Bill Nighy: the thinking woman's bagel

Three years ago, Bill Nighy was just another jobbing actor. Now he's a national pin-up and a rising Hollywood star. And he just can't believe his luck
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Bill Nighy's first film role was an uncredited appearance as "Delivery Boy" in the eminently forgettable 1979 Joan Collins screen version of her sister Jackie's equally forgettable bonkbuster, The Bitch. To add to the humiliation, his one scene in the movie was actually left on the cutting-room floor.

He has come rather a long way since then, and is now one of the most in-demand actors in the country. It is certainly hard to think of a British star who can match his recent run of critically and commercially successful work: Love Actually, The Constant Gardener, State of Play, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Shaun of the Dead, Underworld, Enduring Love... the list goes on.

In addition, he has been accorded the honour of being described as "the thinking woman's crumpet". So how does the performer, who turned 56 in December, react to the idea of being Middle England's pin-up, the sort of chap guaranteed to make women of a certain age blush in a fashion rarely seen outside the pages of Jane Austen?

"The only way I can respond with dignity is to say that Christopher Walken was once asked by a British woman journalist how he felt about being seen as the thinking woman's crumpet," the actor deadpans. "There was a lengthy pause, after which he replied, 'Is that some kind of bagel?' That's pretty much where I stand. I'm with Mr Walken on this one. I have no further comment, except to say that they should all seek professional help."

This is typical of Nighy, a man whose default setting is self-deprecation. It is this quintessentially English propensity for self-effacement which has so endeared him to the British public. With his glamorous, swept-back blond hair and indecently handsome, lived-in features, he looks every inch the matinee idol, but he never for a moment acts like one.

We are sitting in his dingy caravan on the set of his latest small-screen production, Gideon's Daughter, which is Stephen Poliakoff's follow-up to Friends and Crocodiles. The battered Winnebago is stationed in a cheerless car park hard by Hammersmith Broadway. But even in these drab surroundings, Nighy oozes the kind of X factor that the contestants on that programme can only dream of.

His trusty Ray-Bans in his top pocket, he is sporting an immaculately pressed blue shirt teamed with grey slacks and highly polished black shoes. Sipping a can of full-strength Coke, he picks at a slice of Gala pie with little enthusiasm. He demonstrates much more interest in the background music. Our conversation is played out to the accompaniment of the Rolling Stones blasting out of his iPod in the corner of the caravan, and Nighy keeps leaping up to extol the virtues of a particular album. He raves, for example, that Sticky Fingers is "an urgent slice of tender rock".

Finally turning our attention to the interview, I start by asking Nighy if he can account for the late blossoming of his success. He has really only come into his own in his fifties; two years ago, he won Baftas for his performances in both the film Love Actually and the television drama State of Play.

But he is at a loss to explain his recent sky-rocketing fortunes. "The odds are against it, aren't they?" says Nighy, pushing his thick-rimmed glasses back up on to the bridge of his nose. "You work away and try to keep your nose clean. I've had a healthy career for some years. Touch wood, I've always had a gig, and I've been very lucky that it's accelerated mightily in recent years. But I'm not secretly thinking it's because I'm incredibly talented. I haven't suddenly become the greatest actor in the world. I don't know why it's happened. I could speculate to be sociable, but I just look up to the skies and thank my lucky stars.

"I don't experience the effect of fame very much," he drawls insouciantly (he does a lot of insouciant drawling, which made him perfect casting as the voice of Dylan in the recent cinema version of The Magic Roundabout, and may be another reason for his status as a blue-rinse heart-throb). "Nothing much changes around here. But professionally, it's all to the good. It makes me more castable. If a doorman at an American hotel says 'Hello, Bill', then as an old lag you think that must be good for business."

The last thing he would want to do is follow the example of less savvy stars and gripe about the "terrible pressures" of fame. "Sometimes in confined spaces the attention can get difficult," he concedes. "But I'm not complaining. I should be so lucky. As an actor it would be odd to complain about such things. You can't turn around and say, 'Stop looking at me!' As an actor, you've volunteered for that job."

His sole concern of late has been overexposure. "I was worried that people would be sick of the sight of me," he confesses. It is true that he does sometimes seem to be on a mission to snatch James Brown's crown as the hardest-working man in showbiz. "It could have come under the title of 'overkill' - which could be a bit vulgar.

"I did a lot of work over four or five years - The Young Visiters, State of Play, Love Actually - which all came out at the same time. By then, people were either going to say 'I can't take it anymore' and kick me off the island or pat me on the back and say 'Well done'. Luckily, they didn't kick me off the island."

