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Bill Nighy: From 'Love Actually' To 'Page Eight'

The British character actor shot to international stardom after playing an aging rocker in the 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually. In his latest project, the BBC drama Page Eight, Nighy plays a British intelligence officer who discovers a state secret.


Other segments from the episode on November 2, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 2, 2011: Interview with Joan Didion; Interview with Bill Nighy.


November 2, 2011:

Guests: Joan Didion and Bill Nighy.

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Joan Didion has spent the past few years reporting on her grief. Her bestselling memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," was about the year following the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. He died at the very end of 2003 of a heart attack at the age of 71.

At that time, their daughter, Quintana Roo, was in the hospital in a coma, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. In August 2005, just a few weeks before the publication of "The Year of Magical Thinking," Didion's daughter died of pancreatitis after spending much of the preceding two years in ICUs.

Now John Didion has written a memoir reflecting on her daughter's life and death and on what she fears were her own shortcomings as a mother. It's called "Blue Nights," and it's about a period when Didion says she found her mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.

John Didion, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to be able to talk with you again. Before we talk about your book, I'm going to ask you to do a short reading from it. And you're welcome to introduce this or just begin, whatever you prefer.

JOAN DIDION: When I began writing these pages, I believed their subject to be children: the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances, the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them, the ways in which our investments in each other remain to frayed ever to see the other clear, the ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other.

As the pages progressed, it occurred to me that the actual subject was not children at all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children. Their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in this contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death, this fear.

Only as the pages progressed further did I understand that the two subjects were the same.

GROSS: That's Joan Didion, reading from her new memoir "Blue Nights." I get the feeling you wrote this book because you couldn't write anything else, because all you could think about was the death of your daughter, and...

DIDION: That's right. I didn't actually want to write it, and as I said in that passage I just read, I had some dim idea that it was a much more - much less personal book than it turned out to be.

GROSS: And, you know, combined with the grief that you have for your daughter, you're also feeling the frailty that comes with aging, and you have a lot of nerve pain that you've been experiencing. So you've had like the total package, you know, physical and emotional pain at the same time. Do you tend to be obsessive about physical pain or emotional pain?

DIDION: Well, I try not to be, let us put it that way.


DIDION: But it doesn't always work out.

GROSS: If you're trying to examine that pain, whether it's your physical pain or your grief, and report on it in a book, does it put some distance between you and the grief or you and the pain because you're standing back and examining it and describing it?

DIDION: Well, I myself have always found that if I examine something, it's less scary. You know, I grew up in the West, and we always had this theory that if you saw - if you kept the snake in your eye line, the snake wasn't going to bite you. And that's kind of the way I feel about confronting pain. I want to know where it is.

GROSS: Your daughter Quintana died in 2005, six weeks before the publication of your memoir about losing your husband.

DIDION: Right.

GROSS: And when the book was published, the book about your husband was published, and I interviewed you, you said that you hadn't yet started mourning for your daughter. Could you only - yeah?

DIDION: I don't think I started mourning for her until I started writing this book.

GROSS: Could you only do one at a time, you know, one grief at a time?

DIDION: Definitely, I could only do one at a time. And I couldn't, in any way, confront the death of my daughter for a long time.


DIDION: Because she was adopted. She had been given to me to take care of, and I had failed to do that. So there was a huge guilt at work.

GROSS: What do you mean you failed to do that? I mean, a parent can't protect a child from death.

DIDION: But don't we all try?

GROSS: Sure.

DIDION: We try to keep our children safe. That's pretty much what parents are put on this earth to do.

GROSS: Now you said that when your husband died, it was like losing part of yourself. He could complete your sentences. He could be your protection from the world. But when your daughter died, it raised so many questions for you about responsibility and guilt: Were you a good mother? Did you adequately protect her?

One of the things I think you fear that you were at fault for, was not picking up on how troubled she was.

DIDION: Of course. She was much more troubled than I ever recognized or admitted ,because she was - at the same time that she was very troubled, she was infinitely amusing and charming. And that's naturally what I tended to focus on. I say naturally, because I think most of us go through life trying to focus on what works for us, and her amusing side definitely worked for me.

GROSS: But she had been diagnosed with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder...

DIDION: The whole gamut.

