Nighy Forever

© Universal Pictures

Every now and then, I find myself with some downtime on the internet. Nothing to check, nothing to look up. I’m sure this happens to everyone, and in turn, we all have our little time-sucks in moments of need. Here is mine: I like to find websites or Reddit threads that will tell you two things that happened around the same time in history, especially if knowing such a thing feels odd or unnatural. For example, there were still woolly mammoths walking the planet when the pyramids were being built. Oxford University predates the Aztec Empire. Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth II were born in the same year! It’s crazy, isn’t it? Just a little bit? It’s inconsequential, but it’s crazy. And I can’t help but wonder what’ll feel notable from our time. There is one certainty I have though, as sentimental and overwrought as it may seem, and that is how tremendously lucky I feel to be alive at the same time as Bill Nighy.

Just in case: Bill Nighy is a 67-year-old British actor. He stands at a wiry 6 feet 2 inches, head often tilted to one side as if he’s shifting to hear you a little better. He has sparkling blue eyes which are often, though not always, hidden behind a pair of black frame glasses, and a broad smile. Dimples, even. This is perhaps the part of the essay where I admit, fully, that I love him. I love Bill Nighy.

American audiences, myself included, were largely introduced to Nighy—already a staple of British television and film—back in 2003, as part of Richard Curtis’s Love Actually ensemble, in which Nighy played the aging, washed up rocker, Billy Mack. It was an instantly likable performance, full of snark and an odd patterned shirt and wonderful bad dancing, getting more and more aggressive with each failed take of his new Christmas song, “Christmas Is All Around.”

I guess you’d be tempted to call Bill Nighy a character actor because, well, what else would you call him? But it feels so much more complicated than that. Many character actors have the ability to disappear fully into roles. From one movie to the next, they’ll be completely unrecognizable, be it different color hair or a pair of glasses or a beard or a speech pattern. As the credits roll in the dark of the theater, you’re slapping yourself for not recognizing them. That’s not the case with Nighy, however. Even behind a swath of motion-capture dots programmed to make him look like he’s got an octopus as a head, you can see Nighy in everything he does. There’s a signature crinkle of his nose, the snort, the winks. He’s mischievous. He wants you to see him in everything, and so you do.

So even if you don’t know Bill Nighy, you know Bill Nighy. You could see Nighy in just about any kind of movie possible. There he was, the be-tentacled Davy Jones in the second and third Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. There he was, in plain sight in Edgar Wright’s marvelous Shaun of the Dead as Shaun’s stepfather (as well as adeptly working his way into the rest of the films in the Cornetto trilogy). And there he was, a stoic and handsome romantic lead opposite Dame Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But even those are just scratching the surface. I mean, for god’s sakes, he’s even in a Harry Potter movie. The man’s been everywhere, from countless fictional universes to World War II, to Rango (Rango!), to the Swinging Sixties, to right here and now, or even the future.

With other actors, that kind of hyper-recognizability would be a glaring issue. Every review would say they stick out like a sore thumb, incapable of blending their classic whatever-the-hell-it-is into the reality of the film. And so what’s rather baffling and altogether magical to me is how often—if not always, let’s be real—Nighy as Nighy (or as the Nighy type) works. It melds, 100 percent, into the fabric of the motion picture. And it’s certainly not just weird for weird’s sake. You’d be foolish to see Nighy pop up on screen and say, “Here’s Bill Nighy, and he’s gonna do something weird.” Oftentimes, he really doesn’t. A truly strange actor would eat up the scene and spit it out, but Nighhy blends seamlessly, as generous a supporting actor as any could be. Arguably, the specificity of his weirdness—the eternal kookiness of his whole deal—is what keeps him continually realistic and grounded, no matter where in time his various roles place him.

In addition, it’s thinking like that which keeps Nighy from being regarded as a wonderful actor. Like, an incredibly wonderful actor. One of the best, really, if we’re being serious (and we are). Like many people on this side of the pond, the first movie I saw him in was Love, Actually. In what’s become an easily-criticized holiday punchline of a movie, Nighy is a star. He glimmers with charm and his voice oozes a perfect cocktail of world weariness and charisma. There is an odd type of coolness to him, even with all of his gawky charm.

He portrays a somewhat Billy Mack-ish character again in Pirate Radio (or The Boat The Rocked, depending on what timezone you live in) as Quentin, the captain of a ship distributing banned rock music off the coast of England in the 1960s. Back in time, Nighy is confident and self-assured. There’s an essential balance between the uptight nature required of anyone manning a ship in the middle of the ocean and the slightly off-kilter rocker vibes required of a man elected king of the rock DJs (not to mention, all of his outfits are tailored to perfection). To his nephew, however, he’s a point of comfort and calm. A watcher in the midst of a storm.

