August 18, 2008

Written by Matt Goldberg

Bill Nighy is a charming gentleman but it’s not just his polite and unassuming nature that makes him so likable. It’s that he clearly enjoys being the main baddie of the “Underworld” franchise. We spoke with him on his perspective on the series since he’s been in all three films and how it’s changed and remained the same under new director Patrick Tatopoulos.

Note: this interview was done in a roundtable setting and at Comic-Con.

Do you have any idea that they’d be a number 3?

Bill Nighy: No, I had no idea they’d be a number 2 and I had no idea I’d get to be in number 1. I walked in off the street. It was one of those interviews you go for—in those days I used to go for dozens a year, you know? And I met a nice young man named Len Wiseman and he brought a camcorder and he said would you like to do the scene now and he gave me the gig more or less on the spot and I was thrilled because I like vampires. I actually google this stuff. I’m a real enthusiast and I thought “Underworld 1” was as hip and as cool a script—a vampire/werewolf script as you’d ever find anywhere in the world. I think it was…and they’re believers, you know, they’re real enthusiasts. They didn’t just make a vampire movie because they were trying to get into the movie business and it was their first movie. They chose very carefully. It was the movie they wanted to make. They wanted it to be their first movie and it went straight to number 1 in America and made a whole bunch of money and they’re really, really, really nice guys. So I was thrilled. And then when there was another one, I was pleased they got me in at the front there, you know, they got the little preface at the front there and now they’ve gone back in time—I’m even happier.

Because you were killed in the first one.

Nighy: I know, I know. Keep it down.

You’re still coming back to the other…

Nighy: I know exactly. And we’ve got hundreds of years to play with so, you know, “Underworld 4” bring it on!

Why were you so fascinated with vampires? What is it?

Nighy: I’ve always liked vampires. The funny thing is that there are many really good vampire movies, you know? When you were young there was an English franchise “Hammer Horror” with the great, the wonderful Christopher Lee and the marvelous Peter Cushing, but they were the only ones ever made and apart from and since then…I mean now there are quite a lot. I think “Underworld” actually helped in that way. I think it tipped the scales because it was a kind of serious, grownup—if you can call it that—vampire/werewolf movie. And it was made with respect, you know, and wit and I think it probably led to a lot of what’s happening now. On TV there’s lots of vampires, you know, action. But…what was the question? I’ve completely forgotten what I was saying now.

Just your fascination with vampires.

Nighy: Yes, well you know, they were groovy clothes, they stay up late, you know what I mean? They never go to bed. They sleep in the daytime. They sometimes sleep upside down. They drink blood, which is kind of cool, usually, extraordinarily from the necks of beautiful women which kind of…I don’t know I find that strangely moving. And it is sexy. There’s something about…there’s obviously something about the biting of a woman’s neck and drinking her blood…I don’t know where everybody else stands but I hope it’s not just me, but it is obviously erotic. But it’s almost, could almost be true. You know what I mean? They’re nearly plausible. The idea that there is a race of people that exist and nourish themselves simply on other people’s blood or the blood of young people and I love it when it gets technical and the boys who wrote “Underworld 1” at one point one of my favorite notions in it was the fact they had the werewolves developed glass bullets which contained harnessed daylight, which is sort of perfect nonsense you know, but absolutely cool. And it all makes sense. You shoot it into a vampire, it releases daylight into his system and he ceases to exist. It’s a very cool thing. Everybody knows they can’t stand daylight, but I love all that stuff. What else do I like? I like the fact that they usually live in great places. They live in castles and it’s usually in Eastern Europe. I’ve been to Transylvania. I have actually spent the day once in Transylvania which is just across the border from Budapest where “Underworld 1” was made. Yeah, you can get on a train and go from Budapest to Transylvania. You can go for the day and it’s beautiful. Lots of forests and it’s very cool.

Not spooky at all?

Nighy: It is kind of spooky because obviously one’s imagination. But yeah, I just kind of love the whole…it’s thrilling, I don’t know. I think lots of people are the same. Obviously because they go see the movies but it’s one of my favorite kind of myths.

