Death? Bill Nighy will worry about that later

Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — Bill Nighy handed me a cassette mixtape many years ago titled "Ooh Baby Ooh," a nod to the chorus of a Lou Reed rocker that was not among the 20 songs on the cassette, though there was plenty of Lou and Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and Maxwell, the last included because Nighy had just asked a record shop clerk, "Where do you go after Marvin?" and the young man walked him down an aisle and handed him "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite."

"That's where you go after Marvin," he told Nighy. "And he was absolutely correct. Also, I love the expression 'Hang Suite.' It's just a great idea."

It's a rainy day in L.A. — "I can't quite put the two things together," Nighy says — and we're catching up, sharing our latest passions, mostly musical, as Nighy grew up in an English household where his dad loved Bing Crosby and his older brother, Martin, a singer, revered Sinatra. Martin used to give Nighy a schilling ("shows you how old I am," he says) to write down the lyrics to songs, which involved dropping and lifting the record arm repeatedly until he got it right.

These days, Nighy still transcribes songs. He sings compulsively throughout the day, and once he has landed on a number he'll look up the lyrics because he wants to sing the whole thing, not just the first two lines. Yesterday, it was Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell." Today, he settled into Anita Baker's "Giving You the Best That I Got," which he can't stop talking about — and singing — telling me he loves singers who put across a song in a seemingly effortless manner, though he knows full well that it takes a lifetime of effort to make it appear that way.

You might say the same thing about the acting of Bill Nighy. Take "Living," for example, the role that just earned the 73-year-old actor his first Oscar nomination. Set in 1953 London, Nighy plays Mr. Williams, an English gentleman, a bureaucrat, who has settled into a life of routine following the death of his wife. After he receives a terminal diagnosis, he practices breaking the news to his son in front of a mirror. "It's a bit of a bore, really," he says with a restraint that has earned him the nickname of Mr. Zombie. Realizing he no longer knows how to enjoy himself, Mr. Williams embarks on a journey to live life fully and do something that has a lasting impact.

"Living," a remake of Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru," could have been maudlin and dreadful in the wrong hands. Writer Kazuo Ishiguro notes that Nighy's casting gave him the ability to make Mr. Williams a bit more "frosty," banking on moviegoers' affection for the actor. "In England, he's a national treasure," Ishiguro says. Costume designer Sandy Powell thought of Nighy after reading the script, not knowing he had already been cast. "We're used to seeing him more twinkly, aren't we?" she says. "I think that makes what he does in the film all the more extraordinary."


Nighy tells me that since "Living" premiered, people mostly want to talk to him about two things — mortality and procrastination. On the first, employing his soft-spoken dry wit, he says he doesn't worry about death. He just doesn't want to be around when it happens.

"I've never felt any pressure to leave a legacy of any kind," Nighy says. "I find it difficult to have an enthusiasm for a world that doesn't include me." Still, he can't help but look at the clock. "When you're my age, you buy a pair of shoes and you think, 'Wow. How many more pairs of shoes am I going to buy?' It's not a morbid thing." He pauses, reflecting. "I suppose, like everyone else, I feel like I'll deal with it when I get there."

That gets us talking about procrastination, which he calls "one of the great corrosive elements of my life." And yet, he almost takes pride in his ability to put things off, saying he dawdles on an "Olympic level."

During the height of the pandemic, Nighy spent nearly a year in Suffolk so he could isolate close to his daughter and two granddaughters. He tells me he sat under a willow tree, reading books. Then he corrects himself. "Actually, I sat inside a willow tree," Nighy says. "The tree came right down to the ground and I had a table and chair inside, just like being in a small chapel. And I read book after book after book."


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