Bill Nighy on Lead Roles: “The pressure is greater, because in the end, it’s going to depend on whether people can stand looking at you for that length of time”

After spending most of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s on British television, by the mid-2000s actor Bill Nighy has amassed quite an impressive resume in film.  In an interview with NPR, Nighy explains what he thinks of this change in his career, and, in particular, how his starring role in the drama Page Eight has affected his approach to acting.

In Page Eight, Nighy, who plays a British intelligence officer, discovers that the prime minister, played by his Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows co-star Ralph Fiennes, might have knowledge about the United States torturing its prisoners.

Nighy found it easy to work with Fiennes, on the film, “We were basically locked in a room together, and it was very exciting.  And [the script] was just beautifully written and very satisfying for both Ralph and myself.”

Despite playing supporting roles for most of his career, Nighy took the lead in the film, an experience which he found full of pressure. He confesses, “You’re in every scene and you never get 10 minutes off.  And I do feel — and I think most people who play a leading role feel — a certain responsibility to the project generally and to all of [the] supporting cast … The pressure is greater, because in the end, it’s going to depend on whether people can stand looking at you for that length of time.”  

Nonetheless, despite the challenge of being the lead Nighy feels comfortable in the role… since he claims that he typically seems to get the same type of roles.  Nighy explains, “I used to play working-class boys — army soldiers and various working-class characters — and then at some point, I must have played a middle-class part and then I got a long run of middle-class parts.  Now I really never get asked to play much else.”  Huh, I never thought of his rock star character in Love Actually, his pirate character in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and his Nazi general character in Valkyrie as “middle class,” so I’m guessing Nighy is being a bit facetious.

However, Nighy has found that as he’s gained experience he’s found it easier to slip into different roles even if they end up similar.  “It took me quite a long time and I didn’t seem to be able to learn from experience.  I had to reinvent myself every time I went to work in a different role, which is exhausting. And sometimes there are still parts where you really know what you’re doing. In Page Eight, I will risk saying that I know what I’m doing. In Love Actually, I knew what I was doing. But some parts, you nearly know what you’re doing and that’s where it gets a little hairy.”

But despite his sometime lack of confidence in his career, Nighy has achieved one satisfying plateau: he longer has to audition for roles.  About that, he says, “I never thought that day would come.  I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that.”

Page Eight with air on PBS on November 6.

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