FROM ASTRO BOY TO PIRATE RADIO: THE MANY LIVES OF BILL NIGHY
by Paul Fischer
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It is fortunate for all of us that Bill Nighy did not become a journalist as was his original professional aspiration. His galaxy of characters remain diverse and enthralling, from failed rocker Billy in Richard Curtis’ Love Actually, to Davey Jones in the Pirates franchise and his brilliant turn in the original State of Play, Nighy remains one of the most acclaimed and sought after British actors on either side of the Atlantic. Audiences will his distinguished voice in the upcoming Astro Boy as Dr. Elefun, see him in Pirate Radio, and is also in the new Potter film. The busy actor spent time chatting about his latest projects to PAUL FISCHER in this exclusive interview.
QUESTION: Obviously, you’re no stranger to animation. Do you decide that you want to do an animated film for the kid within you, or for children, for your own kids?
BILL NIGHY: Well, I don’t mind what the genre is, or what the target audience is, really. I just like if the script’s any good. And I’ve been lucky enough to genre-hop a bit. I just follow my nose, in terms of the material. And Astro Boy is a really good script, you know and there is, I suppose, a kid in me. I’ve always liked animations, but I think now, people have come to expect a great deal more from animated movies. They’re not so much a sub-genre now as a mainstream affair. And Astro Boy’s a good example of a kind of very smart script, which operates, certainly, for young people, an adventure thing. But also has – you know, big themes, and would keep anybody – would get anybody’s attention, I feel whatever their age.
QUESTION: Now were you familiar with any of the original Astro Boy cartoons from Japan, or any of that?
BILL NIGHY: Not really. I kind of knew about it. I knew of him, and I knew he was a sensation in Japan. I knew they had statues to him, and that they had whole stores dedicated to him. But I wasn’t really deeply familiar with him. I loved the whole notion of it. I like the idea that he’s a robot, and doesn’t know that he’s a robot. And I like the idea that he’s got superpowers, but doesn’t know it yet. I like the way he keeps discovering a new superpower, just when he needs it.
QUESTION: Now, does your character somehow fit into the classic Astro Boy legacy, or is he completely new invention?
BILL NIGHY: No, I believe he’s quite an established figure. And therefore – you know, the responsibility is considerable. I try not to think about that, obviously. But, no, he’s been around for a while.
QUESTION: How do you create a character that’s already been established? Do you just do it based on your own instincts?
BILL NIGHY: You just have to, yeah. You just go with your own instincts. In this case, I came in with a lot of funny voices, and I did them for a while. And then Dave Bowers, the director, after a suitable time had passed, said, “Please, could you stop doing that now?” [LAUGHTER]. And I said, “Oh, all right.” He said, “Your voice is what we wanted.” So I said, “Oh, okay.” So it’s pretty much – you know, a straight voice job.
QUESTION: And people love your voice. I mean, it seems that that is your trademark. Your – this deep British voice, with a very sort of dry sense of humor.
BILL NIGHY: Well, yeah. I’ve been told this. And I’m not being naïve or coy or modest, or anything. But I always forget, and – you know, you never think of your voice like that. You just think, “Oh, well, it’s my voice.” I don’t think about my voice until somebody mentions it. But I’m please if people do like it.
QUESTION: Now, you are incredibly busy. I mean, I don’t know how you’re even able to maintain any kind of life. [LAUGHTER] Not only are you doing a junket for this movie, but you have just done one for Pirate Radio. Do you get sick of talking about yourself ad nauseum?
BILL NIGHY: Well, I try not to talk about myself too much– I mean, I do talk – I have to talk about myself. But – I mean, I do get breaks from talking about myself. So – and each time – and I’m lucky that I’ve been involved in things that I think have dignity, and therefore – you know, and that people seem to enjoy. So, I don’t mind talk – you know, I like talking about Pirate Radio, and I like talking about Astro Boy, because they’re both so – and I’ve had – you know, I’ve had worse days than this, you know what I mean? I’m not complaining. I’m superstitious, so therefore I don’t complain. I never — I’m very grateful that I get to play a wide range of parts, and I’m pleased that I’m in projects that are respectable, to say the least. And I don’t mind shooting the breeze. And people are nice! You know, I can think of worse things happening.
