In the animated family comedy Arthur Christmas, actor Bill Nighy voices the rather naughty Grandsanta. Upon his retirement, his lovely old sleigh and all of the reindeer who guided it were put out to pasture, in favor of an ultra-high-tech operation that allows for 18.14 seconds to get into each house, deliver the presents, and move on to the next, for the hundreds of millions of children in the world. So, when Santa’s (Jim Broadbent) youngest son, Arthur (James McAvoy), discovers that one child has been missed, he sets out on a mission, with the help of Grandsanta and a giftwrapping-obsessed elf (Ashley Jensen), to get that last present delivered before Christmas morning dawns.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, the fantastically lovely Bill Nighy talked about at first thinking he was being asked to play Santa and then realizing what a great character Grandsanta was, navigating voice roles by what he doesn’t want the character to sound like to make sure it’s unique, and how he’s so low-tech that he doesn’t own a computer and only recently was talked into getting an iPhone. He also talked about playing a 22-foot tall giant who eats people in Jack the Giant Killer, playing Hephaestus (the armorer to the Gods) in Wrath of the Titans, his trust in Len Wiseman as a storyteller for the remake of Total Recall (he plays Kuato in the film), his fear of harming Dame Judy Dench while driving her around on a motorcycle for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, making two more films with the Johnny Worricker character from David Hare’s Page Eight, finally getting the call to be a part of the Harry Potter franchise, and getting stopped all the time by fans who love his work in both Shaun of the Dead and Love, Actually. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
BILL NIGHY: Well, it gave me pause. I’ve worked with Aardman before and I admire them, like everybody else, and I had a good time working with them on Flushed Away, where I played an Albino ex-lab rat, called Whitey. I was keen to be in it, but I don’t think the script came with an accompanying note, so I just assumed, for some reason, that I was being asked to play Father Christmas. So, when I went along for the first try-out, I was quite confident and had persuaded myself that it was for Santa. And then, they said, “Oh, no, no, no, Grandsanta,” which was slightly spooky, but nice. He’s a great character, and I was very happy.
Before you started doing voice-over work, could you have ever imagined that you’d be able to put some of these characters as roles on your resume? How fun is that?
NIGHY: I love it! I played a stoned-out rabbit, who sang “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks, in The Magic Roundabout. I like it when things get a little daft. Now that I’ve played a four-foot tall, 136-year-old man with no hair and no teeth, it’s very good fun. Obviously, you get to play parts that you would never get to play anywhere else. It’s liberating.
NIGHY: Well, they show you the drawings and it’s just a case of trying to imagine what noise might come out of this funny little creature. I walked up and down my apartment floor, doing funny voices for a few days. You try to avoid cliche, and I tried to avoid anything I’d done before, in any other movie, and I tried to avoid anything that I’d heard anyone else do. I navigate by what I don’t want it to sound like, rather than any idea of what I do want it to sound like ‘cause you don’t really know until you hear it. Similarly for the director, Sarah Smith, she knew what she didn’t want. I wanted it to be unique to this movie. In terms of anything I’d done, it’s dissimilar and I hope I’ve avoided cliche.
Was it fun to play a character who turned out to be so naughty?
NIGHY: Yeah. It’s a very rich arc. He gets busted, half-way through, as a self-seeking status freak, but he recovers well. As my father always used to say, it’s how you recover that counts, and he recovers very well. And, he has a good finish, albeit that he’s out of his mind. It’s amusing for the kids. Kids like him because he’s that naughty grandpa.
This film really shows that the new high-tech ways of doing things aren’t always better then the old-fashioned ones, and that sometimes you even need a combination of both. Do you feel that you’re much of a high-tech guy yourself, or do you prefer the classic ways of doing things that have always been proven to work?
NIGHY: I have never owned a computer. I am one of those weirdos. I’ve never needed a computer. I’m lucky that I have a job where I’m not required to use one. I’ve never owned a laptop, or anything. When I was going to be away from home for a long time – like nine months, or something – my daughter said, “Dad, you’ve got to get a computer.” So, I got a younger man to go with me and we bought this computer, and he programmed it. It had a red light on it and every time I looked at it, I just got unhappy and waited for the red light to go off. I thought, “The next person who calls me and says that they have money problems and their computer has crashed, or anything in that area, I’ll give it to them.”
