Last week, we had the utmost pleasure of welcoming the inimitable Bill Nighy to the Astor Theatre for an in-depth conversation with journalist Philippa Hawker discussing his most recent release, THEIR FINEST, his illustrious career, and Bob Dylan’s harmonica.
Below is an excerpt of their lively conversation:
PH: THEIR FINEST is about a film that is made during WWII as a sort of “morale boosting” film. A lot of very interesting films were made for this purpose by interesting filmmakers at the time. However, this particular film is being made to be both authentic and inspirational.
The film is written by a young female screenwriter who is played by Gemma Arterton and stars accomplished actor – whose better days are past him, Ambrose Hilliard (played by yourself), can you tell us about him?
BN: Well, they were looking for someone to play a chronically self-absorbed pompous actor in his declining years, and they came to me! Which is easier to process some days rather than others. But it’s a great role and because it’s a film about making a film, I get to play the actor, but I also get to play the part that the actor is playing in the film called “Drunken Uncle Frank”, so it was good value!
PH: It’s directed by the Danish filmmaker Lone Sherfig who’s an interesting filmmaker and made some terrific films in her native Denmark. You were going to work with her before at some point weren’t you?
BN: Yes, Lone Sherfig, who is a sensational human being and a fabulous film director (just for the record). We have tried to work together a couple of times and it never quite came off, so I was very happy when it not only came off but it coincided with a script as cool and entertaining as this one.
PH: The script is really why you choose to make a film, it’s why you’ll opt for one film rather than another. Did the interest or satisfaction received from reading this script govern your choice?
BN: Yeah! all you have to go on in the early stages is the script, I mean after that there are other considerations like who might be in it, who’s going to direct it, where is it..and how much is the money *laughs* kidding!
But the script is the important thing, good scripts are rare, although they’re not hard to spot and when one comes through the door it’s Christmas, and this was Christmas.
PH: One of the things about the character of Ambrose, is that he is a very well dressed man. I imagine for all actors – wardrobe is really important, do costumes help you create your character?
BN: Well I’ve reached an age which is refreshing in certain respects, because you know there are certain questions that people ask you like “how much research did you do for this part” or “how did you get into character”, because I’m old enough now I’m at liberty, to tell the truth and if you ask me about research I did for anything I can quite reliably tell you I have done absolutely no research whatsoever. If you ask me whether I’ve ever been in character, I could say I’ve never knowingly been in character in my life … I’ve heard great things about it but it’s just outside of my experience … umm sorry, what was your question? *laughs*
PH: It was about the costumes
BN: Oh the costumes! Well, basically what I do instead of getting into character is I get dressed. Luckily this period, in my view, the late forties, in terms of women’s and men’s clothes, everything has been downhill since then. The girls all look absolutely sensational and that’s when trousers were trousers.
PH: So you were very happily dressed in this film?
BN: Yeah and normally costume designers who know me in England and have worked with me before, as soon as they see me coming they get out the navy blue. But in this particular film, Charlotte Walter, who’s an incredibly distinguished costume designer, actually persuaded me into brown! …Okay for me that’s radical!
PH: I just learned tonight that when it comes to singing you have a rather glorious and very unique experience in that you were once the lead singer of Radiohead?
BN: It’s true. It’s a little-known pop-fact. For one night only, I was Radiohead’s lead singer. In other words I sang one song for charity and predictably it was the song from Love Actually. When the curtain went up and I was standing in front of Radiohead, I heard a sound which I have never heard before..and I will never hear it again because at the time Radiohead were so hot and the place went mental..and then there was me up the front doing middle-aged high kicks and every desperate middle-aged rock gag I could thing of!
But the boys were very sweet, and when I went to rehearse with them they said they had bought the film to learn the song and everything. They said “oh we’ve never done a ‘song’ before, we only do Radio head!”. One of them said “oh we did do a song once, we did ‘Nobody Does it Better’”, you know the song. You could imagine Radiohead doing it, it must have been in a pub somewhere.
