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Bill Nighy: ‘Everyone can make a difference if we cooperate’

The actor tells Adrian Lobb his latest role in the film Living shows what can be done with a bit of urgency and a spirit of collaboration

Critically acclaimed new film Living might initially seem a world away from cinematic classics like Trainspottingor Dead Poets Society. But if we look closer,  the underlying message is the same. Even if it takes close proximity to death to ram home the message, choose life. Seize the day. Bill Nighy produces one of the finest performances of a storied and varied career as Mr Williams, a civil servant in 1950s London whose humdrum, regimented life is upturned by the realisation that he has limited time left on the planet. 

It sends him reeling. This quiet, reserved man of inaction acquires a sense of urgency. The organised, methodical office worker embarks on a wild night of drinking, gambling, singing, philosophising and healing with a hedonistic writer played, with some relish, by Tom Burke. Next, he considers his legacy. What does he want to leave behind? How will he spend his final months of life? The answer lies, he decides, in persuading the London City Council, for whom he has worked, quite unremarkably, for most of his life, to build a children’s playground on a bomb site. 

The film is based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru – a movie that left a lasting impression on Nobel and Booker Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. He had the idea for the remake, and was persuaded to write it himself. The result is Living, an inspirational look at how we can all create positive change. 

“You hope that it’s inspirational,” says Nighy, adding with a suppressed snort of laughter, “that’s probably the kiss of death in terms of the box office. I’m kidding. Half kidding. No, I think it does uplift people. People come out encouraged by it. Although there are sad elements within the film, the general effect is one where people are inspired to get on with life and make the most of things.” 

In person, Nighy is everything you hope he might be. Stylish in a blazer and tie over an impeccable white shirt, trousers pressed, shoes shined. He’s also interested and engaged – and particularly keen to talk about his obsession with Fred Perry shirts (mine, apparently, is a “very rare Fred”), and peppers his sentences with wry asides, self-deprecating chuckles and the kind of cool cat bon mots that members of The Rolling Stones might favour. 

I ask what he considers the key takeaway message from the film.  

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Ikiru
Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, on which Living is based. Photo: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

“I procrastinate at an Olympic level. I’m very, very, very, very good at it. I’m world class. It’s very interesting to me how an individual tendency to fearfully put off things for another time which may never come can be expressed within society – societally, a word I’ve only used twice, both times today, I’m risking it! You know, institutionally. It’s interesting how we build huge buildings in order to house institutions which are designed specifically to prevent things from happening. Governments are formed to do just that.” 

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to reduce it really. I mean, it’s about a couple of things,” he begins. “One being procrastination, which is the great corrosive element in all our lives – at least I hope it’s not just me.

He warms to his theme, a natural storyteller. “Look at the environment. Look how long we’ve known. We go from procrastination to actually denying that it’s happening. It is sort of breathtaking that people still do that. Even now, as we speak, somewhere on the planet someone is saying: ‘Oh, it’s all right, we had a very hot summer in 1976. 1812? Absolutely murderous.’ All of that. So we’re all world class at it.” 

In the film, we see Mr Williams and his London City Council colleagues send an enterprising group of women and their playground petition from pillar to post, via Planning, Parks and Recreation and Public Works. Mr Williams, like the office he works in, is quiet, unexceptional, and he’s seemingly happy to let their dream wither and die unattended in his in-tray… until his time becomes limited. 

Building a children’s playground – the ultimate way to invest in the future health and happiness of
a community – on a World War II bombsite is almost too sharp a metaphor for tackling the climate crisis, attempting to make something beautiful out of a man-made environmental catastrophe. 

We talk about his character’s belated realisation that he could be more than a cog in a machine and that he can achieve something great with his remaining time.  

“It’s that irritating thing people say – why don’t we try and live each day as if it’s the last day of our life,” says Nighy. “And everybody probably gives it a go, but no one can do it. Or at least I don’t think they can. Unless it is the last day of their life. And I am no better at it than anyone else.  

“But I do try and relish the days. Because there is great beauty around us, wherever we are. Not everywhere in the world, obviously. But I’m a very, very fortunate person, and not to make the most of it would seem, you know, churlish at the least. 

“When you get to my age, you look at the clock and you think let’s start relishing the days, you know? Not that I’ve heard anything bad about being dead. I mean, being dead apparently is perfectly alright. No one’s come back and said, ‘I can’t be doing with that’.”  

I ask for his opinion on the importance of shared public spaces like the playground Mr Williams becomes obsessed with helping to create.  

“Well, I mean, this is the first time I would have ever considered it. The proper answer to your question is I’ve no idea about any of it… except that it’s essential,” he says.  

“Other cities have great parks, but I do think one of the things that distinguishes London is that there are these places people can go and just breathe and they are essential to the life of the city. Otherwise everybody would go actually insane. And people have become hip to that, you know?” 

1537_Nighy
Nighy’s varied career has seen him win Bafta and Golden Globe awards, as well as picking up a Tony nomination. Photo: NUMBER 9 FILMS

Nighy has not seen the film. This is not unusual, he says. One of the finest actors of recent times prefers to move onto the next project rather than watch and analyse his own performances.  

“I don’t watch anything, so it’s all hearsay,” says Nighy. “But I’m pretty confident enough people seem to not just like the movie, but they’re kind of crazy about the movie.” 

In the quietest and most impeccably well-mannered way, says Nighy, Living is even akin to a tense, edge-of-your-seat action thriller. 

“I love the fact that people who do watch the movie say that the audience are gripped – in the same way as they’d be gripped if they were watching Independence Day or something,” he says.  

“Is this the end of mankind as we know it? Will he get to build the playground? That’s a credit to the
filmmakers who have obviously scheduled all the information in a suspenseful manner.”  

And if it also tells us that apparently small lives can leave a big imprint on the world, then isn’t that so much the better? 

“As you probably would expect, I do slightly resist the word small, but I understand what you mean,” says Nighy. “And it’s true. It is a small life in comparison to world leaders, you know? 

“But I think that’s why everyone can make a difference – particularly if we combine and cooperate. Unfortunately, politicians, entirely for self-advancement purposes, seek to divide us for various political reasons. Decent people are persuaded into combative positions, which, in truth, have no bearing on anything.  

“But when we do combine and when we do cooperate, we can do anything. I suppose, to some degree, you know, that’s what the film is about.” 

Living is in cinemas from November 4  @adey70

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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