Interview: Bill Nighy on love, comedy and "Emma"

Anna Walker 17 February 2020

Actor Bill Nighy discusses working on the new Jane Austen adaptation, Emma

Reader's Digest: Did your own experiences as a father and grandfather inform your performance as Mr Woodhouse?

Bill Nighy: No, not to any degree whatsoever. It's not autobiographical in any way. When I'm working I don't refer to anything really that's personal to me. I don't think many actors do. The script is the guide, is the blueprint. It's just a story and you try to tell the story as best you can. 


RD: So you don't share any of his traits then?

BN: Oh I expect I do, but I'm not a valetudinarian, he's a valetudinarian. I didn't know what that meant, but it's not to be confused with a hypochondriac. Hypochondriacs are obsessively concerned with their own health, whereas valetudinarians are obsessively concerned with other people's. Really I suppose, that's there to give you an opportunity to try and be funny. 

I am interested in uptight, neurotic people because I am no stranger to uptightness or neurosis, like most people, and it can be comedic if you're lucky. So it's rich pickings in that respect. 


RD: As somebody who has never read Jane Austen, did anything surprise you about her work?

BN: Well I've never read the book or any of her books. I've only read the script, which was written by Eleanor Catton, the Booker Prize-winning novelist. So I haven't had a lot to do with Jane Austen,

If I do an adaptation, I never read the book, because it's not helpful. There's too much information, things that didn't make it to the script which I may regret. Why give yourself the grief?


RD: So if there was a book you had a strong attachment to, would that put you off working on an adaptation?

BN: Yes. There was a case with a book I particularly loved where I was asked to be in it and I didn't want to for that reason, because the book is very dear to me. 


RD: It's a very funny performance—was there anybody you looked to for inspiration with regard to the physical comedy?

BN: No, I'm too alarmed by the whole process to get round to thinking about things like that. I'm afraid it's not very grown-up but I tend to make it up as I go along. 

I wasn't asked to do anything funny until I was about 46 and if I am at all funny, I think it's a result of sitting as a kid and watching loads of comedians on the TV.

In terms of delivering a line in a comedic way, it's usually to do with pausing at some point. If there's a consonant at the end of the last work you have to PONG it so that they all hear it at the same time. 

I think it's the result of watching Eric Morecambe—maybe it went in in some way, in some form of osmosis. 


RD: As Emma is a Valentine's Day release, what's your favourite love song?

BN: Love Letter by Nick Cave, Van Morrison I'll Be Your Love Too and The Very Thought of You as sung by Frank Sinatra. 


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