NIGHY: I am fascinated by what’s called Englishness. I’m sure there’s characters like Mr. Williams in every culture, but we take the rap for it–in other words, for a kind of suppressed, repressed, cautious, complex system of manners, which–you know, under which we insist on living and an extreme degree of restraint that we require of ourselves. And I find it kind of–I know that, you know, the psychiatric establishment would probably call it deeply unhealthy, but there’s also something funny about it. And it’s also I think–on occasion, it involves heroism. And also, you know, I was born–I was there. I would have been one of the kids in the playground. You know, I was four years old, I think, when this film takes place, so I was born into that atmosphere. But–and from an acting point of view, it’s fun to play–to try and express quite a lot with not very much.
MR. CAPEHART: Englishness, that atmosphere, heroism, doing a lot by–but not doing much, these are all things you’ve said that touch me here because those are all things I was thinking as I was watching your beautiful performance in “Living.” A word you didn’t say but that stuck with me that I–came to my mind was “cramped,” the cramped nature of the famed British reserve, or as you said, Englishness, which probably it is in every culture but as you said the English seem to own the avatar for it. But it’s captured, this crampness that I’m talking about is captured in the film’s opening moments as your young co-star Alex Sharp commutes to his new job for the first time. Let’s take a look.
MR. CAPEHART: I mean, watching that–watching that scene, I feel like I’m watching myself, you know, Mr. Wakeling, you know, someone who’s eager, ready to start the day, wanting to engage with his new colleagues, and then slams into a culture that he has to get used to. This sort of sets up when we see your character, Mr. Williams, get on the train. And to talk more about sort of this repressed demeanor, this Englishness that we get from Mr. Williams, I mean, is he an avatar of this gloomy post-war Britain, or am I reading too much into–putting too much import on Mr. Williams’ character?
MR. NIGHY: No, I think if you spoke to Mr. Ishiguro, he would probably agree with that. But from the point of view of my acting it, that doesn’t really come into my plans. But I mean, you know, if I were–in retrospect, this didn’t inform the way I acted it, or anything, but you know, he–one of the things I held onto was the fact that he was institutionalized in grief. So apart from the general cultural phenomenon of that kind of restraint, social restraint, also, he lost his wife at a very early age, and therefore, that grief, everything about him, his personality has formed around that loss. And he has therefore–I mean, this is all in retrospect, this has nothing to do with great thoughts I had at the time–but you know, that he has–he does the absolute minimum in terms of engagement with the rest of the world or with the people in it, because he is fueled by grief, and I would imagine a great deal of anger at having lost the woman that he loved.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, he’s so institutionalized in grief and in anger that when he gets his own dire medical diagnosis, that he can’t even bring himself to tell his own son what’s happening to him. He can’t break free of that restraint. But he does–restraint in terms of telling his son, but he does break free when, after getting that diagnosis, he gets out of London and goes to a seaside town, where he meets up with a young bohemian who takes him out at night for music venues and bars and showing him around town. And to me, this is the beginning of a transformation for Mr. Williams. And so it got me to wondering, Bill, is this movie about legacy or living as the title of the movie is, or both?
MR. NIGHY: Well, I–if I had to choose, I’d say the latter. I’d say it’s about living rather than legacy. I think it’s about trying to–having been–having worked in an institution that was dedicated solely to the–to preventing things from happening–in other words, institutionalized procrastination–given this diagnosis, he decides to actually make something happen. But that’s not, I don’t think, because he needs to leave a legacy of any kind. It’s simply that he wants to–he wants to live and he wants to have some meaning in–from the time he has left.
The thing about not telling his son, it’s just, you know, part of the requirement of that kind of Englishness was that you didn’t trouble anybody with your–with your concerns and you–and in the extremity, you would even apologize for dying, or certainly for being ill. And it’s like he’d heard about this thing called “a good time.” He’d never had a good time. And it amuses me, because I’m from England, that he goes to Brighton to find it, because that’s a very period thing. People used to go to Brighton for a good time. I mean, people still go to Brighton for a good time. And then he sees this guy who looks like he might have had a good time now and again, so–and then offers him all this money to help him, you know, share a good time. I find it very touching and very moving.
