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Interview with Bill Nighy, co-star of Notes on a Scandal

Bill Nighy co-stars in Notes on a Scandal as Richard, the husband of Sheba (Cate Blanchett), a high school teacher who confides in Barbara (Judi Dench), a colleague and neighbor who witnesses her secret affair with one of her students, Steven (Andrew Simpson). Based on the novel by Zoe Heller. Bill Nighy has performed in such films as Still Crazy, Blow Dry, Lawless Heart, Love Actually, Shawn of the Dead, The Girl in the Cafť, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and in the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End. He is currently performing in the play "Vertical Hour". I had the privilege to interview him.

Fox Searchlight Pictures will release Notes on a Scandal on December 27th, 2006.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What does it feel like to be in a non-CGI movie?

BN: Itís a bit of a holiday, actually. It was a relief. It was very nice to play a regular human being having played zombies and vampires and squids. It was also nice to play somebody who was, broadly speaking, in reasonable shape until events overcome him. He was somebody who was, sort of, a good thing in the world. My job wasnít to indicate how damaged he was or what kind of a nuisance he might turn out to be. He was just a regular guy with a family and it was nice doing family stuff and being a dad.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you do any research for your role of Richard?

BN: I never seem to get around to research. If the script is any good, itís in there. They already did [the research]óunless there [are] specific, practical things that you have know, [like] how to operate a crane.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you read the book by Zoe Heller?

BN: Not when I got the script, but I familiarized myself with the book and I enjoyed [it] very much. Author Zoe Heller was very cool about Patrick [Marber] taking the book and turning it into something else: a movie. That was a very good idea because, with a writer like Patrick, itís a successfully achieved, different entity and he was able to free the characters, particularly Sheba, from Barbaraís perspective as seen in the book.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you mange to act without judging the character of Richard?

BN: I think thatís just a function of having an actor on board. You try doing it without comment. You just try to deliver the role without moral judgment because thatís not my business. Patrick [Marberís] script is very superior. Heís a wonderful writer. Therefore, the writing helps enormouslyóit doesnít need any help from me. I really did enjoy the environment they gave us. They gave us a very witty, very accurate setóa representation of a very upper-middle class English environment where you have the passport in the fruit bowl which always made me feel very uneasy. I wanted to put it somewhere safe, but that was a very witty touch. Thatís the kind of household we have. I think itís referred to as shabby/sheik.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you expect some of the dialogue in Notes on a Scandal to be funny?

BN: I was quite surprised. I didnít expect it to be quite a funny as it was. Although, now, you think [that] I should have known, but I did think that there would be moments of levity even though itís a grim tale.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Was the dance sequence in the film choreographed?

BN: No, we didnít have any choreography. Max, my son, whoís particularly adept, felt particularly dissatisfied with that scene because he didnít get all of his moves in. He actually quite vigorously complained that he hadnít finished yet. [So], they had arranged for people to stop working for a while and Max got all of his moves inóthey put the music back on and [he] just did it. The whole set stood and just watched.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did the actorsí background in theater help you during the shoot?

BN: Every actor [in Notes on a Scandal] has a healthy theatrical track record. Iíve worked with Richard [Eyre]ó[he] directed me in the theater when ran the National Theater in a David Hare play [called] ďSkylightĒ. There was somewhat of an awareness of that, but I donít know how much it informed the end result.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you distinguish between theater actors versus film actors?

BN: I never really ask and I donít always know. Sometimes thereís a slight difference between generations. I suppose that there are differences, but I donít really feel [them] because each situation is so different. Thereís nothing that you can bring from [your experience in] the theater thatís going to help. The job is pretty much the same. There isnít anything fundamentally different apart from the technical considerations.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Where was the location of the shooting?

BN: It was right around the corner from my house [in] North London. Itís the only time Iíve ever worked near my house. The house was in Bellsize Park and I live in Kentish Town, which is just by Hampstead. I could have, literally, walked to workóI think I did, in one case. So, that was nice.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What distinguishes Richard Eyre from other directors?

BN: Heís incredibly bright. Thatís what you want from a director. You want somebody cleverer than you. Thatís what I always hope for. Iíve been very very lucky. He has the thing that I lack which is that I can do my bit, [but] Iím not good at an overview of any kind. I have a couple of bad habits. One is that I always want to play the end because I canít bear the suspenseóI always want to indicate to the audience that Iím a really nice guy, which may or may not be part of the gig. My other bad habit is that I always try to sell things as if Iím trying to sell a lie. Roger Michell, another director, who I admire particularly and worked with a couple of times, after I was struggling to deliver some large speech in a play came over to me and politely suggested that I try doing it [honestly]. Richard [Eyre] also has great taste and a great bullshit detector. Whenever I wanted to sell it like some kind of salesperson, trying to do something that was other than be authentically there, he was very good at politely suggesting that I stop that. [Richard] is very good at tuning your performance. I think he did a little bit of acting in his university days. Sometimes, that helps a great deal. It doesnít matter if youíre particularly good at it or not, just the fact that you ever attempted it does really help when youíre trying to communicate something to an actor. Heís extremely good on the text and how to get the most value out of the nuances.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you feel patriotic by being in a good British film?

BN: In the play that Iím currently doing, [ďVertical HoursĒ], director David Hare has me say, when asked if I have any sense of being part of a nation, ďI donít know how to answer. Like most people, I do have a button marked ĎPatriotismí. Letís just say that Iím choosy who Iím allowing to press it,Ēócertainly not politicians and certainly not the queen. I am obscurely proud that people living in the same part of the planet as me are prospering in my own profession. It makes me feel good. I donít mind if they come from somewhere else, too. If the work is good, then the work is good. I thought that prizes and awards were damaging until I got one and then they seemed rather meaningful and true.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about the success of the play youíre in, ďVertical HourĒ?

BN: Opening a play, such as ďVertical HourĒ, with Julianne Moore, is beyond tough. Weíre open now, itís a hit [and] weíve sold out, thank Godóthere is a God. I wasnít quite sure before now, but I know. I got through it and thank the Lord and itís beautiful because the alternative doesnít bear thinking.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you consciously choose roles that might be Oscar-worthy?

BN: No, I donít have that luxury. I often have to choose a role depending on other more mundane considerations.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which roles have you enjoyed the most?

BN: Iíve had so many, really. I like it when it gets a little bit daft. The dafter it gets, the less harm Iím doing. I like it when it gets silly. Love Actually was a very cool thing.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What are you working on now?

BN: Iíve finished Pirates of the Caribbean 3 [and] Iím here doing [ďVertical HourĒ] until April. Sam Mendes is a tremendous director. David Hare I admire as much as I admire anybody else in the world. Iíve worked with him 6 times ever since I was very young. Heís one of the most important people in my career. I love what he does and itís a really timely piece and itís funny, too. You get a good night outónobody suffers.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you do in your free time?

BN: I spent my rehearsal period literally bent over the script worrying, [so] I never went anywhere. I watched some soccer, which is my passion, really.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Whatís your main concern about getting older?

BN: My major crisis is that, as I get older, things overtake me. Wearing oneís shirt outside of oneís trousers, which is generally the territory of the younger man, is unsettling for somebody of my years. It was only because of Richard Eyre, whoís slightly older than me, said, ďHey, look!Ē because he wears his shirt out of his trousers. I was finally emboldened to do so. I really didnít want to [do that], but Iím over that now.

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