The Pinstripe Pirate: How ‘Living’ Star Bill Nighy Overcame His Karaoke Nightmare And Became An International Treasure

by Paul Mckay

After some 50 years in the business, Bill Nighy is used to people getting his surname wrong. It actually rhymes with ‘sigh’: the ‘y’ is silent. “My dad was very particular about it,” he says, “and for a while, I used to correct people on his behalf, because he couldn’t bear it when people said ‘Nigh-y’. It really got to him. But I’m very, very accustomed to it. The first time I was ever in a show that was reviewed in a paper, I was Bill Nigby. I’ve been Bill Nighty — that’s a regular one — and if there’s one more than any other, it’s Nighly. It’s funny, when people get things wrong, they don’t get them wrong by simplifying them, they get them wrong by making them more complicated. So, they lengthen my name. It’s always slightly longer than it should be.”

Nighy recently turned 73, and his birthday gift is awards buzz for his role as Mr. Williams in Oliver Hermanus’s Living , a 1953-set remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, in which he plays a repressed British bureaucrat diagnosed with a terminal illness. The part was written for him by screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, and the actor was thrilled.

“Well, it’s a conspicuously marvelous role,” he says. “You’ve got a man who has dedicated his life to an institution that’s designed to enable procrastination, and then he’s put in an extreme situation that galvanizes him into trying to actually make something happen rather than prevent something from happening. A major part of the appeal was that I’m interested in the degree of restraint that people required of themselves in the 1950s in England. It’s probably very bad for you, and I’m sure the psychiatric establishment would agree. But there’s something funny about it, and it’s also kind of heroic the way people didn’t trouble each other with their deeper feelings.”

It helped, he says, that Sandy Powell’s wardrobe department gave him a defined look: a period three-piece pinstripe suit. “I like it when I only have one costume,” he says. “I get institutionalized in it, and I like the fact that you don’t have to make any more decisions.” The headwear, however, was a different matter. “It’s the weirdest item, a bowler hat. And if you’ve ever worn one, you’d know it. They’re very, very heavy — it’s like wearing a crash helmet. Quite what they’re protecting themselves from, I don’t know, but somehow it caught on. I have no idea why, but I don’t think it impeded me in the role in any way because it added to his general unease, which was quite useful.”

Nighy began acting at school, but despite encouragement from his drama teacher, he didn’t ever really see it as a career. “It wasn’t like now,” he says, “where people know about being an actor. There wasn’t so much coverage in those days.” The way he puts it, his interest was “just one long exercise in displacement activity”: all his heroes were mostly writers or musicians. “Like every second child who’s read a book, I thought, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ And it turned out I didn’t have the courage or the resolve to be a writer.”

Bill Nighy

Bill Nighy in Living. Sony Pictures Classics

Instead, he drifted into drama school. “And even then, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just do a couple years here, then I’ll work out what I really want to do.’ But then I got a job in a theater, painting sets. In those days, you could do jobs like that. It was very good. You could watch other actors, and that’s when I started to learn. I didn’t learn anything at drama school, apart from how to deal with being very, very nervous because it was always very alarming to me, standing in front of a load of people and acting.”

After a successful stint in regional theater, Nighy came to London in the late ’70s and made his big-screen debut as a delivery boy in 1979’s The Bitch, starring Joan Collins. All that comes to mind these days is the line, “Flowers for Mrs. Salmon!” and the fee. “They gave me 150 quid,” he says. “It’s funny what you remember.”

After that, he played five journalists on the trot, and he credits his agent, Pippa Markham, with keeping him afloat in the industry. “She was clever enough to send me out for what would be called character roles,” he says. “I wasn’t comfortable with what I was supposedly eligible for, which was to be a young leading man, and that was a pretty competitive field. I had no sense of myself as romantic, or desirable, or anything of that kind. I didn’t realize that you didn’t have to be it; you just had to act it. And I was terrible at auditioning. I used to get too nervous, so if I had an accent to do or just something to occupy me, I had a better chance of getting the job.”

The actor came to a crossroad his career with 1998’s Still Crazy, in which he appears as aging rock singer Ray Simms. The audition was held at 9 a.m. in a disused tax office somewhere near Pinner, where Nighy was confronted by his biggest fear: a karaoke machine. “When karaoke was inaugurated, I made a vow that, whatever the weather, I would never ever be in front of a karaoke machine. It’s my nightmare.”

On top of that, he had to wear flared velvet loon pants, a top that left his midriff exposed, and four-inch platform shoes. “I was 46,” he says, “and they put me in hair extensions. There was just me, the director and the cameraman. They gave me a microphone stand and… guess what? I had to sing karaoke to ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple. I had two choices: leave the building and say, ‘I can’t do this,’ or simulate sex with the mic stand. Which is what I did. I saw the cameraman’s shoulders wobble because he was laughing so hard, and that made all the difference.”

Living Ikiru

Miki Odagiri and Takashi Shimura in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Courtesy Everett Collection

Ray Simms revealed a dryly funny, self-satirizing side of Nighy that led directly to his most famous role, as pop star Billy Mack in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually in 2003, and it’s about this time that words like “louche” start popping up in his press cuttings. A lot. “All the words that seem to describe me begin with L,” he says. “There’s louche, lanky — obviously — languid, laidback… ” He laughs. “Try taking a wander through my head and see if I’m laidback!” Perhaps the best description, though, came from comedian Billy Connolly. “He said I had rock and roll legs, which I was very flattered by.”

Love Actually opened the door to Hollywood, leading to a call from Gore Verbinski asking him if would play the amphibious villain Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Nighy was reluctant, but Verbinski was insistent. “Come on,” said the director, “how many times do you get to be in a pirate movie?”

The biggest problem was that Nighy didn’t know a thing about motion capture. “They showed me pictures of the octopus man, and it was the scariest thing on the ocean waves,” he recalls. “Then they handed me a pair of computer pajamas and put 250 dots all over my face. Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom were there, looking like gods, and I looked like somebody who didn’t get into Devo. It was pretty sad. But I’m quite proud of myself. I spent those first couple of days wandering about with white bobbles all over my pajamas and all over my face and a skull cap with a bobble on the top, and I didn’t run to the airport.”

Director magazine Baz Luhrmann Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Oscar Director magazine here.

For most of his career, Nighy has done theater in tandem with his film work, although he hasn’t been on the stage since 2015. “I’ve done a lot of it,” he says, “but I don’t know that I’ll do any more. But then, I say that every time. Every first night I stand in the wings saying the same thing: ‘This must never, ever be allowed to happen again.’ But once you get going, and if the wind is behind you, it can be a bit marvelous. And you get a kind of instant reaction, especially if it’s funny. I only do plays with jokes in; I think it’s vulgar to invite people to sit in the dark for two hours and not tell them a joke.”

Is there anything left for him to conquer? “I don’t think like that,” he says. “I’ve never thought like that. When I was younger, people used to say, ‘Are there any roles you’d burn to play?’ No, I don’t burn to play anything. I don’t burn to act. I remember when I was starting out hearing two things that I thought instantly disqualified me. One was that somebody asked Laurence Olivier, ‘What’s the major requirement for being an actor?’ and he said, ‘100 percent confidence.’ I thought, ‘Well, I have zero confidence, so that counts me out.’ And then I read that Rod Steiger once said, ‘You have to burn to act. If you don’t burn, don’t act.’” He laughs. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve never burned, Rod, so I can’t.’”