His special kinship with freaks of nature
To play Davy Jones, the heartless captain of the ghostly Flying Dutchman who appears in the second and third films of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, Bill Nighy did not have to spend hours in the makeup trailer, attaching waving tentacles to his face or claws to his hands or even don sea-life encrusted duds.
No, it was much more traumatic. He had to wear gray pajamas, a skull cap with a bobble on top and spots all over his face.
“The skull cap was the worst,” he says. “That always took me directly to a place of humility. I felt like an inadequately informed alien.”
Like Gollum before him, Davy Jones is a computer-generated hybrid, a figure informed by human action and expression and layered with digital effects. In Jones’ case, the figure -- and most recognizably the eyes -- are actually Nighy’s but covered with computerized embellishments.
Which meant that in this sweeping, colorful, historically accurate and over-the-top dramatic epic, Nighy was the only principal without a fabulous costume. “It was quite lonely-making,” he says. “It’s difficult to stand next to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom on a good day, but standing there in gray computer pajamas with spots all over my face ... they ran out of jokes by about the fourth day. I’m actually quite proud that I didn’t just turn around and go to the airport.”
Nighy took comfort in the fact that, unlike other members of the CG vanguard, he did not have to perform in front of a blue screen; he was at least mixing it up on the big beautiful sets along with everyone else.
“I was grateful to be allowed in the general population,” he says. “I didn’t have to have long conversations with someone who was not there.
“Andy Serkis and I,” he continues, referring to the actor who played Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “we are pioneers. We have had many conversations about it. Of course I was fortunate. He had to wear the white Lycra suit. Lycra.” The actor shudders. “For a man of my seniority, the secret nightmare is Lycra.”
Nighy, who recently came off a successful Broadway run in “The Vertical Hour,” is inevitably referred to as an actor’s actor. Which is shorthand for being very talented and not terribly successful until later life. He came to America’s attention as the lovable debauched and aging rock star in Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually,” a role for which he won many awards. “It changed my life,” Nighy says, “in that I would go to meetings and there would be people asking me to do the job instead of the other way around. It was quite unsettling.”
Two years ago, he brought his haunted face and endearing lurch of a walk to “The Girl in the Cafe,” a TV movie written by Curtis that also won a bunch of awards here and in Britain, and last year he had played the small but affecting part of the cuckolded husband in “Notes on a Scandal.”
In person, sipping tea amid the soothing tones of Raffles L’Hermitage, Nighy is precisely the sort of man you hope he would be. A tall, thin, angular sort of British person -- the word rangy comes to mind -- whistling up, through those signature pursed lips, an endless stream of self-mocking and wry commentary. The Noel Coward character, the ultimate dinner party guest.
That he is able to embody a large and menacing monster is a miracle of modern technology; that he infuses this character with humanity and even grim wit is a miracle of something less modern.
“People look at that great squid and say, ‘Oh, it’s Bill Nighy,’ ” he says. “And you know, it’s oddly flattering.”
The technical difficulties of acting a part that would later have a giant squid dropped on top of it were not the biggest challenge. Nighy, a classically trained actor, also had to figure out how to give a performance underneath all that marine life. “It was a challenge to pitch it right,” he says. “I was persuaded to perform at a level that generally would be considered a crime against acting.”
He chose a Scottish accent to differentiate Jones from all the other various British dialects in the films, and turned it harsh and violent.
“Once I got the voice,” he says, “that informed much of the physical acting.”
His mien did pose some limitations -- Jones cannot exactly get up in anyone’s face with all those tentacles waving about -- so much of the menace had to radiate from the voice, and the eyes. Which are very much Nighy’s -- mocking and aware of all limitations, including his own.
His Davy Jones is, after all, a man -- as a flashback in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” will prove -- a man whom heartache has led to villainy.
“It makes him much more interesting than if he were just a straight-up villain,” says Nighy of the back story that involves Jones ripping out his heart and putting it in a secret box when he loses his lady love. “I don’t think anyone has trouble understanding someone who has experienced love’s pain. And he’s scarier this way -- his cruelty is seasoned by him being a person who has a range of feelings.”
Jones, he says, could choose to be more understanding or empathetic but he does not. “Because he is in distress, he likes to arrange things so the people around him feel the same.”
It isn’t the first time Nighy has played a monster -- he was a loathsome vampire in “Underworld” and “Underworld: Evolution” and a short-lived (and strangely sweet) zombie in “Shaun of the Dead.”
“Oh, I couldn’t pick a favorite,” he says. “They all have their own special appeal.”
Performing in David Hare’s “The Vertical Hour,” however, was a high point and one he is not afraid to point out.
“It was a very mystical time for me,” he says. “For an English actor to be on Broadway in something people like, well, that’s all there is, isn’t it?”
After doing publicity for “Pirates,” Nighy is flying to Tanzania to lobby the G8 conference. In working with Curtis, who wrote “The Girl in the Cafe” in part to bring attention to the problems of world poverty, Nighy too has been moved to “help a bit.” Over the years, he has participated in Comic Relief, Curtis’ annual fundraising event. “But after all I am a British actor and that’s part of the job,” he says.
A bit like Harry Potter?
“You know, I am the only British actor who hasn’t been asked to be in ‘Harry Potter,’ ” he says. “And David Yates, who directed ‘Girl in the Cafe,’ just did the new one and has, apparently, agreed to do the one after that. I said to him: ‘So you have a part for me, mate?’ And he just laughed. Because apparently, he hasn’t.” Nighy laughs a hollow laugh, then shrugs.
“But you know? I don’t care. Because I’m a pirate.”