NY Film Festival: About Time, A Conversation With Bill Nighy

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British actor Bill Nighy has attempted many things in life. Including messenger, yearnings to be a journalist but lacking the required qualifications, and an aspiration to write ‘the great novel’ but never getting past penning the title. But in his latest wishful thinking venture on screen in the time travel Richard Curtis dramedy, About Time, his ambivalent nomadic character across the decades may be getting more from his wishlist than he bargained for. And when I posed a question to the feeling older but in no way wiser Nighy during this get-together about time travel in reverse, the seasoned star surprisingly opened up about possible regrets in retrospect. That is, perhaps not even wanting to be an actor in the first place after all, while mulling such a hypothetical existential do-over having something to do with a UK phenomenon known as Lollipop Ladies.

BILL NIGHY: Hey, nice to see you. Oh, and these are my bad fingers, I’m not a weirdo! They don’t work!

Well, great to meet you. So do you think you might like to go back in time for real, like you do in this movie?

BN: I don’t have any great yearning.

Why not?

BN: It’s too late! I’m glad that’s all over, you know what I mean? I made a mess of being young! I was terrible at it.

But if I did go back in time, all I’d say to my younger self was, lighten up. It’s okay! You know, it works out.

And if I had known that things were going to work out, I would have arranged to be more cheerful! In the previous part of my life.

Because a lot of it was anxiety. I was pretty good at manufacturing anxiety! All kinds, all levels of anxiety.

But I guess I’d go to all the concerts I missed. I’d go back to 1966 to the Apollo.

And I’d see James Brown and his Famous Flames. You know, delivering that now famous concert.

And I’d go see and see BB King, and I’d go see the Stones. And stuff like that.

And I’d go back to whoever offered me a cigarette for the first time. And I’d say no!

But I am obsessed with rhythm ‘n blues music, and soul music. I’ve never recovered from certain records! And I play music constantly.

You know, there’s a magazine in England called the NME, The New Musical Express. Which you’re supposed to stop reading when you’re thirty-two!

And I was still reading it when I was forty-seven! And there was a time when I could tell you which drummer or bass player played with whom. Yeah, I was that guy.

And there is a new genre now, of old rockers. Because rock was not old! And people have a great affection for them. And it’s that they’re still standing!

And that we’ve grown up with them. But there’s something slightly preposterous about still doing the same thing. But I’m rambling now!

If you went back in time, do you think you’d still be an actor?

BN: Um, that’s a really good question! Probably uh…That’s a really hard question! My instant answer is, no. I wouldn’t be an actor.

But why should I complain, you know? But life, I’d guess, is easier not being an actor. I’d be the crossing guard, the Lollipop Lady!

Huh?

BN: No, the Lollipop guy! I remember, I used to go to work, dragging myself to rehearsals at the National Theater.

And just convinced that there was nothing but further humiliation involved! I don’t take to acting easily.

I don’t think anyone is temperamentally suited to being an actor. How can you be, really. Maybe some people are, but I’m not.

How come?

BN: I take it too hard. And I used to take it very hard when I was young.

But I used to see the crossing guard and think, look at her. She’s laughing.

And you know, she’s finished by 9:30am! She has a life! Everybody’s fed, everybody’s got a roof over their head. What’s the problem?

You know, what am I trying to prove? Who cares whether I can act or not! You know what I mean? Almost nobody cares. Apart from me!

Because I’ve got to make a living. Anyway! So, um…But maybe I would want to be an actor! Maybe I’d go back in time, and agree to be an actor.

But agree to just be less wired about it. You know what I mean? I’d try to be an actor, and still be…cheerful!

Now, you’re kind of the wise older patriarch in About Time.

BN: Yes. I’m used now to being the oldest person on the set! But I can remember the first time that happened. You look around a room and you think, Jesus Christ, I’m the oldest person here!