And indeed, a couple of days later, somebody rang me and said, “You know, I’m really in trouble with money, and now my computer is beginning to die,” and I said, “Come over.” So, I gave it away. I had it for six days, and I just waited for the red light to go out. I really don’t want a computer. But, now I have an iPhone, so I think the game is up. It’s been explained to me that it’s not a telephone, it’s a mini-computer that I now carry in my pocket. So, I’ve joined the human race. But, I don’t want a computer. I never go on the net or the web, or whatever it’s called. I just simply make phone calls.
NIGHY: In Jack the Giant Killer, I am the giant. I’m 22 feet tall and I eat people. It was very good fun. Bryan Singer was directing, who I worked with before on Valkyrie with Tom Cruise, which was a very good experience and I was happy to work with him again. There are a bunch of very, very good English actors in it. Ewan McGregor is in it, Nicholas Hoult is playing Jack, and Stanley Tucci plays the troublesome Roderick. He’s a brilliant man. It was a very nice experience, although it was quite difficult to keep a straight face. Obviously, it’s motion capture, so you wore a black vinyl jumpsuit with a zip up the front and trainers, which I’m never quite relaxed in, and a helmet with cameras attached that come down to your chin and basically shoot up your nose. It’s not a good look. But, after the first couple of days, they run out of jokes. You just have to not look at the other giants because otherwise you’d laugh. But, it was a very cool experience.
In Clash of the Titans 2, I play Hephaestus, who is armorer to the Gods. I make all the weapons, I live in a cave, and I fell from Mt. Olympus. It’s not in the movie, but in the myth, Zeus, who was his father, threw him out of Mt. Olympus because he was lame, and he fell for seven days, which didn’t improve his limp. It’s a very nice character and we had a very good time. We were above the cloud on a volcano, looking down on a carpet of white cloud in Spain, on a very beautiful landscape, which quite easily resembles the ancient world. It was quite an experience.
NIGHY: The original is treasured by people, I know, but I think I can help them relax. I think it’s in very, very good hands. I’ve worked with Len Wiseman before, on the Underworld series, in which I was a vampire. The first two of those were his first two films. And, I admire him beyond measure. I think he’s tremendous, as a man and as a director. It’s a cliche, but he can really tell a story. With Die Hard 4, he did a brilliant job. If Total Recall is going to be remade, I think it’s in very good, beyond safe, really brilliant hands.
The script is fabulous. I like sci-fi. I’m not keen on monsters from outer space, or that kind of thing, too much, although I’ll go with it, in certain cases. But, I love imaginative representations of a possible near-future, where you look at the technology and you think, “Well, yeah, that could really nearly be true.” I like those kinds of backgrounds. And, it’s a cracking script. Colin [Farrell], Jessica [Biel], Bryan Cranston and Kate Beckinsale are a pretty hot cast. I look forward to seeing that, even though I’m in it. I hate seeing films I’m in, but I think I’m going to have to watch it because I want to see it so bad.
If you hate watching movies that you’re in, what are your thoughts on 3D? How is it to also see yourself in 3D now?
NIGHY: That’s very, very spooky. As someone who finds the sight of himself deeply unsettling anyway, to see it pop out the screen at you, it’s really, honestly, like my nightmare come true. But, I put on my glasses for Arthur Christmas, in a cinema with a couple hundred kids, and it was the perfect situation in which to watch it, for the first time. I do think 3D has seriously improved, since I was a boy. It’s fabulous.
How often do people want to talk to you about Shaun of the Dead or Love, Actually? Those are both very different films, but very much beloved by their fans.
NIGHY: Yeah, I’m a lucky guy. Well, all the time. I’m lucky that I get to play a wide variety of parts, but generationally speaking, I’ve got it covered. I’m quite big with the under 9’s, in various projects. And then, you’ve got everybody covered with Pirates of the Carribean. And, usually any male between 17 and 29 is a Shaun of the Dead fan, or a Hot Fuzz fan. And Love, Actually has got nearly everybody covered, apart from usually males who pretend they don’t like it, in my view. Apparently, they’re not allowed to like it. It’s not in the dictionary of things that they’re allowed to like. Love, Actually is beloved by people, and wherever I go, that’s the thing that people talk about. In the street, people talk to you about all kinds of things, but by far, the most number of people talk to me about Love, Actually.
It seems as though every major British actor got to be in Harry Potter, and you finally made it in with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, as Minister Rufus Scrimgeour. Were you ever a bit nervous that you weren’t going to get the call to do it?
