Bill Nighy shot to international stardom after playing an aging rocker in the 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually. The part led to roles in the movies Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest, Notes on a Scandal, Valkyrie, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Before his film career took off, Nighy acted on the British stage and in television. He returns to the latter in the BBC drama Page Eight, which will be broadcast stateside on PBS on Nov. 6.
In Page Eight, Nighy plays a British intelligence officer who stumbles upon a document insinuating that the British Prime Minister, played by Ralph Fiennes, knows that U.S. officials are torturing prisoners overseas. The scenes between Fiennes and Nighy were shot in just two days.
"We were basically locked in a room together, and it was very exciting," Nighy says. "And [the script] was just beautifully written and very satisfying for both Ralph and myself."
The part is one of the first in which Nighy, a career-long character actor, plays the lead. He tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that carrying a film is much more exhausting than playing a bit part.
"You're in every scene and you never get 10 minutes off," he says. "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."
Nighy grew up in Southeast England, the son of a nurse and a gas-station manager. As a teenager he ran away from home in order to become, in his words, a great British writer.
"I didn't write a word," he says. "But managed to flunk, on my return, all my exams. So I left school at 15 or 16. ... I then met a girl who was going to a drama college, and she suggested that I should maybe try being an actor. I was so crazy about her — she was the first girl who ever paid any attention to me — that she could have said astronaut and I'd have probably given it a shot."
Nighy aced his audition at the Guildford School of Acting, where he trained before joining a repertory theatre in Liverpool. He made his National Theatre debut in 1977, as a cast member in Ken Campbell and Chris Langham's Illuminatus!
"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," he says. "Now I really never get asked to play much else."
Nighy once told British journalist Kat Whiting said he thought of every new role as a challenge — and that he tended to panic when thinking about embodying a new character. Less so these days, though.
"It took me quite a long time and I didn't seem to be able to learn from experience," he says. "I had to reinvent myself everytime 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."
He recalls one audition for Excalibur director John Boorman, in which he had to pretend to be a knight on horseback in Boorman's living room.
"If you watch the film, I'm not in it," he says. "He was very sweet and he was very kind, but it was one of those lonely moments."
Nighy no longer has to audition for roles, which he says is one of the "greatest thing that's ever happened to me."
"I never thought that day would come," he says. "I can't tell you how thankful I am for that."