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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Glenn Whipp

Death? Bill Nighy will worry about that later

LOS ANGELES — Bill Nighy handed me a cassette mixtape many years ago titled "Ooh Baby Ooh," a nod to the chorus of a Lou Reed rocker that was not among the 20 songs on the cassette, though there was plenty of Lou and Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and Maxwell, the last included because Nighy had just asked a record shop clerk, "Where do you go after Marvin?" and the young man walked him down an aisle and handed him "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite."

"That's where you go after Marvin," he told Nighy. "And he was absolutely correct. Also, I love the expression 'Hang Suite.' It's just a great idea."

It's a rainy day in L.A. — "I can't quite put the two things together," Nighy says — and we're catching up, sharing our latest passions, mostly musical, as Nighy grew up in an English household where his dad loved Bing Crosby and his older brother, Martin, a singer, revered Sinatra. Martin used to give Nighy a schilling ("shows you how old I am," he says) to write down the lyrics to songs, which involved dropping and lifting the record arm repeatedly until he got it right.

These days, Nighy still transcribes songs. He sings compulsively throughout the day, and once he has landed on a number he'll look up the lyrics because he wants to sing the whole thing, not just the first two lines. Yesterday, it was Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell." Today, he settled into Anita Baker's "Giving You the Best That I Got," which he can't stop talking about — and singing — telling me he loves singers who put across a song in a seemingly effortless manner, though he knows full well that it takes a lifetime of effort to make it appear that way.

You might say the same thing about the acting of Bill Nighy. Take "Living," for example, the role that just earned the 73-year-old actor his first Oscar nomination. Set in 1953 London, Nighy plays Mr. Williams, an English gentleman, a bureaucrat, who has settled into a life of routine following the death of his wife. After he receives a terminal diagnosis, he practices breaking the news to his son in front of a mirror. "It's a bit of a bore, really," he says with a restraint that has earned him the nickname of Mr. Zombie. Realizing he no longer knows how to enjoy himself, Mr. Williams embarks on a journey to live life fully and do something that has a lasting impact.

"Living," a remake of Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru," could have been maudlin and dreadful in the wrong hands. Writer Kazuo Ishiguro notes that Nighy's casting gave him the ability to make Mr. Williams a bit more "frosty," banking on moviegoers' affection for the actor. "In England, he's a national treasure," Ishiguro says. Costume designer Sandy Powell thought of Nighy after reading the script, not knowing he had already been cast. "We're used to seeing him more twinkly, aren't we?" she says. "I think that makes what he does in the film all the more extraordinary."

Nighy tells me that since "Living" premiered, people mostly want to talk to him about two things — mortality and procrastination. On the first, employing his soft-spoken dry wit, he says he doesn't worry about death. He just doesn't want to be around when it happens.

"I've never felt any pressure to leave a legacy of any kind," Nighy says. "I find it difficult to have an enthusiasm for a world that doesn't include me." Still, he can't help but look at the clock. "When you're my age, you buy a pair of shoes and you think, 'Wow. How many more pairs of shoes am I going to buy?' It's not a morbid thing." He pauses, reflecting. "I suppose, like everyone else, I feel like I'll deal with it when I get there."

That gets us talking about procrastination, which he calls "one of the great corrosive elements of my life." And yet, he almost takes pride in his ability to put things off, saying he dawdles on an "Olympic level."

During the height of the pandemic, Nighy spent nearly a year in Suffolk so he could isolate close to his daughter and two granddaughters. He tells me he sat under a willow tree, reading books. Then he corrects himself. "Actually, I sat inside a willow tree," Nighy says. "The tree came right down to the ground and I had a table and chair inside, just like being in a small chapel. And I read book after book after book."

Nighy came to appreciate this stretch of relaxation — "I'm good at loafing," he boasts — and began to look at it as an experiment in retirement. He was happy. He downloaded an app on his phone so he could identify plants. He listened to birds singing and could soon tell the difference between a blackbird and a thrush. The birdsong delighted him. The night sky, filled with stars, satisfied his soul. And Nighy thought: "This is what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be sitting under a tree reading 'Middlemarch.'"

But the pleasure he took in this year of living leisurely was predicated on the knowledge that one day he'd be going back to work, or as he puts it, "cranking up the operation." Nighy has heard about retirement, and he doesn't like the sound of it.

"I don't think it's good for the soul," Nighy says. "I want to go to work. The world is crazy, and I want to make things that may even marginally help."

To that end, he has been genuinely moved by all the people seeing "Living" and sending him messages, telling him that the film prompted them to take care of unfinished business or inspired them to "live a little." Our conversation returns often to a desire to actively look for beauty in every circumstance. With one friend, Nighy has a catchphrase he'll sometimes text: "I'm out here. I'm out in the middle of everything." Meaning, he says, he's fully present and in "vigorous — and I do mean vigorous — opposition to the tendency to succumb to any kind of negative projection."

"I used to spend too much time in the past or in an imaginary future," Nighy says. "And when I project into the future ... guess what? It doesn't always look that great. But I'm much better now. I've defied this tendency. I have this expression I share with a friend — 'death to superstition.' Fear of the future is a form of superstition. I find that helpful to remember. I should have a T-shirt with 'death to superstition' on it."

I encourage him along these lines, saying he should make a bunch of these shirts and give them to all the people who have resolved to change their ways after seeing "Living." Nighy likes the idea. "Merch. I like a bit of merch. I saw a young woman walking in the street. She had a T-shirt which said, 'Respect my hustle,' which I thought was quite, quite cool." He smiles. "I might steal that."

The next day Nighy sends me a playlist devoted to blues great John Lee Hooker, telling me he often uses it to retune his head in the mornings. Along with a cup of tea, of course.

"You don't get any days off from the static in your head," he says. "It seems to wait for you at the bottom of the bed. But then you get up, and everything we do — work, raising a family, listening to the rain — is a victory over that."

He pauses, replaying his words in his head. "I don't know what this is going to sound like in print. Suddenly, you hear yourself and you think, 'Oh my God.' Anyway ... f— it. Excuse my language. I do try not to have a day stolen from me. It's not easy. But I do believe it's an idea worth pursuing."


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