It’s never about the book. That’s why I don’t read the book. I’ve never read a Jane Austen novel as it happens,” says Bill Nighy. This comes as something of a surprise. Not only because the 70-year-old is playing Mr Woodhouse in the new film adaptation of Austen’s great novel, Emma. But because this well-read, famously witty actor has never made acquaintance with one of the wittiest writers in the English language.
“[It’s] not because I am averse to it,” he says. “It’s just that I’ve never got around to it. I’ve read other female writers of that time and other writers of that time, but you have to remember that you’re never filming the book.”
He sits across from me in a hotel room, cheekbones big enough to hang clothes on, still every bit the sort of heartthrob capable of making your mum’s voice wobble up two decibels.
Prior to Emma, Nighy has appeared in surprisingly few period dramas given how many have been made for British film and TV over the course of his career. This isn’t an accident; Nighy dislikes the sort of stiff tone and body language that period dramas tend to draw out of actors. “There are certain conventions in place, and people, including myself, are persuaded into a certain kind of behaviour, a way of speaking which I find a bit unsettling.”
But Nighy wanted to work with director Autumn de Wilde, a rock photographer making her feature debut, because he trusted that she would bring a different feel to Austen’s literary classic. “She comes from California, I don’t know whether that seriously affects anything, but I think that it may allow her to have some distance on the genre. She talked about it in a way that was fresh, and I thought maybe she had an interesting angle and it turned out she did.” Nighy is right; Emma doesn’t update the language of Austen’s original text, but avoids feeling like it’s suffocating inside a corset.
In the past, Nighy has admitted to turning down roles because they wouldn’t allow him to wear a suit. How did he fare in Emma given the endless ruffles and high collars of period dress? “I got lucky this time,” he tells me, his mouth an ever-indecipherable straight line. “During my first fitting with the costume designer, Alexandra Byrne, she told me that I had narrowly avoided tights. Thankfully, in 1815 men were still wearing trousers.”
Still, he admits: “I felt nervous before we started filming, during rehearsals, when we started filming, most of the way through filming, all the time, actually.”
This is not what would expect from a man who seems so effortlessly cool. Nighy is such a smooth operator, it was surprising to learn that his nerves on Emma were not a one-off. Rather, behind that well-fitting navy suit, whoofed steel hair and chic black eye frames is a man often gripped by self-consciousness.
Nighy has made a name for himself playing smarmy but ultimately forgivable English gents. In Love Actually he falls somewhere between charming and sleazy as the washed-up rockstar who hangs out with a harem of twentysomethings dressed as Mrs Claus. In State of Play, he’s a dry-witted, eternally smirking newspaper editor who saves the day. He even retains a certain level of suave as a tentacle-bearded squid in Pirates of the Caribbean.
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An anxious single parent with control issues, Mr Woodhouse is quite the departure from the sorts of roles we have come to associate with Nighy. “During filming, I learnt what the word valetudinarian means,” the actor says of his time existing inside Mr Woodhouse’s frenzied headspace. “It’s not to be confused with hypochondria. Where the hypochondriac is worried about getting ill, the valetudinarian is worried everyone else will get ill.”
Mr Woodhouse certainly is a valetudinarian and it’s his unsettledness that provides most of the laughs in Emma. A baby is sick and he insists the doctor must be called. A draft no one else can feel seeps through the window and he requires his whole body to be shut in with room dividers. When snow falls, he calls a dinner party to an end and herds everyone into homeward bound carriages.
While Nighy has admitted to enjoying being typecast in the past, playing Mr Woodhouse in all his neurotic glory was something he found immensely enjoyable. “I see Mr Woodhouse as a certain kind of Englishman who’s under siege from his own mind. I find that quite funny. The idea that he’s constantly on alert.”
According to Nighy, filming Emma was great fun, even if he does then immediately undercut this comment by calling it a cliché. While Nighy says he has already forgotten most of what happened, he does remember Josh O’Connor (who plays Emma’s would-be suitor Mr Elton) passing the time between takes by forcing cast members to rank their top 10 sodas, biscuits, and crisps. “They were very hot on crisps,” Nighy recalls. “I’m a bit behind on crisps. I sort of gave crisps up.”
Looking at his elegantly upright posture and stiff collar, you’d find it difficult to imagine Nighy even knows what a crisp is. Perhaps Tyrells veg crisps? Some kind of smoked chorizo flavour? But Nighy’s life hasn’t always been filled with custom-made Margaret Howell suits. He grew up working class in Caterham, Surrey, to Irish parents, in a house that smelt of petrol because it was attached to his dad’s garage.
Nighy can’t say whether his nerves on the Emma set were justified, because he hasn’t actually seen the film. This isn’t unusual; the actor refuses to watch himself perform: “It takes me too long to recover. I see all the compromises, all the moments of cowardice, the default things I do when I can’t pull something off. It’s upsetting. It’s always so far short of what you had in mind. Because somehow, what you had in mind is never translated into action.” On people who say watching yourself back is how you learn, Nighy sighs: “That would make you learn nothing except that you must give it up and do something else for a living.”
I tell Nighy that I’m quite disappointed. As a 24-year-old, I assume I will reach a point in my life where the endless second-guessing gives way to something like confidence. “I don’t think you should take me as an example,” Nighy warns, his jaw tensing at the thought he could possibly be anyone’s role model. “But yes you do think that when you’re young. I remember standing backstage with Anthony Hopkins about to go on stage at the National Theatre. It was probably the biggest first night I had ever been involved in by that point, and it was in the Olivier Theatre, you know, the big one. In the darkness, Hopkins leant over to me and asked, ‘How do you feel?’ And I said: ‘I’m terrified’ and he said, ‘So am I.’ I asked: ‘Doesn’t get any better?’ and he said, ‘No. It gets bloody worse.’”
Even when reeling off his discomforts, Nighy retains his cool exterior: a Rolling Stones lyric sprung to life. One hand calmly rotating in the air, his voice never erring away from husky and sonorous.
For Nighy, performing on stage is a “traumatic” experience because the expectations placed on you only get higher and higher. “Maybe your name is above the title, maybe the audience has come to see you, maybe they’ve paid a lot of money. The first time I ever did a play, I made the mistake of walking past the box office and I saw how much the tickets were. They were £2.50 which doesn’t sound like anything now, but given that I was earning about £10 a week, that was a lot. I only had six lines, but the experience really drove home that people were coming here to see me act.”
In retrospect, it makes sense why Nighy would relish playing a man under siege by his own mind when he is so often under siege from his own. A voice whispering in his ear that he might not be good enough. That he shouldn’t be here. “If you imagine how you would feel walking on stage and delivering lines in front of thousands of people, that’s how I feel.” This is clearly not the case. I would have a panic attack. But I appreciate his point: he doesn’t enjoy it.
Is performing always so painful? “You might get one Wednesday night matinee where you forget to be nervous. Everything flows, everything is beautiful, everything is perfect, and you can’t remember why this was ever difficult. And it will never happen again. And it’s always frustrating.”
Nighy has said before that he only applied to drama school because he wanted to impress a girl. Does he think she would be impressed by what he has achieved? “She wasn’t particularly bowled over at the time,” he says, then relents. “I hope so.”
Emma is in UK cinemas now
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