GROSS: And looking back, you think you maybe could have seen that earlier.

DIDION: I certainly could have seen it earlier. I don't know what I would have done about it. I mean, what we can do - what we can see and what we can do about what we see are two different matters for parents, usually.

GROSS: And I think an example you give in the book is that she had an assignment to write a journal as a school assignment, and she gave it to you to edit. And you were kind of like line-editing it, suggesting different words, when you realized you weren't paying attention to the pain that she was expressing in this journal.

DIDION: Exactly, which is kind of the way we tend to deal with our children. We don't - later we realize that maybe we haven't been listening to them at all. I mean, we've been listening to the very edge of what they say without letting it sink in.

GROSS: You adopted your daughter after trying to conceive for a couple of years. You were 31 when the adoption came through. But for years before that, you were adamant about not getting pregnant. You so much didn't want to get pregnant. What changed your mind?

DIDION: It just came over me suddenly. I could almost day it, if I remember what year it was. But I suddenly, I needed - I had to have a baby. I started cutting out pictures of babies from magazines and sticking them on the wall in my bedroom. I have no idea how - why that came over me at that moment, but it became really necessary.

And then lo and behold, a baby was in my house.

GROSS: Yeah, you got a call from a doctor who was, I guess, was an obstetrician-gynecologist.

DIDION: Gynecologist, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, and who delivered the baby, and the mother wanted to give it up for adoption, and you became the mother. So after you got the call, the baby, you know, Quintana, remained in the hospital for a couple of nights, and those two nights you say you had dreams about forgetting you had a baby, leaving the baby in the drawer and then going out to dinner without making provisions to feed her.

DIDION: I had dreams about leaving the baby uncared-for while I did something that I would have done before, before she was born, like decide to stay in town for a movie and stay for dinner and all of these things that we do without thinking before we have children. And then suddenly we don't do them anymore, and it comes home to us in a real way, that it's very different to have this responsibility of a child.

GROSS: And you write, too, this is right before you took home the baby: What if I fail to take care of this baby? What if this baby fails to thrive? What if this baby fails to love me? And worse yet, what if I fail to love this baby?

DIDION: That's something that we don't talk about very much, but almost everybody I know who has ever had a child, is afraid before the baby comes, that they won't - that they won't like the baby or love the baby, that they won't be up to it.

GROSS: So what was the reality for you when you brought Quintana home? Did you still fear that you wouldn't love her? Did you still fear you'd leave her in the drawer?

DIDION: No, no, no, no, it was - the reality was actually - couldn't have been more perfect. I remember driving, leaving the hospital with her and driving. We were living down on the beach then, and we were on the San Diego Freeway going home, and I always thought of myself as bonding with her on the San Diego.

GROSS: My guest is Joan Didion. Her new memoir about her daughter's life and death is called "Blue Nights." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Didion, and her memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," was about grieving over the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Her new memoir, "Blue Nights," is about the life and death of her daughter, Quintana Roo.

Quintana was born in 1966, and this is like the early stages of the women's movement, and I think women then were working so hard to figure out what it meant to be a mother with still having some sense of equality and without giving up your work and the life and identity that you had created outside the home. Were you trying to figure that out for yourself?

DIDION: Actually no I wasn't. It never crossed my mind that I would have to figure it out. I always thought I would be working, and I always thought that I would have a baby, if I was lucky enough. So I wasn't as troubled by that.

When I got troubled by it was when I realized I wasn't really doing it as well as I thought - as I had anticipated I would be able to.

GROSS: You had planned a trip to Saigon for a magazine piece, and the trip was to take place shortly after you adopted Quintana. You didn't know that you were on the verge of becoming a mother when you accepted the Saigon piece.

DIDION: No, no.

GROSS: So you say that you had planned on going through with the trip anyways, bringing Quintana with you. You brought a beautiful flowered, I think silk parasol to protect her from the sun. And you realized that you were acting as if you were going to, like, to a high-fashion place with her and that you weren't - that it was about the reality here.

DIDION: Right, it was all going to be tea and lemon presses at, you know, at La Cirque's Sportif. It was not - I wasn't seeing that there was an actual shooting war going - a bad, bad war going on, and we were really at the worst - this was 1966. We were kind of at the worst turn in it.

