A quiet man: Billy Nighy
In a deeply personal interview, Marigold Hotel star BILL NIGHY talks to PATRICIA DANAHER about the solitary life he leads off-screen, Maggie Smith's 'filthy' mind and why Barry's Tea doesn't tempt him
He might regularly play the part of the affable, slightly baffled and somewhat laid-back Englishman on screen, but in real life Bill Nighy is, by his own admission, very far removed from his on-screen persona. For starters, although he's played memorable characters in the likes of Love, Actually and Pirates of the Caribbean, he's not one of those actors who loves the sound of his own voice.
"Actors count their lines when they get the script, but I love shots where you don't have to speak," he says. "For me, a good day on the set is when I don't have any dialogue and all I have to do is look thoughtful, which I can do."
Today, Nighy (66) has come to talk about making The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a sequel to the gentle comedy about British expats at a retirement home in India. In cinemas now, the film sees Nighy join a host of big names - including Maggie Smith, Richard Gere and Judi Dench and Celia Imrie. They're actors that he knows well - in fact he has been cast as the husband, doctor or accountant of several of the stars before.
"The whole cast are very good company. I've been married to Penelope Wilton twice before. I've been her doctor. I've had letter sex with her on the radio. I've known Celia Imrie since she was 16. I've been Judi Dench's love interest three times before. I worked with Richard Gere when I was 22.
"You could charge money for supper with that lot, because as you can imagine, the stories are endless. Our downtime was largely about having dinner where the anecdotes were thick and fast.
"Maggie Smith is just hilarious and herself and Judi have known each other since they were 19. They have filthy imaginations and they are very, very funny."
Though garrulous, Nighy himself is very serious in person. Without necessarily planning to, he reveals to me that when it comes to his private life, he is very solitary and brutally lacking in confidence. "I am averagely English and I find the awkwardness of the average Englishman when it comes to talking about feelings to be both funny and touching," he says. "I struggle to say anything clearly about matters of the heart.
"I'm often accused of being laid-back, which is not what I experience in here" - he points to his chest. "Because I spend so much time speaking for a living, I go into a kind of idling mode when I'm in private and don't speak much. People describe me as mellow and I'm pleased to give that impression. When people say that I'm laid-back I say to myself, 'You think?'"
Nighy grew up in Surrey to a garage mechanic father and a psychiatric nurse mother. He has one sister. He left school early, hoping to become a novelist and travelled extensively in France. He wound up being accepted at the Guildford School of Drama, eventually making his way onto the London stage.
Compared to the romantic escapades in the Marigold Hotel, his own love life is very quiet. He has been single for quite a while since he broke up with partner Diana Quick in 2008. They were together for 27 years, and have a daughter, Mary, who's 31. "When I was 20, I was catastrophic when it came to love. I was useless, a spectacular failure. I made hard work of being young. I found it almost impossible to think of myself positively when it came to intimate matters. It was agonising and I think it is for a lot of young men - they make movies about it, after all!
"I was one of those and I made a decision early on that I would never have any relations with women, because it would be humiliating. And I was right."
Now, Nighy lives alone - mostly happily it would seem. "When I was young, I was called "highly strung". I never used to sit down. I used to keep my coat on all the time, because I used to think: 'In a minute, I'll probably run.'
"I had an excess of energy and I was called 'Nervous' as a nickname. I'm a little calmer now and what I do is, I listen to music and read. That's my reward for everything.
"The first thing I do when I come in is put on the kettle, because it's near the door. Then I walk in the living room, put the iPod on and then the fire. I might shuffle around the carpet a little bit, if it's been a good day and give it a little bit of whatever (he dances in the chair with flicks of his arms) and that's about the size of it. I pick up a book and I sit by the music with a control, so I can zap any tracks that don't suit the mood. It's wild around my house!"
Music, it seems, is his one true love.
"I had a very restless youth and I have never recovered from rhythm and blues. The Rolling Stones are the greatest rhythm and blues band in the world. Bob Dylan is the single most important artist in my life, in any medium. If I have people over, I play Marvin Gaye. James Brown is beyond compare. "I like black American music, sometimes as interpreted by skinny white boys, or English white boys. I like everything that's been extrapolated from the blues. In India, my soundtrack was John Lee Hooker. He makes me feel safe. And his duets with Van Morrison are some of the most eccentric recordings ever made and also some of the dearest to my heart.
"I shave to a playlist of 16 duets between John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison. I Cover the Waterfront, Serves Me Right, Don't Look Back, they're all great recordings. For people who shave, I absolutely recommend them."
Nighy has been sober since 1992, after several years of drink and drugs that nearly upended his personal and professional lives. His drug of choice these days is tea and he's very particular about how it must be. He even took his favourite tea to India during the filming of both Marigold Hotel movies.
"I know it's crazy to take tea to India. It's completely bonkers, but I am addicted to Yorkshire Tea. I have only just weaned myself off two tea bags, because it's very strong.
"I used to leave two bags in the cup, but I've got it down to one, but I still leave it in. As my grandmother would say: 'You could stand a spoon up in it.'
"She used to call it Connemara tea. Irish tea would kill you, if you weren't used to it. You'd be wired.
"It's like a double espresso. Domhnall Gleeson tried to persuade me to try Barry's Tea when we worked on About Time, but I never got around to it. Yorkshire Tea is the one for me."