Bill Nighy On His Thrilling, Excruciating Oscar Campaign for ‘Living’

On the one hand, Bill Nighy getting the chance to meet Adam Sandler at a campaign event marked a true life highlight. Here stood the star of one of his all-time favorite movies, Punch-Drunk Love, and the chance to tell him just how much it meant to him. On the other hand, the occasion also preceded a roundtable discussion with Sandler and other best-actor Oscar hopefuls this year, including Brendan Fraser and Austin Butler, that Nighy found a little, well, “excruciating.” “It is an odd situation, acting as a competitive sport,” Nighy says in our Little Gold Men interview (listen or read below). “It’s sort of bizarre. But everybody knows the score.”

As Nighy is learning, you’ve just got to roll with it sometimes. After all, this moment feels gratifying, too—even with that occasional discomfort. The character actor, who’s been a part of mega-franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter as well as comedy classics Love, Actually and Shaun of the Dead, has enjoyed a brilliant acting career mostly out of the limelight. He’s picked up rave reviews and  the odd leading role (usually in TV or on stage), and now this year has initiated a kind of industry reflection on all that—a recognition of just how good Nighy has been for so long.

The reason for all this appreciation—and buzz surrounding a very possible first Oscar nod—is Living, the heartfelt remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru, transferred to ‘50s London by writer Kazuo Ishiguro and director Oliver Hermanus. Nighy portrays Mr. Williams, a soft-spoken Public Works employee whose entire being is shaken when he receives a terminal diagnosis. The small-scale drama approaches a kind of transcendence in this man’s realization of what makes life beautiful and worth living—and Nighy’s precisely controlled, gorgeously realized portrayal edges the story toward the profound.

“Even though it’s a sad story, you feel better, inspired in some way,” Nighy says. “You’ve watched something that taps you into humanity.”


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Vanity Fair: Living is already a big hit in the UK. Has it surprised you the lengths that this film has traveled and the amount of people it’s found, given that it started as a small Sundance discovery?

Bill Nighy: I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the depth of the response and the universal welcome that this film’s gotten. I thought we were making a good film. I knew we had a great script from Kazuo Ishiguro, and I knew that Stephen Woolley is one of the great English film producers of all time. But you never know. It’s a film where nobody carries a gun and nobody takes their top off. I did offer to take my top off, but they told me to put it back on. [Laughs] Next time maybe. But yeah, it was number one across the nation. I find it very gratifying and very moving.

The roots of this project are with Ishiguro—and particularly your involvement in it. I believe his plan was to write this remake, though it’s very much its own thing, specifically for you. What is one’s reaction to something like that, especially when it is coming from one of the most decorated writers of our time?

It’s hard to contain the information when you first realize that’s happening. All I did was go to dinner with Stephen Woolley and his wife, Elizabeth Karlsen, also a great producer. The other guests were Mr. and Mrs. Ishiguro. And at the end of dinner he said, we know what your next film should be. I thought he was kind of kidding, you know? Then a couple of weeks later, Stephen rang and said that this was his suggestion. It’s an incredible development as far as I’m concerned. I would never have imagined that something like this could happen, but then there’s a degree of apprehension because you don’t wanna mess it up. This is such an opportunity. It turns out, even I have to admit, I didn’t mess it up.

You did not. It’s one of my favorite performances of yours, and I think a lot of that is rooted in how subtle it is. Starting with the voice and the soft spoken nature of this character, I believe that you didn’t really even know how you would approach it until you started filming, is that right?

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