“About Time” marks veteran British actor Bill Nighy’s fourth project with director Richard Curtis after partnering on “Pirate Radio,” “The Girl in the Café,” and “Love Actually” where Nighy was first introduced in a Curtis role as a washed-up rocker. In this moving and engaging comedy, Nighy plays a father who can travel through time but has learned in his life to keep things simple and treasure the normal things. His son, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), like all the men in the family, has inherited the same ability. Tim’s dad tries to show him that making the most of life may not require time travel at all, because in the end, tenderness, love and respect between yourself and other human beings is what really matters. Opening nationwide on November 8th, “About Time” also stars Rachel McAdams and Tom Hollander.
At a roundtable interview at the film’s recent press day, Nighy talked about what appealed to him most about his character, how he hopes his performance honors his own father to some degree, why he enjoyed sharing the screen with Gleeson, how he’d like to time travel back to see James Brown & The Famous Flames, Ray Gallon, B.B. King and Bob Dylan perform their legendary concerts, why today John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison duets help him deal with the bird of negativity, what he loves best about working with Curtis and why he hopes he’ll continue to direct. He also revealed his upcoming films: “The Best Exotic Marigold 2,” “Turks & Caicos,” “Salting the Battlefield,” “I, Frankenstein,” and “Pride.”
QUESTION: When you read the script, did you see it as a father-son film?
BILL NIGHY: When I read it first, I saw it as a movie about this guy who happens to have a son who meets some girl. No, I’m kidding. The main narrative is Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams and that relationship is the central one. But I was very pleased with my part in it. I was very keen to play it. When I act, I don’t access scenes from my early life or anything, but it was nice to say something about being a dad. I was lucky. I had a very decent, very quietly remarkable father who I was very close to. So, in a sense, not in any kind of physical mimicry, but in retrospect, if it does anything, I hope to some degree it honors my father, because he was not unlike that kind of character.
Q: How was it sharing the screen with Domhnall Gleeson?
NIGHY: Honestly, and I know they all say this, but this is not PR, he was completely dreamy to do business with. He’s a lovely young man, and he’s a great actor. Those scenes are quite high-powered, at least some of them, but he operates without fuss. There was very little discussion about it. We just went into them and instinctively seemed to do pretty good together. I was very, very seriously impressed by him. He’s a lovely actor and a very nice guy. He’s a very cool guy to hang out with. And “Punch Drunk Love” is his favorite film, which is also one of my favorite films. I figured he was a regular guy.
Q: If you could time travel like your character does in this film, is there anything you’d like to change or relive in your own life?
NIGHY: I would like to change everything, but obviously not everything because I’ve been incredibly fortunate. But there is lots of stuff. I guess everybody would do this, but I would go back to my younger self and say, “Lighten up. Take it easy. Relax. Don’t be so anxious about everything. Try and be in the day.” It’s exactly what the film suggests, in fact. Try and not have today stolen from you by anxiety about yesterday or tomorrow, which is easier said than done, as my mother would say. And also, I would certainly go back to the guy who offered me a cigarette and say, “Are you out of your mind?!” I would certainly say that. There’s no question about that. That would have made my life a lot easier.
And also, I’d use it shamelessly as a living jukebox. I’d go back to 1962 to the Apollo Theater, just as an example, to see James Brown & The Famous Flames perform that now legendary concert. I’d go to see Ray Gallon and B.B. King. I’d go and see all that stuff I missed because I was just too young at the time, and maybe some early Bob Dylan. To be serious, the things you really want to relive are things like bedtime with your daughters when they become incredibly entertaining because they don’t want to go to sleep. They’re at their most enchanting because they just want to put it off and they do a cabaret for you. You sit there thinking, “Please don’t let this end.” You don’t want them to go to sleep either because it’s too good. It’s that kind of thing.
Q: Have you had the pleasure of watching this film with an audience?
NIGHY: No, I haven’t. I don’t normally watch films I’m in because I’m squeamish about that and it takes me quite a long time to recover and I have to go to work. I’m not being coy or cute, but it’s just true. But I did watch this film because Richard wanted me to talk over the DVD when you do the narration on the extras, and I figured it’d be too much of a shock if I watched it whilst talking about it. That would be even more of a nightmare. So I did watch it, but I haven’t watched it in front of an audience. No.
Q: Certainly the emotional cord is there, so when you did actually watch the film, were you watching it for the emotion or were you watching it for the self-critique?