GROSS: In the Vietnam War.

DIDION: In the Vietnam War.

GROSS: And you say you realized you were raising Quintana like a doll. What do you mean by that?

DIDION: She had a lot of - when I say I was raising her like a doll, I mean literally I was dressing her. That was my main conception of my role. I made sure that her clothes were taken care of. I dressed her. She was a doll to me, which in retrospect gave me probably a distorted idea of who she was. I didn't give her enough credit for being a grown-up person. Even as a four-year-old she was a grown-up person.

GROSS: When did that change for you? When did you start feeling like she wasn't a doll, and there was more than dressing her?

DIDION: Oh, when she was 12, 13, when she was, you know, beginning to be in high school. Then the reality that this was a real person started coming through to me.

GROSS: It's hard for me to imagine that when she was 10 and 11, you were still treating her as a doll.

DIDION: Well maybe less when she was 10 or 11.

GROSS: I mean, children are so demanding. You know, it's hard to - it's hard to treat a child like a doll at some point because they're asking for things, they're insisting on things. They're crying. They're laughing. I mean, they're making their presence felt. They're willful.

DIDION: Well, she was actually not a willful child.

GROSS: Because your daughter had a cerebral brain hemorrhage toward the end of her life, and she was in medically induced coma for a while, her memory was not good, her comprehension wasn't good because of these medical problems, you were, I assume, unable to talk about the things that you might have liked to talk with her about at the end of her life.

DIDION: No, I was able to talk with her at the end of her life because she was very open about her fears and her condition.

GROSS: Would it be an intrusion to ask about the kind of things you were able to talk about and maybe resolve? Did you talk about any of the fears about your - how you behaved as a mother, the fears you express in the book? Did you express any of those fears to her?

DIDION: Once, we talked about what kind of mother I had been. And she, to my surprise, said: You were okay, but you were a little remote. Now, that was a very frank thing for her to say, and I recognized myself in it. I was a little remote.

GROSS: You write that your daughter once expressed the fear that your husband would die, and there would be no one but her to take care of you.

DIDION: Yeah, that was a scary moment.

GROSS: When was that?

DIDION: Well, it was actually not long before she died. It was in the last few years of her life. But I had not realized how responsible she - how heavily she bore the responsibility of having - of taking care of me, which hadn't occurred to me as a necessity.

GROSS: You think it's because she saw you as frail.

DIDION: I think it's because she saw me as frail.

GROSS: And you see yourself as frail?

DIDION: Well, I certainly do now. I'm not sure I did then.

GROSS: When you were younger, and your husband and daughter were alive, did you ever expect you'd be facing the last years of your life without them, that you'd be left on your own?

DIDION: No, I never did expect that. And I don't know why I never expected it because, I mean, there was no reason to think that Quintana would be ill, but John had - demonstrably had things that could kill him. He had heart disease that had undergone a number of interventions for heart disease, and eventually one of them wasn't going to intervene. But I didn't face this. I didn't have a very - I never had a very realistic view of everybody else's survival time.

GROSS: Do you worry about being alone? Like it sounds like you like being alone, but you hate being alone.

DIDION: I love being alone. I mean, I need to be alone. I get terribly anxious and nervous if I'm not alone for a period of enough time.

GROSS: Are there objects from your husband or your daughter that you actually want to look at every now and then and that bring back good memories, like helpful memories?

DIDION: Yes, I have certain things of Quintana's. I have her - for example some school uniforms and the pinafore that she wore for volunteering at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. Now, those are things that I feel very warm when I look at, and I wouldn't want to live in a house that they - a house that didn't have room for those. So they'll be around.

GROSS: You have been immersed in death since 2005. Your husband died that year. Your daughter died that year. And since then, you've been writing books about their death. So I feel like as an outsider, it seems to me you probably haven't emerged from death yet, from their deaths. Do you think, like, with this book published and with your reporting kind of done about those deaths that you'll emerge more?

DIDION: Oh, I think so. I think it's - I mean, I'm feeling very strongly the need to do something in another vein. I don't know what that vein will be, but I want to find it.

GROSS: Are you getting any pleasure in life?


GROSS: Good.


GROSS: What's giving you pleasure?

