Onscreen, he can seem frosty, intellectual and self-interested, but 61-year-old actor Bill Nighy is the type of guy who signs his autographs: "Bill Nighy! XXX." Well-respected as a serious actor with an impeccable pedigree, Nighy still knows how to have fun: his biggest hits have come playing everything from Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean to a six-shooting snake in Rango to the Minister of Magic in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In Arthur Christmas, he's putting a new twist on an old legend, the disgruntled 136-year-old father of Santa Claus who held the job himself for 70 years (and would like to poach it back). If Christmas-loving Arthur is the heart of the comedy, Grandsanta is the sharp wit and Nighy's delivery makes him come to crisp life—even when his false teeth are flying out of his head. Nighy talks about how his own father lied to him about Santa Claus, and how he passed down the deception to his own daughter, plus reveals that while shooting the Clash of the Titans sequel Wrath of the Titans, he discovered a good place to die.
Your Grandsanta is a bit of a retro throwback.
Lead paint on toys, yeah—he still has an attachment. And he doesn't like the way Christmas has gone. He's an interesting character to play because he's not in very good shape at the beginning, and then he gets busted halfway through as this self-esteem-seeking status freak. But he does recover well. Even though he's a bit mad, he's at least well regarded by the end.
And he gets the best lines in the movie.
There's some very good jokes and some beautiful custom-made lines. And I like the way that they've made up some new Christmas catchphrases, as in, "Oh, ye baubles," or "You long streak of tinsel!" They're very good writers—Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham are longtime collaborators—and they're very smart. When I got the script, good scripts are rare in any genre—animation or otherwise—so when you get one, it's a big day. I had to audition to be in it. I really wanted to be in it—I seriously wanted to be in it. There are lots of jobs you kind of want to be in, but there's a shorter list of jobs you really want to be in. I really wanted to pass the audition, and then I did, so I'm happy.
Did you specifically want to play Grandsanta?
No! When I went up for it, I assumed I was going for Father Christmas because he was in my age range. And then when I got there, they said, "No, no, no—it's Grandsanta." I was thrown, I must say, for a moment or two because I thought, "Hang on—he's 136 and he's got no teeth."
You've been doing more and more voice work lately, like Rattlesnake Jake in Rango. What's the appeal?
I do like doing voice work. This is not the reason why, but during my apprenticeship as an actor, where I really started to learn anything was doing BBC radio in England. I did lots and lots and lots—really a lot. They were the only people who gave me work when I first started. I was sort of passed around from hand to hand. And they did lots of plays on the radio. It was really my apprenticeship because I was in close proximity to really good actors. Not only were they the only people giving me work, they were the only people giving me a leading role. And also, on the radio—like animation—you can play a 136-year-old man. You can play anything because people can't see you, obviously. So I'm familiar with having to concentrate everything into your voice. Having to commit to your voice technically and in all kinds of ways turns out to be very good preparation for anything else you have to do.
So you've come full circle.
Exactly. And also, Rango, I loved working with Gore Verbinski on Pirates and I admire him enormously. I was very pleased to work with him. When I saw Rango eventually—I was a bit squeamish about watching it because I don't like watching things I've been in, even if it's a cartoon—but it blew my mind. When I watched Arthur for the first time in New York with a bunch of kids, I knew it was going to be good because Aardman are so incredible, but I had no idea it was going to be as good as it turned out to be, and it was perfect to watch it with 200 children who just lapped it up. I was really proud, and that's not PR. If something is high quality, I'm just glad to be around.
You were a boy in the '50s. What was Christmas like then?
It was a little less complicated, I suppose. We had less media. In England, I think we had four—maybe it was two, I'm old—television channels and everybody watched the one Christmas channel. Nobody had a Playstation and if you got a bike, you were very, very happy. Mind you, everybody's happy when they get a bike. Nostalgia seems to suggest that it snowed a lot more. It doesn't snow as much today, although it's started to do it again now in the last few years in England-but never on Christmas, which is pretty irritating. But in fact, what I do hasn't changed: I go and see my brother and my sister. My parents are no longer with us, but there's lots more kids—the family's gotten bigger—and we play games. And after lunch, we form into two teams and we scream at one another.
You just scream anything that comes to mind?
No, no. We always rationalize it with a context. We play Taboo, but really it's just an excuse to shout across the room at the other team. We make a lot of noise. If any of the younger ones gets a new girlfriend or a new boyfriend, they're always open-mouthed at the intensity of the family rivalry. It's breathtaking.
Do you have any memories of still believing in Santa?
I do. I can remember we had an open fire and kneeling down with my dad as he watched me write a note. I wasn't allowed to put it on the coals—that was a disappointment—because basically I wanted to burn stuff. He did it for me and he explained the smoke would go up through the chimney and travel through the atmosphere. The smoke would somehow communicate my request to Santa Claus in the North Pole. As I say this, what a liar my father turned out to be. But I believed it.
He saved himself the cost of a postage stamp.
Exactly. But that's what we used to do and it was quite magical because you did get to burn something. Or at least get to watch it burn. It's quite a good idea—I did the same thing with my daughter. And it's heartbreaking because you know...well, we won't go into it too much at this point. But it's probably the only time I've told my daughter anything other than the absolute truth.
Did you ever have to sit her down and tell her the truth?
I think somebody else ruined it for me. I was talking to someone not that long ago who has a young child, and they'd gone to school and the teacher had told the whole class that Santa Claus didn't exist and that Father Christmas was just something that your parents made up. I think he got fired—it was an absolute scandal—because all the parents were completely outraged.
