Bill Nighy: "I know what it's like to want to live in a film"

Bill Nighy, who lives alone and finds sleeping difficult, says he passes the time by watching YouTube clips of Christopher Walken on his phone – when he isn’t working, that is.

Bill Nighy: A curiously self-conscious way of living. Photo: Spencer Murphy/Contour/Getty Images

Bill Nighy is unmistakable even at a hundred yards: a long streak of navy blue fabric, a pair of black specs and a mobile phone. He lives by himself near Savile Row in London and it’s tempting to imagine that his flat has been fitted with a dumbwaiter enabling a fresh bespoke suit to be sent up to him each morning.

He’s just got off the Eurostar from Paris, where he was recording vocals for a computer game. It was a surreal activity that involved reading various vocal “instructions” from a script – “scream”, “die”, “cackle” – to cover any situation. The instruction that intrigued him most was “aware”, which he re-creates now as a kind of grunt, like a man rousing himself from sleep to look at something that doesn’t interest him very much.

Drowsiness is an innate part of his onscreen energy. A reviewer once wrote, “No one does tired like Bill Nighy.” “Which was strange,” he says, as we enter a café, “because often when I think I’m at my most strident and energised, people think I’m tired and disinterested.”

Nighy spends his life “pursuing sleep” but doesn’t get much of it: he has made 11 films in the past two years and is often accused of workaholism, which he thinks is ridiculous. Before any important job, he lies awake most of the night. “The minute you sit up in bed and go, ‘This is so unfair!’ you’re not only wide awake, you’re angry, too,” he says. “So I lie there without emotion – as a lump.”

To pass the time in the hours before dawn, he watches YouTube clips of Christopher Walken on his iPhone. He’s seen them all: Walken on Letterman, Walken reading the lyrics of Lady Gaga, Walken’s Jackanory appearance on Jonathan Ross’s Saturday Zoo, in which, dressed in a chunky-knit sweater, he reads “Three Little Pigs” (“Arrivederci, porco numero due! Buongiorno, salami . . .”).

The pair recently worked together, in the upcoming sequel to David Hare’s political drama Page Eight, but there are deeper connections between them. Both are said to “play themselves” in every film they make. Walken once confessed that those long, alarming pauses of his – those shifty scans of the eyes – are simply him forgetting his lines. Nighy has also spent a lifetime undercutting his acting: pinning him down today on what he does and why he is so consistently successful at it is almost impossible. “I learn the lines and I try to say them like someone would if they were in that situation,” he says, calling to mind Ian McKellen’s actorly turn in Extras (“I imagined what it would be like to be a wizard . . .”). “You walk and talk the best you can,” he continues, deadpan. “The idea is to try to appear as relaxed or normal as possible.”

Nighy has turned what he calls his “chronic, comic self-consciousness” into a valuable commodity. He doesn’t watch his films, because he can’t bear to see “all the little bits of cowardice, the things I didn’t quite pull off”. Yet it’s not quite true to say he is just playing himself. For a start, while his characters are often lovable failures in the gentle decline of middle age, he achieved sudden international fame at the age of 53 in 2003 with Richard Curtis’s Love Actually.

The floppy and delightful father he plays in the new Curtis film, About Time, seems to be living a more comfortable version of midlife than Nighy is. While the character has retired at 50, apparently “in order to play more table tennis with his son”, Nighy still pushes himself through theatre work, “standing behind the set on the first night, waiting to go on and vowing that I will never, ever allow this to happen again. Why would I do this? What am I trying to prove? It’s not going to make me rich, it’s not going to make me anything . . .”

Although he admits that he has Curtis to thank for “making him castable”, it niggles him to talk about late-career success. “I’d like to say that prior to all that, I had a very enviable career and worked with most of the people I’d ever want to work with,” he says: “David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Anthony Hopkins and Dame Judi Dench . . . I played leading roles on television and in the theatre and had a very familiar, recognisable English career. I just feel compelled to say that.”

Still, there was a wilderness period in the 1970s when, having trained as an actor in Guildford, he worked as an assistant stage manager and spent much of the decade shuttling around in a van painting theatre sets. He was born in Caterham, Surrey, in 1949 to Alfred, a garage owner whose family had been in the chimney-sweeping business, and Catherine, a psychiatric nurse from Glasgow. After a brief stint as a messenger boy on the Fieldmagazine he applied todrama schoolon the advice of a girlfriend.

Acting appealed to him because it was “a way of being legitimately out of work” – and he was: for a time, he ran a women’s clothing stall at Sutton Market and there were stints as a manual labourer, building bridges on the M2. Not cut out for heavy work, Nighy was sent down the middle of the concrete pillars to clean their wire interiors, a job that struck him as particularly absurd, given that no one could ever see the result of his labour.

