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Bill Nighy Explains His Deep New Love of Pokémon

Bill Nighy Photo: Anthony Harvey/REX/Shutterstock

This post contains spoilers for the plot of Detective Pikachu.

Of the actors that appear in Detective Pikachu, you might not expect that Bill Nighy, the lauded 69-year-old British character actor, has become one of the biggest fans of the Pokémon franchise. Sure, Justice Smith likes himself a Totodile, but Nighy recently went deep on his newfound passion for the pocket monsters universe in an interview in the Guardian, so much so that we at Vulture just had to reach out and ask for an interview to hear him explain what made him so attached to those collectible creatures. For a little backstory, in the movie Nighy plays Howard Clifford, a Poké scientist and industrialist who’s helped build the metropolis that is Ryme City, but who (this is a noir) turns out to have a nefarious scheme to transfer human consciousnesses into Pokémon. As it turns out, Nighy is very honored to have channeled a certain psychic-type Pokémon, and extremely grateful that he got to keep Clifford’s gigantic legendary Pokémon wall hangings.

First of all, I’ve read you got very into Pokémon filming this movie, but how much did you know going in?
I knew very, very little about Pokémon. It’s a generational thing. It passed me by. I was aware that it was a worldwide phenomenon, but it wasn’t something that I’d investigated until I did the movie. Then having taken the engagement, I requested as much of the literature as I could find. The thing that made a big impression on me was the Pokédex. Not least because I loved the word “Pokédex.” Also, it was a very heavy, big, considerable book which had everything. It’s the Bible. It’s everything that you need to know about Pokémon. It also had a plastic globe — half globe — on the front, with a Pikachu loose inside it, which was very impressive. But anyway, I then studied that.

Then the whole part of me that likes to collect things kind of kicked in. I was very impressed with the depth of background for all of the Pokémon and the geography and the meticulous design. It was all very engaging. That was before I started to work on the movie, and then I was introduced to all kinds of Pokémon wonders.

What was it like to act in the movie? I assume [the filmmakers] were just describing what would eventually be placed in front of you via CGI.
You get used to that. I am accustomed to talking to myself, as it were, having been in a few movies that involve CGI. Also, we did have a recording of Ryan Reynolds at points, although I didn’t have any conversations with Pikachu because I can’t hear him. The only person who can hear him is Justice Smith’s character, obviously. But you’re aware of that tone and the style. It’s brilliant, very witty. And as for the other ones, you get used to it. I like genre generally, and I like sci-fi, and I like that world.

When you finally got to see Detective Pikachu, what was your reaction?
Well, I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’ve been shooting a movie in England, an out-of-town kind of thing, and the movie hasn’t opened here yet. I’ve been away and I haven’t had a chance. I haven’t seen any screenings or anything. So I’m looking forward to it.

Is there anything specific you’re excited to see?
You’ve seen the movie?

I have seen the movie, yes. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
Obviously, as you might imagine, I’m quite keen to see myself as the ancient Mew — Mewtwo, rather.

Mewtwo, yes. The cloned version.
Because those scenes were fun to shoot, and I want to see myself — or, as it were, “myself,” flying around. All of the more explosive scenes. I love the transformation scene, I suppose you’d call it, where I place my brain in the body of the most powerful Pokémon in the world. That’s something I’m quite keen to see.

I’d read that you got to keep the wall hangings of the Legendary Pokémon Palkia, Dialga, and Arceus — the sort of Pokémon Gods – that your character has in his room.
Yes, in my fabulous office, as you saw, there were two wall hangings. What amused me, what is satisfying about them — and I don’t get excited about objects very often, but I got very excited — is they were two, as it were, ancient wall hangings that were punched out in what was supposed to be ancient stone. They were part classical and part Pokémon. That’s what was so cool about it, was that I loved the juxtaposition between the classical and the Pokémon. I thought it was very witty. So I coveted them. I just happened to admire them.

Then when I was leaving, what they’d done was they’d made a couple of wall hangings even bigger than the ones that are in my [character’s] fabulous apartment. They’re now boxed up in my [actual] apartment. I’m waiting for a wall that’s big enough or strong enough to support them, because they’re huge. Or it’s possible I might donate them to a school, or I might put them on eBay for charity, because they are the only ones in the world.