And then that teacher has to explain why he got fired.
Right: "I told them the truth about Santa..."
"...However, I was a great educator."
What I liked about the film is that the older Santas were so checked-out from the Christmas spirit.
It's very cool in that way. Very smart. I like the while sensibility of it—it includes stuff that you don't normally get in cartoons or animations or Christmas films. It's not uncomplicatedly sentimental, everyone's not on the same page—Grandsanta particularly. It's quite sophisticated that you get a guy who sees Christmas as a photo opportunity. He hijacks Arthur's distress for his own purposes in order to prove to Steve and to his son Santa that he can still do it and that the old way is the best. It's quite a reasonably rich story.
It was refreshing because I'm usually sick of Christmas by November.
I know what you mean. You always feel kind of wary at that time of the year. And also, you sense your mortality. Like, "It's another Christmas—how many have I got left?" When those lights go on in town, you think, "Oh god, here we go." But I do generally get caught up in it by the end at some point. I think the days just before Christmas are actually better than the day itself.
True. You have the vacation, but you don't have the pressure.
And you're not under pressure to have a good time. I don't like New Year's because you're scheduled to be happy at midnight and I never am, so I resent the pressure. I just don't like New Year's—it makes me nervous.
Being in a Christmas film almost has its own immortality because it comes back every year.
And I did feel that when I read the script. In the back of my mind, I felt it might be one—if they did it halfway decently—that would linger. That would become a perennial. And I think it will. I think you'll see Arthur Christmas over the years—it will remain in the culture.
I heard you got to record Grandsanta's song in the Beatles' studio?
I did. In Studio Two, Abbey Road—the Beatles Room, as they call it. They don't even dust the room, it's so treasured. No pressure, but I got to sing in there with a full orchestra. I sing occasionally, but I'm not what you'd call a professional singer. But they were very kind to me—the orchestra was really nice. And should you buy or download the single—you don't have to listen to it or anything, you can put it in a drawer—but the money will go to Starlight Charities, which is the English version of Make-A-Wish, which makes the wishes of seriously ill and terminally ill children come true. There's rarely a more deserving charity. So you don't have to listen to my voice, but you could spend the money.
Is it hard to sing in a room that dusty?
No, particularly if you're singing as Grandsanta, because you're supposed to sound like you have a growly voice anyway.
By the way, I was recently thinking of your other voiceover work from Meerkat Manor. Your voice had such a dignity to it, especially in those scenes like when you were narrating Flower's death.
It was a very upsetting program, and very, very popular. It was broadcast in, I don't know, 20 countries—probably more. They did that clever thing of naming the meerkats and having them have romances. And death. There was a lot of death in that program. I used to worry about the kids. It would be just before the credits when one of the meerkats was apparently dying, and you imagine what the kids are saying to their mother: "Is Flower going to make it?" or "Is Mozart going to make it?" And you'd have to go to bed and wait for the next episode. That's a tough thing for kids, I thought. But it was incredibly successful. I would go to a dinner party or something and I remember at one point, there was a woman who'd been staring at me from across the table. I just thought she didn't like me. She didn't say anything to me—she just kept looking at me, but not with any enthusiasm. She wasn't looking at me in a good way. And we were left alone at one point and she just goes, "Is Mozart okay?" I said, "Sorry?" She said, "Mozart. You must know. Does he make it?" I said, "Well, you know, I'm not at liberty to say these things." I tried to joke, but in the end I had to tell her, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's fine, it's fine, he's going to be okay." Because I realized these was a serious matter—this was not just some casual question. Meerkats! Who knew? It turns out everybody loves meerkats—beyond "likes" them, they're devoted to them. There was a move to get me to go be with the meerkats and do a program with me visiting the meerkats, but for various reasons it never happened. But I was going to turn up in a suit and tie and sit and talk to them. They'd sit on your head.
Having watched all that footage, it would have been great to meet them in person.
It would have. I really should have gone. In retrospect, I should have done it, but I think there were other things that got in the way.
You're playing Hephaestus in the new Clash of the Titans, but there's no Aphrodite, his wife, listed. That's kind of a bummer—it's the upside of playing him.
I know. I've got to that age where there's no Aphrodite anymore. Apparently, she married him because he was the only one who didn't pursue her, which is a great lesson for men everywhere. And it's a lesson I never learned.
However, she wasn't very good at being faithful.
She was terrible. Face it, let's get real: she was catastrophic at staying faithful. But yes, I am Hephaestus, armorer to the gods, and we had a great time. One of the most memorable parts of it was that we shot above the clouds on a volcano in Spain. Which was very, very beautiful. You looked down on a white carpet of clouds—brilliant, white, fluffy clouds, like the world is just carpeted. You're standing on a range of red mountains. If you'd come out of a coma and somebody said, "You're on Mount Olympus," you'd have no problems accepting it. You'd say, "Yep." If somebody said, "This is the ancient world," you'd just say, "Yeah, I can see that." It's beautiful, apart from being perfect for the job.
That's fantastic they found somewhere real and didn't just rely on CGI.
Yes, except also, I thought I was dying. You get up to that altitude and your heart starts to pump strangely. I thought, "This is it." There's a moment where I thought, "Okay, this is what's going on—I'm going to die." And then a younger man—much, much younger, even though everybody's younger—came up to me and said, "I feel really weird, my heart's going so weird." Thank God it's not just me. There were a couple of people who had to be taken back down the mountain because the rarefied atmosphere was too hard for them to operate it.
Well, you make it sound like a beautiful place to die.
If you were going to die? Yeah, it would be a pretty good place to do it.