When Bill Nighy shot the hit-man comedy Wild Target with Emily Blunt and Rupert Grint a few years ago, he thought that co-starring with Grint was the closest he’d ever get to the Harry Potter series, though he was happily proven wrong when he was later tapped to play Rufus Scrimgeour in the two-part Potter conclusion, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In some ways, his casting seemed inevitable, since Nighy’s hardly a stranger to effects-laden franchises — he’s got several Pirates of the Caribbean and Underworld movies under his belt — so it’s almost more refreshing to see him in a lower-key British comedy like Wild Target (opening Stateside this weekend), which returns him to the same comic vein he tapped so well in Love Actually and Shaun of the Dead. He called up Vulture to discuss witnessing Grint’s first nude scene, joining the Potter series, and playing a rattlesnake opposite Johnny Depp in the animated film Rango.
It’s interesting that so many comedies have been made about hit men. You would think there’s no profession more unsympathetic than a man who kills people, and yet, we seem to want your character to find happiness. How do you manage that?
I didn’t experience it as a challenge, really. The movie is built to amuse you, so the idea of me as a hit man isn’t one I could ever take seriously, really, and the only thing I think I’d ever be really recruited to play is a comic assassin. I was quite interested in the character because he’s not just isolated by his profession, but by his banality. Between all that and his [overbearing] mother, he’s been somewhat disabled as a man. I love the idea that he can’t pull the trigger and kill Emily Blunt, but he doesn’t understand why. The audience knows why, of course: It’s because she’s too unspeakably good-looking. But I like that he doesn’t understand his feelings.
The character is sort of sexually ambivalent in a lot of ways. At one point, he thinks that he may be attracted to Rupert Grint’s character. To what do you ascribe that to?
I don’t know if he’s sexually ambivalent — he may be, but the sexual joke is that as a compulsive who suffers from this obsessive disorder, he has narrowed his life down to the one activity and commitment he has, which is to kill people. He does that to the exclusion of everything else, and therefore he’s never had a girlfriend, but he’s also never had romantic yearnings, and when they come they are shocking and unfamiliar to him. It takes him a while to kind of read them correctly because he’s torn by the fact that [Blunt’s character] is everything that he does not admire — she’s a disordered mess who lives a trail of unfinished business behind her — and yet, she is enchanting.
Is Rupert Grint, in fact, confusingly attractive? I mean, you did see him naked in a bathtub full of milk, Bill. This is not something most of us do at our jobs.
[Laughs.] Life is cruel! There are many young women all over the world — and perhaps young men, too — who really would yearn to be in my situation and see Rupert naked in a bath full of milk. That it should fall to me is kind of cruel, isn’t it? But yeah, he was very cool to work with, Rupert.
Is it disconcerting to work with someone so young who could probably buy and sell us ten times over?
It wasn’t disconcerting in any way, but I never discussed it with him. I’m always happy when actors get rich, because the odds on it are so long! But he’s a terribly nice man, and I wish him well with all the money. I think it’s quite a burden, but I wouldn’t know because I never had the experience, and certainly not while I was young. Like everything else, it probably comes with its own set of problems.
And now you, too, are part of the Harry Potter series. I know there is plenty you’re not allowed to divulge, but maybe you can answer this: Do you get to wear a fabulous hairpiece?
Well, I am at liberty to tell you that: I do get to wear a fabulous hairpiece, and I’m very proud of that. It’s quite long and it’s quite dark. I had a very nice time on [the films], because I thought I was going to be the only English actor of a certain age who wasn’t in Harry Potter, and now I’m not. It was very nice to work with the boys, Daniel and Rupert, and with Emma, who is adorable. I was also very happy to work with David Yates again, who I worked with on a thing called The Girl in the Cafe and on State of Play, a television series. I think he’s one of the great directors currently working.
You also get to reunite with Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp in the upcoming animated film Rango, though I’m assuming you didn’t get to actually do your voice-acting with Johnny.
Actually, it was unusual inasmuch as we were all actually in the room together, and we acted it out rather like the way in which you might rehearse a play. We did actually stage it on the Paramount lot and act to one another, and they filmed the rehearsals, so you would do it one time for real, and then you would do the usual thing of going into a booth and doing it over and over again for the animators. It was very nice to see Johnny and Gore again, since we’d been together so long on Pirates, and the crew were all Pirates guys. We’d been together for nearly two years, so it was like a homecoming. Also, I got to meet Harry Dean Stanton, so that was a thrill.
I think I read that you play a rattlesnake with a machine gun in its tail, which sounds like kind of an unfair advantage for a rattlesnake to have.
Yes, he’s pretty heavy, but it turns out well. He’s a very serious character, and the drawings are very, very good. They’re by an artist called Crash who worked on Pirates as well, and he’s worked with Gore on other occasions. They’re very cool.
I know that often they try to model the face and the mannerisms of the character on the human providing the voice, but I would imagine that’s not easy to do with a snake.
Yeah, it’s a bit tricky. I mean, when I was in Pirates and I was the squid, some of the facial mannerisms and obviously the vocal mannerisms and indeed the whole body was faithfully translated from what was recorded on the set. It was entirely informed by my movements, but the snake, as you say, is a little trickier. I may be versatile, but I’m no rattlesnake.