The vanishing man

WEARING CLARK KENT glasses and a natty gray suit, Bill Nighy looks nothing like the tentacle-faced sea captain he portrays in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Nor does he resemble the vampire lord he played in Underworld or the zombie...

billhe embodied in Shaun of the Dead. He seems nothing like the cuckold husband he was in Notes on a Scandal or the washed-up rocker he played in Love, Actually. Nighy, 57, disappears into each of these characters, just as he does with his stage and small-screen roles.

Of course, playing a guy whose face is covered with squids makes it a little easier to vanish into the part. But Nighy has made a habit of total character immersion since he made his stage debut nearly 30 years ago.

Fresh off a Broadway stint opposite Julianne Moore in David Hare's The Vertical Hour, Nighy sat down in a suite at the swanky Beverly Wilshire Hotel to talk about theatre, film and what it's like to wear computerized pajamas.

hat kind of magic goes into making Davy Jones come alive?

I have pajamas with white bubbles on, a skull cap with a white bubble on the top, and bubbles on my shoes and white spots all over my face and it's a sad, embarrassing outfit. But on this movie it was better because by then, obviously, everybody had seen the creature, so I got a bit of respect, which has nothing to do with me. It was entirely to do with the geniuses who make my creature. ... So by the time we got to the third movie, I was also, by then, a nominated sleazebag (at the 2006 Teen Choice Awards). I was nominated for sleazebag of the year, along with Sir Ian McKellen, who was also nominated. I believe I won. So there was a degree of dignity involved and a bit of respect around the place ... but I still had to wear the embarrassing trousers.

What's it like hopping genres and mediums like you do?

I'm very pleased that I get to play a wide range of parts and I get to jump between the mediums. As an English actor who started in the theatre, you had to be on television as soon as you had a family, because ... you've got to pay the mortgage. ... I had no expectation of ever being in a movie ever. You just didn't. As a kid, I was very, very lucky to work in the theatre. I was still trying to get over the fact that I was allowed to get away with it - that I was allowed to be in the theatre and make some kind of a living and didn't have to go to regular work every day - so the celebrations could already begin as far as I was concerned.

I love the fact that I play a vampire who's 5,000 years old and then I play a zombie, and I then play a half-squid/half-crab man. In animation terms I play a stoned-out rabbit who sings You've Really Got Me by the Kinks. In another animation I play an albino lab rat who has brain damage caused by overexposure to hallucinogenic drugs during shampoo tests. I like this kind of stuff. I like it when it gets stupid. I like it when it gets daft because you're not being a nuisance. You're not doing anything bad in the world.

bill1Do you get something different out of performing on stage versus on screen?

It's much, much scarier opening plays. The opening period is the scariest thing that ever happens to me. But then the rewards are tremendous. When it comes off, it's fabulous - the relief apart from anything else.

Do you have a feeling of personal responsibility regardless of the role?

I don't think it's particularly healthy, but I do operate as if humiliation is just around the corner. It's like (is) this is the one where you get busted and everybody laughs and says, "What persuaded you to imagine you could act?" So I do kind of invent a hostile parallel universe in which I'm about to get fired. I don't recommend it to any young actors out there.

But in the theatre it's even more exacerbated by the situation because it's live and they turn up, officially, to judge you. And who needs it? A job where you do this incredibly scary thing, it's unprecedented, it's the premiere so no one's ever done it before. Over two and a half hours, you have to say all these things, you have to achieve certain things, you have to have a nervous breakdown, make love to somebody, get a few laughs, you know, pour drinks, smoke cigarettes, all this stuff. And then, in the dark, there are all these guys who sit there and they write out a report of what you're doing, and the next day, they publish it in a national newspaper. I mean, try it for size. That's a day at work. It's mental.

How do you relax?

I don't relax. I think it's bad for you. I'm too anxious. I'm too wired. I just wait for the phone to ring. No, I listen to the Rolling Stones, who are of course without question the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world. I listen to Mr. Robert Dylan, who I am devoted to and I listen to him every day. If I have people over, it's Marvin Gaye just to be sociable. Apart from that I read books and walk my dogs.

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