When acclaimed writer Kazuo Ishiguro set about adapting Akira Kurosawa’s famed 1952 drama Ikiru for the film that would become Living, he only had one actor in mind for the lead role: Bill Nighy. The match may not seem immediately obvious to viewers; after all, in Living, Nighy is called on to play a shell of a man who’s shrunk himself into the kind of bureaucrat one of his co-workers dubs “Mr. Zombie.” All but fading into the background day in and day out as part of the county Public Works department in 1950s London, Nighy’s Mr. Williams soon has to contend with devastating personal news that rekindles in him a newfound love of life. Gifted with a once-in-a-lifetime role, the recently SAG Award-nominated actor offers a towering performance that hinges on small gestures and quiet moments.
At its heart, Living is a journey from inward to outward. And with Nighy as our steward, director Oliver Hermanus has crafted a handsome period drama that resonates precisely because it captures ineffable themes that remain as timely as ever. Here, the beloved actor shares why Living is striking a chord with critics and audiences alike, what he’s yet to be brave enough to ask Ishiguro, and why he finds bowler hats so endlessly bizarre. With a slew of accolades for this role under his belt (including a win from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for Best Lead Performance), Nighy’s become a staple of this year’s glitzy award season, which may well land him a much-deserved first Oscar nomination.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start at the very beginning. How did Living and Mr. Williams came into your life?
Bill Nighy: Well, the script, by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. I mean, I must have been very good at a previous life. Not only did he write this script, which was marvelous, but he also wrote it with me in mind, which is, you know, a sensational development obviously, in my view. And I was drawn to the character because it’s something I’m really interested in. I’m interested in that degree of personal restraint, that sort of locked up kind of the prisoner of manners. And that period, the 1950s, into which I was born. I was four years old. And so I was born into the atmosphere and it’s generally referred to as “Englishness,” but I’m sure that there are characters like that everywhere in the world. We just take the blame for it. But from an acting point of view, it’s fascinating to do that stuff where you have to express quite a lot with not very much. It’s just kind of bonkers, really, those systems societies form around that kind of behavior. And every country has their bizarre elements. And in Britain it was extreme. The behavior they required of themselves and the fact that they couldn’t express anything emotional in any regard at all was extreme.
It’s funny, a little island where people wear bowler hats. You know, if you had a white collar job, you wore that hat. I mean, isn’t that weird? Like, there were thousands of them, all over the country. And they all carried a rolled up umbrella, they all carried a briefcase, and they all wore this bizarre hat that was built like a crash helmet. So if anybody gets you over the head with a hammer, you’d be fine. Honestly, I promise you, they’re built really tough. It’s just odd, isn’t it? That everyone did that? You had to have a bowler hat. You couldn’t go into the city of London to work without one. I mean, if I told you that there was some sort of forgotten tribe in the middle of a jungle somewhere where they all had to wear sort of very heavy headgear, and everyone had to wear the same thing and if you got caught without one, you couldn’t go to work, you’d say, How weird is that? Well, that’s what we were like.
AVC: It also sounds very dystopian. Like if you told me that thousands of years from now, everyone would have to wear a uniform and they would be punished if they didn’t, I’d be like, Yeah, that tracks.
BN: That’s exactly right. And we made it real.
AVC: You mentioned how Ishiguro wrote Mr. Williams with you in mind. What do you think he understood about your work that he thought you’d be the perfect person for this role?
BN: I don’t really know. To be honest, I think he sort of presumes that I know. I have no idea. I don’t really know and I don’t really want to ask him. Because it’s got too late to ask. And I don’t really want to know. But I know he’d seen me in another film also produced by Stephen Woolley called Their Finest, which is from the same period. It’s a [World War II] wartime movie. He’s said that he’s always wanted to marry the atmosphere or the general story of Ikiru, with what’s called the Englishness of the 1950s. And then, when he saw me, he figured I was the person to help with that. I don’t know why. I’m often mistaken for some kind of old-timey English gentleman, but I don’t truly understand it.
AVC: But it’s funny because I think many of us associate you with charm and exuberance, whereas Mr. Williams is so closed off. But then you said you were interested in these issues of restraint and of building performances with the most miniscule of gestures and moments. What was it like inhabiting that? Did you, for instance, build him out from the bowler hat in or from the inside out?