The praise should be pouring forth once more when Gideon's Daughter premieres on BBC1 next Sunday. In this poignant film, Nighy gives a moving performance as Gideon, a government PR guru who, unbeknownst to his acolytes, is on the brink of total emotional collapse.

One of the principal reasons for Gideon's breakdown is his disenchantment with the spin that increasingly seems to govern society. "Gideon's depression is the result of the world he inhabits," Nighy muses. "The film is a telling comment on the way we're all dominated by spin these days. It's a profound meditation on PR and its effect on everyone. It's taken over our lives because it's been developed into a system.

"People now prefer it to making decisions - it's easier just to apply the system. It puts everything else out of alignment, as it's a kind of perversion. It has a domino effect, and everything ends up unsatisfactory, even if it makes you money or gets you elected."

He pre-empts my next question. "Will New Labour-ites squirm while watching this? Yes, they might well reposition their posteriors or redistribute their weight on the sofa. They might be seen crossing and uncrossing their legs more often then usual."

Nighy goes on to pay tribute to Stephen Poliakoff. "He's incredibly bright, is extremely well versed in visual language, and is an unfailing detector of the inauthentic or the approximate," he asserts, before the self-mockery gene kicks in once again. "God, I'm good when I get going, aren't I? I should be a Lib Dem. I could take them down any day. If Kilroy can be a politician..."

Nighy displays comparable self-knowledge when addressing the subject of awards. "People like the discussion to be over and to know who won. The fact is that nobody is the best, but because the reductiveness of the media means that only a few stories are tolerated now, we expect a final result. Everyone wants to know who won because we all live media lives now.

"Having said all that," he adds with a broad grin, "can I please have lots more prizes? At school, the only award I ever won was the Elocution Prize, which is the prize for someone who's definitely not going to win any others. Then, at drama school, I was given the absolute shamer of shamers, the Progress Cup. In racing terms, it means you haven't even crossed the finishing line yet. So as soon as they say 'And the winner is...' at a grown-up awards ceremony, you regress to the age of 10 and your legs turn to water.

"The first time I won, I went up on stage and said, 'I used to think that prizes were damaging and divisive - till I got one. Now I realise they're deeply meaningful. Now I see they're beautiful and righteous. How could it have escaped me before?'" He has amassed so many of them since then that there must be precious little space left on his mantelpiece.

Nighy was born and bred in Surrey, where his father managed a garage and his mother was a psychiatric nurse. After a brief sojourn as a "tortured writer" in a Parisian garret, he was pushed by a girlfriend into applying to drama school in Guildford. He started his professional career at the Everyman in Liverpool, where he worked alongside Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce, Pete Postlethwaite, Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, and has been in constant employment ever since.

For the past quarter of a century, he has been in a relationship with the actress Diana Quick. They have a 21-year-old daughter, Mary (the only subject in his life which is off-limits to interviewers).

Now producers are doorstepping Nighy like so many double-glazing salesmen. His profile will rise even higher with the forthcoming release of the big-screen version of Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, in which he plays Cate Blanchett's husband, and the eagerly awaited film adaptation of the Anthony Horowitz bestseller Stormbreaker. And that's before we even get to his starring roles in the next two Pirates of the Caribbean movies, as the villainous Davey Jones, sworn enemy of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). "They say Davey is a baddie," Nighy arches an eyebrow, "but I think he's just a man who's had very bad luck."

Even in the rare Nighy films that are failures, critics single him out for commendation. One wrote of the recently released Underworld: Evolution that "There's only one reason to see this outrageously silly fantasy-horror extravaganza of vampires and werewolves - and that's the fact that Bill Nighy is in it."

But all this praise looks unlikely to go to his head, as he remains appealingly deaf to the siren call of glossy-mag celebrity. According to Nighy, "Most of the time, I just forget I'm supposed to be famous. I'll be standing in a shop and notice that someone is staring at me for longer than is strictly courteous. I think either my flies are undone or 'Do I know you?' You forget, because it's not on your screen - it's on other people's screens. But that sort of attention doesn't alter the way you are - if it did, it could drive you mad.

"People I meet are generally very cheerful towards me," he concludes with one last modest smile. "No one has hit me, although you never know. Someone might come up to me and say, 'Jesus, not you again' before smacking me in the mouth. There's got to be someone out there who can't tolerate me."

'Gideon's Daughter' is on BBC1 on Sunday 26 February