The “stone” carvings, as seen in the Detective Pikachu trailer. Photo: Legendary Pictures

It’s a fascinating kind of postmodern object — a classical stone carving of a Pokémon.
Exactly. It made me laugh, and it also made me greedy. I was very, very covetous. I really wanted them. I just said to one of the design team, “I really like those wall hangings. They’re really cool.” The next thing I knew, they were mine.

Has your sort of Pokémon obsession worn off now that you’re off the set? Have you tried out Pokémon Go or anything?
I still like my Pokédex. It is a kind of fetish. It hasn’t worn off, no. I mean, I’ve been shooting a couple of movies since then, and therefore I’ve been fully engaged in other things. But no, no, I’m still keen. And I would love to go hunting sometime.

Well, it’s pretty easy to do on your phone. You can download the app.
I’m not very good at pleasure — I don’t know, some neurosis of mine. So I need a kind of focus. Pokémon hunting might be just the thing for me. You know what I mean?

I’ve played it, and they have landmarks at interesting places around the town, so it gets you walking, gives you a purpose.
Exactly. Purpose. That’s the word I was looking for. Because I’ve been using paintings as a kind of focus for any trips I take, going to look at paintings. I think Pokémon would be another thing that would get me out of the house, or get me out of the country. Somebody was in Strasbourg doing it. It was just the random fact of Strasbourg that made an impression on me. It would encourage you to go places you might not normally go to. That’s part of the appeal.

I think they have different Pokémon on different continents, too, so that’s kind of appealing.
Oh, really?

There’s a bug one that’s only in Latin America and South America, and a coral one that’s only in the tropics, so you know it gives you an excuse to plan out trips across the world.
That’s an expensive hobby. No wonder people get obsessed with it. It’s very good.

I also wanted to ask about your movie Sometimes Always Never, which is in an entirely different world, which is coming out in the U.S. later this fall. Tell me a little bit about what interested you in that.
I’m very keen on it, and I’m very keen on the people who made it. It’s a first-time director, Carl Hunter. It’s written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It’s just a little bit different. Carl’s influences are Roy Andersson, the Swedish director, and Aki Kaurismäki, and Wes Anderson. So it’s stylized to a degree, which I think is very satisfying and amusing. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. I’m very keen that people should see it. It’s also rather moving. It’s coming out in England on Father’s Day, because it concerns a family who have lost one of their sons in a Scrabble dispute. He’s been missing for 20 years, and I, as his father, has been trying to find him. I have another son who tries to help, played by the magnificent Sam Riley, whom you may remember from the movie Control, where he played Ian Curtis. He and I play father and son. Edwyn Collins has written music. It’s a really good night out. It’s entertaining and it’s touching, moving, and funny in a weird way.

You mentioned having done movies in all sorts of different genres, like Detective Pikachu. Is there something you look for specifically in the projects you want to make?
The quality of the script, whether it’s a kids’ movie or a family movie or whatever it is, you just look for a degree of quality, obviously, in the script, and something maybe that people haven’t seen before. I do like when it gets silly, you know what I mean? I like it when it gets a little bit daft. I like to be involved in things that are a little crazy and a little unusual. I’ve played a zombie. I’ve played a vampire. I’ve played a squid pirate. I’ve played a stoned-out rabbit. I’ve played an albino lab rat who had brain damage due to overexposure to hallucinogens during shampoo development. I’ve played all kinds of silly things. My stoned-out rabbit sang “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks [in The Magic Roundabout]. I’ve never been quite able to express this, but somehow you’re not doing any harm. You’re doing the opposite of harm. You know what I mean? Not that I ever had any plans to harm anybody. But you know what I mean? It’s benign. It’s simply to entertain and to bewitch.

It’s like a fooling, in a Shakespearean sort of way, you’re just showing the absurdity of the world with this stuff.
Exactly. That kind of thing. Precisely, yeah. I like it when it gets like that.

Well, now you’ve gotten to be the superpowerful Mewtwo, so you can add that to your list.
I know. How cool is that? Wait until the kids find out who I am. I’m hoping for a degree of respect, obviously, for that.

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