Over the years, Danish director Lone Scherfig has presented many of her films at the Berlin Film Festival, most prominently her breakthrough 2000 hit Italian for Beginners, a story of lovelorn Danish outsiders trying to connect by attending a suburban language class. It went on to become a worldwide arthouse hit, paving the way for her other movie successes including the 2009 Nick Hornby adaptation An Education, which achieved three Oscar nominations and set Carey Mulligan on her way to stardom. Scherfig also achieved success with 2016’s Their Finest, her first film with Bill Nighy.
Her latest effort, The Kindness of Strangers, opened the Berlin Film Festival last Thursday and at the film’s press conference it was clear that Nighy, who takes a smaller role and came on as an executive producer, was in good, dry form:
“I was very pleased I got a call. ‘Would I come and play a waiter in Canada?’ And by the time I got off the plane, I owned the restaurant.”
Every utterance that fell off the British actor’s lips was tinged with humour. In our following interview, he proved hilarious in that very distinctive way we have come to know from his appearances in films including Love Actually, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Scherfig explains why she loves working with the actor:
“Bill can write something really small and it becomes extra funny. He’s super critical with his own performances but also very generous and his timing is sublime. I love when I can give him something that he likes and he can take it and turn it into something you haven’t seen before.”
Bill Nighy: It’s a habit where you look for what might be amusing. In terms of talking in public I’m always grateful when people are amusing, so I’ve taken the example of other people. In plays I do think it’s bad mannered to invite people to sit in the dark for two and a half hours and not tell them a joke. So I leave plays without jokes to the younger artists. Although I work with very serious playwrights, David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, and they all have one thing in common: they all write world-class jokes. It’s a great way of delivering information and also of welcoming people–then you can tell them whatever you want to tell them. The other thing is that the idea of getting laughs is endlessly addictive.
I never used to get comedy jobs until I was in my 40s. The most significant one was Still Crazy about a rock idiot who had been nearly famous years ago and I worked out a couple of things because I was so overwhelmed by the pressure of the job. I realised a lot of it is to do with pauses, when you pause and how long you leave. The mystery of timing is endlessly fascinating.
You have to do less and less in movies.
Nighy: I make it up as I go along and I’m never quite sure. It’s tricky because the camera sees everything and one of the things instinctively you discover is that less is required. As an audience member you see people on screen doing very small things and getting a very big laugh.
You’re going to be making another film with Lone, Falling for Florence, which she actually wrote for you before Their Finest and where you’re the star.
Nighy: I don’t know if I’m the star but I’ve read an early draft, which was very, very good and I’m excited. I love working with Lone. It’s a father-son story set in Florence and is unashamedly an entertainment. It’s romantic and it’s funny hopefully. (Looks to the sky)
Nighy: I don’t have a God, but just for old time’s sake, just in case. You never know. I don’t know there isn’t one. I have no information. I have not been contacted by the supernatural or had any connection with other dimensions. But I’m always cheerful about the prospect of there being one and I’m always slightly jealous of people who’ve actually had mail from that area, as it were.
You turn 70 soon. Is it scary?
Nighy: Not really. I still think I’m probably going to live forever. I mean no one ever came back and complained. So long as it doesn’t take too long and it’s not too painful. I think greater men and women than I have had to go through it. Some of the best people are dead and I don’t have plans to die any time soon.