DIDION: Well, I mean, quite simple things. I mean, for example yesterday I went to a concert, and the music gave me pleasure.

GROSS: Well, Joan Didion, I'm really glad we had the opportunity to talk again. Thank you so much.

DIDION: Thank you.

GROSS: Joan Didion's new memoir is called "Blue Nights." You can read an excerpt on our website, I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Bill Nighy is a respected actor in British film, TV and theater, who has become better known to American audiences in recent years. In the 2003 film "Love Actually," Nighy played an aging rock star named Billy Mack who's briefly revived his career by doing a sappy Christmas version of the Troggs' hit "Love Is All Around." In this scene, he's doing a radio interview about his comeback.


MARCUS BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Billy, welcome back to the airwaves. New Christmas single cover of "Love Is All Around."

BILL NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) Except we've changed the word love to Christmas.

BRIGSTOCKE: Yes. Is that an important message to you, Bill?

NIGHY: Not really, Mike. Christmas is a time for people with someone they love in their lives.

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) That's you?

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) That's not me, Michael. When I was young and successful I was greedy and foolish. And now I'm left with no one, wrinkled and alone.

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Wow. Thanks for that, Bill.

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) For what?

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Well, for actually giving a real answer to a question. Doesn't often happen here at Radio Watford, I can tell you.

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) Ask me anything you like, I'll tell you the truth.

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Best shag you've ever had?

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) Britney Spears.

BRIGSTOCKE: (as Mikey, DJ interviewer) Wow.

NIGHY: (as Billy Mack) No, only kidding.

(as Billy Mack) She was rubbish.

GROSS: Nighy has also appeared in "The Constant Gardner," "Notes on a Scandal," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Shaun of the Dead," "The Girl in the Cafe," and the acclaimed British TV series "State of Play." Nighy plays a British intelligence agent in the new film "Page Eight," which will be shown Sunday on Public TV's "Masterpiece." Nighy spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, host: Bill Nighy, welcome to FRESH AIR.

NIGHY: Thank you.

DAVIES: Let's talk about "Page Eight." This is the new film you've done, which is going to be shown on public broadcasting stations in the States. You play a British intelligence officer who happens upon a document that could lead to an international scandal and prove that the prime minister might have known or had been complicit in some nasty things. And I thought we'd listen to a clip here. This is where you are talking to your daughter, who is played by Felicity Jones. She is an artist and you're talking right after the opening of some of her work. And she's asking you what you thought.


FELICITY JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) For once in your life you might try telling me the truth.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) Only if you insist.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) I insist.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) All right. They look like works of despair. If the despair isn't real, then I don't like them because they're fake. They're unfelt. They're avant-garde protests and nothing more. But if the despair is real, then that hurts too, because you're my daughter and I don't want you to suffer.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) They're not fake.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) That's what I thought.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) So what bothers you? If I'm unhappy then it's your fault, they make you feel guilty, the absolute father, the evasive father?

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) The pictures are morbid. They're morbid, Julia. OK, I can see it may be my problem to do with getting older, but why do you want to piss on life before you've even lived it?

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) I don't think you should say anymore.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) I was wondering...

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) Yup?

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) That young man you were talking to.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) Which one?

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) I think his name is Ralph, Ralph Wilson.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) You're working. Hell, you're not even talking to me, you're working.

NIGHY: (as Johnny Worricker) Oh, come on. Let me take you home.

JONES: (as Julianne Worricker) No. I don't want you anywhere near me. Do you have any honest relationships at all?

DAVIES: And that's our guest Bill Nighy with Felicity Jones in the new film "Page Eight." I mean one of the reasons that I picked this clip was, she says at the end to her father, your character, you're always working. And there's something about the mentality of a spy, somebody who is never off, always analyzing things from a dozen angles. I mean how do you play somebody in that world?

NIGHY: Well, it's quite tricky, because you are never wholly telling the truth. One of the difficulties about working in the intelligence services is that you can't even allow your family to know, specifically, about what you're involved in. And your children are amongst those who are excluded from knowing the facts of your working life. And the secrecy just goes on and on and on, and kind of grows. And also, whenever you're speaking, you're only telling part of the truth. It makes it very satisfying as a part, because it's quite - it's complex and interesting.

