In Focus

Underneath It All, He's Still Bill Nighy

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

Bill Nighy likes to collect what he calls "nutty experiences."

Having recently played a zombie ("Shaun of the Dead"), a vampire ("Underworld" and "Underworld: Evolution") and now, as he puts it, "squid," as the half-human, half-mollusk villain Davy Jones in two "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels ("Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End"), the British actor -- who sprang into the international limelight with his 2003 performance as an aging rocker in "Love Actually" -- isn't too worried about people not recognizing him on screen.

This, despite that, in both "Pirates" films, his face is hidden beneath a computer-generated beard of tentacles and his voice beneath a thick Scottish burr.

Talking by phone from Room 608 of the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles, where he has just passed the two-day mark in the media feeding frenzy for "At World's End" (see review on Page 28), Nighy betrays not a note of fatigue or irritability. As for how much of Davy Jones is him and how much is the team of pasty-faced computer nerds that animated him, Nighy graciously cedes much of the credit for the performance to effects wizards John Knoll, Hal T. Hickel, Charles Gibson and Allen Hall.

"When they got the Oscar [for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for 'Dead Man's Chest'], I've never been so happy about anybody getting anything any time," says Nighy, adding that he "owes them many dinners."

Like Andy Serkis's Gollum before him in the "Lord of the Rings" cycle, Nighy appeared before the camera not in costume and makeup like co-stars Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, but while wearing an embarrassingly skintight motion-capture suit and skullcap studded with white plastic bubbles and with his face painted with white dots "like I was suffering from some kind of rash," he says. Thinking back to the "Dead Man's Chest" shoot, he recalls his misery wandering around the first day in "my dotted pajamas," remembering it as "one of the loneliest days of my professional life."

On the second day, however, things began to look up. "I turned a corner on the lot and I bumped into six men dressed like me. I've never been so pleased to see anyone in my life," he says of meeting the actors playing Davy Jones's fishy crew. "And they were also from England, which helped," he says. "We actually did just spontaneously hug one another. It was like, 'Oh, my God, you're in the same amount of trouble as I am.' "

While Nighy calls his character a true collaboration, he's also willing to acknowledge that part of the success of Davy Jones may be due to a force of personality -- call it a certain Bill-Nighy-ness, if you will -- that you just can't hide, even beneath all that squirming digital calamari.

"Even I, who am my own worst (or best) critic," he says, "I do allow myself a slight amount of credit for that."

There's a certain brashness, an "extremity" of character that Nighy says he's drawn to in the roles he takes (think the scene-stealing Billy Mack in "Love Actually") despite the fact that they're not particularly similar to his own, more buttoned-down personality. "It's true," he says, "that I am often required to play characters that aren't terribly close to me." But while he relishes chewing up the scenery as an undead sailor who keeps his heart in a box, the actor says he's equally drawn to what he calls "the other side of human character, which is more to do with what happens when people are disabled by self-consciousness or in some way inhibited."

His ability to be magnetic without histrionics was most recently on display in New York, when Nighy made his Broadway debut in David Hare's "The Vertical Hour," which closed in March. His performance as a physician opposite Julianne Moore was called "roguishly funny" by this paper's critic and was recently nominated by the Drama League for distinguished performance of the year. Still, some seem not to know exactly what to make of the versatile actor.

When told that director Stephen Frears, speaking at a 2006 screening of his critically lauded film "The Queen," reportedly said that he had briefly considered -- but ultimately ruled out -- Nighy for the role of Prince Philip after concluding that the film would have been "like a burlesque" with him in the part, the 57-year-old actor displays surprise and a momentary flash of anger.

"Cheeky bastard! Is that what he said?" Nighy asks. "What on earth is he on about, the sod?" Nighy quickly recovers his composure. When asked what he makes of Frears's appraisal of his talents, he is once again perfectly equivocal. "I have no thoughts about that. He's a very eminent man, and I'm very fond of him, and I'm sure he knows what's best." It doesn't last long. "But 'burlesque' is not -- you know, I am capable of tuning my performance to another level, apart from burlesque."

We know, Bill, we know.

Frears may not be the only filmmaker to have overlooked Nighy's gifts. The actor says that when his friend David Yates, who had cast Nighy in the TV movies "The Girl in the Cafe" and "The Young Visiters" and the British series "State of Play," was named director of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (due out this summer), his heart leapt. "I joked with him that maybe now I wouldn't be the only actor in England who hadn't been in 'Harry Potter.' " And yet, he says, with a tone of mock heartbreak, "nobody called."

It may not be too late. "And now, apparently, he's doing the next one as well," Nighy says. "Somebody's got to talk to him."

Mr. Yates, are you listening? If you've started working on "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," and you still haven't nailed down the casting of Fenrir Greyback, the werewolf, I've got just the man for the job. He doesn't need the work, but we could all use another one of his nutty experiences.

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