It's Nighy Time

Special Features   It's Nighy Time The acclaimed British actor makes his Broadway debut, starring with Julianne Moore in David Hare's The Vertical Hour.
Bill Nighy
Bill Nighy Photo by Paul Kolnik

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If the last two blokes who bagged Tonys for dramatic performances are a yardstick, then Broadway is the final frontier for fame. Ian McDiarmid, 62, and Richard Griffiths, 59, ran rings around the world as blockbuster movie villains (McDiarmid as a hissable "Star Wars" heavy, Griffiths as Harry Potter's nasty Uncle Vernon) before landing here and busting the block of Broadway, road-managing a Faith Healer and teaching The History Boys.

This season's debuting Brit arrived in November at the Music Box Theatre on the lovely arm of Julianne Moore, directed by Sam Mendes, in The Vertical Hour, the first David Hare play to world premiere in the U.S. How cushy a Broadway entrance is that!

Bill Nighy, 57 on Dec. 12, has a certain elegant Noël Coward countenance that cries out for such civility. Gone are the barnacles and 40 miles of bad ocean floor that disfigured his face last summer when, as the dastardly Davy Jones, he made massive special-effects waves for Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean 2" (there is a "3," but it was all shot in one fell swoop and he won't have to suit up again). And here he stands, sandy-haired and long-stemmed, the wise, witty, sometimes wicked and raunchy character actor we've come to know from scads of Brit flicks over the past two decades.

As if the Bush–Blair collision hadn't thoroughly made the point in his Stuff Happens, Hare has said that this new play underlines the fact that Brits and Yanks see things differently. Nighy and Julianne Moore represent their respective sides in their respective Broadway debuts. Also making his Broadway bow is Andrew Scott, who plays his son and her fiancé. "There is," Nighy concedes, "a romantic involvement. It's a conversation which takes place over one night — a conversation covering everything from love, solitude, politics, and as is usually the case with Hare, it's extremely smart and, on occasion, laugh-out-loud funny.

"To work on Broadway is on the short list of dreams," he admits. "Like all English actors, I have wanted to work here — always — and now I can say I have." And he makes no bones about the patron saint who has positioned him here. "I've worked with David Hare on many occasions. He is the single most important person in my career. I've done four of his plays. I did Skylight when it was revived after Sir Michael Gambon did it. I was in the first revival, directed by David and by Sir Richard Eyre. I did Pravda, which he co-wrote with Howard Brenton and starred Sir Anthony Hopkins. It was a huge hit at the National Theatre in the '80s. The first play I ever did with him was Map of the World — brilliant play — and I did a thing on the television called 'Dreams of Leaving' with Kate Nelligan."

Of these four Hare races, the hardest was having to follow Gambon. "Michael is my role model, one of my heroes. He was very encouraging to me when I was young. Wonderful man, thrilling actor, a kind of genius."

Still, Tom Sergeant in Skylight remains his favorite stage experience to date — that and Trigorin in The Seagull. He just got off his favorite screen experience — for the small screen — the Emmy-winning HBO romance "The Girl in the Cafe," written by Richard Curtis, the author of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Love Actually," which provided Nighy with his British Oscar-winning performance of a mangy old rocker.

His comic portrayal of a die-hard rocker on the comeback trail in "Still Crazy" won him the Evening Standard's Peter Sellers Award. One might suspect these awards point to a lot of adolescent guitar posturing in front of the mirror — and one would be right. Says Nighy: "I wanted to be, basically, somewhere between Bob Dylan and a member of The Rolling Stones. I did throw shapes in front of the wardrobe mirror in a manner that might suggest that I might one day be good in bed." He pauses a long beat. "It didn't work out."

Diana Quick, that superb actress from "Brideshead Revisited," may or may not be his bride. "If she isn't my wife, she has been following me around for a hell of a long time," Nighy brashly deduces. "We're not legally sanctioned. We live in what my grandmother would call sin, but I don't care, and neither does she." Their 22-year-old actress–daughter Mary is, however, a certainty and conspicuously on view in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" as the title character's best friend who disapproves of the frivolous nature of the court.

Nighy has stockpiled five films for release during his "Broadway holiday." First up, on Dec. 25, is "Notes on a Scandal," a love story that doesn't triangulate in the usual way, co-starring Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.

"I've worked with Dame Judi Dench before," says Nighy. "She was Arkadina when I did The Seagull at the National, and, like everyone whose lives she may have touched, I adore her in every way. Not only is she an extraordinary actress, she winds me up and makes me laugh like no other. To work with her and Cate, who turned out to be incredibly professional, is a real gift. Cate Blanchett is world-class. Julianne Moore has that quality, also. These are great actresses. When Julianne goes to work, the air changes. There's a shift in the room. You don't get that with everyone. My stars must be in line to work with such women!"

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