On the 15th of February 2012 Bill Nighy attended the University of Central Lancashire to talk to us about his career and give us any advice that he may have. I took down many notes so I can write this article for you and share my experience on here. (This post is being reposted from an old blog – the information is still relevant and I believe it makes a really interesting read).

I will say this, Bill Nighy went off on many a tangent, and ended up talking about something completely unrelated to the original question, as I write this I am going to try to edit it into relevant sections but it more than likely won’t read as a straight article, because it wasn’t a straight conversation. I will try my best to make it make sense though, don’t worry.
A bit of background for those who don’t know Bill Nighy, he is a British actor and has been in numerous films, those of which include;

  • Shaun of the Dead
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Underworld
  • Love Actually
  • & More

Another piece of information before I move on, the University offered Bill Nighy a fee for coming, I mean come on, It’s Bill Nighy.

But he declined the fee, or instead he didn’t take it himself and asked for it to be donated to the student hardship fund. All he asked for was a slice of fresh lime in his water (which he got).

At the start of the evening the lecturers came out first, with Bill “waiting in the wings” as it were. We were plagued with technical issues at the start, the speakers going haywire because of the microphones. In the end, they had to shut off the mic’s and everyone basically had to yell. Well okay, not that bad, but speak up.

I will admit, I felt a little embarrassed for the University but after Bill Nighy came on, it was sorted so we could all relax and get into the evening.

The first revelation about himself was that he doesn’t watch anything he has been in. He says this is due to self-confidence and hating to see himself up on the big screen. But he put this to us, would WE like to sit and watch ourselves for two hours on the screen? I mean I hate the sound of my own voice, god knows what it’d be like if I was an actor.

He also mentions the awkwardness of first days, and how much he hates them. He made the comparison between normal workers and actors like this; we start a new job and then stay there for a while, whereas actors are starting new jobs like 7 or 8 times a year. So he is constantly feeling nervous on those first days. Nighy has an anecdote to punctuate this:

Image via Reddit

On the first day of Pirates of the Caribbean he came out of his trailer after going to make-up and he was working what he described as “bobbly computer pyjama’s” which is of course a motion capture suit, this was used so they could use the computers afterwards to make him look like Davy Jones. He said, first day on set he had to walk out in that suit and a pair of trainers (sneakers for american readers), and go and meet Johnny Depp. Someone whom he seemed quite starstruck by.

Back on subject, what he will watch of his however is the animation stuff, for example he has seen Arthur Christmas, Rango and Pirates of the Caribbean.

His explanation of why he had no qualms about watching Pirates of the Caribbean was because he was a squid and he didn’t have to worry about the acting as much because and I quote; “I’m a squid *puts middle finger in air*” and he’s right, no-one else could say “you’re not playing that squid correctly,” because how do we know what a squid acts like?

On the subject of animation works, he was asked what the process was like between animated and live films, and he said during animated films a lot of the time you don’t actually get to meet the other members of the cast, for example parts of Arthur Christmas were recorded solo in a different country to the main production etc, apart from a scene when the family get’s together for a meal, they actually all got together for this to make the scene more dynamic.

In comparison, Rango was filmed and recorded live like a play, the decision behind this was to make the acting more fluid, and people could react off each other better. This might make it a little more expensive and hard to do (getting the actors schedules to fit together) but I reckon this makes the film even better.

He also mentioned how he begun to get to the age where Animation (and Radio, another love of his) is all he can do, because it doesn’t matter what you look like in either of those formats, so there are a wider range of choices.

After the revelation of his confidence not being great and basically hating everything he does, the next question to be asked was how he got into acting? It just seemed a shock, that he could have all this self-doubt (because he’d always been like this) and yet pursue that path. And he answered honestly, in fact he answered everything honestly.

The reason he got into acting was because of a girl.

He met a girl who ended up being with someone else, then she went to drama school so he followed her there, and got in. When he first applied he received a letter telling him he had to go for an audition, and he took that to mean he had got in, so he took the letter to the girl, and she had to break it to him that he had to go audition first, before they let him in.

So audition he did, the goal was to perform two pieces, one modern and something older, along the lines of Shakespeare. He went to his library and instead of checking the books out like you or I would, he said he was starting to develop a “criminal mindset” (half jokingly) and he just stole the books he needed.

For his audition he figured he would do one female part and one male part, to show he had range, little did he know one of the parts he did pick (and here my reporting slipped, because I forget to note the name, enraptured by him as I was) was a woman, although he thought it was a man. So he went into the interview and performed two pieces of work, both of which were female parts, and afterwards as he was leaving, the people interviewing asked; “Why did you pick two female roles,” and thinking on his feet he said it was because he thought it would be something different. After he left though, it dawned on him that this could lead to TV and in TV you don’t need to play a woman’s role.

But it worked, he was invited back for another audition and got in…but then a little bit later, the girl he went there for got married. Damn her!

Bill Nighy - Sly Guy

Image via Moviesque

His acting career has led to him working with some of the best actors and writers out there, especially in the early days when he worked at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. He worked with playwrights like Harold Pinter and actors like Pete Postlethwaite (no relation to me I don’t think, even though we share the same last name) and Julie Walters.

