When Bill Nighy was a young actor at the National Theatre in London, older gay cast members would talk to him about the country’s harsh policies, which forced them to stay in the closet.
Being gay, recalled the rangy 64-year-old British actor, “just stopped being an imprisonable offense in my lifetime. They could get seven years for any public display of affection. One of the things I don’t understand is why [the government] should feel they should get involved in anybody else’s sex life.”
Even when the fear of imprisonment ended, the discrimination didn’t. "It was only 30 years ago that a national newspaper in England could describe the gay community as the slime of society and no one commented,” said Nighy, who became a favorite with American audiences in such films as “Love Actually” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
He spoke earlier this month from Toronto where his latest movie, “Pride,” was screening at the film festival. In the true-life drama, which opens Friday, Nighy plays Cliff, a gay, shy former miner who has kept his sexual orientation a secret out of fear that coming out will leave his life in shambles.
Set during the yearlong national miners’ strike in 1984, “Pride” revolves around the birth of the Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners movement and how these activists help the mining community of Onllwyn in South Wales. Though many of the union members and townspeople are initially antagonistic to the group, Cliff and several of the women in the town — led by Imelda Staunton’s spirited Hefina — warmly embrace the activists.
Thirty years ago, according to Nighy, the miners were being treated as badly as the gay and lesbian community. “The miners’ strike was for the most part misrepresented at the time,” he said.
“It’s beyond refreshing to get a movie that treats these decent men and women who worked in the mining community with dignity and respect,” said Nighy, who comes from working-class roots. “They were being beaten up by the police and being invented as enemies of the state.”
The conservative government, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Nighy added, “wanted to crush the trade union movement and they started with the miners because they were the strongest.”
If it wasn’t for Nighy and Staunton, “Pride” might not have been made. “The film couldn’t be green lit until it had some recognizable actors,” noted Matthew Warchus, who directed the CBS Films release.
Ben Schnetzer, who plays gay activist Mark Ashton, said working with Nighy was a “master class in film acting — getting to watch him work and craft his character.”
Since his real-life counterpart is dead, Nighy got some insight into Cliff from chatting with surviving members of the mining community. There was some heartening news that Nighy discovered.
“Apparently subsequent to these events he found a partner,” he said.
One of the most poignant scenes in “Pride” is when Cliff comes out to Hefina while they are making sandwiches and she tells him matter-of-factly she’s known his secret for nearly two decades.
The actors, said Warchus, didn’t need any direction for that sequence.
“I set up the camera,” Warchus said. “I said, ‘Do you want to rehearse?’ And they said, ‘No, let’s give it a go.’ And that was that. What you see is the first take.”
Nighy said he often has to “pinch himself” over his good fortune of working multiple times with such noted writers as Richard Curtis, Tom Stoppard and especially David Hare.
“I’ve worked with David Hare all my life,” he said. “I think he counted the other day and it comes up to 10 times.”
Three years ago, Nighy starred as the cool and rather sexy — at least to the over-40 crowd — master spy Johnny Worricker in Hare’s thriller “Page Eight,” which aired on PBS’ “Masterpiece Contemporary.” This November, Nighy returns to PBS as Worricker in two new thrillers written and directed by Hare: "Turks & Caicos” and “Salting the Battlefield.”
Nighy gets to work opposite Christopher Walken in “Turks & Caicos,” with the latter playing a quirky character who may or may not be a CIA operative. “He is a hero of mine,” Nighy said of Walken. “I think probably he is the funniest man I ever met in my life.”
Nighy also teamed up with Hare this year in the London West End revival of Hare’s romantic drama “Skylight,” which the actor originally did 17 years ago. That production, which also stars Carey Mulligan, is heading to Broadway in the spring.
He’ll also be returning next year with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in the dramedy “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Richard Gere is checking into the sequel to the surprise 2011 breakout hit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
Though Nighy worked steadily in theater, TV and movies, his career didn’t achieve international recognition until his award-winning turn as a washed-up rock star in Curtis’ 2003 comedy “Love Actually.”
Nighy, who was 53 when “Love Actually” was released, acknowledged he really doesn’t know if he could have handled that type of success as a younger man.
“I wasn’t very good at being young,” he noted. "I made a bit of a meal of it. If I had known if things were going to work out, I would have arranged to be more cheerful along the way.”