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Tragedy Actually Brings Hope: Bill Nighy on Living

In “Living,” Bill Nighy delivers a performance that ranks among the finest in his 50-year career on stage and screen. 

As Mr. Williams, a dedicated civil servant in 1950s London, the beloved British actor conveys a level of emotional repression and socially ingrained stoicism that long ago calcified into paralysis. But when this career bureaucrat is informed he has a fatal illness, the realization of his impending death appears to jolt him back to life. Motivated to make the most of the little time he has remaining, Williams walks off the job and undertakes one final quest for the greater purpose he feels has eluded him in life. 

Not a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Ikiru” so much as an English translation, “Living”—as scripted by the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day,” “Never Let Me Go”)—finds common spiritual ground between the stifled bureaucrats of Tokyo and London in this mid-century period. Themes of mortality, transience, and meaning—potently set against Japan’s postwar reconstruction—still resonate deeply in postwar Britain, where the stiff upper lip was a matter of both public obligation and personal duty. 

As directed by South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus (“Moffie”), “Living” (out December 23 in New York and Los Angeles, then expanding) is most of all a handsomely mounted tribute—to the enduring power of “Ikiru,” of course, but also to the mahogany-toned British dramas of the 1950s, with their vintage opening credits and tactile film grain. Elevated by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s stirring score, Jamie Ramsay’s chiaroscuro cinematography, Sandy Powell’s top-drawer costume design, and Helen Scott’s stellar production design, “Living” fondly resurrects a bygone era. 

At its center stands that immeasurably rich leading role, first played in “Ikiru” by the iconic Takashi Shimura. Nighy rises to the challenge of making it his own. At first, Williams accompanies a local libertine (Tom Burke, of “The Souvenir”) for a night out in Brighton, regaling those in a small pub with his halting rendition of the Scottish folk ballad “O’ Rowan Tree.” Later, when he returns to London and spends an afternoon with a naturally radiant young subordinate (Aimee Lou Wood, of “Sex Education”), Williams’ confession of the childlike joy he once sacrificed to queen and country moves her to helpless tears. Throughout, Nighy’s wistful dignity and pathos give “Living” its sense of soul.

Earlier this year, at the virtual Sundance Film Festival, where “Living” premiered and scored U.S. distribution with Sony Pictures Classics, Nighy sat down to discuss his philosophy of acting, a lifelong affinity for great writers, and his hardest days on set.

Throughout “Living,” Mr. Williams reflects on what he’s achieved, and he tells Margaret in one crucial scene that what he wanted out of life was to be a gentleman. I wanted to start this interview by asking you, Mr. Nighy, what it means to be a gentleman.  

That’s a very good question. And it is something, I think, that most people aspire to. ‘Gentleman’ is the way it’s expressed in England and perhaps in America. I’m sure there are other words, and I’m sure every culture has a way of expressing that. What does it mean to me? It means someone who is straightforward, honest, decent, and concerns themselves with other people’s welfare, and tries to remain interested, whatever the weather. A gentleman helps out where they can. That would be my off-the-top-of-my-head definition.

How would Williams’ definition differ?

I think it would be, broadly speaking, the same. The details of how it was expressed in his life, or in society, would be different just due to the period. And he would be appalled at some of the elements of my life, or of modern life. But, broadly speaking, I think it would be the same. I approached the part with the assumption that he was someone who was institutionalized in grief. The loss of his wife, very early on, arrested something in him. You have someone who, whatever else he’s doing, is dealing with that. And the repetitious nature of his life, and the fact that he attempts to do everything the same and impeccably orderly every day, is as much to bury himself and to avoid pain, loss, and grief as it is anything else. But, I mean, in those days, one’s behavior was constrained to a much larger degree by society. People took great pleasure in not being too much trouble. When he’s attempting to rehearse how he's going to tell someone that he’s dying, he prefaces every attempt with, “Well, it’s a bit of a bore.” I'm sure there are equivalents in other countries, and in other cultures, but that’s a very English remark.