MR. CAPEHART: I want to–let me push back on you on the idea of legacy. And I use that word, giving you the choice legacy or living, because towards the end of the movie–and we see Mr. Williams break out of procrastination, get something done, and then we spend the last part of the movie watching how each of his colleagues share with each other things they saw Mr. Williams do that impacted them in such a way that they’re like, hey, from now on, we’re going to endeavor to be better, and then
they backslide. So, I’m wondering, he left a legacy. But this–the cramped nature of society, this institutionalized–well, he’s got institutionalized grief, but it’s the atmosphere of doing the bare minimum is so pervasive that it snuffs out whatever legacy Mr. Williams leaves behind. Or am I reading too much into that part of my analysis of the movie?
MR. NIGHY: No, I think you’re absolutely correct. But I do think that the–you know, and the thing is, the messages I get from people who’ve seen the movie, they all–they are all pretty much the same feeling, which is they hit the street afterwards feeling inspired, feeling galvanized to do something, whether or not like in the movie that feeling will persist we–you know, we don’t know. It’s like–it’s like New Year’s resolutions. How long–how far did you get? January the 10th? You know, it’s that thing. But hopefully–you know, hopefully, it will–it will inspire people. And now I’ve forgotten the rest of your question.
MR. CAPEHART: That’s okay. You answered–you answered my question, because I am also one of those people after watching, I was inspired, and then, you know, lethargy will just take over.
So, Bill, I’m just–is a role like Mr. Williams–quiet, intimate, restrained–harder to play for you than the big performances you’ve given us in “Love Actually” or “Pirates of the Caribbean”?
MR. NIGHY: I don’t think–no, it’s not harder. I think–you know, I don’t–I think they’re pretty much–in terms of, you know, difficulty, in terms of what you’re suggesting, I think they’re pretty much the same. I do–I am drawn to characters like Mr. Williams because I do like working that kind of minimally or that closely, because it’s–you know, it’s quite interesting. It’s fascinating to see how much you can–how much you can get away with or how much you can–you can express with how little. I suppose they come–probably if I had to choose those kinds of roles come easier to me than the larger ones, than the more flamboyant ones.
MR. CAPEHART: I will say that one of my favorite performances of yours is in the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and the relationship that develops between your character and Dame Judi Dench’s character is so charming, and so sweet. I watched that movie three times in a week.
MR. CAPEHART: It was so, so beautiful.
MR. CAPEHART: But I think if any–folks who recognize you, they recognize you because of “Love Actually.” Did you have any idea that making that movie then 20 years ago, we’d still be talking about it today?
MR. CAPEHART: No. I knew that we might be talking about it for a while, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for the way in which it’s entered the language and entered the culture in all–in countries all over the world, everywhere I go. It’s very hard to find anybody who hasn’t seen “Love Actually” or doesn’t watch it each Christmas. You know, it’s a marvelous thing.
You know, I did think–there was a year where I did–I did “Underworld,” which a Kate Beckinsale vampire, Len Wiseman’s vampire/werewolf movie, which I figured–and a TV series called “State of Play,” and I–and they were all very good parts, and I did think–and then at the end, there was “Love Actually.” And I thought, if these all go half decently, then it could–there might be a, you know, a change in the–in the weather. And so it’s–it was a marvelous thing for me because it changed the way I go to work.
MR. CAPEHART: Have there been any conversations about a “Love Actually” remake or a sequel?
MR. NIGHY: Yeah, I think they probably been–I should think people have crawled across the floor on their hands and knees begging Richard Curtis, I would imagine. I don’t know. But we did briefly get back together for a charity for a comic relief thing we had. He wrote some sketches for each of the characters. The good news was I could still get into those trousers, which was–I never ever thought I’d find myself in Lycra, even–certainly not on camera, but anyway. But, yeah, no, it’s been–I mean, it’s great.
