"The bad granddad of rock 'n' roll? Yeah, that's me, I guess," Bill Nighy says, laughing at the thought of his late-blooming screen persona.
In Richard Curtis' romantic comedy "Love Actually," Nighy's Billy Mack -- a devil-may-care, foulmouthed aging British rock star -- is given the "bad granddad" moniker by a DJ. He has recorded and is promoting a loathsome (to him) version of the 1960s hit "Love Is All Around," with lyrics altered for Christmas. (The film opens Friday.) His dubious publicity tactics include impertinent and often-salacious remarks on interview shows. With his "stray cat blues" of a scratchy and growling voice, he gleefully cackles and snorts through his outrageous remarks. Whether or not he's too old to rock and roll, he's certainly too old to be polite. The record stinks, he says, so please buy it. He's having a blast -- as is Nighy in the part.
This is Nighy's second turn as an aging rocker. In 1998's "Still Crazy," another comedy, he played the fumblingly insecure, frightened and wife-dependent lead singer of a 1970s-era British band attempting a comeback tour. It was "This Is Spinal Tap" humor, but undercut with melancholy and pathos. His character anticipated the Ozzy Osbourne we came to know on "The Osbournes."
"We have rock 'n' roll pioneers now -- they're my generation or slightly older than me," says Nighy, 53, sipping a Coke with lime on a restaurant patio. "We never had middle-aged rock 'n' rollers before because there was never rock 'n' roll before. So this is a new breed of survivor. And I seem to have the legs for it, apparently. In the 1970s, you had to have legs so thin you could get into those skin-tight pants."
Indeed he does. Tall and slender, wearing a blazer over a blue sports shirt with his long legs packed into crisply pressed slacks, the British actor has a casually proper look far removed from his visually loud on-screen rockers. His thick black glasses tucked in a pocket so his blue eyes are unobscured, thinning brown hair gently brushed back, he exudes quiet politesse. If he were a British rock star, he'd be shyly debonair and erudite like Bryan Ferry. He even greets the arrival of his Coke with a liltingly delivered "lovely, smashing" compliment to the waiter.
This is only his second time in Los Angeles. The first was when "Still Crazy" received several Golden Globe nominations (but lost). "I'm terrible. I had never been to America until 'Still Crazy' came out," he says. "My only excuse is that all actors get out of the habit of going places unless it's part of their work. The idea is that if you leave, the phone will ring. And if you're like me, you spend a lot of time without money in the early days so you didn't go anywhere."
Nighy is like this in conversation, almost apologetic in responding to questions. He has a self-deprecating manner, along with a wry sense of wordplay, that makes him seem embarrassed about his career, even though he clearly is proud of his work.
"I have a kind of recognizably average British career," he says, without irony, before listing some enviable highlights. "I worked with David Hare a great deal, Tom Stoppard, Trevor Nunn. I've done world premieres of plays that I would suggest will be performed 200 years from now." During one of those productions, of Hare's "A Map of the World" at London's National Theatre, he met his wife, actress Diana Quick. They have a 19-year-old daughter.
In the 1980s, Nighy also started appearing on British television -- he most recently played a newspaper editor in the miniseries "State of Play." And he also made the odd movie. "And then I got to be in 'Still Crazy,' which meant I could play principal roles in the movies," he says. "And I've been in a number of independent British movies since."
"Love Actually" is actually his fourth film to reach American theaters this year, following British indies "Lawless Heart" and "I Capture the Castle" and the wide-release horror film "Underworld." In "Love Actually," Nighy could be called a scene stealer, no easy feat in an ensemble-cast film featuring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton and others. Curtis, the writer of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," wrote and directed this bittersweet look at love and friendship in contemporary Britain. The characters range from the idealistic new prime minister (Grant) to the shameless sellout entertainer (Nighy). Not all the characters know each other, but there are degrees of connection among them.
"I got the script through the mail and was terribly grateful because he [Curtis] is the heavyweight champion of this kind of comedy," Nighy says. "But I got the script just to do an open reading, to see which bits worked. And then we had to all go into this high-powered reading where if a bomb dropped on the building, British show biz would have been in serious trouble. No pressure, like, really," he says, punctuating that observation with one of his quick snorts of humor. "But it went quite well and I got the job."
He may also get a hit record out of it. Universal confirms that "Billy Mack's" version of "Christmas Is All Around" will be released as a single in Britain on Dec. 15. On the same day, a new Christmas single by the actual boy band Blue -- with whom Nighy's Billy Mack is battling for the top spot on the pop charts in "Love Actually" -- also will be released.
"Love Is All Around" previously was featured in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," which resulted in a massive British hit by Wet Wet Wet. The original version was by the Troggs of "Wild Thing" fame and was a hit in Britain and the U.S. in late 1967-early 1968.
Nighy was born in Croydon, just south of London, where his father operated an auto garage and his mother was a psychiatric nurse.
The family lived in a house that came with the job, and he likes to say he was born in a gas station. He loved rock, especially the Rolling Stones; he also was shy with girls and enjoyed being by himself. "I've never gotten over the sound Keith Richards and Charlie Watts make -- it's my kind of thing," he says. "As a 14-year-old male, I did throw a few shapes in front of the bathroom mirror with a view to maybe one day being selected by the great god of rock 'n' roll. But I became an actor instead," he says, again with that telltale hint of apology in his voice.
After a youthful flirtation with a writing career that led to Paris and back, he decided to audition for the Guildford School of Dance and Drama. Nighy recalls it as a lark, prompted by a girlfriend, that ended in disaster when he inadvertently chose two female parts for his tryout. One was intentional, but he didn't realize "Twelfth Night's" Cesario was Viola in disguise. "I made a complete fool of myself," he says.
By his second attempt, he decided he really wanted to be an actor. And he gave it all he was worth. One speech, as required, was from Shakespeare. The other, his choice, was from a 1965 Dennis Potter teleplay called "Stand Up, Nigel Barton."
"I was amazed when I got in," he says. "But I did all right."
Billy Mack represents the latest one of Nighy's screen portrayals -- in comedies and dramas -- of men behaving badly during midlife crisis. In "Lawless Heart," he was a farmer scared to discover he was drawn toward adultery; in "Castle," he was a blocked writer protected from the harsh world by his wife and daughters. "If you get to my age and you're lucky enough to be working, the guys you're playing are going to have a midlife crisis," he says.
An exception, it should be noted, is Nighy's portrayal of a vampire in "Underworld" -- "He had a midlife crisis in the 14th century," he jokes. Nevertheless, in his north London neighborhood, that's the role currently getting him the most attention. It's the first time one of his movies registered on box-office charts -- even if he was under six hours' worth of makeup.
"I'm quite famous now with the kids around my way," he says. "I've always slightly worried the kids who play football around my house. They know I'm an actor, but felt slightly sorry for me because they'd never seen anything I've done."