I understand that “Living” started over a drink shared between yourself, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Stephen Woolley

As you say, I met Ishiguro out, with Stephen Woolley. They were old friends, and they’re film nerds. They spent that evening challenging each other to know nerdish facts, about films generally but often about British films, black-and-white British films from about 1930 to about 1960. But at the end of the evening, Ishiguro and his wife, having been whispering, came out and said, “We know what your next film should be.” And I said, “Well, when you’re ready, let me know.” And then, later, Stephen rang me and said, “This is the plan.” 

They both felt you’d be perfect for the lead role in a remake of “Ikiru,” but how did you feel about that assessment? One reason I personally responded to “Living,” I felt, is that I grew up in England with grandparents who always considered discussing their declining health or personal struggles to be “a bit of a bore,” as you say in the film. Williams epitomizes a very British kind of stoicism.

When talking about the character, most of my discussions were with Oliver Hermanus, who has so brilliantly directed the film. He’s South African, and I don’t know whether that informed [his attitude toward] Williams. I can’t guarantee that, but I think it probably does help. We had a lot of discussions. And it was very interesting for me to talk to somebody from another culture about, like you say, [that characteristic of] your grandparents or my father. My father was a very reserved man, who would aim to never make unnecessary noise or fuss. And, when he was dying, he tried to die with as much dignity and without being too much trouble as he possibly could. So, I’m no stranger to this. And I kind of admire it. I know—probably, now, in psychiatric circles—they would say it’s a disastrous way to conduct your life. But, on the other hand, you can’t help but think, sometimes, “Wow. That’s something to pull off.” 

There’s much about Williams to be admired, though I ached for him as well. The complexity of this character is what made “Ikiru” so rich, and I have to imagine it was rewarding to pour yourself into Ishiguro’s translation of this story. One dialogue in particular, between Williams and Margaret, takes place in a pub. It’s a tremendously affecting scene. What are your memories of filming it?

Well, we worked on it quite a lot. I wanted to emphasize his grief about the loss of his wife, and the length of his widowerhood. I thought that was important, in his dealings with Margaret. I worked very, very hard. I prepared painstakingly and, by the time we got there, I could do it 25 different ways in my sleep. 

But doing it with Aimee Lou Wood, who was just marvelous to work with and to deal with—because she’s really there; I could say all the clichés in the world, but she’s present to the max, and it’s shockingly great—that unlocked it. When you have to do it with your colleague, and also in front of everybody in the crew, because they’re the audience at the time, that is a powerful couple of days. And I felt that it was one of the things on the schedule where you think, “Well, that's going to be a relatively tough day at the office.” Or at least, I thought, “I passionately want to get this right, because it’s something I’m interested in. And because the writing is so brilliant, I’m interested, anyway—beyond interested, I’m fascinated.” It’s not the case with every gig. 

And I’m also interested in somebody who tries to explain themselves in such moderate language and to explain something so fundamental. The relationship between her and him, how much respect she has for that now that she knows that it’s loneliness reaching out to loneliness—that’s a wonderful thing. And I think the whole thing of playing someone for whom decency is the only option, that it probably never occurs to him to do anything other than conduct himself what he would call “well.” There’s heroism involved, to do that lifelong and never betray that principle, particularly when you see it in the context of society. You see how the violent opposite of that is often expressed in our leadership, the people who become eminent in the world, the people who make a lot of money. Not all of them, it’s not by definition, but often the damaged people who rise to what’s called the “top” of our societies often do not reflect that. Those quiet people who persist in attempting to be straightforward in their dealings with everyone else, to be honest, and to be kind, they take on a heroic appearance within the context of all the dishonesty and lies, within the power-grabbing that goes on with those that are in less good shape.

There’s such a dignity and grace to that life of service. I love what this story suggests, as well, which is that your communities will fill in the story of your life for you. They will shape the story of your legacy. As you're leading a life, it’s not for you to decide how you’re remembered.

Yes. And, again, the leadership. the people that rise to the top, they attempt to divide us at all times, in order to simply get votes, and to arrange to be empowered. They do intolerable damage to our communities in all areas. But there are millions and billions of decent people around, who attempt to do the right thing.

As someone who has been acting for more than 50 years, and who understands it at such a rare level, what matters to you most about continuing to perform at this time in your life? What drives you on as an actor?

Without sounding too what we call—in my country, your country—“la dee da,” which I expect you’ll remember ... 

Of course.

