(December 17, 2006)

The Time is Nighy

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

The last time most Americans saw Bill Nighy, his face was covered in tentacles as the squidly Davy Jones in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

The next time most Americans will see Bill Nighy, it'll be as a man whose teacher-wife, Cate Blanchett, finds herself at the mercy of her boss, Judi Dench, in the film "Notes on a Scandal."

Between the last and the next is the now, when Broadway audiences can see Bill Nighy in the flesh, opposite Julianne Moore in David Hare's "The Vertical Hour" at the Music Box Theatre. Nighy gives a performance Journal News critic Jacques le Sourd called "riveting."

Nighy (pronounced "Nye") is not to be confused with Bill Nye the Science Guy, a character from a children's show, but the British-born actor does take an almost scientific approach to comedic timing.

"A lot of it has to do with the fact that the audience all have to get the word at the same time," Nighy says by phone from Manhattan, where he, Moore and the entire cast are making their Broadway debuts. "You want the word to arrive at precisely the same billionth of a second. And I have observed that that will intensify the laugh. I'm greedy."

He gets a chance to deliver "a good, few whoppers" as his character, Oliver, a nephrologist who, after an accident, leaves a successful London practice to live on a Welsh hilltop. The character skewers politicians, including the current White House resident. "The Vertical Hour" is about the Iraq War, about taking sides and about making yourself useful.

When asked how he knew the war in Iraq would fail, Oliver says, "Let's just say I knew who the surgeon was going to be, so I had a fair idea what the operation would look like."

Nighy loves delivering that line.

"I've never said that line without a huge laugh spreading into a round of applause. And I don't do anything in particular with it, I just say it loudly and clearly."

Another favorite activity is appearing in works by David Hare, the author of "The Vertical Hour."

"I've worked with David Hare more than I've worked with anyone else, since we were both young," says Nighy, who turned 57 on Tuesday. "I'm passionate about the way he puts things and the elegance and power. And also the fact that he allows me to deliver world-class jokes."

Director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") has said that when he first read "The Vertical Hour," he recognized Nighy in the character of Oliver, a mix of anger and self-righteousness.

While Nighy says he didn't see it exactly that way, he did recognize "a certain angle from which to view things and a certain way of putting things."

Of Moore, his co-star, Nighy has nothing but praise.

"I've admired her for years and years, like everybody else," he says. "She's one of America's - indeed the world's - finest actresses, and it was a great big opportunity for me to work with her."

Moore plays a journalist-professor and presidential adviser who had input in the creation of the war plan. That puts her at odds with Oliver immediately, when Oliver's son, Philip, brings Moore's Nadia, home to meet dad.

"Doing 'The Vertical Hour' at this moment in America, judging from the audience's reaction, I think people are grateful to have this play discuss the things that it discusses," says Nighy. "It gives people an opportunity to hear both sides of certain issues and both sides are given equal respect. David's a sophisticated writer, so everyone gets a shout. There's no one who comes on in the second act and tells you what to think."

At the Music Box, Nighy prowls the stage, peering down into the audience and lounging languidly on whatever piece of furniture he finds himself.

Can he possibly be that at ease on stage? Or is he more like Ray Simms, the aging rocker he played in 1998's "Still Crazy" - pumping himself up backstage by reminding himself of all of the great venues he's played and for how many people?

"You never really get used to it, because it's so unpleasant, but you have this other voice in your head with another version of how things are going," he says. "And the disparity between what this voice tells me - which is that any minute now I'm going to be humiliated - and what in fact is happening is quite astonishing. ... It's amazing that you can still go to work despite having your head tuned to this toxic radio station."

Like so many actors, Nighy resists watching himself on screen. (Perhaps it's that toxic voice.) So he took some delight in being able to watch "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" - in which he plays a tentacle-faced Davy Jones - without any trepidation "because it wasn't me," he says with a laugh.

"I thought, 'Hey, I'm a squid,' " he says of the computer-generated deep-sea creature. "(The computer artists) always said that all the silly little quirks and things I did on the set would arrive in the creature ... and this will be your performance."

Nighy was dubious.

"I always knew that they intended that, but - because, technologically I'm an idiot - I didn't think it was possible."

When he saw the finished product, "it actually had feeling," he says. "And all the things I did on the set were there. They'd honored everything I'd done on the set."

Getting Davy down meant undergoing an unnerving leap of faith.

"You're dressed looking very very sad and lame, in a pair of computer pajamas with white bubbles all over looking like somebody who didn't get into Devo," he says.

"Standing next to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom is not easy on a good day, but when you're dressed as a clown, it's very tough. And for them, too, because I'm supposed to be this really scary thing, when, in fact, there's this middle-aged bloke wearing a bubble hat with a white toggle on top and white spots all over him. For them, it was a bit of a leap of imagination, as well."

Less taxing, to be sure, has been Nighy's putting-on of the character he plays in "The Vertical Hour."

Oliver is "a wonderful role, one of David's finest creations and it is incredibly touching," Nighy says. "You feel he's atoning to some degree."

"The line 'I moved away to where I wouldn't do harm' is a beautiful and powerful thing to say. That exactly describes the situation. ... This accident is his karmic comeuppance."

Still, Oliver's not beaten down to the point of not being able to speak his piece. Hare's characters share a vast continuum of ideas expressed here, but then Philip, the son, says "People aren't their views" - an idea Nighy endorses.

"People wear their views either like armor or like medals. People would like to be their views, when they're really the sum total of their actions. It's not what you say, it's what you do," the actor says.

Oliver is just the latest in a string of interesting and unique characters from different walks of life who all look like Bill Nighy.

In "Still Crazy," "Love Actually," and "The Girl in the Cafe," rock 'n' roll plays a key role in the lives of an out-of-work rocker, a down-on-his-luck rocker and a financial analyst for the G8.

Music is still vital to Nighy, who admits, "I've never recovered from what happens when Keith Richards picks up a guitar and Charlie Watts kicks in. The Rolling Stones remain a big part of my life."

Nighy says he loved playing Billy Mack in "Love Actually."

"Once I overcame self-consciousness about the singing part, the actual performing became quite funny. I quite liked pulling all those middle-aged shapes and looking for even cheaper old-man rock gags, like the bad back from the high kick. All those sad old rock jokes," he says.

Lawrence, in "The Girl in the Cafe" was an entirely different role, a meek financial analyst paralyzed by self-consciousness who encounters a woman in a coffee shop and decides, despite a personality that conspires against him, to take the plunge and ask her out.

It's a performance that's dear to Nighy's heart, a chance to work with director David Yates, whose latest credit is the newest "Harry Potter" movie, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," due out in July.

"You'll be hearing from David Yates," Nighy predicts. "He's a truly gifted director."

If fewer people see him in his latest stage role - and they will - fewer will notice a condition that afflicts Nighy's hands.

Nighy's ring and small fingers are curled by a hereditary condition called Dupuytren's contracture, a thickening of tissue in the palm and fingers.

"Now I just have a dodgy handshake and people think that I belong to some secret lodge, which is unsettling," he says with a characteristic laugh-snort.

"The only time it's remarked on is when I'm on stage."

Strange, considering what he does on stage with the rest of his body is what's really remarkable.