In Page Eight, the sophisticated 2011 spy drama written by David Hare, the MI5 agent Johnny Worricker — played by Bill Nighy — had to contend not only with national security risks but with his overly attached next-door neighbour, Rachel Weisz. ‘David has this expression where he says, “Johnny Worricker” and he always laughs, he can never get through the sentence without laughing… He says, “Johnny Worricker is susceptible to women.”’ Nighy can’t get the sentence out either. In the second film in the Johnny Worricker trilogy, Turks & Caicos, Worricker, on the run in the Caribbean has to deal with his ex, played by Helena Bonham Carter, and provide a shoulder to cry on for Winona Ryder. It’s tough work, but somebody’s got to do it.
When we meet, shooting Spectator Life’s cover in a suite at the Connaught, Nighy is mainlining caffeine. He’s on Jaipur time because he has been filming the sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But no matter how jetlagged he gets, after working with everyone from Pinter to Stoppard and Hare, he never stops considering himself lucky. ‘I sometimes think maybe when I was sleeping I did a deal with the devil,’ he jokes.
On screen, of course, he is also a frequent collaborator with Richard Curtis, most famously in Love Actually, the film which in 2003, along with State of Play, made him a household name at 53.
His close creative relationship with David Hare goes back to Nighy’s first TV role in 1980, in a Hare ‘Play for Today’ called Dreams of Leaving, and the original National Theatre productions of A Map of the World and Pravda. In June, he will be starring in a revival of Hare’s Skylight, opposite Carey Mulligan.
Despite continually being cast as the love interest of beautiful women, and having been the partner in real life of the spectacularly beautiful Diana Quick, Nighy can’t quite see his own appeal. Hare once said that Nighy’s skill as an actor ‘is to know on some level he’s a joke — a joke that he shares with the audience’. Some might take this as a seriously ego-damaging assertion but after a few hours in Nighy’s company, I start to see what Hare means.
In person, he’s elegant with the slightly donnish air he has brought to films like Notes on a Scandal (2006), and just as well dressed as I’d been led to expect, but he won’t be photographed as anything other than a clown. He says matter-of-factly that he’d rather look ridiculous than as if he takes himself seriously. A mirror in which he can see what’s unfolding brings him far too close for comfort to seeing one of his own performances, and he spends a long time sorting out some Van Morrison (Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl) to entertain himself and the assembled Life crew and take his mind off the horror in hand.
As a performer, Nighy has a finely tuned sense of irony, and in real life that’s applied, almost to the point of diffidence, to himself. As a much younger man, he had a chronic drink problem which arguably speaks of a more serious issue with self-worth. He’s been sober for many years and it’s a subject that understandably off-limits these days, other than the memorable observation he once made that ‘I used to drink and it was absolutely terrible, and now I don’t drink and it’s absolutely marvellous.’ Meeting him today, his ability to self-deprecate would be almost nihilistic if it weren’t so very funny.
Frankly, I wouldn’t mind if he did look serious in our pictures — he’s one of the cleverest actors I’ve ever interviewed. As a literary critic he’s astute when he observes of David Hare, ‘He writes some of my favourite jokes.’ It’s not a trivial point either: ‘He makes me laugh, and in the theatre when people actually laugh when you’re speaking, it’s a quite rare and delicious thing — and they are proper grown-up laughs.’ The Vertical Hour, the last play they did together, back in 2006, with Nighy opposite Julianne Moore, allowed the Broadway audience the theatrical therapy of laughing about George W. Bush.
Hare and Nighy’s latest collaboration is heavy with symbolism, being set on the Caribbean tax haven of Turks and Caicos, where dubious financiers and politicians don’t need to abide by the rules. ‘This tiny sliver of the human race,’ says Hare, ‘are living a different parallel life. They are simply disengaged from the rest of us and they live in a completely different way and it seemed to me a wonderful subject.’ Money, in fact, has always been a wonderful subject for Hare’s talents. As Nighy would say, it’s one of those serious subjects about which he is very funny indeed: think of Amy’s View (1997), and the broker so stupid ‘not even Lloyd’s would have him’, or the wealthy restaurateur Tom in Skylight (1995), whose perspective on the world and his ex-lover is coloured by his own success in it. (That’s Nighy’s role in the revival.)
It’s more than just liking his jokes, though: Nighy’s world view fits well with Hare’s. He campaigns for the Robin Hood Tax, a 50p levy on bank-to-bank transactions of over £1,000; and in the face of what happens on the ground in India where he has been filming, he can’t fathom why they have a space programme.
His own background was resolutely unactorly and ordinary. His dad ran a garage and his mother, who was Irish but born in Glasgow, worked as a psychiatric nurse. On Desert Island Discs he recounted the (typically) painfully funny story of his teachers at his junior school in Caterham, Surrey, attempting to coax him over the eleven-plus borderline. To help his case, they asked him to bring in to school something from home that might show signs of intellectual promise. As he recalled, his dad suggested he take in a Painting by Numbers he’d done.
Despite making it to the grammar school, in his words Nighy ‘flunked’ and took himself off to Paris with the idea of being some kind of Hemingway figure. Drama school a few years later was a happy accident. ‘It was just a gamble,’ he recalls. ‘I met this girl and she said, “you could be an actor” and I would have done anything she said frankly at that point, because she was the first girl who paid any attention to me.’
Describing their relationship in Turks & Caicos, Helena Bonham Carter has said that the spy Worricker is married to his job. I ask Nighy if this is something he identifies with. ‘I am accused occasionally of being a workaholic,’ he says drily. ‘I don’t mind but I always go slightly on the defensive, which would suggest that they’re right.’ In fact, Nighy was effectively married for a long time — he and Diana Quick, who split up in 2008, were together for 27 years and have a daughter, Mary, who is now also working in film both behind and in front of the camera. He has little time for the idea that actors have more problems with relationships: ‘I think biochemists probably have as many problems in that area as anyone else. Or airline pilots.’ And work-obsessed or no, he has a highly ambivalent relationship with his craft. ‘I do love what I do some of the time. Some of the time, it’s made me so unhappy I can’t tell you, [for] long periods of my life.
‘When I was young, I found it so alarming and didn’t dare stop because I didn’t want to be seen as someone who had failed. I could have had a much easier and gentle and probably satisfying life if I’d found something that I did feel confident about and that gave me a reasonable amount of time off and I could have lived in a beautiful part of the country, but everyone thinks that. We could all go and live on an island off the west coast of Scotland and wrap up warm and keep dogs.’
In passing, he says that once playing with Radiohead is ‘probably the coolest thing about me’ and says he struggles to use the word ‘creative’ in a sentence about himself. If there’s anything worse than being photographed, it’s seeing one of his own films or reading a profile piece, so there’s no embarrassment for me in saying that having the obsessive Nighy go through my iPad to try and find the best Bob Dylan tracks for our shoot is probably one of my cooler moments in the name of work. If — as David Hare has it — Bill Nighy thinks he’s a joke, he’s a very good one. One of the best.
Turks & Caicos and Salting the Battlefield are on BBC iPlayer. Skylight is at Wyndham’s Theatre from 6 June to 23 August.