British film star Bill Nighy on football, sexual equality & Christopher Walken

Actor Bill Nighy. Photo: AP Photo/Matt Sayles

Actor Bill Nighy. Photo: AP Photo/Matt Sayles

I didn’t expect to wind up talking to Bill Nighy about football. The much-admired British film star is in Melbourne promoting his new film Their Finest, a heartwarming crowdpleaser set during the 1940 London Blitz. It’s the sort of film likely to stir passions in the chests of those young enough to not-quite-remember the war. But today Bill is most passionate about the pleasures of the sporting variety.

“I didn’t follow football until I was in my thirties,” Bill says. “I don’t know how it happened, but I then realised what was involved. And what’s involved is passages of great beauty. You sit there and you wait for these geniuses to do something that only occurs to them. You wait for these moments of great dexterity and wit.”

We’re not talking AFL, of course, although Bill has spent enough time filming in Melbourne to have picked up the basics. Bill’s home team is Crystal Palace, although he admits he’s polyamorous when it comes to football.

“I don’t want to narrow my vision. I’m greedy. I love football. The Champions League is everything. As soon as I hear the music for the Champions League, I am at peace. I like the badges. I like the strips. I like the unpronounceable names. I dig everything about it.”

Indeed, he talks about the game with near-erotic fervour. Forget that old adage about golden voices reading the phone book, Bill’s syrupy reading of forthcoming football games (from memory, natch) is enough to give certain women – and likely a fair few men – some very sweet dreams. If you don’t believe us, check out the vid. Even this hardened football sceptic was nearly seduced.

Not that Bill has come to terms with his oft-touted status as sex symbol. Raise the topic and you soon get the feeling he’d rather be talking about football again. Or anything else.

“If you get past 50 and you’re still in one piece and you get in a position where you’re being interviewed, you will not infrequently be asked about what it’s like to be the thinking woman’s crumpet. It’s always a difficult question to answer without making it sound like you think you might be. I used to quip that anyone who wants to be physically intimate with me needs to seek professional help.”

We talk about his admiration for Christopher Walken (“one of the great American actors”) and his reported near miss as Doctor Who (“I was on the same list as Judi Dench”) but, football aside, the main fire in Bill’s belly is the ongoing fight for sexual equality. It’s a major theme in Their Finest, which sees a scriptwriter (played by Gemma Arterton) recruited to make wartime films more appealing to a female audience. At the time, women’s dialogue was derisively labelled “the slop” by the all-male movie industry.

Bill says he’s always drawn to films with a social conscience.

“You always try and do films that are going to be two things: entertaining and useful in some ways. Even if it’s infinitesimally making the world a better place to be in, then you’re in good shape. Sexual equality… I think is the first thing we need to be addressing. Racism, sexism and drugs. You can put them in any order, but those are the plagues of the earth.”

Not that Bill’s character in the film shares his progressive tendencies. Ambrose Hilliard is a thoroughly old school actor who hasn’t quite noticed his glory days are behind him. It’s not the first time Bill has tackled a showbiz has-been, of course. His first taste of superstardom came late at 47, when he played old rocker Billy Mack in Richard Curtis rom com Love Actually. It’s a job that defined his career in more ways than one.

“If they’re looking for a pompous, self-absorbed actor in his declining years, apparently they think of me. If they want to see some rock idiot who has seen better days, they come to me. I can do the ageing part pretty well. But it’s a great part and it’s a killer script.”

Although Bill shares the film’s nostalgic tendencies, he says he’s wary of a current trend – in films and politics alike – for rose-coloured lenses.

“I think the nostalgia is for a kind of simplified life, where everyone was united against one real danger and the daily static of normal life was unplugged for a while,” he says.

“Like everyone of my age, in other words people who weren’t there, I have a kind of nostalgia for that period of the Blitz during which the film takes place. Which is odd because it was a beautiful and savage time. Certain elements have always invented an imaginary past, usually something like 60 to 70 years before you were around. So if you were a monk in 1640, you’d be writing about how great it was in the 1570s. That’s not what this film is about. We’re looking back for precisely the opposite reason.”

Their Finest

 

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