Bill Nighy Stuart C. Wilson Getty Images for BFI

Bill Nighy

Bill Nighy Screentalk at the London Film Festival

National treasure and Caterham-born actor Bill Nighy speaks at a Screentalk about his eclectic career, flunking school and his shyness. By Adam Davidson.

Image: Stuart C. Wilson Getty Images for BFI

Bill Nighy has played a vampire, a rock and roll legend and a tyrannical pirate in his long and successful career. The much-loved actor and fashion icon spoke candidly in a 75 minute conversation as part of the BFI London Film Festival about flunking out of school, his crippling self-doubt and his latest movie Living.

His first experience as an actor came during his time at The John Fisher School, a Catholic boys’ school in Purley. The school put on plays and as he was tall he didn’t have to play the female roles and his ‘reasonable’ memory meant he got longer lines.

Nighy never had an acting career in mind but instead something slightly different. He said: “What I wanted to do was write the great English short story and I ran away to Paris, like lots of young men of my era, in order to be like everyone who ever wrote a book in Paris and therefore I flunked school.”

It was here where he met a woman, who he said was the first girl to ever pay attention to him. Even though it ended after three weeks as he had ‘catastrophically overreacted’, she recommended that he become an actor.

Bill got candid during the conversation and spoke about his self-doubt and how he is surprised that he carried on acting. The actor said: “I had a complete lack of self-confidence, I had whatever the violent opposite of confidence is.

“I don’t know why I persisted, it’s a mystery, except that I know I didn’t want to have that conversation with anybody where they said ‘are you still doing that acting thing’ and me saying ‘no I gave that a miss.’”

“I didn’t want to have that exchange with anybody, I was too prideful. And as I also flunked school I didn’t have any qualifications for anything and I didn’t have any enthusiasm for anything in particular.”

This self-doubt has persisted to a varying degree as Nighy refuses to watch his own work and during one of the more recent clips, he stuck his fingers in his ears so he couldn’t hear himself on the screen.

Bill said: “There is a degree of pressure to watch, I’ve tried. If I don’t watch, everything is great, everything is marvellous, it’s a perfect relationship for me.

“If I watch, it’s all stolen from me. It robs me of any pleasure, any sense of achievement or anything. It doesn’t matter that it’s not logical, it doesn’t matter that other people think it’s all right. I’ve really, really worked on it, I know that it will steal the experience from me. So I gave it up very early on.”

Bill Nighy’s latest movie Living recently received rave reviews at its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. The movie, directed by Oliver Hermanus, is a remake of Kurosawa’s 1952 Japanese classic Ikiru, adapted by Sir Kazuo Ishiguro.

Living is the story of an ordinary man, reduced by years of oppressive office routine to a shadow existence, who at the eleventh hour makes a supreme effort to turn his dull life into something wonderful – into one he can say has been lived to the full.

Nighy’s Mr Williams in Living is an ordinary man, compared to some of the mystical characters he has played in the past.

When asked which type of character he prefers to play, he said: “It’s good fun being a vampire, you get to [bears fangs], and I’m always happy doing stuff like that. I feel that I like to play regular human beings more, those quieter kind of guys that struggle. I’m good at paranoia, self consciousness, disabled by shyness and terrible with women, that’s my area.”

Living is set for release on November 4.