When you talk with Billy Nighy, says director David Yates, who worked with his fellow Brit on the later Harry Potter movies and the British TV version of “State of Play,” “ask him about his tailor.”
The director winks and adds, “Bill lives upstairs from him. And that’s more than a matter of convenience.”
Indeed, laughs Nighy, the gangly 62 year-old British character actor, at home in “Underworld” vampire thrillers, hit man comedies (“Wild Target”) or romances such as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a comedy about British senior citizens coping with an inexpensive but alien retirement in far off India. “I do like like my clothes, like my look to have a groovy rhythm to it.”
And if it takes living upstairs from a London tailor to pull that off, he’s fine with it. If anybody embraces “Clothes make the man,” it’s the stylish, angular Nighy, famed for his perfectly pleated pants, his “lounge wear” (longish) jackets, on display in films from “Love Actually” and “Pirate Radio” to “The Constant Gardener” and “Enduring Love.”
“Clothes may make the man, but they most CERTAINLY make the character,” he says. “I spend quite a lot of time fretting over what a character would wear, how he’ll look.”
“It’s why I retired from Shakespeare. I don’t think I ANNOUNCED my retirement. Well, only in my bathroom at home. I simply couldn’t pull off the clothes. I don’t do a lot of period pieces for the same reason.”
He adopted his style sense from his father, who ran a garage, of all things, “but who wouldn’t be caught dead without a jacket and tie.” Dad’s look informs Nighy’s take on a lot of characters — not the vampires or pirate ghosts (he was Davy Jones in “a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie) of course. But he dressed a lot like his father while playing a shy civil servant in HBO’s “The Girl in the Cafe” a few years ago. And that look came up again when it came to playing a retired civil servant in his latest, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
“India is a shocking riot of noise and colors and people, and the city we were in, (Udaipur), absolutely stood still at rush hour. All that heat, all those people.
“And here’s Douglas, always in his smart jacket, always buttoned up. The director and the rest of the cast made a game of it, ‘What can we do to get Bill to unbutton his collar?’ Judi Dench and the ladies had quite a lot of fun with that. It became quite momentous when the character actually does unbutton that top two buttons on his shirt. But that’s his look, what makes him comfortable. His armor, really.”
Nighy as an actor likes having that armor on hand. Acting, he jokes, “is a white collar job.” So why not wear a suit? Even to rehearsals?
He’s always been conscious of his looks, his height. Standing — tall and rail thin — above colleagues can be bothersome to a young actor. He found he took to stooping, a bit. But film wasn’t as much of a problem. And age has made him comfortable in his own skin, and his roles after 50 have seen him come into his own. He’s won a Golden Globe, a couple of BAFTAs, British Oscars. Films such as “Notes on a Scandal” displayed him to great effect.
Nighy had thought of becoming a journalist as a young man (he plays one in “State of Play”) before settling on acting school. Lucky for him, as most journalists can’t afford to live upstairs from their tailors. But like a good journalist, he’s not guarded about his sartorial secrets, sharing that the true essentials for any well-dressed man include a pleated, two button jacket, “but never ever button that bottom button, on risk of SHUNNING. I’m quite serious.”
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