Usually I don’t interview someone until after I’ve seen their movie, but in the case of Bill Nighy and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest that was impossible. I wish I had seen the film first, though, because I would have been floored when Nighy told me that no part of his Davy Jones character is done practically. It’s an astonishing and seamless bit of CGI, very next generation stuff. And it isn’t just Davy Jones – his whole crew is the kind of monsters that would have sent a younger me running to the toy store immediately after the credits rolled.
Of course all that CGI would be useless if it wasn’t part of the performance of a great actor. Whether it’s as the slowly zombifiying Phillip in Shaun of the Dead or the burnt out rock star in Love, Actually or Slartibartfast in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Nighy has been appearing in some of the better movies of the last few years and always improving them with his performance. And in some movies, like Underworld, he’s one of the few things actually worth seeing. In Pirates 2 he takes the step up from character actor to lead villain, playing the evil and immortal captain of the cursed Flying Dutchman, and the titular dead man whose chest everyone is after.
Q: The last couple of years have been really great for you. What’s made the difference?
Nighy: I suppose what I would say is that I was in a Richard Curtis movie, which usually means a whole half of the world goes to watch it, and it kind of raised my profile, not least in America. It made me more usable around the place, it made me more castable. It’s extremely satisfying.
Q: The past couple of years have also been packed – is there a point where you realize that you’re saying yes to too many movies and that you’re not leaving yourself time to enjoy the success?
Nighy: I haven’t reached that point yet, and I’m actually on vacation now. It’s slightly enforced because a couple of things fell through, but I am taking an opportunity while promoting Pirates and Stormbreaker, another movie I’m in, to have a leisurely summer.
The tendency is to grab it while it’s there, and while there are good opportunities available and you don’t want to turn them down, I do think you’re right. It is a syndrome and you can get caught up and in the end it defeats the object. But I don’t think that’s happened yet.
Q: With Pirates how much of Davy Jones is make-up and how much is CGI? How much of Bill Nighy are we actually seeing?
Nighy: It’s an entirely CGI creature. It’s informed by everything I said and did on the day, but in terms of technology it’s not me at all.
Q: So you’re wearing a motion capture on the set?
Nighy: You wear deeply unsettling trousers which are quite tough to wear. Trust me, especially when you’re surrounded by people like Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp who look so glamorous in their terrific pirate costumes. You have dots on your face and you have dots all over your track suit thing. It takes a couple of days to get used to it.
The good news is that the process has moved on, so you don’t need lots of blue screen or green screen; you’re actually allowed into the normal population.
Q: So they’re just painting something over you and using your actual performance?
Nighy: Yes. I’m surprised actually at how many of the decisions I made on the set and the movements and the little things that I did have survived and arrived on the screen. It’s satisfying.
They do this thing where they cyberscan you; they put you in a mysterious truck and they put you on a podium and they run machines up and down your body. You see the shape of your body forming on all these computer screens. When they finally get to your feet they say, ‘Now we have all your information. Now we have your data.’ And you say, ‘Can I go home now?’ and they say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ They put tiny cameras, like a series of four or five tiny cameras, directed just at your face, and they have you perform a scene for those cameras on occasion so they can minutely record everything your facial muscles are likely to do. So they’re able to keep that.
Q: Does wearing these trousers and having these dots on your face change the kind of performance you give? Are you using different acting muscles?
Nighy: I think that must be the case. Apart from anything else the level of performance is hard to pitch initially because it’s a unique situation. Gore Verbinski, the director, was very good at tuning the performance to what he considered the right level. But finally you have to remember you’re going to have an octopus growing out of your chin and one of your legs is a crab leg and one of your hands is a claw. So the size of your performance and the tone of your performance is informed by that. It’s a unique thing, I never engaged in this kind of thing before, so there is an awareness of that.
Q: Is there something more similar to stage acting when you’re doing special effects stuff like this, where you’re relying more on your imagination than anything else?
Nighy: Yeah, I guess that might be the case actually. That does kind of ring a bell. I think you have to make another little leap of imagination, because you’re not appearing conventionally in the movie and you’re not appearing conventionally on the set either – you don’t have a costume and you don’t have conventional make-up. You are kind of on your own to some degree in your head, and it does require a slightly large leap of the imagination.
