For Bill Nighy, the way to a character’s heart is through his tailor. “The clothes determine how you move, how you think and how you feel,” he says.
In the case of ‘Living’, the story of Mr Williams, a London bureaucrat in 1953 struggling with a deadly illness, it meant donning a tailored pinstripe suit. But he struggled with the broad shoulders that were fashionable at the time. “I didn’t think I had the frame to pull it off,” Nighy says. And there was one feature that was particularly taxing.
“I had to wear a bowler hat, and they are absolutely bizarre,” muses Nighy. “How they caught on, I’ll never know. If a rock falls on your head from a great height, you’re in the right place. If you fell off a horse or motorcycle, you would come out unscathed. You could go into battle with that hat on and well protected.”
At one point in the film, Mr. Williams is separated from his trusty bowler and Nighy was incredibly relieved. But all the sartorial suffering he had to put in for his art seems to have paid off. Nighy has received some of the best reviews of his career for ‘Living’, which debuted on Sundance and was sold to Sony Pictures Classics. The indie studio is launching an Oscar campaign for “Living,” a campaign that took the film and its star to the Venice and Toronto film festivals before opening in theaters in December. So the Academy Award hype is going to Nighy’s head?
“I don’t get out much, so I really haven’t heard anything about it,” says Nighy. “I’m not cute, I assure you. If the film were to be honored that way, it would be absolutely amazing. I want people to look at it. If the Academy decided to nominate us in any way, it would be a huge job for us.”
Nighy first learned about the project at a dinner with Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, who told him about his long-cherished idea of transferring Akira Kurosawa’s classic film “Ikiru” to post-war Britain starring the actor. There was something about Mr. Williams that seemed a perfect fit for Nighy, who has made a career out of bringing the many facets of the Union Jack to life on screen, from seedy rock gods (“Love Actually”) to oppressed commanders in chief and officials (“Emma”, “Page 8”). Mr Williams certainly falls on the latter end of that spectrum.
“I’m interested in what’s commonly referred to or what they call ‘Englishness,'” says Nighy. “I don’t think those characteristics are actually exclusive to England, but there’s something about their chosen ways, their chosen style, the way they react emotionally to things in Britain over the past century that is appealing. I’m very interested in the level of restraint they showed. It is often belittled as a kind of denial of emotion that is not authentic. I tend to disagree.”
In ‘Living’, Mr. Williams has spent a lifetime in government as a civil servant with little to show for it. His Public Works job appears to have been designed to slow down rather than speed up park construction and other community efforts. His days are a whirlwind of papers and forms that mean nothing. At least until he gets his diagnosis. But Nighy understands the bureaucratic malaise that threatened to consume Mr Williams.
“Personally, I’m procrastinating at the Olympic level,” says Nighy. “In this film, that urge to procrastinate is portrayed by an institution inhabited by a great many people engaged in an entire enterprise designed to prevent things from happening. Procrastination is the big corrosive element in all of our lives.”
That seems like an odd admission, considering that Nighy has made an average of two to three films a year for the past few decades, with several television appearances and stage shows in between. If so, what has this drive to keep procrastinating Nighy from achieving?
“I put off writing the great short story,” Nighy says. ‘I had been planning to write it for almost 55 years. But every morning I get up to work and I’ve never written a word of it.”