But by now, I’m just always going to be the oldest. I’m employed to be the oldest person! But it was fine, really. Because people do think as you get older, that you get wiser!

Which is obviously not the case. I mean, read the newspapers! Take a look around us. If that worked, being older and wiser, wouldn’t it be wonderful.

But it’s obviously not the case. You do see younger people regarding you rather intently. And waiting for wisdom of some kind!

And you think well, maybe I could fake it! But all I have to offer, is not faking it! Because if you start being wise, it’s kind of, you know, a disaster.

But in acting, it gets a bit quiet, when you do your first bit. And you think god, I’d better be good! I’d better be really good.

And how did you feel when you got that call from Richard Curtis, asking you to be in About Time?

BN: When he just calls, I like it. You know what I mean? Because he’s such a wonderful man, he really is.

I mean, there aren’t many people you could say that about. I guess! Well, no actually. There are a few!

But he is a remarkable man. And I love hanging around with him. He is such a cool guy to be around. And I love when he directs.

So I’m very unhappy, when he says that this is his last movie. Because…where does that leave me! So I hope he’s going to forget the pain after awhile! And make another one.

But that was a very cool day. I was in a hotel room in Australia. I was making a movie called I, Frankenstein. A very different kind of movie!

And a Richard Curtis script turned up. And it was a cool script, and it had a great part for me.

And you are supposed to play hard to get, or something! So I could have actually just said, yeah. And you know, not read the script.

Because Richard has never let me down before. Anyway, he saved my bacon. But I was quite excited about the idea, of just playing a nice man.

You know, somebody who is just a decent guy. And attempts to do the next right thing.

And without any awfulness to fall back on. Or eccentricity of any kind. You know, just a regular guy.

What is the big thrill or turn on for you, of acting?

BN: Well…It’s a question I cannot answer! I mean, I’ll try to answer it! I started doing it, because I didn’t want to…go to work!

So I sort of grew up doing it. And for a long time, it wasn’t particularly pleasant.

Then I got interested, I did get interested in my thirties. In the theater. Largely because I worked with David Hare for the first time.

And the writing got me. The writing is a huge part of what I like. And then I suppose, the quest.

You know, to make it sound like it’s the first time you’ve said these things. And that it’s never occurred to you before.

And yet, to make it dramatic, is endless. And to be funny, to try and get laughs, that is an endless fascination.

That is like bottomless. And it’s also addictive, probably. Particularly on the stage.

You know, you go in a place. And you can…arrange for a thousand people to laugh at the same time!

And that’s kind of very, very – what’s the word? Seductive! But like any job, you do it, and you have a good day.

And there aren’t many of them. Where somehow you arrange to be unguarded enough, to do something which is – which you feel is original. And expresses something.

And I’m lucky, that I work with great writers. I’ve worked with some of the greatest writers working in the world today, I really have. In the theater and in the movies.

And sometimes what they’re saying, what I get to deliver, chimes with, you know, stuff I would wish to say out loud. Or stuff that I believe.

And trying to do that, without getting caught acting! That’s a fascinating thing.

But you know, there’s no quick answer to that. Well, maybe there is! But I just couldn’t think of it!

Now about your ping pong playing skills in About Time…

BN: Alright, next question! No, I can’t play ping pong! Uh, as you can see in the movie. I had two lessons.

And I’d never played ping pong before. So they went easy on me! I even bought a ping pong table.

Which you know, I had to give away. Because I couldn’t get it in my apartment!

Yeah, it was just so big, you couldn’t get it in my apartment. So I’m never gonna trouble the champions of ping pong! No, I’m never gonna be any good at it.

Are there any sports you like?

BN: I don’t play any sports. When I was young, I played football. What we call English football, you call it soccer.

But I love to watch football. I’m crazy about football. Okay, I never thought I’d talk in New York about this! Yep.

Well, thank you.

BN: Pleasure. Thank you, thank you. Cool!

About Time is opening in theaters.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.