The actor Bill Nighy has provided voices for a mean rattlesnake (Rango) and a dim-witted rat (Flushed Away), and he went full motion-capture as the tentacle-tressed monster Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. In Norm of the North, in theaters today, Nighy speaks the role of a sea bird that dispatches the title polar bear (Rob Schneider) to New York City in an effort to quell arctic tourism — and the winged, pointy-beaked animal is perhaps the most in accord with Nighy’s own sharp, elegant presence. In more than 100 film, television, radio, and theater performances, he’s known for his twitchy energy but also for his inscrutable romantic charm. You’d believe it if he actually possessed the capacity to coo.
The 66-year-old actor — whose surname, once and for all, is pronounced without the Y — spoke to EW from London about the new movie, the roles he’s most recognized for (including a couple in which he’s not actually visible), and the actor’s heresy of preferring to work all alone.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In Norm of the North, you’re the voice of a bird wearing your signature black-framed eyeglasses. Is he an eagle?
BILL NIGHY: No, he’s more like an albatross or a gull. He’s a sea bird of some kind. He’s a very senior gull, obviously, since I’m playing him.
What attracted you to the film?
Oh, I loved my character. I liked the way he looked, I liked that he was called Socrates and that he was a philosopher-shrink. The whole thing was attractive. It was a great script and it’s about something current going on in the Arctic.
I notice that you have a lot of experience doing radio dramas for the BBC.
I just finished one actually. I do at least one every year. I do Charles Paris Mysteries, and I’ve been doing that particular program for 10 years. I play an actor sleuth, who drinks too much and smokes too much and doesn’t work very much. But every time he does go to work, somebody gets murdered.
Wow, that sounds like a lot of fun.
I quite enjoy doing them. And I did another radio show recently called Subterranean Homesick Blues. That was for BBC Radio 4 also. I think you can get them somewhere on the internet.
And I saw you’ve done a version of Educating Rita a few years ago, plus some Noël Coward.
I did Private Lives with Helena Bonham Carter. I’ve done a lot. I was kind of an apprentice on the radio when I was a young actor. It was very cool, because they were the only people giving me work and I got to play parts that I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere. And most importantly, I got to work with great older actors at very close range and observe them and meet them. That was as valuable as anything that ever happened to me.
And you played Sam in a Lord of the Rings radio production. Was that your first?
No, I did masses of other radio when I was young. A hundred plays or something. But the flagships for me were some Dickens. We did Bleak House, we did Little Dorrit. And, yes, then Tolkien. We did Lord of the Rings in 1981 and that was the biggest radio drama of all time. There were 26 episodes.
Does that experience still resonate for you?
Absolutely. And I often meet people who are thirtysomething now, and they only know me as Sam Gamgee, because they were made to be quiet by their parents while in the back of the car during long European journeys. My voice is embedded in their early consciousness.
Radio has never gone away, right? Even now, podcasts are so popular.
I love the radio. BBC Radio is a vital part of our cultural life, not to sound too precious about it. I had no plans to make statements like that today, but it’s true. Radio is so crucial.
With all these other things, 3-D and all that, people are still drawn to this primitive form of entertainment.
Well, primitive is one way of putting it. Radio shows are simple. But they can be as powerful as anything you’ve got, depending on the material and the performances.
It’s true for live theater too. I mean, we still go in droves.
Without a doubt. There’s a play that runs in London now, it’s been running for years, called The Woman in Black. It’s two guys telling a ghost story. And people leap into each others laps. You can do that in 3-D and have trains coming off the tracks and heading towards the audience and they’ll leap as well. But this is just from the storytelling. There’s one effect, where you see a face going by a window — at which point most of the theater lose their lunch.
Did you lose yours?
Nearly. I only know because I took my daughter when she was a child and she ended up clinging to my neck. And she was not unfamiliar with the big technological entertainments. But theater and radio are different. They are more special.
How does using your voice for animated characters deepen your understanding of acting?
