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

Jens Schlueter/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis