When your intrepid Vulture team first fell in love with Their Finest, a charming movie about a British government effort to make movies to boost morale during WWII, at the Toronto Film Festival last September, little did we know how much relevance it would acquire in the intervening months. It’s directed by a woman, Lone Scherfig, and is her best effort since her 2009 classic, An Education. The screenplay, written by a woman, is based on a book by a woman, centered on the story of a young woman, played by a lovely Gemma Arterton, who’s been charged with writing the “slop” — women’s dialogue — in propaganda films, but who gets moved up to full screenwriter because most of the men in Britain are off at war. (Almost every other department of the movie, from production design to score, was also run by women, which seems appropriate.)
This is a movie about moviemaking that gets how silly and pretentious that effort is, especially when the people of London were living with the uncertainty of bombs raining down on them at any moment. It’s a story of fortitude and good humor when the world is crumbling around you. And it features world treasure Bill Nighy in a fantastic Bill Nighy performance as an aging actor who hasn’t accepted that he’s aging. And while I realize the irony of presenting you, dear readers, with an interview with a man for this very feminist movie … he’s Bill Nighy! We must delight in him every chance we get.
You play a vain actor who can’t accept that he’s aging. Are you drawing from experience?
Well, you know, every actor gets to a point — there’s a dangerous period around your late 30s, early 40s, where on a good day you look 36 and on a bad day you look 49, and you go for jobs and they say, “I’m sorry.” And nobody actually says, “It’s because you’re too old,” but that’s what they mean, and you kind of know that. I remember getting a call when I was about 39, my agent saying, “It’s Hamlet, it’s Tokyo and Moscow,” and my saying, “I don’t want to play Hamlet.” And she said, “No, no, no, it’s Claudius.” And that’s when you realize you’ve become Hamlet’s uncle and the days when you might have played Hamlet apparently are gone.
So there are all those kinds of landmarks. I had my first movie grandchild [in About Time]. Rachel McAdams had my first movie grandchild. I figure if you’ve got to have a movie grandchild, that’s pretty good, to have somebody like Rachel, who’s incredible. But in the end you just thank your lucky stars that you’re still around and you’re still in the movies.
You have to take another ego check with every decade?
Yeah, kind of. I’ve started to count springs. I’m going to really pay attention in the spring. You get to the point where you’re thinking, I don’t know how many more of these there are going to be. Not to be too morbid about it.
What about his vanity?
Obviously it was a stretch. I had to do a lot of research. It was good fun. I’m playing a chronically self-absorbed, pompous man in his declining years who happens to be an actor. He could’ve been a biochemist. I don’t think it’s a peculiarity of acting, although that is the sea of wisdom that is not in place. But it’s fun to play somebody who is that appalling. He does get to warm up a little during the movie, and in the end you think, “Maybe he’s got something else on his mind apart from himself.”
There’s an age joke in the Love Actually reunion trailer. Who’s aged the best?
There’s an answer to this. And the obvious answer is Luccia. She’s Colin Firth’s Portuguese wife.
Well, the joke in the trailer is that it was definitely not Colin Firth.
Oh, is that what they say? I haven’t seen any of that.
It’s not you who’s aged the best?
Obviously I’ve aged the best. I’ve had a lot of work done, as you can see. And it’s working for me, I think.
What can we expect?
Well, it’s very, very satisfying and I think everyone will be pleased. Richard Curtis has done a great job, as you’d expect, and you get to see what might’ve happened to all those characters in the 14 years since the movie was made. Don’t miss Hugh Grant’s bit, I suggest. I’m not going to say what it is because it would spoil the surprise. Liam Neeson’s bit is a perfect extrapolation from his story. They’re all very good. Mine is good fun. I had to struggle into those trousers again, which I can still get into those pants. So that was quite a relief. I had to wear some quite industrial jewelry and some edgy clothes. And we had a nice time and it was very nice to see everybody. Everybody’s in good shape. We had a big dinner and a reunion. And the fact that it’s hopefully going to raise millions of dollars, that brings together the two parts of Richard Curtis’s life, because he started Red Nose Day, which in America is on the 25th of May this year. And people get to see what’s happened to all the Love Actually characters, and if everybody sends a couple of bucks, millions of children will not die. It’s that simple.
That movie is a lot like that song that you sing, no one knew it would be something everyone watched every Christmas.
I know, it’s really entered the language. And people use it for all kinds of things in their lives to get them by and cheer them up. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I watch that movie any time I’m going through anything tough, or when I lose faith.” It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.
Did you feel the reunion in your fingers and in your bones?
I did. I felt it in my fingers and in my toes.
And in my bones, and in some other parts.
One thing I wanted to ask about Their Finest. We say this about a lot of things, but this movie seems more relevant now that it was a few months ago.
It’s turned out to be timely. I think anything that demonstrates how people, when confronted with real danger, can combine compassion and courage, and focus on the things that unify them rather than on the things that divide them. That’s a timely message and it’s particularly timely now.
Can you imagine a propaganda movie you could make to turn this Trump situation around?
They’re around. But I think propaganda is a word that has many connotations, but during an actual war and the circumstances that the movie is concerned with, they spun it in order to keep people’s spirits up because it was such a brutal, savage time. So many people were dying. You never knew who was going to be alive the next morning, which part of the city would still be standing. It was astounding that we ever won the war. There was a point at which it didn’t look likely. The thing is the movie has a lot of big things to say, but what I love about books or music or anything is the fact that it doesn’t forget to be entertaining. It doesn’t forget that it’s in show business. It doesn’t forget that it’s a great night out. So you get to laugh and cry, hopefully, and you get something to think about on the way home.
Were your parents in the war?
I was born just after the war. My father was in the RAF, my mother worked nights during the Second World War, which was not a good idea, and my childhood was full of those stories. All of my uncles and my aunts were in the services. It was the big event in modern history in terms of history and it formed everything, including my childhood.
This interview has been edited and condensed.