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

BY Anna Walker

17th Feb 2020 Celebrities

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

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. 


Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter