What a performance

Bill Nighy is not going to read this article. He never reads anything written about him. Or, at least, he did once when he was in a play in New York cast as a doctor who had to sit surrounded by the Sunday newspapers and he happened to see something about himself.

“It was horrible. Just horrible,” he says.

This is hard to believe. No one writes anything horrid about the nation’s leading male sexpot, as Clive James has called him. We all love Bill Nighy. If we didn’t love him already for his roles on stage in Stoppard and Pinter plays, we started loving him in 2003 when he played Billy Mack in Love Actually. More recently we loved him as the MI5 man in David Hare’s Page Eight, and I’m sure we will go on loving him in the new Aardman film, Arthur Christmas, in which he is the voice of Grandsanta.

Still, it’s a relief that he won’t be seeing this interview. I don’t like to think of him reading my description of the two meetings we had, 24 hours apart. The truth is I rather fell for him, but I also thought he was one of the most neurotic people I’ve ever met. The first he would find inexplicable, the second painful. So it’s good he’s not looking.

Our initial meeting takes place at Home House, a flashy club in Portman Square. I see Nighy slipping out of a car outside, a wraith-like wisp of a man, in a beautiful navy suit and with his long hair halfway between floppy and bouncy. He greets me politely, but looks lost in the vulgar hallway.

“I don’t really like clubs,” he tells me. “I’m not clubbable.”

We walk around in search of somewhere quiet to do the interview. “Not in there,” he says, “Laptops.” He shudders. Nighy doesn’t own a computer of any sort. And then: “Oh God, they’re looking at me.”

So we perch on stools away from the men with laptops and staring eyes and he places a complicated, calorie-free order: coffee with hot water on the side, and fizzy water with ice and lime on the side. He’s anxious, and I’m anxious too, because I can’t see if my tape recorder is working and can’t find my glasses. Gallantly, Nighy whips off his own thick, black-rimmed specs and offers them to me.

I peer through his lenses, which seem a bit grubby, and find the tape is indeed picking up what he is saying, which at that moment is a statement of opposition not only to clubs, but gyms, too.

“I did join a rather glamorous gym but on my first visit to the lockers a man came towards me to say hi and he was holding his penis. And I just ... there’s something about a naked man with his penis in his hand, and all small talk leaves me; I’m not robust enough. I never went back.”

Nighy as Billy Mack in 'Love Actually' (2003)

I laugh uncertainly: I hadn’t expected the conversation to take this turn, especially not so early on. And I’m also not sure if he’s being funny – the delivery suggests a splendid, deadpan joke, but he is saying it as if he means it.

Now he goes to his personal trainer’s house instead. “There’s never going to be anyone younger or better looking. And there aren’t mirrors all the way round so you don’t watch yourself change colour during certain procedures.”

I point out that Nighy, who is now 61, is in a position that most men would kill for, much more lusted after by the woman in the street than he was a decade ago.

“I. Really. Truly. Don’t. Experience. It,” he says, shaking his head. “I look in the mirror and I just ... I remember what I’m supposed to look like and it’s not like this. This is what happens when how you’re supposed to look has started to decay and decline.”

He asks the waiter for sweetener and, when there isn’t any, reluctantly takes a lump of sugar.

“I’ve never been a great enthusiast about how I look and I am very … when I was young I had a real anti-talent for inventing myself as unappealing – craven and unremarkable. Move on; just move on.”

But he can’t have been as talented at being unappealing as all that. The actress Diana Quick was sufficiently taken with this craven and unremarkable man to live with him for 27 years, until they separated in 2008. Indeed, the only person who did move on was Nighy himself, from being a mechanic’s son in Purley to an actor in constant demand and for whom David Hare now writes special parts.

As if to put a stop to any further discussion of his looks, he gets up to go to the lavatory. When he returns I change the subject and ask about the Tobin tax. Nighy has been campaigning for a Robin Hood tax on all financial transactions and last year starred in a three-minute Richard Curtis film. He was a banker doing something he does brilliantly: squirm.

The trouble is that in real life bankers don’t squirm when asked about Tobin tax. They come up with apparently convincing reasons why it wouldn’t work. I wonder if he’s ever spent any time with them.