The other the other film that people talked about, I think, probably more–because I don’t own a car, and I walk everywhere and I meet lots of people, therefore. And the film that most people talk to me about now by a mile is Richard Curtis’ next movie, or rather last movie as a director, he says, which is called “About Time.” And lots of people, mostly young people talk to me about that movie. That’s kind of–that’s also entered the language and it’s a kind of stayer, you know? And people watch that film over and over. So, you know, I’m a lucky guy.
MR. CAPEHART: Okay, you’ve given me a movie that I will have–I will have to watch and I’ll let you know when I’ve watched it.
MR. NIGHY: Okay. But if you liked “Love Actually,” I’d be amazed if you didn’t respond to “About Time.”
MR. CAPEHART: Okay. And every time I watch “Love Actually,” I cry in all the same places, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
Bill, we’ve got an audience question.
MR. CAPEHART: This is from Kristin Stephen, in Virginia. She asks, “You’ve successfully played heavy, serious roles as well as comedic ones. Do you have a preference, or is it like salty and sweet, you trade off?”
MR. NIGHY: Well, Kristin, it’s kind of, as you suggested, salty and sweet. Yeah, I trade off. I mean, I like the–I like presenting a moving target. And I was fortunate very early on that I had an inspirational agent called Pippa Markham, who saw that I wasn’t very comfortable playing the roles that I was supposedly eligible for–in other words, romantic roles. I was never very comfortable with myself in that regard. So, she used to send me up for all kinds of what would be called now character roles. And because of her influence, I would sometimes get them. So that started off a process of a series of very varied roles that I got to play–you know, serious, comedy. I didn’t actually get comedy calls until quite late on, and then I can’t remember how that happened. But I did a movie called “Still Crazy,” which required me to get laughs, and I realized that all those years of sitting watching comedians on TV, I think by osmosis, I’d somehow picked up some of the rhythms that might get you a laugh.
MR. CAPEHART: You picked up some of the rhythms or do you not think that you have sort of some comedic gene that you were finally able to tap into?
MR. NIGHY: I don’t know about that, because I’m not–and I’m not being cute, but I’m not terribly self-aware. But–and I don’t know that I’m intrinsically funny. But I do know that I picked up a couple of tips from–you know, there are practical things you can do. They’re usually about pausing, or hitting the constant–the consonant, there you are; I just messed it up–the consonant or the last word of the sentence very hard. You know, there’s little things that you pick up that you know, particularly doing them live. If you do jokes live in plays in the theater, that’s a very good school, because you work out–you know, you get the instant result. It either works or it doesn’t work. But maybe I am just a very funny guy, but I don’t experience it like that.
MR. CAPEHART: All right. Bill, I’m going to bring up a bit of a touchy subject. Folks may have noticed something when I played a clip from the movie. You, the star of the movie, weren’t in it. And we didn’t choose any of the stirring clips of you as Mr. Williams in “Living” because you don’t like watching or hearing yourself even during interviews such as this. And as somebody who does this all the time, I totally get it. I never go back, rarely go back and look. I’m just wondering, is that true? And why? Let’s have this discussion, like mind to like mind.
MR. NIGHY: Okay, it’s not really a touchy thing. I mean, I–yeah, I used to sort of–in the old days, I used to pretend that I’d seen it because I thought you had to–you had to be seen to have seen it. But now I just come clean. I’m old enough. I gave up watching myself a long time ago as a practical measure, because it undermines me, I don’t see what other people see. I used to think that, you know, either people were being kind when they complimented me on anything, or else they were, you know, dumb. But now I realized that there is–you know, I become more or less comfortable with the huge disparity between what I think and what other people seem to think. If I right now, for instance, with “Living,” people really, really liked the movie, and everything is fine. If I see the movie, I lose all that. It’s stolen from me. And that’s not–I know there’s no logic. It’s no sense in it. But it’s a–it’s a fact. And I–and trust me, I’ve worked on it, you know, and I’ve tried it both ways. And life is very, very sweet as long as I don’t see anything. If I see stuff, life is not so good. So, I’m working on that.