DAVIES: Yeah. It's funny. Now that you mentioned it, when I listened to you in that part you have this weight to your voice as if you're sort of burdened by all the deception in your life.

NIGHY: Yeah. I tried to give it a kind of a, a different kind of tone. The tone on any part is the difficult thing to hit, and I hope I established one that gave it some kind of - so you can understand the burden of his responsibilities. He has a document, as you said, which incriminates the prime minister, played by Ralph Fiennes, and could lead to big trouble. We're, in fact, going to make two more of these films, so - next year - so the story will continue. So, you know, we laughingly refer to them as "Page Nine" and "Page Ten."


NIGHY: I'm sure they'll have some other, some other title.

DAVIES: Yeah. It is only partially resolved. And there is this wonderful scene where you confront the prime minister, Ralph Fiennes, and it's this raw power against intelligence.

NIGHY: Yeah.

DAVIES: It must've been fun to shoot.

NIGHY: It was great to shoot, actually. And because it's David Hare, David Hare wrote and directed the movie, as you know. And it's because of him that we can attract people like Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes, Sir Michael Gambon. They came because it's David. And Ralph came and played a relatively small role, so he was there for two days and we were locked in a room together. It was truly exciting, because the writing is fabulous. And that particular scene is very powerful and beautifully put together. So it was very satisfying for both Ralph and myself.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Bill Nighy. His new film is "Page Eight." We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is actor Bill Nighy. You might remember him from the films "Love Actually" and "State of Play." His new film, which is going to be shown on PBS stations, is "Page Eight."

You grew up in England. Your mom was a nurse and your dad managed a garage, right? And your home was on the premises, is that right?

NIGHY: Yeah. As you might say in America, I was born in a gas station.


NIGHY: I wasn't actually born on the premises. I was born in a hospital. But we lived in a house - if you opened our front door, there were the gas pumps, the petrol pumps, as we called them, and my first ever job was serving petrol.

DAVIES: And you left school at an early age, is that right, and left the house at times?

NIGHY: I did. I ran away from home under the influence of Ernest Hemingway's short stories and Bob Dylan's first album. And I went to Paris in order to write the great English short story or something. Didn't write a word, but managed to flunk - on my return - flunk all my exams. I left school around - I think I was either 15 or 16 - which wasn't that unusual in those days for the kind of people around our way. You weren't expected to have any further education really, in those days. It's all long time ago. So I did leave school pretty early, yeah.

DAVIES: Actors can get typecast and you have a very striking appearance. I mean you're thin. You have these high cheekbones. I mean some might call you patrician looking. What typical roles did you get cast for earlier in your career?

NIGHY: Well, you go through phases and it's often if you play one part relatively successfully, you tend to get offered the same kind of role again. I used to play kind of working-class boys. I played army soldiers. I played, you know, various kind of working-class characters. And then at some point or other I must've played a middle-class part and then I got a long run of middle-class parts, and now I never really get asked to play much else - apart from, you know, when I get to play octopus people, like Davy Jones in "Pirates of the Caribbean."


DAVIES: You'd be cruel to be sure.

NIGHY: Quite.

DAVIES: A journalist writing about you after an interview, she said you make everything seem so easy and amusing. And I have to say, looking at your performances, there is an ease about you. It's just this is just so naturally done. I gather from reading, that acting didn't come easily to you.

NIGHY: No. It didn't come easily to me at all. And I, but I do, I think have - and it took me a while to work it out - but I think I have a kind of a tendency to look relaxed, even though internally I'm just kind of speeding on anxiety. I have a kind of an anti-talent. I look...


NIGHY: I apparently look as if I'm relaxed, which I'm very, very, very grateful for. You know, because a lot of the time, particularly - in the early years, I used to stand on stages, kind of rooted to the spot - not knowing what to do with my hands and not knowing, you know, all the usual concerns for a young actor. You're not supposed to know what to do with your hands. You have to kind of learn what to do with your hands or what not to do with your hands. So yeah, no, it didn't come easy to me. I was incredibly self-conscious. The great news for anyone trying to act who, you know, has average difficulty in, you know, trying to kind of stay calm, is that they don't know what's going on in your head and you can operate whilst your head is attacking you.

DAVIES: Were auditions tough for you back in the early days?