QUESTION: Now, I saw Pirate Radio months ago, when it was actually The Boat That Rocked. And I liked it a lot. And I’m just wondering, why do you think there was this need to change the title, and to cut it down? Do you think it is better as it is at the moment?
BILL NIGHY: I don’t know, because I haven’t seen the new cut. It was very successful in certain countries. Like, it was massive in France, and in Australia it was very popular. It didn’t go down well in England. But then England I think Harvey Weinstein said once, “We have to survive our own critics.” And our critics reserve their greatest sort of disparagement for their own kind. And I absolutely promise you that I haven’t read any reviews of anything I’ve done for – I don’t know, 15 years. But I understand that there were some critics that didn’t like it. I don’t get it. I think they have a specific problem with Richard.
QUESTION: I was about to say. Do you think it’s because of a tall poppy syndrome?
BILL NIGHY: I think, without question, that it is the tall poppy syndrome. He is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. And not only does he make very entertaining, successful movies, which apparently is unforgiveable, but he also tries to do something to help, generally speaking, in the world, which is also strangely not popular in England, with certain parties. You don’t find it in America. In America, people are much less complicated, and they just accept that – you know, if there’s an emergency, people try and do something about it, whereas in England, it’s not kind of fashionable. So, I think Richard maybe suffers on both counts, but I wouldn’t let anybody in America worry themselves about it. It’s a domestic problem. And the film itself – you know, it’s just a nice big, fat piece of fun, with some of the best records ever made, anytime, anywhere. The soundtrack, which has got about 40 tunes on it, which are basically the soundtrack to my life, or my youth, is worth your money just right there.
QUESTION: Are you still surprised that somebody who started out with journalistic aspirations has become so successful in this field of acting?
BILL NIGHY: Yes, I am. I am continuously surprised. I hold my breath and hope that it doesn’t stop any time soon. As you say, I had pretty low expectations, which was a good thing. Maybe it’s a good thing, or maybe it’s a bad thing. I don’t know. But I – I certainly did – you know, if I made a living – I didn’t expect to make a living. I was always going to, you know, at some point – in the early years, I was always going to at some point sit down and decide what I was really going to do with my life, because I didn’t really know you could have a life as an actor, in those days. And I certainly didn’t think I’d ever be in a movie, or anything like that. Because there wasn’t that kind of traffic with English actors to America, then. So no, it’s been very unexpected, and I’m very surprised and grateful.
QUESTION: Are you hoping that you’re going to be in the new Pirates movie? I know that Geoff Rush is lobbying for you to be in that.
BILL NIGHY: Yeah, I hope so. I really do. I mean, I met Geoffrey the other day, and he and I were both saying – we had a wonderful time, not least, with him, because he’s such a nice man, and such a good actor. We’d love to be in it. So I think – Geoffrey said that – he was doing a junket, and he said, “I’ve actually resorted to making direct appeals to the camera, to Jerry Bruckheimer.” Which was quite funny. No, I’d love to be in it. I’d love to be in Pirates, because it was a great experience to be in the first lot. And – you know, those movies are beloved. It’s nice to make people happy.
QUESTION: What are you going to be doing next, do you know?
BILL NIGHY: I’ve got two movies coming out, apart from Pirate Radio. I’ve got a movie by Stephen Poliakoff, as you know, because we met in Toronto.
BILL NIGHY: No, it hasn’t got distribution yet. I don’t know. It’s opening at the London Film Festival next week, and it opens in England in November. But we’ll see. I hope that it’ll get an American distribution. But who knows? After that, there’s a movie with Emily Blunt called Wild Target.
QUESTION: Where you play that contract killer?
BILL NIGHY: Exactly. We’ve talked about that. And then, to be shot – I think I’m going to go to India in January and February, and make a movie out there, but that isn’t confirmed yet.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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