“I don’t spend a lot of time with anybody,” he says. “Including bankers.”

I try to talk to him about the tax and whether it might force business offshore, or distort markets, or whether there might be better ways of taxing banks, but he’s not playing.

“I’m not a financial expert. The Robin Hood tax seems to me a very simple and beautiful idea. I don’t see the problem. Unless it’s a problem of implementation, and then if that’s the case, as I say, who gives a f***? If you pardon my language. Sorry, I won’t swear again.”

I tell him, in a slightly hopeless stammering way as I don’t want to upset him, that I’m not sure I want actors telling me about taxation. I want to leave it to people who understand the intricacies of it, and let actors get on with acting.

“But this is the only use of acting talent. I never think anything I do will make a difference, but I do it on principle. I do it because if somebody alerts you to the fact that 30,000 children die every 24 hours, the only honest response is, f*** me, how can I help? I know that there is a feeling in this country where it’s somehow not quite on. Bob Geldof and Bono are jokes. I don’t understand it – it’s a peculiarly English thing ...”

He gives this speech with such intensity that I feel ashamed of my view and find myself retreating and asking instead about the new film, Arthur Christmas. “It’s charming, it’s decent, it’s exciting if you’re nine, the jokes are terrific, it’s great; everything’s great about it,” Nighy says. “And this is not PR,” he adds, in case I was wondering, which I was.

As Davy Jones in 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' (2006)

And because he is only supplying his voice, he won’t have the agony of watching himself, something he tries to avoid. Neither does he have to wear anything silly as he did when he played a squid in Pirates of the Caribbean.

“They put you in a pair of computer pyjamas and they put white spots all over your face as if you’ve got a skin condition and a skull cap on your head with a white bobble on top, and then you’re introduced to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom ...”

Again, the words are funny, but he isn’t joking. He really seems to mind. Which is odd when surely being a spotty squid is meat and veg to an actor?

“You must understand,” he says, as if I were being really dense. “Actors don’t have any different response to this stuff than any other human being.”

And then he tells me of a first night in New York four years ago.

“I looked into the eyes of my colleagues on stage and saw nothing but bewilderment and disappointment that the senior member of the company was falling apart. And every time I spoke it hung in the air like some clanging piece of tosh and then when the curtain came down ... you realise that you’ve done it again and you’ve invented this alternate world where apparently you’re being humiliated internationally – and then it turns out not only is that not the case, they then all go crazy and throw flowers. This is how I live.”

I offer him a biscuit to cheer him up, but he declines. I remind him that he is great. There is no need for any of this. “I don’t seem to be able to learn from experience or anything useful. History doesn’t help me. Precedents don’t inform my experience.”

Does he think that this terror of being useless is what makes him so very good? “I have no way of knowing that. I’m not in contact with myself or anything, you know what I mean?”

I don’t entirely know what he means, and ask if he’s been in therapy ever. But he says he hasn’t. “It’s just never come up.”

He tells me that the great thing about suffering is how good you feel afterwards. After that first night, he went to a shop to buy some M&Ms – he was addicted to them at the time – and when he got back to the car afterwards his driver was playing Barry White’s “Never, Never Going To Give You Up”. “I told him to turn it up. It was a moment of absolute bliss.”

Eating cheap chocolate sounds a fairly tame sort of bliss to me. But then he can’t drink, as he was an alcoholic 15 years ago. And he doesn’t seem to socialise at all. He goes home, and when he gets home doesn’t sleep.

“I spend my life being frightened of not having enough sleep and not being good enough. And if you haven’t slept, a camera in your face is really offensive. It’s like you want to smack it.”

To lighten the mood I ask about his clothes, on which he’s famously keen. Today his suit is from Ermenegildo Zegna, he says, and the shirt is, as ever, made by Margaret Howell.

I, too, am pleased with my coat, and ask if he can guess where I got it and how much it was. He brightens up at the game, happier now that we aren’t discussing acting or ageing.

“I love that shape. It’s absolutely delightful. Is it John Pearse? I’d say it cost – I’m not very good at prices because I’m scared of them so I never look – but I’d say it’s probably, it’s quite a lot of money, is it £500 or more?”