Well, it accustomed me to the discipline of focusing entirely on my voice. And knowing that’s all you have. When I come to do voices for animation, I do feel kind of prepared in a way that I wouldn’t without that experience. It’s very enjoyable, and then I get to go away for a few years while the work is done. Animation artists are heroic. It’s an enormous investment in terms of time before they see the thing let lose in the world.
Did you record with the other actors in Norm of the North?
No, there were multiple sessions but for this particular film I did my scenes alone. I heard the other voices and I had the pictures to act along with. But I did it in isolation.
That must be difficult.
I risk heresy here, but it was fine. Sometimes it can be better, because I have one less layer of self-consciousness to deal with, so I’m freer perhaps. Just me and the bird and no restrictions. I think it can work very well, though I don’t think that’s something that I’m supposed to say.
But you’ve spoken a bit about the advantages of solitude.
My first impulse is to isolate [laughs]. I don’t know why I’m laughing. But I love nothing more than to go out alone for a walk around the city. In fact, I’m doing it today. It’s a beautiful winter’s day in London. We’ve had the loveliest weather. It’s worrying, of course, though it’s lovely.
You’re performance as Davy Jones in the Pirates movies is almost 10 years old and it’s still amazing to look at.
When we were prepping it, the director Gore Verbinski promised me that everything I did on the set would be on the screen. And then as we were moving forward into filming, I was in computer pajamas with white dots all over myself, and I reminded him of that promise. And he said, “Oh, no, I was just lying.” Which was refreshingly frank. I was looking very much like a sad, old actor and so he was just trying to keep my pecker up, if you’ll pardon the expression.
But he wasn’t lying, was he?
Not at all. Every facial tic, every light in the eye, every flicker, those were all the things that happened on the set and then there they were on the screen. The first thing Gore said to the guys who made it, at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, was that they should get their Oscar acceptance speeches ready. Which, in fact, turned out to be true, and quite rightly. Unbelievable, simply unbelievable, what they did.
What roles are you most often recognized for, both in England and the rest of the world?
Worldwide, I’m that sad, old rocker Billy Mack from Love Actually. Then lots and lots of people will come up to me and ask, “Are you Davy Jones?” And I think they must have watched the DVD extras.
Well, we do see your real face for one quick scene in the third movie.
Ah, that’s true too. But I do have my bases covered, really, because I’ve been in a few kids movies as well. And I’m one of the rare actors who were in all three of what the boys — Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and Edgar Wright — call the Cornetto Trilogy, named after a famous ice cream brand. That’s Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and World’s End. Young men between the ages of 13 and 27 would know me from those. And if I go further afield, particularly if I go East, then Underworld is massive. I’ve got the genre crowd, to some degree.
One of your recent films was Pride, which is a great story and unfortunately did not make a lot of money in the States. But you give a really touching performance. And it also let you sound off a little bit about your personal politics. What that a fortifying experience for you?
Yeah, it was. I couldn’t believe my luck when I got that script. It deals with two things which are close to my heart. The emancipation of gay men and women and the miners strike in England, which was a civil war here. Margaret Thatcher destroyed whole communities in her ideological quest to crush the Trade Union movement. She invented the minors as enemies of the state, when in fact they were exemplary people, working men and women. So to have one story, which dovetailed those two narratives in such a lovely way, I was just lucky to be in it.
Reports have said that you’re going to be in Snowpiercer director Bong Joon Ho’s next movie, about a girl and a monster. Can you tell us something about it?
I can’t yet, except that I admire Bong Joon Ho and I admire the script. I was in New York doing a play last summer and we met then. He might film it in New York, which would make sense.
That play, Skylight, scored you a Tony nomination. I hope it won’t be the last we see of you on the New York stage.
I hope not, I loved it. It was a big deal for me and I adored working with [costar] Carey Mulligan and [director] Stephen Daldry. That was one of the significant highlights for me, not just for last year but for my whole career.
I really liked the actor who played your son in it. He was mimicking a lot of your tics and gestures, which we in the audience have become so used to from all of your performances.
Yes [laughs], Matthew Beard, he’s very, very good. He absolutely did do that. He was always watching all my strange mannerisms, even while I wasn’t acting, thinking he was so clever. Like a lot of very talented people, he’s a cheeky sod.