Talking to him for a couple of hours, you get the funny feeling that Nighy might be living in a strange little film – something lowbudget, rather funny and very English. His obsession with music is well known but it is more than a hobby. He has a constant soundtrack, which he plays out loud on speakers in hotel rooms and trailers, with different playlists of songs for morning and night. Music seems to provide him with a sense of cinematic unity: an obscure pop song from 1993 called “Koochie Ryder” by the Peckham band Freaky Realistic became his anthem for a successful opening night. He first played it while working on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the National Theatre, running round the house because the show had gone without a hitch. He plays it now for “those beautiful moments when you do something difficult at work and then you feel better. And you want that feeling back – the feeling where it’s all OK.”

He admits to being particularly fond of his washed-up rock-star creation Ray Simms in the 1998 film Still Crazy, “a reasonably nice bloke and challenged in similar ways to me, I suppose”. Nighy fitted the character with a permanent sniff to suggest his wilder days. Earlier in the decade, like Simms, Nighy had kicked a long drinking problem, helped by his partner Diana Quick, the mother of his daughter, Mary. The couple split up in 2008 – he notes that he’s able to listen to songs on speakers all day because he’s often alone – but he now counts coffee and M&M’s as his only addictions.

It is a strangely self-aware way to live, with a rotation of suits and songs and moments invested with happiness, but it makes an odd kind of sense for someone whose life has changed so rapidly in recent years. “I have been lately trying not to allow all the static in my head [to] steal the day, because I lost a few days like that and I don’t want to lose any more,” he says.

It’s a theme that runs through About Time, in which the time-travelling main character learns that he can relive each day with a better attitude the second time around. There’s a certain pleasure in the expectation of the inevitable and it’s one of the reasons we go to see Curtis’s films. I spent half of About Time aghast at how unreal it was – a kind of Christmas Carol with Oyster cards – and the other half deeply moved by its portrait of familial love and struck by the woeful realism of its settings – First Great Western trains, Pret A Manger.

“Richard’s approach is not in any way tactical,” Nighy says today. “I know what you mean about ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ and it is quite something to pull off, to get that kind of particular world – this eternal world – in movie after movie. He writes from what he knows about, which is his background, a white, middle-class-stroke-English existence. I guess I’m trying to answer on behalf of him but I know what it’s like to want to live in a film.”

Curtis brought Nighy to charity work through his long-time involvement with Comic Relief. “He made a decision when he was a very young man that whatever else his life included, it would include this work,” Nighy says. “He and his wife determinedly cordon off a percentage of their year in which to concentrate on their charities and he has been doing so quietly, without a fuss, for years. He got hold of American Idol recently and in one hour raised $70m.

“He is somebody you can point to and say, ‘That man has saved – literally saved – millions of lives through his activities.’”

In 2005, Oxfam approached Nighy to lobby at the G8 and he has attended every summit since. In 2011, again working with Curtis, he became the figurehead for the “Robin Hood tax”, a campaign for a levy on financial transactions now going through the European Parliament but still resisted by the UK. He must be expecting every journalist to tell him that celebrities shouldn’t get involved in politics, because when he talks about this side of his work, he sounds more turbocharged than he does about anything else.

“I am not an expert on international affairs,” he says, “but I don’t need to be to know that the Robin Hood tax is simply and uncomplicatedly a fucking good idea. It will institutionalise charity and you’d never have to listen to people like me banging on ever again. It’s a tiny percentage – 50 pence in every £1,000 generated by the kind of speculating that precipitated the financial crash, for instance. It’s not punitive. It’s the same idea as the Tobin tax [a currency transaction tax, designed to manage exchange-rate volatility] 35 years ago and that worked.

“People say it’s not worth it unless every country takes part,” he continues. “I say: of course it is. They say it’s very complex and I say: so is space travel. There are many salaried experts who will tell you that I’m a wellmeaning but profoundly mistaken man. But there are also people in this world who are philosophically opposed to any kind of aid and I had no idea they existed.”

It’s getting late and his mobile phone starts to buzz: the ringtone is David Bowie’s rather haunting comeback single “Where Are We Now?”. “It’s become acceptable to sit around and say that the money will never get through,” Nighy says, ignoring it. “If you’ve ever been to Africa and seen what Comic Relief is doing, it makes it impossible to make any of those remarks again. It seems crazy that you have to prove it but it’s true.”

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman’s pop music columnist and arts editor

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era