The accidental hero

Encounters - An overnight sensation after 30 years, Bill Nighy talks films, booze and sex with Micha

There is only one place to meet an iconic, low-key film star for a cup of coffee on a slow Tuesday afternoon in north London, and that is on Delancey Street in Camden Town. The media crowd have dispersed to their offices and deals. The night is not even young. In a few hours' time, our reluctant, shuffling hero in his smart dark suit and muffler will join the West End throng at the premiere of his latest film, Enduring Love, a brave and enthralling adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel by the playwright Joe Penhall, directed by Roger Michell of Notting Hill and Hanif Kureishi's The Mother fame.

In this quiescent coffee shop, our shared local, the outside world seems busy and unreal, trendy and trite. It is a perfect setting, then, to ask Bill Nighy, Surrey born and bred, son of a garage owner (dad) and psychiatric nurse (mum), and the most embarrassed, accidentally successful, non-actorish actor of British stage, television and movies of the past ten years: where did it all go wrong? Is this what he wanted?

"I've no idea," is the strange response. He once fancied journalism, "because I thought it was glamorous and I'd meet beautiful women in the rain". He went to Paris to write a novel and got as far as the title. A girlfriend suggested drama school and he bluffed his way into the Guildford School of Dance and Drama (or school of "prance and murmur", as he calls it), where a quirky suburban disciple of Isadora Duncan, one Bice Bellairs, gave movement classes sans knickers: "She considered underthings to be an impediment to true movement," recalls an unconvinced, still aghast, Nighy.

On television years later, he bared his buttocks as the randy lecturer Mark Carleton in The Men's Room and found himself "briefly mistaken for someone who might be good in bed; which was very, very good". The most persistent image from that series is of Nighy's cool diffidence in reading the restaurant menu while enjoying (enduring?) oral sex under the tablecloth. And the sparks he struck with Harriet Walter.

He gives an impression of being dragged screaming into the limelight, but he does at least now admit that he is an actor, and not someone who fluked a career. "I used to lie when I hitch-hiked all over the country to gigs. I really believed I didn't have the right to say I was an actor, so I would say I was an electrician, or a designer or something."

Now he's mainstream A-list, after 30 years of slugging it out in quality rep, at the National and Almeida Theatres, and in films such as David Hare's Dreams of Leaving, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle ("tough gig", he comments, on playing a blocked writer surrounded by beautiful women in idyllic countryside settings) and as the burnt-out rock star Billy Mack in Richard Curtis's Love Actually.

Bill's Billy Mack was a first cousin of his hilarious old rocker in Still Crazy, in which the reunion of an unlamented 1970s rock band, Strange Fruit, was over- powered by the absurdity of Nighy's dim-witted, preening lead singer Ray Simms. Mack and Simms were heavy-metal Status Quo. Nighy himself is a Rolling Stones devotee (his Desert Island Discs pick last year was topped by a lyrical, beautiful and relatively unknown Stones classic, "Winter").

"Very few things move me to patriotism," Nighy suddenly offers, clenching his jaw in a trademark pose and stirring his coffee, "but the Stones are one of them. Pinter's another. I went to see Michael Gambon in The Caretaker and I came out feeling obscurely proud to be British."

Gambon is a beacon for Nighy, as he is for so many young-to-middle-aged British actors. He is their Olivier, their Gielgud and their Richardson rolled into one. "I find him so exciting to watch. And he was very encouraging to me as a young man; he and Michael Bryant. And Paul Scofield, who once had a kind word for me in a corridor at the National. Just the fact that they assumed you were an actor was enough to keep you going for a few months."

Nighy, a sprightly 54 years old, lives with the luminous, luscious actress Diana Quick. They have a daughter, Mary Nighy, who is away at university and already a budding actress. He seems settled, even though Hollywood occasionally beckons. He will go there if the job, and the price, is right, but he loves hanging out in Kentish Town on the fringes of Hampstead Heath and sees no reason to move.

"I like LA and it's very pleasant there. But I'd soon get fed up with the temperature never changing. And why should I go? Here, I get to work with all the people I most admire - Michael Gambon, Stephen Poliakoff, Harold Pinter, David Hare, Tom Stoppard - it's beyond my wildest dreams."

The slightly euphoric note may be down to today being only his third day of not getting up at five in the morning for a call on the set of Poliakoff's latest film. He looks mean, lean and serious behind those rimless specs. He runs two long fingers and a thumb through his floppy blond mop of hair. The two last fingers on each hand are permanently bent back against his palms, a hereditary condition called Dupuytren's contracture that he shares with Margaret Thatcher. (He doesn't share anything else with her.)

He stopped drinking in 1992 and stopped smoking last year. He comes clean. "My life hasn't changed, but my response to it has. Alcohol used to govern my life and now it doesn't. What that feels like is impossible to describe. I had a 24-hour job, which was to get the dose right, a very exhausting schedule. What I did was arduous, obsessive, compulsory and not in any way to be mistaken for kicks."

Old Bill now sounds more terrifying than any government health warning, but I take his point and order up another strong black coffee. He's looking forward to that night's premiere of Enduring Love - in which he plays, incidentally, a lovely understated friend of Daniel Craig's troubled hero, a character who doesn't exist in McEwan's novel but who counterpoints Craig's domestic restlessness; it's a totally surprising role for Nighy. He's even looking forward to the party.

What, without a drink to celebrate? "No, it's better now. I didn't enjoy anything before. Tonight, I will. We'll go on the red carpet, introduce the movie, sneak out the side for a nice meal and go back at the end. Roger Michell and his producer, Kevin Loader, have a very good set-up now. It's a good team, a good outfit. And the menus on location are always funky. Proper food. Carrot and coriander soup. It's the way they make movies as well. Thought goes into everything."

And he falls silent. More coffee. "Addiction can be catching," he warns me with a watery wink as the afternoon closes down for the night and Nighy rises, gently, like a black vampire going out not to prey, but to pray. "Amen to that," I concur.