He had many anecdotes about Julie Walters, the funniest being that they used to perform in pubs around the north of England and it would be him and other male performers and the people in the pub would be all angry because their pints had been disturbed, but then Julie Walters would come out in a green strapless dress, and suddenly all the men in the pub didn’t mind that their pints had been disrupted.

Another anecdote about Pinter was this; Nighy was chosen to play a role in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal, a play which is famously known for going backwards. And Nighy remembers having not opened the first page of the script (he has a problem with opening the first page of scripts he notes) and the first time he looked at it he was sat next to Pinter and started to give a read through, and about a quarter of the way he remembers thinking; “fuck me, it goes backwards.” But he managed to get his head around it and carry on with it.

Of course being a great actor and working around these great performers doesn’t necessarily mean everything you do will be great, according to Nighy, one paper was quoted as saying; “I thought this was reserved for April 1st”, about a series he did (which he didn’t name).

Moving on, the hosts asked him how he knew he had become famous and how he had prepared. He said that the year he “became famous” was the year when he did both Underworld and Love Actually (2003) and he knew that if either of those did well, as anticipated, he would start to be recognised more etc, so he said he was prepared a little for it, it wasn’t just thrust upon him over night as has been known to happen with stars.

When he realised he was becoming a household name, one of his thoughts was; “Thank god, don’t have to worry about the mortgage.” But of course fame isn’t always amazing, he has had one person apparently come up to him, and after asking Nighy to take a picture with the mans wife, the man then said to Nighy; “You look better with your clothes on.”

Something that was apparent with Nighy is he is a real workaholic, he doesn’t seem to be an actor for the fame or the money (although he did mention the money a lot, but I think he was mainly joking). He just sees it as a job, and described himself as a workaholic.

The reason this was apparent is because he went into great lengths, mocking drama as we know it in school. Pretend to be a tree, you need to feel primary and secondary energies. That sort of stuff.

He made a joke about drama school that stands out as probably true, at least for him; “You go to drama school for two years. Two years. There’s not that much stuff to talk about…so they make shit up.”

One of Nighy’s favourite parts of working as an actor is when he gets to act in things that mean something to him, and have a message attached that is close to his heart. In 2005 he starred in the film The Girl in the Cafe, a film which seemed written FOR Nighy, considering the main character is someone who is plagued with self-confidence issues. In fact it was written by the same person (Richard Curtis) as Love Actually which starred Nighy, and they had remained friends since.

At the end of the evening the floor opened up for the audience to ask questions, not having what I thought was any good questions (which as I found out, wouldn’t have matter, due to someone asking (in the most bored voice ever) what his favourite animal was…if you’re interested he loves dogs.)

Also, I’m paraphrasing the following answers to the questions, my memory isn’t good enough to remember exactly what he said, and as mentioned earlier he goes off on tangents so I’ve cut out the unimportant bits, anything in ()’s is a note from me.

Bill Nighy in Underworld

Bill Nighy in Underworld – Image via That Movie Guy

If the script was good enough, would you start in a student short film?
Laughingly he said yes. To which everyone went crazy and clapped the roof off, stomping their feet and wolf whistling. It was actually hilarious, even if he was just being polite more than likely aha.

Do you have any advice on how to make it into the industry?
Be your own judge of character, don’t me overwhelmed by the rich and famous, under all that they’re just people.
(This advice came after he jokingly says: Don’t take drugs and pay taxes.)

What has been one of them greatest moment of your life?
There have been many great times and it’s hard to pick one, and this one isn’t directly related to my career, but one time I was sat in this big SUV before a show in New York and at the time I had a bit of an M&M problem (I thought he meant Eminem at first. He didn’t.) I used to have to eat all the colours. I came back from the shop and got in the SUV with my friend and I was feeling a bit down at the time because of the show coming up, and suddenly Never Gonna Give You Up by Barry White came on the radio, and I hadn’t heard this song before, but then I realised, life is amazing. And I said to my driver, “Hey, let’s go for lunch in Brooklyn.” So then Me and my driver drove to Brooklyn with Barry blasting out, eating M&M’s, with my driver having the wheel between his knee’s arms waving in the air. I love Barry White now, I have him on my pod, he goes everywhere with me.

You have been quoted as being a procrastinator and that you would like to do some writing, is that why you haven’t written anything yet?
I would love to write some yes, but I just can’t bring myself to do it, I used to feel guilty, but now it’s just a thing I tease myself with. Hopefully I write something some day, but at the moment I’m content how I am. When I was a child I ran away from home and after reading works from French authors, I decided I wanted a part of that, so I hitchhiked to France. (As you do.) Whilst in France he was in this tiny room, between begging near the Eiffel Tower I sat in this room. And do you know what I remember doing with this blank paper in front of me? I drew a margin. And then wrote a title. And then I decided I wanted to go home.
Another reason I have put off writing for song is because I really respect writers, and I love reading, and I don’t wait to fail where they haven’t.

What is your favourite book?
I actually have an answer to this one, and it’s a book, well four volumes in one actually, called Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. They have recently turned it into a series and I would have love to have starred in it. (I’m glad this series was brought to my attention because it apparently stars Benedict Cumberbatch (or Benny C-Batch as I read somewhere once and love the nickname.))

What are your views on method acting?
(Earlier in the evening he mentioned he didn’t have a method.)
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really have a method, but I don’t mind those who do, it’s just not for me. My method is to turn up to work and do it.

What was it like working on the set of Doctor Who?
Amazing, I was rang up by the costume department and was told I was to wear a suit and bow-tie. So I said I’d bring the suit, if they did the bow tie (I assume he didn’t have any) and they said sure, what bow tie would you like, so I asked for a navy blue bow tie with black polka dots. So they agreed, then I get a call back not long after saying that they couldn’t find a navy blue bow tie with black polka dots, and as I was about to say “Oh it doesn’t matter if it is that specific colour,” the costume people said that the department girls were sewing on the polka dots for me. And it became a sort of running joke on set, everyone I met would say, “Did you know they polkadots were sewn on to your tie,” and eventually when I met Matt Smith he said the same thing, “Did you know the polkadots were sewn on to your bow tie” and I said yes and then Matt just came out with; “I’d sew shit on your tie.” I asked him if I could quote him on that and he said yes.

What was it like working on Shaun of the Dead?
It was such a good experience, I knew I wanted to do it as soon as the script came through my door. The script is one of the best I have I ever read, there genre’s were mixed very well, it was funny it was moving. And the guys were amazing. Nick Frost (who he later worked with on The Boat That Rocked), Simon Pegg and Edgar, were all amazing.

Will you be in the third film by the trio, The World’s End?
I was told by Edgar that I would be in every film he makes, but that turned out to be a lie. So I don’t know, I haven’t heard anything yet. (Edgar Wright directed Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but this didn’t even star Simon Pegg or Nick Frost either. Bill Nighy was also a cameo in Hot Fuzz, as a police sergeant.)

What made you overcome your fear of going onto stage during plays?
You just have to learn to control your fear, when I was on stage I would stand there and do nothing but try to act like I was meant to be doing nothing and I would just speak. But in between that I was tuned to one radio station in my head, playing the same thing over and over; “You’re a prick. You’re a prick.” But what you have to do it ignore the stuff in your head, don’t finish the sentences of what your thinking.

Can you tell us your Snicker story?
(Apparently our teacher, one of the two who did the interview at the beginning, found out a funny anecdote about Snickers bars, and wanted Nighy to share it with us, which he did.)
I recently gave up smoking and sugar has replaced that craving, and I can stop at a Tesco Garage and go through like four packs of fruit gums, a picnic and a lion bar (Something like that, there was more in the list and it was hilarious as he read the list out, but they’re all I can remember.) But when I’m feeling really low, I have Snickers bars. It got to the point once where I was doing some filming in Australia and I was given an assistant, Serena. And I’d never had an assistant before and she would ask me what to do and I wouldn’t have an answer for her, and it would be a bit of a joke but eventually it got serious, because she literally had nothing to do. She then revealed she had $400 dollars to spend on things I wanted. So I told her to go buy me some Snickers bars. She asked how many and I said, I don’t know, lots, get a sack full. So she came back with lots of snickers bars.

The good thing about being on a film set is the crew with the wrap around mic’s come up to you between shots and you can ask for anything so I ask for two snickers bars, and they don’t go “Two…snickers bars?” They just go get it for you, and then later on you ask them for another two snickers bars, always two, and they don’t go “You want ANOTHER two? But you had two earlier.” They just go get them. But eventually I realised what I had become and I felt sick, not because of the chocolate, but because I was just eating so many. Eventually I told Serena to just hide all the snickers bars, because it become appalling. I begged her to hide them in someone else’s trailer and not give them me no matter what I said even if I got down on my knee’s and begged. Then I had another low point and thought I can’t do this, I need Snickers so I said; Serena forget EVERYTHING I said, I need my Snickers, and she was like “No” (He said this in a pretty funny Australian accent) and I was like; Please Serena, I just need the Snickers, she was like “No.” So eventually I had to grab her and shout; “DAMN IT SERENA GIVE ME SNICKERS!”

There is another anecdote I want to tell you now that Bill told, but I haven’t had anywhere relevant to put it so I will put it here:

He used to be into drugs and was in a gang, and he remembers having to sneak off and lie to go to different towns to do gigs in plays etc (he had to lie because it wasn’t “cool”, and some times he had to tell them, and one of the guys in group sat him down and said; You want acting? Try going through customs with 5kilo’s, that’s acting.

All in all it was an amazing evening, and I took a lot from it, internally, it’s hard to explain, but he is quite an inspiring man, and I have a new respect for him, as a human, because I think we forget underneath it all, that he is just a human after all.

Oh here is something else, a nice inspirational quote: Procrastination is the breeder of fear.

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