Period romance a ‘sumptuous, visual treat’
WHEN you talk to Bill Nighy in person you expect him to oh so terribly British, which he is, and it’s what made him the perfect choice to play a character that Jane Austen created 205 years ago.
Nighy, a veteran of stage and screen with 147 credits to his name, plays Mr Woodhouse, the father of the title character Emma, which opens on Thursday.
Best known for his role in Love Actually, the Underworld series and the sixth Harry Potter movie, Nighy recently turned 70, and said working on Emma in the English countryside was a joy.
“I know they all say this, but it was a really nice shoot,” Bill said. “(Director) Autumn De Wilde encouraged me shamelessly to do all kinds of gags, the cast were adorable and it’s a clever move to have it cast with people that the audience won’t necessarily be familiar with.
“I’m sure they will in times to come, but it’s quite refreshing to see all these younger actors getting a big break, and that’s an asset for a film.”
Bill knew when he saw the script for this adaptation of the novel, that it had legs with a modern audience, and was told that the filmmakers had him in mind from the very start.
“Everybody knew they were onto something, seeing the script from Eleanor Catton, who’s a Booker Prize winning novelist. She’s absolutely hilarious and a wonderful person, she took a new look at Jane Austen,” Bill said.
“We had sessions together which was so such good fun that I thought, ‘well I’ll stick with these guys’. They just seemed so ready to have a whole fresh look at Emma.”
Bill admits that he’s never read an Austen novel, and prefers to work from the script of a film rather than the original source material, admitting that books have too much information, and don’t help his interpretation. He does have a good idea though why Emma continues to appeal over 200 years since it was first published.
“The Austen books stand the test of time in the same way as Shakespeare does, the romance particularly. Emma is a character that is very astute and very clever. People fundamentally don’t change very much in society over time. Social structures do, and technology obviously, but when you get down to how people feel and how they respond to each other … it’s pretty much the same.
“I don’t really mind if the movie is relevant or not as long as it’s fun, and in this case people will have fun and will be moved. It’s curious seeing the exotic behaviour of this feudal community where a minority of people lived like gods and everybody else was prepared apparently, just to serve them.”
Along with the English surroundings, the other star of the movie is costuming, and Bill admitted that wearing some of the outfits he dons in Emma were a challenge.
“Emma was filmed in several stately homes of southern England during the spring last year,” Bill said.
“I was surrounded by these incredible landscapes, gardens, carriages, horse, and the girls in the most incredible clothes, while the boys are in these extraordinary trousers all made by Alexandra Byrne, the Oscar-winning designer. Some were very heavy; it like wearing a pair of curtains from a very big window, but it did make you stand up to attention most of the time.
“Every frame could be taken out and hung on the wall, and it’s worth seeing this in the cinemas, and I know it’s a cliche, but it really is a sumptuous, visual treat. I hope it says that on the poster.”
Bill has been working constantly since 1976, across many genres, but admits that at 70, there’s one more that interests him.
“I think it’s time I had an action career,” he said. “I know it looks unlikely at my time of life, so therefore I’d have to be a man from another dimension. I’d like I’d like to be able to take eight aliens out with the flick of my finger, as long as I have a much younger stunt double!”