Q: You did some work on Hot Fuzz, the new Edgar Wright film.
Nighy: It’s more of a personal appearance. Half of the English acting community is in this movie. Everybody dug Shaun of the Dead so profoundly that there’s a queue to be in the next one. Hot Fuzz, as you probably know, broadly speaking is city cop goes rural. Simon plays the hero and it’s incredibly, stupidly funny. I went and did a couple of days on it.
I’ve also done a movie called Stormbreaker, which is the first – hopefully – of a series of adaptations of books about a teenage James Bond kind of hero. The hero is Alex Ryder, and he’s a schoolboy who saves the world. I am sort of M – myself and Sophie Okonedo do what Judi Dench does on her own in James Bond. Mickey Rourke is the villain.
Q: Did you get a chance to act with Mickey Rourke?
Nighy: I didn’t. We had a couple of scenes, but I didn’t really get a chance to work with him, which was a shame because I’ve admired him for many years, as everybody has. He was great, and if you want a villain, look no further.
Q: I’ve heard he’s very intense in real life.
Nighy: Yeah, but amiable and he was in good form. Alicia Silverstone plays the governess, and Robbie Coltrane is the prime minister. And they spent some money – it’s an attempt to make a British action film, which there aren’t many. It would be great if it comes off, not the least because there are six other books.
Q: Going back to Hot Fuzz for a second, has the success of Shaun changed the way Simon and Edgar work?
Nighy: Nothing is going to change Simon or Edgar in terms of the way they work. It’s just as funky, it’s just as much fun. They’re such nice guys – you must have met them.
Q: I sure have.
Nighy: Then you know what they’re like. They’re just the sweetest guys, and they’re so funny. Simon and Nick Frost, his comedy partner, they just make you laugh all day long. I remember on Shaun of the Dead a large part of my role was bleeding to death in the back of the Jaguar in a very hot summer period with a pipe up my trouser leg up to my neck pumping warm, sticky blood down the front of my shirt. It should have been a miserable gig but in fact they just made me laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much as in the back of that car. You’re sitting in a pool of sticky blood, your underwear is soaked in fake blood all day long; it’s not a funny situation. But Simon used to make me laugh all the time. I’m so fond of them, and I was so pleased Shaun of the Dead was a hit. I always figured it would be.
Q: You did? It seemed like such an out of left field success. I was shocked that it connected as widely as it did.
Nighy: I wasn’t, but [Simon and Edgar] were. They thought, ‘Well, they gave us some money to make a movie and maybe we’ll have some fun or something.’ But I think it’s just properly funny – they can really write. They’d never written a proper feature film before, but they worked it out: there were three gags on every page, all the relationships resolved, everything dovetailed at the end. It was a sort of 20something sort your life out movie which happened to take place during a zombie attack. And it turns out they know everything there is to know about zombies. That’s a hard balance to hit – comedy and zombies. As they joked at the time, it was the birth of a genre – a romzomcom.
Q: How hard is it to balance the light tone of the Pirate films with being the big villain? Do you get to be funny at all, or are you only terrifying?
Nighy: I hope there’s a couple of gags in there, but I don’t think so. Maybe in 3 I’ll get a couple of gags. Off the top of my head – I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t think I get any gags. But that’s other people’s jobs – my job is to be scary. And to be tragic.
Q: So you’re a tragic villain?
Nighy: I’m a tragic figure, yeah. I’ve been damaged and hurt so badly that I suffer, and the only release that I get from my suffering is when I can arrange for other people to suffer. It’s pretty good stuff. It’s not just some scary weirdo. Although he is a scary weirdo. But he is also slightly complex.
Q: Do you have the Davy Jones toy?
Nighy: No, but I’m looking forward to it. All my friends want one. I’m going to try to get as many as I can. I’ve already been a vampire toy from the Underworld movie, which I was always quite impressed with. I was always impressed that my Underworld toy came with two extra daggers. I just know that when you were a kid that would have been such a big deal that you got two free daggers.
But yeah, I’ll be a toy. I think you probably won’t be able to buy a pizza without…
Q: Without seeing you.
Nighy: Well, Johnny and Orlando and Keira. I don’t think you’ll want to see me when you’re eating your pizza. Maybe in the sushi store.