NIGHY: The answer is the former, but you can’t help the latter. I’m not good at watching myself which I think is perfectly natural. I don’t give myself a hard time about it. I am the worst critic as people often say. But I was moved by it. I was moved by it when I read it. They’re very simple. It’s not rocket science. It’s the thing that’s the central fact of everybody’s life. It’s how to stay married, how to be in a family, and how to maintain those relationships — the ones that turn out to be important in your life. I find it very affecting because it’s so simply and beautifully expressed. I really enjoyed the movie. I really did, even though every now and again this guy came on who didn’t quite pull it off in my view. I try and unplug it, but I really did like it. I don’t know if it’s his best film, but I think it’s currently my favorite of Richard’s films. I do think he did everything that he set out to do. In England, where it’s been very successful, everybody leaves the cinema and phones their dad. And everybody goes away, including me, thinking, “I’m really going to make the most of tomorrow. I’m really going to try and get the biggest bang out of everything.” Just be here and don’t disappear into what might happen in a minute or what you messed up last time. It’s that kind of thing. And, as an audience, I’m the same as them.
Q: How long did that last?
NIGHY: Well I’ve been at it for a while. This has been my quest for a long while. I think it’s a function of getting older, and when you get to my age, you look at the clock and you think, “I’d better pay attention.” I keep reading obituaries of people who were younger than me. That kind of gets your attention. And my father died this year in terms of my age. I don’t mean to be morbid about it, but I have been actively, before this script came along, trying to do exactly that. And I’m doing okay. But it’s high maintenance because every morning it waits at the end of the bed, any kind of negativity. The bird of negativity sits at the end of the bed just waiting for you to wake up. I have to debrief before I leave the house. And I do it with John Lee Hooker usually. Van Morrison duets are the latest and a cup of tea. It used to be a cigarette, but those days are gone.
Q: It seems like you and Richard are taking an opposite approach to the autumn chapter of your life. He’s said this is the last film he’s going to direct, but you’re like, “Bring it on. I want to do as much work as possible.” Have you guys discussed that?
NIGHY: Not really. Well, we’ve discussed it a little bit. Yeah. He’s not going to stop. He’s just going to stop directing. And I don’t blame him, but I hope he’s lying. I hope obviously from my point of view. He’s going to continue to write. He’s the busiest man I know. He has a schedule that would make you want to lie down, honestly. He does so much apart from making movies. He made a deal when he was young that he was going to try and constantly and consistently do something about the fact that people in contemporary society still die completely unnecessarily and completely preventably from extreme poverty. He’s one of the rare people you can look at and you can quite seriously, without qualification, point to and say, “That man has saved millions and millions of lives. He started Comic Relief in our country. He got “American Idol” for one hour in the U.S. a couple of years ago and made $70 million in an hour. He just made $75 million on Comic Relief that they had on TV in our country. He’s been doing that for 30 years and he quietly does all kinds of other stuff. So, I mean, he’s got his hands full apart from anything else. But me? Yeah, bring it on. I’m happy to. I want him to direct movies. My theory is that he won’t like other people directing his scripts. This is my passionate wish. He’s not going to like it. He calls it a thousand days of tension, which is one way of describing the filmmaking process, and it’s probably pretty accurate. I don’t blame him, but I hope it’s not true.
Q: You’ve worked with Richard a lot. What do you find so appealing about him as a director and writer?
NIGHY: On a personal level, on the film set level, he’s endlessly courteous, funny as anything, sharp, and can really help as a director. He writes me great roles. They usually come with a string of pretty good jokes. So that makes him popular in my world. I love the fact that the films are courageous enough to promote that which is generally seen to be and usually described as ordinary, but in fact are the most important things there are. He has an enthusiasm for what’s good about people. We’ve got plenty of movies about what isn’t good about people, and that’s why we need those movies, too. And I dig those movies, if you know what I mean. But I love the fact that he’s got the guts to celebrate what’s the so-called small stuff, which is not in many ways small really. Whenever you’re in trouble, those are the things you reach for, not the other stuff. And I love the fact that he celebrates what is decent and tender and powerful between people. I should be his PR person.
Q: Were there any takes where you did some improv or was it all on the page?
NIGHY: No. I’m lucky that I work with very good writers and I don’t think there’s an improvised word in the movie. I hope not because I admire writing. I like artists. Improvising is kind of gambling. It’s writing. It’s just that you’re standing up. Not many people can write. I think writing is usually going to be better. And I am a fan of rehearsal, too. I like doing it over and over and over and over until it looks like you never did it before. That’s the kind of thing.
Q: Richard said when he talked to you about the part, you said you’d do it if you didn’t have to act and that you made this decision to play your character almost understated so that audiences can put their father into the role. Can you talk a little bit more about how you came to this character and developed him?