And it’s not because–you know, it was the same when I was young and less complicated to look at. I didn’t like it then. And it’s not so much the way I look, although I’m not crazy about it. And it’s not so much the way I sound, although, you know, I’m not crazy about that, either. It’s the acting that gets to me, because I see all the bits of cowardice where I didn’t quite pull something off, or that default thing I always do when I can’t pull something. And then it occurred to me, to cheer myself up recently, I thought, well, you know, when I go to see–when I go to the movies and I see an actor I really like and they do that thing they always do, I’m always kind of happy that they do that thing they always do. You know, like if I watch Steve McQueen, who is one of my favorite actors of all time, he had certain physical idiosyncrasies which I would relish because, you know, I was waiting for them almost, you know, because that’s Steve McQueen, you know. So–and I’m not comparing myself to Steve McQueen. But I did–it did occur to me that maybe those people that regularly watch me, they might think, oh, great, he’s doing that thing he always does, you know? So maybe it’s not such a bad thing.
But I–it’s just I know it’s some sort of dysmorphia. I know, it’s–you know, it’s probably–you know, in the early days people used to say you’ve got to watch in order to learn. I learned nothing except that I should probably do something else for a living.
MR. CAPEHART: That is–that is ridiculous, because you shouldn’t be doing anything else for a living. But as I was listening to you, because I focused on not watching yourself, not listening to yourself, but it made me wonder, you know, I’ve talked to other actors who won’t read reviews, particularly stage actors. They won’t even read–won’t read reviews. Are you in that queue as well?
MR. NIGHY: Absolutely, never go near them. They’re not for you. They’re for other people. That–it’s bad magic. I don’t–even if I’m told that I’m really good in that bit in the second act, I don’t want to know that I’m really good in that bit in the second act, because I won’t be good in that bit in the second act anymore, because I’ll be too wonderful. I’ll become too marvelous. And I don’t want to hear any bad news, obviously, because who needs it?
And I–and also, I don’t believe–you know, I don’t know who these people are, necessarily, and I don’t–you know, and I don’t know–I don’t need them in my head. You know, it’s like, it would be weird. It’s like–you know, it’s why I’m probably not on social media or anything. I don’t want to–you know, I’m–you know, I keep a clean house. I try.
MR. CAPEHART: Bill, we’re running out of time, but I can’t–I can’t have this conversation end without asking you about how it feels to be nominated for not just a Golden Globe for best actor but to have this Oscar buzz around you and your portrayal of Mr. Williams.
MR. NIGHY: It feels very, very, very good. I’m thrilled that the film has had this kind of rapturous reception, and I feel–I’m honored by the attention, and I’m honored by the speculation. And you know, it’s a tremendous development for us. It’s–you know, it’s hard enough making independent movies, and having them–and having people go to see them. And this is our one route to that. And I’m very, very–you know, I’m very moved by it, and I’m very, very grateful.
MR. CAPEHART: This role came to you after a fortuitous taxi ride that you had a while back. Have you shared a taxi lately with anyone that could lead to another great role?
MR. NIGHY: No, I haven’t actually. Maybe I should. I should get people out for taxi rides. No, I haven’t. But I’ve–there have been–you know, there’s been some interest. The year looks lively. We’re still in business. So, we’ll see how it goes.
MR. CAPEHART: Bill Nighy, Golden Globe-nominated actor in the beautiful movie “Living,” thank you so much for coming to “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.
MR. NIGHY: Thank you, Jonathan. It’s been a pleasure.
MR. CAPEHART: And thank you for joining us. To check out what interviews we have coming up, go to WashingtonPostLive.com. Once again, I’m Jonathan Capehart, associate editor, The Washington Post. Thanks for watching “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.