BN: Oh, I don’t know the answer to that. A bit of both really? Not the bowler hat, though. I mean, normally costumes really help. They’re really important. Like clothes are really important for everybody. That’s why they’re a billion-dollar industry. And they make you move differently and make you feel differently about yourself. Bowler hats just … you’ve got to act your way out of the bowler hat. But the rest of the costume was—I mean, Sandy Powell, the great costume designer, was incredible. And so that really helped.
AVC: And so how did you begin building out Mr. Williams?
BN: Yeah, I don’t really know. I mean, I just do the same thing. I just learn the lines over and over and over and over and over again, so I can give the impression of spontaneity. And so the story and the writing is so great that it kind of persuades you into a certain kind of behavior. And I thought his voice might have trouble coming out. Because he had been institutionalized in grief. Because he lost his wife very early on. So I figured he had his whole personality, or his whole sense of himself, and his whole response to the world had been formed around that loss, that grief. And his voice might struggle on the way out. I always expected the sound man to come up on the first day and say, “Please, give me a break.” But he never did. Actually, I think I actually walked on the set and as soon as I saw the sound man and I said, “I’m going to speak very quietly.” Oh no, what I think I said was, “I’m your nightmare.”
AVC: It is sort of this hushed whisper. He also doesn’t like to take up a lot of space, right? And, as soon as he gets his diagnosis he becomes more assertive. But it’s quite a hopeful sort of narrative arc.
BN: Well, that’s the great thing. You know you’re in a hit when your phone is off the hook. And people are all saying the same thing, which is that they come out galvanized. They don’t come out depressed. They want to get busy. They want to do stuff. They want to make the most of it. Because obviously everyone identifies with that character in that situation and that tendency to procrastinate, and the urgency when you look at the clock when you get to my age. It’s like a tragedy. That’s what they were there for. It’s like King Lear. People don’t go to King Lear to get depressed although it’s one of the saddest stories ever told. They go because it’s actually weirdly uplifting by the time you leave the theater. That’s what King Lear is about. I don’t really understand how that works but I know that that’s the case and tragedies can be inspiring and uplifting, maybe, just simply from the point of view that it’s not happening to you.
AVC: Aimee Lou Wood discussed how timely this film’s subject matter feels. How so many of us were reassessing the smallness of our own worlds, in the same way Mr. Williams comes to do—only it was due to COVID and lockdowns, not some terminal illness.
BN: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. It was the first film I made after having a year off because of COVID. I sat under a tree for a year. Like lots of other people. I was fortunate I had a tree and I hadn’t done anything until we came to do this and I was very affected by that. The fact that we were back. We were making a film. I was with some people that I’ve known all my life, you know? And it was very moving and exciting. Not just because we were making a film again, but because we were making this film because, as you say, I did sense I probably had the same conversation with myself that millions and millions of other people had had. What’s important, you didn’t even have to think about it. You were just immediately reduced to what’s important: My family is important. My friends are important. My art is important. Books are important. Looking after one another is important. Making the most of every day is important. They’re all pretty obvious things. Yet we need the reminder. And this film plays into that in a very timely fashion.
AVC: Since you mentioned your phone blowing up since critics and audiences and peers have seen Living, what has been the most surprising reaction that you’ve gotten to the performance or film?
BN: The surprise is the level of enthusiasm. And the terms in which people choose to express their appreciation of the film. They talk big. Yesterday a man said to me, “I’m not the same person since I saw your film.” And he was a writer, a man involved in the film business. He said, “It’s completely changed me.” And that’s not the only person who said things along those lines. Who knows how long that will last? Like, you know, maybe till tomorrow. But yeah, so I think the extremity of the response—I’ve had phone calls from people weeping in lady’s rooms saying, “I can’t come out of the ladies room yet.” Because it is what my mom would have called a weepy. But they’re not depressed. That’s the surprise for me is that so many people have seen the movie, so many people love it. Not because I didn’t think we were making a good movie. But because independent movies don’t necessarily get seen by a big audience. Well, this one is because it’s obviously hit the spot and people love it. So that was the big surprise, that there was so much attention of any kind. And then and then how strong and positive the reactions have been.