Bill Nighy on Radical Restraint for His “Vivid” Persona – The Hollywood Reporter
There are great films in the canon that film professionals consider a no-brainer when it comes to remakes – especially anything in the filmography of the great Japanese author Akira Kurosawa. But when you have a text written by Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel Prize winning author Remains of the dayan English-language adaptation of the director’s 1952 drama, Ekiru, It instantly becomes a prestige project rather than an art house IP throwback.
Obviously members of the Academy think so too, as do Sony Pictures Classics living It earned first-time Oscar nominations for both Ishiguro and the film’s star, Bill Nighy, who wrote Ishiguro for the protagonist Mr. Williams. A year after the release of Kurosawa’s original movie, living Follows the humdrum life of a stoic London bureaucrat and widower, whose life is turned upside down when he receives a fatal diagnosis. With his time running out, Mr. Williams begins to question whether the disciplined life he has led is lacking in meaning, and, to evade his civic duties, gives up his job to spend more time with a former classmate whom he admires in his youth.
in conversation with THRNegi reflects on what he considers a “great honor” for inspiring Ishiguro to write the script and how the film’s costumes—particularly Williams’ bowler hat—helped in his understanding of the character.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the project?
Can you imagine [what it’s like] For an eminent person like Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel Prize winner, to decide he wants to write a screenplay with you. … It was a huge and very unexpected development. I must have been very good in my previous life because it’s such a great scenario.
Were you familiar with Akira Kurosawa? Ekiru Before you receive the script?
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it. I watched it, and really liked it. I suppose I should have been dreading the whole possibility, but I wasn’t at the time. Perhaps due to central performance [from frequent Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura], which is massive, completely different from anything I might come up with. So I didn’t feel persecuted by it. If I was adapting a book, I wouldn’t read the book. It’s something a little different.
Mr. Williams stands out among your favorite dramatic roles because of how reserved he is. Was getting into this type of personality challenging for you?
I was born into this atmosphere. I would have been one of those kids playing in the playground. I am not familiar with that degree of self-restraint, that extreme humility of conduct which some people, especially the middle class, demanded of themselves at that time. It was as strange as any kind of behavior in any culture. In the case of Mr. Williams I considered the chief thing which was, I suppose, institutionalized by grief over the loss of his wife. He was reluctant, physically, emotionally and mentally, to fully engage with the world. And this is above the stiff English upper lip [mentality]. Oliver Hermanus, who I must say was very brilliant at directing the film, wrote me a four-page back-story, very accurate and detailed for my character. He studied possible schools he might have gone to, and events in his life. Imagine his progress through his career. But in the end, a lot of it is what I suppose they call instinct.
Oliver Hermanus from South Africa. Do you think it would have been helpful to have an outsider direct this film about a very specific era in England?
Producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Carlsen preferred an outsider who would be at some distance from him. The value of that is less about being a cultural outsider than it is about resisting established conventions to make films about that culture. Ishiguro and Stephen sent Oliver dozens of films from that time. These guys have seen it all, have many areas of interest and an encyclopedic knowledge of black and white British films from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Visually, Oliver said, part of his responsibility was to make a black-and-white film in color – not just to pay homage to the films of the period but to use the atmosphere of those films to make a contemporary film.
Did your costumes help you achieve the deadpan Mr. Williams persona?
The outfit is very important to me, just as important as anything else. the great [costume designer] Sandy Powell found that suit, which is probably 100 years old – older than me – and we fitted it. I don’t like a lot of costumes; I like to have a kind of office that you do, that’s what you work in. In this case, I was lucky in this regard. It changes the way you hold yourself, carry yourself and think about yourself. And of course the bowler hat. Oh my God, this thing is so weird. I don’t know how they caught on, but everyone had one.
Mr. Williams has evolved in style when he has replaced that stiff bowler hat with a looser triangular hat. Was that helpful for your performance, too?
I really did. It was a relief. The day we heard about the Oscar nominations, I was at a restaurant having lunch. Stephen and Elizabeth exploded holding a box with a phone with a trilby in it. So I now own a trilby fact – movie trivia! I wore hats a lot when I was younger, and there was obviously a degree of irony because you were a guy in the ’80s or something, wearing what might be considered a period hat. If I’m wearing a hat now, I’m just an old man. Irony left the building.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. Click here to subscribe.