I would hope to do work that is marginally, minimally progressive, in one way or the other, work that just—to any degree—helps and improves the situation. I hope to do projects where there’s dignity for everybody and that might just help. We’re up against an enormous amount of hugely time-honored, ancient, elaborate constructs that were built on lies, deception, and manipulation, by people hungry for power. And it’s very, very difficult, particularly in recent times, to see how you can proceed as anybody, let alone as an actor. 

But I’m fortunate that I’m in a job where I can do something that says “that”—whatever “that” might be, whether it’s [identifying] part of the problem, part of the solution, or another part of whatever it is. And maybe, just while you’re there, the holy grail is to make it entertaining, in one way or the other, whether it’s funny or whether, in this case, it’s a bring-a-handkerchief kind of movie. But those kinds of movies can be uplifting by the time you leave the cinema. Tragedy actually brings hope. I don’t understand how that works, but it does. You just hope to do good work that might inch us toward something better.

Throughout your career, you’ve worked closely and consistently with talented writers: David Hare, Stephen Poliakoff, Richard Curtis, and now Kazuo Ishiguro. What excites you about their company?

When you list those names, you have my attention. To hear them said out loud like that ... I am a very fortunate actor and a very fortunate man to have worked with those men. When I think about it, writers are my heroes. I wanted to be a writer—guess what, like everybody else—and I didn’t have the courage and I never got it, all that. I can procrastinate at an Olympic level. I am the guy who is not writing a book, and I’ve been the guy who’s not writing books since I was old enough to pick up a pen. 

There’s a very good cartoon written by the English comedian, Peter Cook, where two men are in a bar, and one says, “I’m writing a novel.” And the other one says, “Neither am I.” That's the story of my literary career. But I really admire writers. I think it's an incredibly hard thing to do. And it's when I get excited. What really gets me excited? I like music. Sure, I love music. But what really gets me excited is brilliant writing. And those men that you mentioned—like David Hare, who I’ve worked with all my life—they can write dialogue. Obviously, dialogue is my concern, because I’ve got to speak it, so if the writing is really good, it makes my job so much easier. Because it suggests how you should perform it. 

And also, all those people have never picked up a pen for dishonorable reasons, because they're serious people. And they seek to make the world a better place. No less than that: to make the world a better place. That's their gig. That's what they get up every morning and do. And they don't do anything else. They just do that. It’s thrilling to me that I'm ever in that kind of company, and I love that company. I’m in awe of people who get up and face a blank piece of paper or a blank screen every day. They are my heroes.

You sing in “Living,” and it’s a thing of beauty. Tell me about your rendition of “O’ Rowan Tree” and giving yourself to a performance in that way. How does it differ for you, to be singing as opposed to delivering dialogue?

It’s not something I do a lot of. I have been required to do it before, but not in that context. There’s always a day on the schedule where you go, “Are you kidding? I probably, almost certainly can’t do that.” And then you just hope that you surprise yourself like you did the last time. It’s like when you’re at a funeral for somebody you loved. And you’re fine, you can keep it together until they ask you to sing. But as soon as somebody says, “Now we’re going to sing ‘Hey, Jude,’” I’m a mess. I get the first line out, but then? Forget about it. And I don’t think that’s uncommon. There’s something about the music. You can’t protect yourself from that. You just become a mess. And so that helped. That was in my favor. That day was a tough day, and not just singing the song. There was a lot to achieve on that day. It was very tough. 

There was a young girl called Chloe, and I asked her if she’d mind me asking her a very big favor. She was one of the extras on the job. And I asked her if she’d stand in my eyeline in the corner of the room, and if she’d mind if I sang to her. Who needs that? Some middle-aged—well, some late-middle-aged or old man, drunkenly singing a Scottish folk song straight into your eyes, 29 times. I expect she thought she was going to have a quiet day sitting there, pretending to drink. Anyway, she did it for me, and she never wavered. She maintained her eyeline and made eye contact with me. It helped enormously. It’s probably just some dreadful form of self-indulgence, but who cares? It told the story.

It sounds to me like you serenaded her. 

[smiles] Well, I kind of did. Yes. [laughs] I did. I just wanted someone to witness it, to be looking into my eyes the whole time so that I had nowhere to hide. And she helped me out.

“Living” will be available in select theaters starting on December 23rd. 

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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