It’s that confident compassion in most of his characters that helps him to translate over into genre films. To be fair: if you don’t know Bill Nighy—like, flat-out googling “Bill Nighy who”—it’s possible you just don’t see a lot of genre movies. It’s hard to think of a British actor who was less in the Harry Potter films than Nighy. He’s in and out, right at the start of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part One as Rufus Scrimgeour, the replacement for the extremely bad Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Cornelius Fudge retire bitch). Not unlike Scrimgeour the character, Nighy is so at ease within the Potter universe that you wonder if he’s been there the whole time, walking the hallways of the Ministry of Magic, simply awaiting his turn. The Potter films might be his most widely viewed, but Nighy, as mentioned above, works perfectly as a half-octopus, half-man zombie, uh, mutant thing in the Pirates films or Slartibartfast in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or the warlord-cum-vampire elder Viktor in the Underworld films. Perhaps that’s the benefit to Nighy generally being a sort of strange actor, playing against type and the conventions of normal every day humans: it’s easy for him to meld into a different universe and feel as if he was born into it.

Nighy’s even brilliant in a small role as Shaun’s stepfather in Shaun Of The Dead. The “stepfather” trope in most comedies is a tricky one: toeing the line between harsh, stern, and widely disliked by the protagonist, and being an actual character with motivations and things to say. There are a lot of asshole stepfather types played for laughs in these types of movies. And as the zombie apocalypse takes hold of modern London, Shaun concocts a plan to rescue his mother and kill his stepfather, who has been bitten. It could have been that simple: Nighy as Philip, a grumpy, uptight old British man, and Pegg as Shaun, a frustrated wayward man-child. It would have been good comedy, and maybe it would have felt cathartic to see Shaun murder his stepfather in cold blood. And the movie wants you to think it might go there, too. Philip is something of a zombie himself—stiff and stern, turning around with a menacing musical cue.

But that’s not the story that Wright (or Pegg or Nighy) are trying to tell. In their attempted rescue, Philip is bitten yet again—this time a gaping and disgusting neck wound—and the group of them drive around London as he bleeds out. As they debate the best places to hide in the coming terror, Philip leans over to say goodbye to his stepson. “Being a father, it’s not easy,” he groans as his neck oozes blood. “You were 12 when I met you. You’d already grown up so much. I just wanted you to be strong and not give up because you lost your dad…I always loved you, Shaun. I always thought you had it in you to do well. And you just need motivation. Somebody to look up to, and I thought it could be me. Would you just take care of your mum?” In the hands of a lesser actor, a goodbye so sentimental and heartfelt after such curt exchanges between the two men could feel inauthentic or corny. But the magic of Nighy (and again, of Wright) is having this scene play out like an actual tragedy. That it is difficult to be a parent, and that getting bitten in the neck by a zombie really blows.

The last few years have seen Nighy take on more traditional roles, by which I mean a gentle, time-traveling father in About Time and as the above-mentioned romantic lead, Douglas, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about a group of senior citizens attempting to start their lives over in India (and, of course, its sequel, whose analysis I’ll have to put away until the next two thousand words I write about ol’ Bill). These movies capture a lot of what works so nicely in Nighy’s earlier work—films like Lawless Heart—which is that, for all of his oddity and quirks, it’s nice to see Nighy play, well, just a guy. There is often much to be joked about when it comes to any movie where old people fall in love—for the record, I love them, and I’ll keep seeing them until I’m the age everyone in them is—but Nighy makes for a wonderful romantic lead in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It has all the conventions you’d see from a Gosling or a Claflin or whoever the hell it is young people are attracted to these days (sorry; I’m 26, for what it’s worth): he asks questions, he makes small jokes, he makes eye contact when speaking. I mean, how would you not swoon? (Well, short answer, his character is already married, but they deal with it and it’s fine.)

And About Time. Where do I even start on About Time? The premise of the film is simple: Nighy and Domhnall Gleeson are father and son in a family where only the men (deep breath) can time travel. It’s a romantic comedy, sure, between Gleeson’s Tim and his future wife Mary (Rachel McAdams) and him learning to, you know, get it all right and perfect, but it’s also about family and what you do with the time you have. Nighy’s character’s traits are not all too complex: he loves his son. Again, in the hands of another actor, this father-son relationship feels forced or underdeveloped, but it is one of the most lovely and funny and heartbreaking supporting performances I’ve ever seen. The type of father every child dreams of having: attentive and compassionate and strange and funny. One who lives each day of his life twice through in order to see the most out of every second. It’s a film that essentially seems to be asking at its very end: If you could choose, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have Bill Nighy forever?

That’s the magic of Nighy. The timelessness. That you can pluck him out of our weird and occasionally awful real world and place him almost anywhere, and there’s an immediate comfort and ease to it. We have him now, but he could be anywhere. He could be sailing on the high seas or holed up in Cornwall or far into the future as a disembodied voice. We’re lucky, you know, to see him anywhere and everywhere, with his all-too familiar mannerisms.

I, in an odd way, see him every day. A handful of years ago, I was studying abroad in London, and the National Portrait Gallery was doing a special exhibit on celebrity portraits. And right on the wall of one of the rooms was this big portrait of Nighy by John Swannell that caught me so off-guard I started laughing. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? Funny and inquisitive and dapper as hell. In the gift shop that afternoon, I bought a postcard size of the print. I bought a little frame for it and propped it up on my desk, like someone would their significant other. It’s not a romantic thing, I assure you, it’s just…it’s a face I want to see, a look that provides comfort. It’s been half a decade now, and the Nighy portrait still sits at my desk, now back stateside. It works anywhere. It’s timeless.