NIGHY: Auditions were an absolute nightmare for me. Yeah. I mean, they are for anyone. It's a horrible process. And one of the greatest things that ever happened to me certainly, you know, professionally certainly and on a personal level, is that I don't have to audition anymore. And I can't tell you how thankful I am for that. I mean sitting in those rooms, waiting to go in on some cold winter morning and pretend to be a knight on horseback or something or, you know, or going to have a nervous breakdown in front of people who don't smile, it's very, very tough.

DAVIES: Do you have a particularly memorable or forgettable audition?

NIGHY: I do remember for John Boorman, who is a great English director, who made the movie "Excalibur," "Hope and Glory," he's a great English director. And he was very, very nice to me, but I did have to, in his living room, pretend to be on horseback, that means bumping up and down...


NIGHY: ...and I have to pretend to have a sword in my hand and fight with Lancelot, I think, or maybe I was being Lancelot. I didn't get the part, as is now, you know, if you watch the film "Excalibur," I'm not in it. But it was one of those lonely moments. Also, I mean I did a movie once, called "Still Crazy"...


NIGHY: In which I played another rock-and-roll idiot. And they got me up very early in the morning, put me in a disused tax office on the edge of London town, and they put me in a pair of velvet, flared, lune pants, which means they sit very low on your hips, gentlemen. I was 46 at the time and they gave me a top which did not meet my trousers. They then put hair extensions on me and some very weird rock 'n roll makeup.


NIGHY: Put me in front on a karaoke machine and played "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple, and I had to mime to "Smoke on the Water." Luckily, I remembered that it was supposed to be funny. If I'm ever required to be, you know, people say be attractive or be charming or god forbid, be sexy or anything, I go to pieces. But if it's supposed to be funny then, you know, maybe I'm in with a chance. I did, you know, I did some high kicks in four inch heels and I ripped the trousers. I did a high kick and pretend to hurt my back. That's always a good one. You want to get a cheap laugh? Do a high kick and then pretend its hurt your back. It's in the movie, actually.

DAVIES: So through the 70s and 80s, I mean you developed a career, you got into television, you did some film, and I know that you developed a drinking problem. But you managed to keep working. I mean, did that hold you back at all, do you think, keep you from getting better?

NIGHY: I don't want to talk about this at length. But I will say a couple of things, and if you'll forgive me, I won't say anything further. One is that I didn't develop a drinking problem. I am one of those people who is built in such a way that I have, from the very beginning, and unfortunate relationship with alcohol. So there was never a good time for me to have a drink. Then there's one further thing I will say, but I'd rather not say anything further, just for reasons that we don't have to go into it. Not because I have any shame in this area or I'm a sober alcoholic, it's a perfectly respectable thing to be and I've made arrangements about it. But I will say that I used to drink and it was absolutely terrible, and now I don't drink and it's absolutely marvelous. And that's as much as I'd like to say. Thanks.

DAVIES: I want to talk about "Girl in the Cafe," a 2005 film that you starred in, written by Richard Curtis, directed by David Yates. One review said, it's the best romantic comedy at a G-8 summit you'll ever see.


DAVIES: You played this...

NIGHY: Very good.

DAVIES: ...very inhibited man, I guess in his 50s, who's a kind of a high-ranking figure in the British Finance Office, the - what the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

NIGHY: The civil service, yeah.

DAVIES: Right. And you meet this young woman, who is played by Kelly McDonald, at a cafe, and you're this very inhibited fellow and a relationship develops. And I thought we'd play a clip here. Fairly early in the film where you're taking a walk and getting acquainted and you're outside. You'll hear some ambient noise and you're walking by a river. And I believe you're telling her about a dream.


NIGHY: (As Lawrence) Well, on the whole, in my dreams people are begging me to join the Rolling Stones. I'm, I'm sitting at home and phone goes and it's Mick Jagger and Ron Wood together on speaker phone, I suppose, pleading with me to inject a bit of new blood into the band. Or, I'm at the office and they say, someone's waiting for you downstairs, and I get in the lift down and there's Keith Richards waiting on the sofa in the lobby.

(As Lawrence) And he – he gives me his guitar and says, come on, man. You have the music, play. We'll, we'll do as much heroin as you like. Just lend us your hot licks.