NIGHY: Yeah. No, I’d given up. I thought I was going to be the only English actor, of a certain age, who wasn’t in Harry Potter, and I was getting used to the idea. I was trying to invent it as a distinction. Well, I had to do something ‘cause they never called. And, I had even tried out for it. Originally, I tried out for it a long time back and didn’t get the part. So, when they did call, I thought, “Oh, man, now I have to undo all that PR that I had played on myself,” about it being a very distinguished thing, not to be in Harry Potter. But, actually, I was very relieved. I got in, just under the wire.
Producer David Heyman recently told my boss that he thought Page Eight turned out great and that they might want to make more films with your character, Johnny Worricker. How much fun was it to make that, and is that a character you’d like to play again?
NIGHY: Yeah. If you want to know what I really like, I like lots of things, but I really like Page Eight. I love working with David Hare. I’ve worked with David Hare, all my life, since we were young. He is a great man. He is a great writer. I’ve worked with him in the theater, a great deal. People who watch movies will know that he wrote the screenplay for The Reader, and he wrote the screenplay for The Hours, for which Nicole Kidman won and Oscar, and I love working with him. What made Page Eight even more attractive, apart from the fact that he wrote it, was that he was, for the first time in a long time on camera, going to direct it. It was my ideal situation.
Because it was David, we were able to attract a cast that you would not normally attract to a film with no money. Rachel Weisz came, along with Ralph Fiennes, Sir Michael Gambon and Judy Davis. It’s a marvelous cast. And, we are going to make more. We’re going to make two more of them next year, back-to-back, and it will be a direct continuation of the story that you saw in the first one. David laughingly refers to them as Page Nine and Page Ten. And then, at some point, they will be shown, back-to-back, in 2013.
So, the answer to your question is that I love playing that character. I love delivering David Hare’s dialogue. I love the way that he writes. I think he is one of the greatest writers, currently working in the world. He’s also one of the most important figures, in terms of British culture, and therefore in the world. You may have gathered by now that I’m rather keen on him. It’s like Bob Dylan. I don’t want him to die because there’s going to be a Bob Dylan-shaped hole in the world. I hope he lives forever. And, I feel exactly the same with David Hare. I hope he lives forever ‘cause there’s going to be a David Hare-shaped hole in the world, and you won’t be able to fill it. He’s one of those people. You can’t say that about too many people. We’re mostly dispensable or repeatable. But, with David Hare, that’s not the case. He is a great man, and it’s wonderful that he’s back making movies.
NIGHY: I don’t actually, no. The only thing I’m sure of is that we’re going to make those two movies with David, later in the year. I’ve got a couple of things that I might be doing, but I shouldn’t talk about them because it wouldn’t be fair, if it didn’t turn out. I know that the next thing that will come out, in the Spring, will be a film I made in India with Judy Dench, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson, called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden, the director of Shakespeare in Love, and other great movies.
We spent two months in India, making that. I got to play opposite Dame Judy, who I’ve had the honor of working with, on several occasions. It was a big experience, being out there in the first place, and to work with Judy again was a great treat. I had to learn to ride a motorcycle and I had to put Judy Dench side-saddle on the back. I woke up every morning thinking, “I’ve got to drive a motorcycle, and it’s got Judy Dench on the back.” If you hurt Judy Dench, you can’t go home anymore. It would be worse than hurting the Queen. You could hurt the Queen and maybe go home. If you killed the Queen, okay, you’d have to stay overseas. But, if you killed Judy Dench, it’s the end of your life. If you hurt her, to any degree, you’d cease to be anything other then, “You know the guy. The guy who hurt Dame Judy Dench.” I had to do 16 takes on a motorcycle, through the streets of Jaipur, and I’d never driven a motorcycle in my life. I woke up screaming, every morning, “Don’t hurt Dame Judy!” But, I didn’t. She’s still in one piece. And, she was great.
She pretended not to be scared. You have to factor in the side-saddle element. That’s what makes it even freakier. The balance is a different thing. On very small motorcycles, you can get a family of six. In India, they put a toddler on the handlebars, then dad is driving, there are two kids smashed up against dad’s back, and mom is sitting side-saddle with a baby in her arms. That’s just normal. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles. The rush hour in Jaipur is insane! They drive on the horn, all the time. It’s like a very, very, very loud conversation taking place between 2,000 people, and they’ve all got a machine with whole families on them. It’s unreal, but it’s very exciting. The ladies can’t sit regularly or stride it because they’re wearing a Sari. They don’t even hold on. They’re very cool. They just sit there with their hands in their laps, or they’re carrying a baby, and they talk to each other, as they’re going along. It’s so cool. So, Dame Judy and I did a bit of that, and I’m so proud that I didn’t hurt her. That’s the next thing that’s coming out.