PH: The Carly Simon song?
BN: Yes the Carly Simon song! And then I said, “well, what are you going to wear?”, and they said, “well we’ll just wear what we’ve got on. What are you going to wear?”. I said “well … I’m going to wear a suit”. And when I turned up to do the thing, they were all wearing suits and ties!
(The audience awwwws)
… I know… that’s what I thought.
PH: One of the interesting things about THEIR FINEST is the fact it has a female director and the story is about a female scriptwriter. Do you think this reflects something interesting about the situation of women? I mean it was a big deal in the forties to have a female scriptwriter – are we getting better in that area do you think?
BN: We’ve come a long way since some of the stuff that you’ll see in this film, in terms of how men consider women but I don’t think you need me to tell you that there’s an enormous amount of work to be done, planet-wide. I do think it’s number one on the agenda. They say you can judge a society by how it treats its elderly and its young.. I think you can measure a society by how it treats its women or rather how women are treated.
PH: You’re a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is that right?
BN: I am.
PH: Do you vote for the Oscars?
BN: Ahhhh I do occasionally yes, not very committedly but I do. I’m not mad on competitions but I do have a go.
PH: Which is kind of my lead in, I’m just curious to know, I know you’re an absolutely die hard Bob Dylan fan, how did you feel about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize?
BN: I was fine about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize, it’s a crazy world. I think anything that honours Bob Dylan is fine with me. I’ve lived with Bob Dylan as a kid and through all my life. I discovered him when I was fourteen years old. I saw a tiny article in an evening paper in London before he became famous, that read “Genius folk singer Bob Dylan left London today after a successful engagement at the One Hundred Club”. I can still remember it. I went to Potter’s Music Store in Croydon and asked “Have you got anything by Bob Dylan?” and they said, “We’ve never heard of him”.
I went to the bin and I found his first album, I took it home and up until that point I’d been listening to lots of soul music, which I still listen. I’d been listening to things like “Um Um Um Um Um” by Major Lance …. Check it out. It’s a deeply stupid song, but I bet you’ll like it!
I took the album home and it’s got tracks on it like “See that My Grave is Kept Clean” or “Fixin’ to Die”, and I was completely transfixed by this album. I remember my brother opening the bedroom door and going “what the **** is that?!”.
I had no history of folk music, I had no understanding of that kind of music, I had never heard anything like it, but from the moment I heard it I was transported by it. I left home on the strength of the first Bob Dylan album. I threw my suitcase out the window – you know I could have used the front door – but I didn’t want to have that conversation with my father, you know like “where are you going?” and “what are you going to do when you get there?”. I didn’t have answers for those questions.
PH: This is going to be my last question because I think you’ll all want to watch the film pretty soon. I seem to remember that you actually did pass up the opportunity to meet Bob Dylan?
BN: Well, I went to a Bob Dylan concert not that long ago in London, and the tour manager came out and said “would you like to go backstage?” and I said “do you mind if I don’t?”, because I would feel awkward. For me to meet Bob Dylan, I don’t know what I would do with myself. I know I’d mess it up and it would be terrible and then I’d have to kill myself. But he said “no, no that is perfectly alright!”, but he told me to stay there.
He went off and he came back and said, “Give me your hand”. So I held out my hand and he put something in my hand..and I could feel what it was. He had been on stage and he had stolen one of Bob’s harmonicas off the top of the organ, and it was his F-sharp harmonica. He put it in my hand and I came over all funny. I couldn’t believe that I had one of Bob Dylan’s harmonicas.
So two people have played this harmonica: Bob Dylan and me on the way home from the gig. So it means, pathetically if I can extend this even further and humiliate myself, our DNA has actually met.
I can’t believe I said that!
Written by: Madison Tonkes
Photography by: Tim Luck
THEIR FINEST is a witty, romantic and moving portrayal of a young woman finding her way, and her voice, in the mayhem of war and film-making. Showing at Palace Cinemas from April 20th.