John Hinton talks to former altar boy Bill Nighy about his eventful journey from failed runaway to runaway success ven as a lad, Bill Nighy had a lively imagination. But his dreams didn't include emerging from the chrysalis of a busy stage, radio and television career to suddenly find himself among the stars who have an international audience in the movies.
That came when he ambled on to the set of Richard Curtis's 2003 film Love Actually, playing an old rock 'n' roller called Billy Mack. Audiences worldwide loved the film, and especially loved Nighy.
At his apartment in New York, where he has just completed a fivemonth run in a Broadway play, he talks to me about movie stardom.
"Richard Curtis actually changed the way I go to work and changed my working life by putting me in Love Actually," he says. "More people saw me in that than in everything else I've done put together because he's the most successful comic cinema writer in the world.
"And not only that, but I had an extremely good part. People are very fond of old rockers and I got to fanny about with my band and get a few laughs. And that afforded me the kind of attention I would otherwise have not received." (He received a BAFTA award for the role.) But to reprise the happy phrase fannying about in the movies wasn't the young Nighy's initial passion. He wanted to be a journalist. And not just a cub reporter jotting down court cases, council meetings and occasional sightings of flying saucers by eccentrics for the local paper.
The thing about journalism is that I wanted to be a writer. One of my favourites was Ernest Hemingway and he'd been a reporter on the Toronto Star at 17 . The reason I didn't have any 0-levels and five were needed to enter journalism is that I ran away shortly before them, wanting to be like Ernest. On one occasion, I came back with my tail between my legs having tried to make it to the Persian Gulf. But I only got as far as the South of France because I was hungry. I was about 15."
At 16, having predictably failed his 0-levels. he went with his worried mother to the then National Youth Employment Agency. But here. again, ambition rather overreached itself.
"I told the nice man there that I wanted to be an author. And my mother pressed hard on my toes underneath the desk and gave me a look. But the bloke was very nice. 'Let's look at something that might lead to that,' he said, and got me a job as a messenger boy on the Field magazine. It was a nice job, but I still hankered after the Hemingway life, so I blew it by running away again this time to Paris.
"I didn't write anything, predictably, and would beg on the Trocadero (where tourists go to view the Eiffel Tower) in very bad French.His favourite targets were Americans. And would he then get a fistful of dollars? "No. I'd get a thimbleful of centimes, hardly enough to buy a croissant. And that was the end of my writing career and my journalistic career."
He returned to try for a reporting vacancy at the Croydon Advertiser, but, as implacable as the Berlin Wall, his lack of 0-levels ruled him out again.
"I had a romantic idea and all my ideas have been romantic ones and that was me in trenchcoat with a trilby in the rain at night interviewing beautiful-women from Yugoslavia one of whom would turn out to be the future Mrs Nighy who would love me while I constructed brilliant, insightful sentences."
At machine-gun speed on a battered Smith Corona? "You've got the picture."
But the dream died and he turned to acting at the Guildford School of Dance and Drama. He cut his acting teeth in the theatre and on radio without the mass audiences and stardom that have come in recent years, but as a highly respected member of the profession with roles a-plenty.
"I'm very proud of having worked for BBC Radio 3 and 4 throughout my career. I love the radio. It allows the listener's mind to run riot. When I was young, one of the great things about the radio was that they would give you parts that they wouldn't give elsewhere. You could do leading roles and it didn't matter what you looked like.
"And you also got to work with great actors and actresses. And that was my apprenticeship, really. I learned to actalso in the theatre. -obviously, but also on the radio by having a close proximity to very accomplished actors and actresses, by watching them day in day out.
"In my generation nobody really had a film career. Traditionally, there are half a dozen people who have a film career and everybody else is like me. I've been extremely lucky. And I didn't just get lucky; I've always been lucky in terms of my work. I'veaaiwayibhad a job touch wood and in the theatre, I've worked with some of the greatest actors, writers and directors in the world. I've had an extremely fortunate and lively television career."
Many will have caught him in the remarkable television movie Gideon 's Daughter by Stephen Poliakoff about a successful PR guru who loses his marbles, intended as a metaphor for the dispirited state of England.
''But nobody was ever in the movies. There's a Catch-22 that operates in acting circles. You can't play a lead in the theatre until you've played a lead in the theatre; you can't play a leading role in tele-„. vision until you've played a leading role in television. And you can't play a principal role in a movie until you've played a principal role in a Game over then? Well, not quite.
"So you have to rely on sort of champions or unlikely accidents ke everyone else in the world turning the part down. And, like most people's careers, my career is built upon the fact that manrIther artistes have turned roles down. You assume that you will go up the ladder. For a long time, I thought I was 12th, so if 11 people turned down a role, it would then get round to me. Then I went to about eighth in my imagination."
By the time Love Actually came round in 2003 Nighy was already in an extremely fortunate position, having played leading roles in the theatre and on television. What is more, in Richard Curtis, he had a champion. He has just finished a play on Broadway for five months The Vertical Hour by David flare "mother champion, my greatest champion along with Richard Curtis ArAnd Stephen Poliakoff And many will have seen his strong performance as the wronged husband in Notes on a Scandal with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.
Meanwhile, he has had a "whale" of a time (his pun) in his last Pirates of the Caribbean film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, due for general release here next month, where he again plays the villain, Davy Jones, his face writhing horribly with serpents thanks to computer-generated special effects. Now that he's wafted up to a new level. does he find life very much more satisfying? "I'm very happy about my professional good fortune, but life goes on in its own curious manner, and I haven't found the key to happiness, no." He laughs, and it sounds very real. Perhaps he thinks the old pirates' buried treasure chest is just a chimera.
On religion, one finds he has prepared his responses carefully.
"I was educated in the Catholic religion; my father converted to Catholicism in order to many my mother. I was an altar boy and in the ,-• choir. I ceased to worship as a Catholic around the time that I • started to comb my hair and worry about my trousers in other words, girls. It wasn't simply that I drifted away from the Church. But I have great respect for anyone who worships in that way.
"The way I now express it is that I am perfectly cheerful about the prospect of there being a God; I just don't happen to have any information about that area yet. I am rather keen on the idea. But. to me, it remains a mystery. I no longer see it as my responsibility to solve the mystery_ Not to be grand or anything, but I am constructing these sentences carefully so as not to f: be misunderstood.
And if he has more time. might he _ explore the matter further?
"Well , I'm never short of time, but for nne it remains a mystery and I used to see it as part of my responsibility in some vague way to solve it, but I no longer feel that way. I also no longer think that God exists or will cease to exist if I didn't believe in him, or vice versa. I have not been visited in any way and I therefore can't be expected to have any specific notions about a higher being because I have not been alerted to any.
"But I am also if I may paraphrase Tom Stoppard not capable of the leap of faith required to believe there is nothing after death. For him it was too fantastic an idea that there is nothing. In other words, the leap of faith required to be either an agnostic or an atheist is beyond me. I am not capable of that kind of faith. It remains a mystery.
"And that's all I have to say. The whole praint is I haven't a clue. I heard about someone the other day, who had had a near-death experience, andl was asked whether he wanted a priest or not. And he was basically an atheist but he commented: 'I may not believe in God, but l'm not stupid.'
The future? At 57. Bill has a promising retirement plan which has as its core the happy sounds of a West End audience in stitches over a good farce. • "I am endlessly fascinated by the ' whole genre of farce. It needs to be elevated because the material often isn't all that good. So if I can find someone to work with who writes some decent material, that would be an honourable way to spend one's later life, one's golden years."
What a cracking idea.