Whenever Bill Nighy turns up in a movie, I smile, knowing that whatever else goes wrong, at least I'll have him to entertain me.
You know, in the best possible sense, what to expect from Nighy: the wry smiles, graceful shimmies, will-o'-the-wisp charm and unerring sense of comedy. He's a wonderful screen actor, one of the very few modern performers you could imagine thriving in the Ealing Studios era, and he's as delightful as ever in Emma.
A vivid and lively Jane Austen adaptation that plays up the original novel's comedy, Autumn de Wilde's film stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, a handsome and clever young woman who spends far too much time disastrously micromanaging the lives of friends and relatives. Hovering anxiously in the background is her father, Mr Woodhouse (Nighy), a neurotic but well-meaning hypochondriac.
"Eh, valetudinarian actually," Bill Nighy says, playfully correcting me. "I'd never heard that word in my life before this, but apparently it's someone who is obsessively concerned with other people's health, rather than a hypochondriac who is obsessively concerned with their own."
Mr Woodhouse lives in fear of draughts, and while Emma's busy with her social schemes, he huddles next to the fire and has two flunkies running back and forth with protective screens. But he's a loving father, a widower haunted by the spectre of illness, and Nighy gives him touches of soul and depth.
"You don't know very much about my character," he explains (in the novel, most of what we find out about him comes through dialogue). "All you know is that he lives in fear of draughts, he's a single parent, and that he's very paranoid and neurotic. But you could be forgiven, having read a little bit about the period, because if you did get a cold or a flu, it was as likely to kill you as not, and lots of people died all the time. So you know, he's not entirely mad, but the extremity of it is a bit barmy."
Nighy's Woodhouse potters about, wringing his hands and worrying prodigiously, and is a very funny creation. "Autumn de Wilde was very keen on the whole comic element, and one of the first things she did for the cast was to screen Bringing Up Baby (1938) because she's very keen on the whole screwball comedy thing, and she wanted it to be a feature, as well as the romance and everything else." But Bill was wary of the pitfalls of the story's arcane dialogue.
"There's this big challenge," he says, "a kind of way of doing it you can be sucked into. It's like with Shakespeare, you start speaking Shakespeare, and then if you're not careful, you're persuaded into performing in a way that is not in my view very satisfactory - there are conventions in place where it's not very real. And similarly with Jane Austen, those constructions, they can trick you into behaving in a way that you've seen other people do it. I'm not very good at all that."
Literary critics have not always been kind of Mr Woodhouse, accused him of being hopelessly neurotic and opposed to Emma marrying because he doesn't want to be left alone. Bill's assessment is less judgmental. "It's not specified, but you get the sense that he lost his wife a long time ago, and that he's been single-handedly parenting his two daughters for a while. He panics when his household breaks up certainly, but then I think most parents grieve to some degree when their children leave home, and then you realise that suddenly the project has changed and you turn around and look at each other and go, oh right, okay, so what now? And he has no one to turn around to.
"I mean there are two ways to look at it, but I do think he has what we would describe as paternal feelings for George Knightley [Emma's beau], and I mean she's only moving next door for God's sake, and she's marrying somebody that she admires and he's deeply fond of, so you know, it's not a bad result, really. But it is a sad thing for him I suppose."
And Nighy's Woodhouse is not merely comic. In one of the film's most moving scenes, Emma has become something of a social outcast after mortally offending the chatty but kindly Miss Bates, and sulks on a windowsill while her father watches her, downcast. It's a lovely moment.
"I sensed that because he has what would now be called control issues, he might at least identify with her control issues, and that he might feel even obscurely responsible in some way. In other words, he knows how she feels. With all her micromanaging and meddling, she's overreached, she's come a cropper, and I like to think that part of his compassion for her is that he's had similar experiences himself."
I think Emma's a very nice adaptation, but Bill Nighy will have to take my word for that, because he hasn't seen it himself. He reckons he may have seen Love Actually on the television once, but only by accident, and avoids films he's in like the plague.
"I don't watch them no, because I find that it takes me too long to recover. And I'm not even kidding, you know it's a practical matter. It alarms me so much, and I've tried a couple of times, and thought maybe I've got to an age where I can take it. Well I haven't, and I can't, and I just find that it undermines me." Is it watching himself, or watching himself acting?
"It's the acting. I mean, I've never fancied looking at myself too much, and it's not even that I'm more complicated to look at than I used to be, it's just the acting. Because you know, I know too much, and I know where the compromises are, the little bits of cowardice where you couldn't quite pull something off, and it's just depressing. And when I say undermines my confidence, I don't have a lot of confidence so I have to maintain the little bits that I can grab."
It seems remarkable when you look back at his sparkling CV, but Bill has always struggled with stage fright. He started on the stage, in acclaimed productions of plays by David Hare and Tom Stoppard, and was 50-odd by the time he starred in Love Actually: that charming turn has kept him very busy ever since. Notes on a Scandal, Valkyrie, Pride, Their Finest and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are just some of his credits, but he says he's still gripped with terror when he first steps on a set.
"It's just an alarming thing," he says, "that first week on anything or the opening of a play, it's always hard. I am better than I used to be, I mean, I used to be quite chronically besieged in that way. When I had to start a job the next day, I used to stand by the back door in the garden and go through all my credits, and I'd go, well that one seemed to go okay, that one they asked me back, you know if somebody asked me back, and I worked for the same person twice, even I couldn't spin that as a problem, or a conspiracy! I'm not that bad now, but that went on well into my 40s, it became a tradition, and you can get locked into those not particularly helpful ways of thinking.
"I'm a bit better, but I was nervous as hell starting this one, because it's a new thing and it's slightly different. But once I get going, I think I'm okay. If I get a laugh, everything's alright. If anyone on the camera laughs, or anyone in the crew laughs, then I'm very, very happy - as long as they're laughing with me, of course."
Bill, it transpires, has some Irish heritage - plenty, in fact. "On my mother's side, my grandparents were both Irish. They moved to Glasgow and my mother was born in Glasgow but she's basically Irish, you know they lived in the Gorbals and so on, and they came down to southern England looking for work later on."
Bill's keen on football (a Crystal Palace fan for his sins), and when I tell him he could have played for the Republic of Ireland as a younger man had he been so disposed, he smiles.
"I could have, yes. I have more right to play for you than Tony Cascarino. Remember him? Didn't he play for Ireland and pretend to be Irish and then afterwards he said, ha ha, I'm not Irish at all?" Bill, one senses, would have had better manners.
'Emma' is in cinemas now