"I love cities," said Nighy, elegantly folded into a couch in the miniscule basement of the Golden Theatre, where he is appearing nightly opposite Carey Mulligan. "I love to walk. It's thrilling for me to be in New York. It's kind of nuts. It's like being in the movies. When I first came here, I used to laugh. 'The fire hydrants! The policemen! I'm in a movie.'"
He has, of course, been in actual movies. Many of them, since his turn as an aging rocker the romantic comedy "Love, Actually," made the film world sit up and take notice. In a few, like the television film "The Girl in the Café," he had creditably held up the December end of a May-December romance. He does so again in Skylight, a play he first performed in 1997 and recently revisited, with Mulligan and director Stephen Daldry, on the London stage last summer. He pays Tom Sargeant, a wealthy restaurateur who, one chilly night, unexpectedly pays a call on his former lover, schoolteacher Kyra Hollis, many years his junior. Points of view are exchanged; spaghetti is prepared.
Nighy knows his Hare, perhaps better than any other actor active today. He's done ten of the writer's works, both on stage and television, beginning with Map of the World in 1983, and including the original British production of Pravda. "It's the great professional association of my career, which I treasure," he said. "He's someone I admire as much as I admire anyone, both personally and professionally. I love his writing." (When Nighy respects an artist, he is not shy in his praise. Michael Gambon is "touched by genius." Christopher Walken is a "hero.")
Asked what he likes about Hare's writing, he explained, "It absolutely does resemble how people talk to one another, but it's heightened to a degree, which is the bits the gets me excited. It's the beauty and the elegance of it and the humor."
Wait, the what now? Humor? He's talking about David Hare, a dramatist who has a reputation as sober, political and socially conscious. Yes, Nighy insists: Hare is funny. "He writes world-class jokes, which are built like clocks," he said. "And if you deliver them with all the 'ums' and 'ahs' and 'dot-dot-dots,' they go off like bombs. Skylight is funny."
Being funny is important to Nighy as an artist. "I used to say this as a kind of joke, but I think I mean it: I think it's bad manners to invite people to sit in the dark for a couple hours and not tell them jokes."
Nighy has a reputation for charm and an effortless elegance. And, indeed, upon first meeting him, I couldn't help but notice how well turned-out he was in his simple, bespoke navy blue suit. By sheer chance, I ran into him the next day at a coffee shop. Again, with newspaper in one hand, cup of coffee in the other, he was a picture of understated sophistication, clad in navy.
I did not catch Nighy two days running in the same suit. Nighy and navy have a relationship.
"There is a school of thought: there's only one color, and that color is navy blue," he said, in the same limpid tones that make every thought he utters sound perfectly well-reasoned. "But there are gradations of navy, which we go into in great detail, us weirdos. I am a sort of fetishist about what we used to call the two-piece lounge suit. "I do have a grey suit," he continued. "It's very dark — none of that light-gray nonsense. It's like when you go to restaurant and you have the same thing every time, because it was so great the first time. And then you think, 'Maybe I should have something else on the menu,' and you have something else on the menu and you think, 'Why aren't I having that thing I really, really like?'"
Sometimes his rock-ribbed confidence in navy blue slips, but not for long. "I have one sort of — I hate to say this — a brown suit. I can hardly bring myself to speak it. But whenever I put on the brown suit, I think, 'Why am I not wearing a navy blue suit. What are you trying to prove?'"
From jokes to suits, the man knows his mind about many things, including how to enjoy New York. Though Skylight has sold briskly since its first preview, don't necessarily expect to see Nighy being feted and toasted at all the latest swank spots. Maybe he'll take in a jazz club or two. But quieter, smaller pleasures will do just fine.
"What I do mostly is I do book shops," he said. "I used to do music shops, but they're getting harder to find. I like look at paintings, I like to drink coffee, I like to read books, I like to listen to music," he said. "That's the range. And I like to walk."