DAVIES: And that's my guest Bill Nighy playing the lead in the film "Girl in the Cafe." This character, if there's an opposite to the exuberant rocker that you play in "Love, Actually," it's this guy.

NIGHY: Yeah.

DAVIES: You want to talk about - I mean, there's a rhythm to his speech. How do you get this terribly inhibited guy?

NIGHY: Well, it's one of my favorite roles. It's something I absolutely understand and also there is an element in it which reminds me of my father. My father was - he was not unlike him in terms of he had a very uncertain kind of charm, but he wasn't overly sure of himself. He was a principled man and conducted himself impeccably and was - and functioned, you know, very successfully in terms of his life.

But he was undermined in a fundamental way. So it's not a portrait of my father or anything, but it is reminiscent of him and it was in my mythology, it was my kind of tender thank you to my father because he's somebody I admire and I admire anyone who is similarly undermined and yet they are victorious.

DAVIES: And when you say undermined, do you mean what?

NIGHY: I mean what they would probably currently call self-esteem problems. Or they would call, you know, a basic kind of insecurity, where your head sells you a negative idea of yourself. And you have to work out that, if you're lucky, that anything negative that happens in your head is probably a lie. But you have to - but it doesn't stop manufacturing this kind of negative propaganda and you have to operate anyway.

So I find that kind of struggle, I find it very moving and I found it very affecting in my father. And in that character, my father would, incidentally, would kill me if he could hear me talking like this. But I mean it with all respect. And with that character, you know, it was very satisfying to play and very satisfying to play with Kelly MacDonald because she was so minutely responsive to everything you did. That's rarer than you might imagine.

DAVIES: I mean, were you undermined in that way? I mean, were you someone who...

NIGHY: Yeah. I don't - yeah. I had a whole kind of factory in my head, which with a lot of, you know, negative propaganda machines working overtime. And I did have an anti-talent for describing myself negatively to myself.

DAVIES: Wow. Not the kind of thing that you would think an actor would...

NIGHY: Well, you'd be surprised, actually. You'd be - I think you might be surprised. The people who are attracted it to often aren't the people you would imagine would be attracted to it. They're not the gregarious ones. They're not the life and soul of the party. I know people who are household names who really have to put themselves through serious kind of discomfort in order to do their job.

And, you know, they are rarely at peace with anything they've done. And it seems to be - I don't know that it's an equation that you have to be like that in order to be any good. I know that there is that terrible irritating equation they come up with, which is that if you're not scared on stage, for instance, if you're not scared opening a play you won't be any good. And I think that's probably true.

If you're onstage with somebody who seems completely unconcerned, I think you're in trouble. That's my view.


DAVIES: Well, you know...

NIGHY: Because I know some great, great actors who, you know, they have no idea why they're - so Michael Gambon, who is in "Page Eight' is categorically a genius. I've seen him many times on stage and on film. He is one of that rare group who are, as they say - it's a cliche - but they are touched by genius. He doesn't know that. He doesn't want, probably, to hear me saying it.

But he's not emboldened by that because he can't experience it. I can stand it, as I do often with Sir Michael and I, and I've rarely used the, you know, you don't call people sir this or sir that. I mean, David Harris, Sir David, yeah. But people don't – with Sir Michael I absolutely make a point of it because I think of him as one of the leaders, if not the leader, of my profession in England.

And, you know, like me, you know, he has to persuade himself that he can be an actor, you know, every now and again as well.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Bill Nighy. His new movie is "Page Eight." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Bill Nighy. He stars with Rachel Weisz in the new film, "Page Eight," which will be shown on public television stations. I wanted to ask you also about "State of Play," the British TV series 2003. You know, an American film was later made starring Russell Crowe. I would - if folks haven't seen the British version, it's a terrific video rental.

And Bill Nighy, you play in this series. You play a newspaper editor, Cameron Foster. And the story surrounds the death of a woman who is the staff member of a member of Parliament with whom the member might have been having had an affair and there are all kinds of sinister connections. And we're going to listen to a scene here in which a police investigator arrives and he's looking for reporters on your staff who have been looking into this murder.

And they believe that your staff and your reporters may have information relevant to the investigation. You're the editor and you're kind of trying to deflect their inquiries. Let's listen.


NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) I'm not in the habit of lying. She's not here.

PHILIP GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) She's working on the Kelvin Stagg murder.

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) Correct.

GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) With your chief reporter, Cal McCaffrey.

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) Also correct.

GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) Is he here?

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) I believe not. Mr. Bell...

GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) It's Detective Chief Inspector Bell.

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) If you want to talk to busy people you make a date or risk disappointment.

GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) Do you know the extent of their investigations into that murder?

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) No.

GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) Well, you're their editor.

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) They haven't filed a story yet.

GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) Oh, what? So they just, what, run around spending your budget without recourse?

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) Seniors do. I know. I don't like it. I'd rather be a dictator but no one would work for me.


GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) One of my officers was murdered. Don't piss me about. Now Della Smith warned Stuart Brown that the patient he was guarding was a potential target for reprisals. Now where did she get the authority to present that theory?

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) I could've. Well, my mother could've given you that from the TV reports. A gunman tries to kill a witness but not quite. It stands to reason the motive for the shooting the guy's still valid.

GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) Well, she sought him at 11:00 P.M. to tell him that.

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) You've met Della?

GLENISTER: (as Detective Chief Inspector Bell) Interviewed her.

NIGHY: (as Cameron Foster) Beautiful woman, recently dumped by long-term boyfriend. It's a lonely job. Maybe she took a shine to your Stuart Brown. I really can't speculate. Well, I can, obviously I just have. But it's not helpful, is it?

DAVIES: That's my guest Bill Nighy from the British TV series, "State of Play." You want to just talk a little bit about this role?

NIGHY: Sure. It was a great role and it went down very well, guess what, with journalists. And I had a couple of requests from journalists, one from The Times newspaper here and one from The Guardian newspaper in England saying could they come and work for me.


NIGHY: Because they like that. I think that what journalists liked about it and quite right too, was that they, for once, they were given an heroic role and they were seen to be, you know, courageous and righteous. But it was a great role and a great series and it was one of those you knew you were in a hit because people you hadn't heard from for years would phone up and say, what happens in the end?


NIGHY: 'Cause I'm going on holiday and I've really got to know before I leave. You know, it became like a cliffhanger for the nation. So it was very cool to be in it.

DAVIES: There's a wonderful moment early in, I think it's the first episode, where there's a news planning meeting and one of your senior reporters kind of gets in your face and gives you a, you know, kind of a profanity-laced kind of barb.

NIGHY: Yeah.

DAVIES: And then you say, ooh, don't try that at home, kids.


NIGHY: Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: You know, you bring...

NIGHY: Yeah, that was a sweet one.

DAVIES: You bring a lovely touch of irony to a lot of this and you have that little chortle. Are you a practitioner of deadpan humor in your private life?

NIGHY: I guess I am, yeah. I guess I - that is my flavor of comedy. You know, that's my enthusiasm is for that kind of dryness, is what I like and that's what I enjoy watching in other performers. I like when humor is kind of buried but still, you know, it's still effective, it still makes you laugh, but it's kind of disguised as naturalism. You know, as it's perfectly integrated into the story, in tune to the dialogue and everything. You disguise it till the last minute.

I remember when I did "Girl in the Cafe" which had proper jokes in it, beautiful jokes, as you'd expect from Richard Curtis. But I'd just seen a film that became one of my favorite films immediately. It went in like top five, if not number one, which was called "Punch Drunk Love."

DAVIES: Oh, yeah. Adam Sandler. Yeah.

NIGHY: Yeah. And Emily Watson and Paul Thomas Anderson which I absolutely revere that movie. It's kind of - and one of the things I love about it is Adam Sandler's performance because he's absolutely deadpan and yet it makes you laugh. So I wrote the words "Adam Sandler" on the first page of "Girl in the Cafe" because I wanted to - I aspired to the kind of undercover light comedy performance.

That's what I like. Where there are no concessions made to the fact that you're trying to be amusing. You don't sell it in any way at all. You do, but the audience don't get to hear about it until they laugh. That's as best as I can describe it.

DAVIES: Well, Bill Nighy, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

NIGHY: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Bill Nighy spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Nighy costars in the new BBC movie, "Page Eight," which will be shown Sunday on public television. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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