I tell him that it was £79 from Zara and he acts just the right sort of amazement. He then tells me he has just bought his daughter (the actor Mary Nighy) a black moleskin coat from Margaret Howell that cost much more. He looks at mine again.

“If you want me to be slightly ... I slightly regret the lining.” Then, fearing he has hurt my feelings, he adds swiftly: “It’s not like you have to worry about it ...”

Time is running out, but there is one last thing I’ve been longing to ask Bill Nighy. I’ve read that he loves The Rolling Stones (as do I), but I can’t understand how his favourite album could be the dismal Goats Head Soup.

“Oh come on, it’s pretty good. ‘Coming Down Again’ is pretty cool, and ‘Winter’ is on it,” he says, picking two of the most depressing songs in the whole Stones canon.

He says there is a great line in “Winter”: “the Restoration plays have all gone round”, which, I say, sounds wrong. This leads to him telling me that for many years he has been getting a Dylan song wrong.

He breaks into a perfect, breathy, nasal whine, and sings for me, “If it hasn’t got you killed/ it’s either fortune or fame/ it must be one or the other /though neither of them are to be what they claim”.

Whereas actually the lyric was, and he sings it again: “Up on housing project hill/ it’s either fortune or fame …”

As he sings, I witness a peculiar transformation. Nighy is no longer the reclusive, troubled, frail man I’ve almost been feeling sorry for this past hour. Hey presto, he’s the nation’s favourite male sexpot.

There is something else I want to know: is an interview a performance?

“Not really, no,” he says. “I don’t feel like that.”

Only the next day, it turns out that it was a performance after all, and our meeting was merely a rehearsal. His PR calls to say Nighy fears he gave me the wrong impression about a couple of things and can I meet him urgently that very afternoon to do it again? I invite him to the FT.

Half an hour later his car draws up outside. Today he is in a beautiful slim-cut grey suit, with a different Margaret Howell shirt. I take him into a private office and give him a plastic beaker of water. He sits down and removes his glasses. Without them, he looks vulnerable and tired.

“Thank you so much for coming,” he says. I don’t correct him but listen to what he has to say.

“Firstly, I am over listening to myself talk about how efficiently I can undermine myself, and, and …”

I wait.

“It’s boring.” He throws out the words.

I wasn’t bored, I say.

“Thank you. I wanted to give some other, er, you know, another angle or something, something more positive. I’m not taking it back. It’s true. But there are other truths.”

And then, leaning across the table he delivers a soliloquy not about the misery of acting, but about the joy of it. “When the writing is of the highest quality – David Hare, Stoppard, Pinter – I really think I’m privileged to be here. The beauty of it is fabulous. And you know what you are doing is a good thing. There is no question. I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world. There is dignity in this. We are doing something really cool. You get beyond self-consciousness. Everything is beautiful and every movement is instinctively correct and all the jokes arrive perfectly ... It’s lovely getting laughs. It’s like heroin. It’s so addictive.”

I start to say something but he doesn’t want to be interrupted. There is more.

“The other thing I wanted to correct, a small thing, but when I told you that talking to naked men with their penises in their hands made me uneasy, I want to absolutely stress it’s the heterosexuality that alarms me.”

I give another uncertain laugh, but this time I know he is deadly earnest.

“I. Am. Not. Drawn. To. Most. Versions. Of. Being. Male. It’s the pressure of talking to another man scratching his nob. The scam is that it’s OK. It’s not OK. I can’t do the OK-ness of it. It’s not that I’m not OK – but I’m not OK.”

Now I’m quite confused. Would it be better if the man had been gay? He says it would: that what upsets him about overt heterosexuality is the aesthetic. And the showing off.

Is it the mine’s-bigger-than-yours aspect that he hates, I ask.

“Everyone’s is bigger than mine,” he replies, but laughs and then, to limit the risk of further misunderstanding, says: “I said that to amuse you.”

And, to amuse him, I say that he is welcome to visit me again the next day to take it all back. But he doesn’t laugh. He groans.

“Oh god. I’ve never done this before. Now, I feel slightly that this was unnecessary. But thanks so much for coming. It was good of you.”

I didn’t come, I now tell him. He was the one who came.

‘Arthur Christmas’ opens at cinemas on November 23. To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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