Now, as a vampire fan yourself you obviously know that one of the problems is that in bad vampire movies they’re always so one dimensional, so what do you think makes Victor such an interesting antagonist?

Nighy: Well, I think the fact that….part of what helps is that he struggles with the morality of it all. There is some indication, particularly in the first one, that he is torn between his decent impulses that may remain in his psyche and his overwhelming impulse to protect the bloodline basically. I mean in this one he behaves so poorly. I mean he’s unredeemable in this one. I mean, if you think he’s been bad before I mean it really gets very, very…you know it’s terrible what happens. But I do think that what makes it interesting is that he’s slightly complex in as much as he’s not just a straight up and down bad guy. He does have some kind of struggle within him, which it makes it more enjoyable—hopefully to watch.

Is it fun to take him down and make him even more bad than he was before?

Nighy: There is something, yeah, I mean traditionally it’s more fun to play bad guys than it is good guys and when you’re playing a bad guy, yeah the fun in it is to see how scary you can be, how horrible you can be. And it’s surprising what you come up with. One surprises ones self with how lousy you can be and how really kind of cruel you can appear to be. So yeah, it is fun. And in this one I have to do things which are just really edgy you know in terms of drinking of blood and family issues. There’s a lot of very, very edgy stuff. And it’s very difficult sometimes keeping a straight face. I mean, there’s a lot of hissing in this movie as well. Michael Sheen and I, we have whole scenes without dialogue where we simply try to out hiss one another. And there’s something about that which is very satisfying as well. And as soon as they shout cut, we just fall apart laughing because it is so stupid. Just two grown men doing take after take of violent hissing and spitting.

So what’s it like on the set when you’re working with a new director on a franchise that you know so well?

Nighy: Well, it was absolutely marvelous and it’s entirely a credit to Patrick. He seamlessly took over the reigns. He’s very like Len, both personally and professionally, because they both have a history of being visual effects. They’re both endlessly courteous and decent men. They’re incredibly good company. Sharp as anything on the story. You would never know Patrick was a first time director. If you walked on the set, there would be nothing indicated to you…I would go to work with Patrick for the rest of my life. I would be perfectly happy working with Patrick on anything. He’s very good at tuning the performance and something I can’t do keeping the whole thing in his head, not only in terms of the story and obviously visually he’s incredible, but in terms of the tone, the style, what teeters over into schitk, which is my failing because I have a tendency just to push it too far. And he’s very, very tasteful that’s what I’m saying. But he’s sharp as anything and Len was around as well. Len was there. It didn’t feel like it was suddenly some new regime because Patrick’s always been there and Len’s been there. It’s just that they did different jobs but they were…it was a good feeling and there was no static and it didn’t feel problematic at all.

Being that this is the 3rd film, going back would you have changed anything about how you performed him throughout the first two that would have allowed you anything different in the 3rd? Or is he the same—the physicality and everything else?

Nighy: Well, I try to keep it faithful to the 1st one. Yeah, I probably would have played it different if you gave me another shot, but I don’t quite know what I would have done. I would have probably…I don’t know actually. I’m not too unhappy about it as vampires go. I would have probably not given him any kind of accent. If I started, he’s got a slight eastern European accent—just slight, which you may not hear if you’re American. But if you’re English you do. I would probably have dispensed with, but in terms of the look I’m happy. In this one he looks pretty much…well I look more like Nosfarartu than I ever did before. Well, not through any intent, I’m just getting older, but I look more like I looked in the first one than I did in the 2nd one. And I’m happy about that. It’s sleek and horrible. No, there’s not a great deal that I would change. Certainly not physically I don’t think.

The fact that you play a vampire and you like vampires, what do you think about the fact that this one is told through a werewolf’s point of view?

Nighy: Well, obviously I’m not happy about that. No, I mean it’s fine. It’s good. There’s plenty of…wait until you see the movie…there’s plenty of the vampire’s point of view included and it’s a pretty balanced affair. You know they were bound to…what can you do…werewolves they were bound to feature again and the story is very satisfying in as much as with Rhona’s character, who’s now our new leading lady, and Michael together….I don’t know how much to tell you without…you probably know what’s happening but it’s a pretty fairly balanced thing between the vampires and the werewolves.

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