Bill Nighy has had the most esteemed of careers and as he proves in Arthur Christmas, the actor is only getting started. Nighy phoned Movie Fanatic from London for an exclusive chat about his latest film, what’s coming next (a film with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith!) and what it means to him to appear in a holiday film with Arthur Christmas that will be seen this time of year for generations to come.
Nighy is a familiar sight to audiences who appreciate stellar acting. From Love, Actually to series such as Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean as well as his astounding work on The Constant Gardener, Shaun of the Dead and the BBC’s State of Play, if the name Bill Nighy is attached, audiences know they will find excellence.
In Arthur Christmas, Nighy plays Grand Santa, a century-old Santa Claus who has given up his position to his son, who himself is about to give the position to his son Steve (Hugh Laurie). The film is a marvel and answers the question: How does Santa deliver billions of presents in one evening?
Movie Fanatic: What was the big appeal for you in doing Arthur Christmas, after reading the script?
Bill Nighy: I loved the script. It was one of the best scripts I’d read in a long time. It was Aardman -- I’d worked with Aardman before and I loved working for them. The script, I thought, was smart and funny and made the Christmas family kind of real. The basic thing is it expresses the essence of Christmas to do with generosity of spirit. It’s not a cynical thing. It’s a proper kind of Christmas feeling. So I badly wanted to be in it.
Movie Fanatic: What does it mean to you to be in a classic Christmas film that will be played for years?
Bill Nighy: From the moment I read the script I felt that same thing. I thought it would become a perennial. It’s a beautiful thing, the idea of being in something that will hang around and will become associated with Christmas. I really believe it has the kind of magical quality to do that. And it’s funny and smart enough for generations of people to want to watch it. So it’s a very good and satisfying feeling. I love the idea of entering the Christmas language in that way.
Movie Fanatic: Where did you go to come up with that zany yet heartfelt performance as Grand Santa?
Bill Nighy: It’s odd. They do it in various ways with animation. But in this case, they already had the drawings so I knew what he looked like. So you just really try to match what sound comes out of a four-foot, 136-year-old man. Sarah Smith, the director, had an idea that he was, not literally but in the spirit, ex-military, in English terms, a middle-ranked military man, whose speaking voice had perhaps deteriorated over the years -- with an insouciant period voice. It’s almost Victorian, I think. That’s the idea anyway.
Movie Fanatic: And how was it working with Sarah Smith? I know in animation, many times it’s just you and the director working together…
Bill Nighy: I thought she was, and this is not PR, she was completely and utterly exemplary -- smart as anything. And not all directors know how to communicate about acting and she really does. She has, in my view, great taste. So if you do wander into cliché, she drags you out of it. She’s also very good on the actual intonations. Some actors like to be given line readings, where the director speaks as they hear it in their mind. I love to be given line readings, particularly when it’s comedy stuff because there’s often something that someone else can hear that you don’t hear yourself. She had a real ear for comedy because she’s a comedy writer as well as director. She was absolutely exemplary.
Movie Fanatic: You’ve mentioned working with Aardman before, what do you think is in the water over there that makes them so perfect?
Bill Nighy: They’re incredibly clever. Nick Park, the great character maker and a great artist, and the whole outfit inspires great work. But I think it’s because the people involved are believers, they’re believers in something decent. They have total respect for the form. And they’re not manipulating animation in order to cynically pull heartstrings or make money. Obviously everybody is in it to make some money, but they actually are believers in a certain degree of quality born of decent material which is not cynical, which is full of humanity as well as being funny or touching. But it’s got a kind of generosity of spirit. They’re very decent people to work with… Not many things move me to patriotism, but Aardman is one of them. The Rolling Stones obviously.
Movie Fanatic: The animation process for you as an actor, does it differ for you from capturing a character for live action?
Bill Nighy: I think, in essence, not really. Because in the end you still have to find the performance. Even though the only bit they use is your voice, it’s still a full-blown performance. The difficulty is that you have to retain it in your mind over a long period of time. The film took five years to make and my association was over two years, obviously not every day. But you have to go in for a dozen sessions or 20 sessions or something and you have to sustain a sense memory all the way through. But it is a proper performance. I kind of apprenticed as a young man at BBC Radio here in London and that’s when I started to learn about acting because I was given parts that I wouldn’t get to play, like in animation. I’m not going to get to play a 136-year-old man, except for in animation. And similarly on the radio you got to play a great range of parts and I got to concentrate everything into vocal performance which turned out to be great preparation for when you then have to act in other mediums.
Movie Fanatic: What’s coming up next for you?
Bill Nighy: The next thing you’ll see, I think, is a film made in India with Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson which is called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden for Fox Searchlight. I hope you enjoy that. And also later in the year, you’ll see me in Clash of the Titans 2 and in Jack the Giant Killer, in which I play the Giant.