NIGHY: Yes. That was the deal. That was my idea. From my point of view, it’s very refreshing to play a regular human being and not someone from another dimension, which I dig, too. When I say “not act,” what I mean is just to be as natural and as normal as possible. My model for it was Jason Robards in a movie called “Julia” where he played Dashiell Hammett and he was Vanessa Redgrave’s character’s husband. It was a relatively small part, and he made a big impression on me, as he always did, because he was just there in the most simple, unaffected way. I’m a big fan of Jason Robards. A way of describing performances that I admire is that there is an absence of careerism. It’s a clumsy way of describing it but it sort of does it for me. He just did the job. He was an absolutely beautiful, fond, powerful presence when she came home after doing all this incredibly dangerous stuff. It was a film about Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda mostly, but Jason Robards was just there. And I just wanted to be there like that. That’s as good as I can explain it. I mean, I just wanted to be around and win no prizes, just be there and have whatever happens happen, and just be someone. It is a bit daunting because you go, “I think I’m supposed to be everybody’s idea of dad.” If you want to give yourself a hard time, that’s the way to do it. But then you think, “Well I can’t do that. I can only do this.” I mean, I can’t be everyone’s idea of dad but I’ll do my best. It’s what they call naturalism. There’s no such thing obviously, because there’s a film crew, and you’re standing there, and somebody says, “Action!,” and you’re speaking somebody else’s words. But the kind of quest for levels of naturalism never ends.
Q: What was it like working with Rachel McAdams? Did you know her from before?
NIGHY: I didn’t know her, but I knew of her and I admired her. I think she’s absolutely incredible. I know they all say that, but she’s just incredible. She does what Richard calls 360-degree acting. You can’t see around the back. There is no back. It’s just entire. She turns up. She’s touched, as they say in the cliche, by genius. She’s fantastic. I think she could do anything. She’s breathtaking. Do I make myself clear?
Q: I just love that the characters are really down to earth because you don’t always see that in romance movies.
NIGHY: Me too. I love it, honestly. And I loved playing it from that point of view. I love that being what I had to do at work today. It gave me a great hunger for more of that kind of stuff. I love the fact that it’s quite daring in its way to put that stuff on a big screen and get away with it and have people respond to it. It’s not what most people do when they pick up a pen to write a screenplay. They don’t think, “Oh we’ll do that bit between mom and dad” or “We’ll do that thing that happens at home in families.” It is kind of courageous and he does it so well. I don’t think you can act… maybe you can … I’m sure you can fake it, but I think it helps a lot if you’re a believer as it were. And he really is a believer. He doesn’t make movies to manipulate people. He’s not that guy. This is what he wants to say. He could make any movie he wants at this current point in his life. He could have made any movie he wanted and they would have given him the money. He can do that because he’s generated millions and millions of dollars. But this is the movie he wants to make, just this one. This is exactly what he wants to say and exactly what he wants to tell you. It’s not something that’s mysterious to people. Everybody struggles with it every day – all those questions about how to get the most out of your life, how to relish the so-called ordinary things and the beauty around, all that. He has the courage to say it again but in a beautiful way. I love it. I’m with you.
Q: “Love Actually” is probably everyone’s favorite Christmas movie. Do you have a favorite holiday movie?
NIGHY: I used to have an answer to this and I can’t remember what it is. I can’t remember what Christmas movies I like now.
Q: “Bad Santa”? “Die Hard”?
NIGHY: “Die Hard”! Is that a Christmas movie? I loved “Die Hard.” No, I do.
Q: You’re a busy working actor. Can you tell us what’s next for you?
NIGHY: I’m going back to India to make “The Best Exotic Marigold 2.” Who knew? It’s apparently taking place and everybody is back together and we’re all going there.
I’ve just made two films with David Hare, who is the other great thing in my life, apart from Richard Curtis. We’ve made a trilogy of films for television, and they’re called collectively “The Worricker Trilogy.” I’m a spy. I’ve waited a long time. In the second one (“Turks & Caicos”) and the third one (“Salting the Battlefield”) which we just shot, I got to work with one of my great acting heroes, Christopher Walken. I always figured he would be, but he’s officially the funniest man I’ve ever met in my whole life. It’s like being punched in the stomach. He’s just hilarious. And Winona Ryder was absolutely sensational. I go on the run in Europe with Helena Bonham Carter, which is tough.
I’m also in a movie coming out called “I, Frankenstein” made by the same people who make the “Underworld” series. Aaron Eckhart plays Frankenstein’s creature, and I am not a very nice piece of work. It should be cool. It’s a 3D movie, and it comes out in January.
Apart from that, I’m currently shooting a film called “Pride.” Unless we make a real mess of it, I think that’s going to be a really, really cool movie. It’s about the 1984 miner’s strike in England. Don’t panic, it’s a comedy. It’s written by a friend of mine called Steve Beresford who was an actor. He’s a brilliant writer. He’s made it so funny. It’s about a bunch of gay guys in England who saw that miners had been invented by the then-government as enemies of the state and were being spat at in the street and beaten up by policemen. They thought, “That looks familiar,” because it was tough being gay in 1984 in England. And they decided to raise some money for them, as many people did, to try and counter the shameful way the government was treating them during that period. They became the second biggest fundraisers, and it’s hilarious. They had a Pits & Perverts Ball at the Camden Palace in which the openly gay bands at the time, Bronski Beat and Erasure, played and raised thousands. It’s the sweetest, funniest thing, and it’s all true. It’s a little bit of the truth, which you don’t always get about that period. It’s got Dominic West who you know from “The Wire,” Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine, myself, and 29 other young, very cool, adorable men and women.