British actor Bill Nighy has the kind of versatile talent that he has played a wide variety of characters in all sorts acting projects on stage, screen and the radio. He may not have starring roles in most of his films but he brings a unique flair or gravitas to any character that he takes on, whether it is in fantasy adventures such as “The Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, a romantic comedy such as “Love Actually,” horror films such as the “Underworld” series and “Shaun of the Dead” or animated films such as “Rango” and “Arthur Christmas.”
In “Arthur Christmas,” Nighy is the voice of Grandsanta, the cranky father of Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent). Santa is about to continue the tradition of relinquishing his duties to an heir. He has two sons: the authoritative Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie) and the sensitive Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy). Older son Steve is the presumed heir since he has been commanding the home-base operations with military-like precision.
On Christmas Eve, Arthur discovers that Santa and his team mistakenly forgot to deliver a gift to a little girl, so Arthur, Grandsanta and a gift-wrapping whiz elf named Byrony (voiced by Ashley Jensen) go on a madcap race around the world to deliver the gift before the girl wakes up on Christmas morning. I recently caught up with Nighy when he was in New York City to promote “Arthur Christmas.” Here is what he said in the interview.
When you’re part of an animated film, how do you usually like to see the film for the first time? Do you like to see it in bits and pieces when it’s coming together, or do you like to wait until it’s all finished?
In this case, I waited until it was all finished. In fact, I saw it for the first time [at a New York City screening on November 13, 2011]. I think saw it in the best possible circumstances: with a cinema full of kids. Most of the people there were under 10, so I think it was probably a very good idea, although they spoke through some of my greatest bits. But no, they were cool.
I can honestly say — this is not PR — I knew it was going to be good but I didn’t think it was going to be quite that good. I think it was really, really cool. I think it’s very smart, and I’m proud to be in it. All that stuff.
“Arthur Christmas” is not your first time doing a film with Aardman Animations. You were also in 2066’s “Flushed Away.” What makes Aardman movies so different from other animated films?
I think they brought maybe a new level of authenticity to the dialogue generally and therefore to the comedy. I think the drawings are quite specific about the individual characters — a degree of specificity, which maybe was a new-ish thing. I think it’s a whole sensibility. A lot of it is to do with comedy and sort of generosity in spirit.
Can you talk about your Grandsanta character in “Arthur Christmas”? Why attracted you to the role?
[He says jokingly] Well, when I went for the job, I assumed I was going for Steve [the macho older son of Santa Claus. [He says seriously] No, in fact I thought I was going for Father Christmas, and then they showed me Grandsanta, and it was slightly unsettling. He’s 136 and has no teeth, but I did think I was going to go for Father Christmas.
I love my part. The great thing about animation is it’s like the radio. I used to do lots of radio when I was a kid, and you get to play parts you would never get to play ordinarily. He’s a colorful and quite rich character. Sarah Smith, the director [of “Arthur Christmas”], and I spent quite a while [on the role].
I had to audition for the part, because for animations, they can’t just recklessly give you the role because you may not have the voice. You might not to be able to have that up your sleeve, so they have to try you out. I was very keen to be in it because it’s Aardman, because the script was so good, and I figured it would possibly be one of those Christmas movies that hangs around. We struggled for quite a while — well, I struggled while she [Sarah Smith] yawned — to get a suitable voice. And I hope we did.
What did you like about Grandsanta?
He’s very satisfying to play. He’s got some great lines and jokes. He does say all the things that no one will dare say, so it’s quite refreshing.
Can you talk about the difference between doing something like Davy Jones in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, where your performance is driving the animation, as opposed to “Arthur Christmas,” where you just hand your voice over to the animators?
It’s odd. With “Pirates” it was an act of faith. Gore Verbinski [director of the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies] was saying, “Whatever you do on the floor will arrive on the screen.” And then when I saw the creature at the end, I was so moved that the men and women who made it had actually done that.
Every single little thing you did, all the stupid stuff you did, it was there. I said to Gore, “You know you said that whatever I did on the floor would arrive on the screen.” And he said, “Yeah, but I was lying” … So it was an act of faith.
I don’t know, practically speaking, what the difference is. In “Arthur,” I didn’t act to the drawing, to the character all the time. I knew what the drawing was. They did show me drawings for Davy Jones.
The tough thing about that was you had to turn up in a pair of computer pajamas. They showed you drawings of the scariest thing on the ocean waves, and then they put you in a pair of computer pajamas with white bubbles all over your body. Then they introduce you to Johnny Depp. It’s not a good day. It’s bad enough meeting Johnny on a good day when you think you might look your best … or something stupid.
Is it a surprise to see the finished film when it’s the animators taking your voice work and running with it?
Yeah, it’s a shock. It’s a slightly different kind of shock when you see it. When I saw Davy Jones, I was not prepared for it. Nothing prepares you for it.
I remember the first time they animated anything with my voice and they did show it to me. I don’t really like that bit. I don’t like hearing myself or seeing myself too much — certainly not in the middle of it because I don’t have a good opinion of myself. It’s just a tendency, so it undermines me. I’m not being coy. I have to seriously consider that because it is a real drawback.
The thing about animation in this case [“Arthur Christmas”], that’s the other difference. The difference is you go away for four months then you come back and do three days. And then you go away for four months. You do 10 session or 12 sessions over two years. And they’re quite intense. It’s quite hard work in its own sort of strange way. The thing is you can’t remember. You have no sense memory of the voice.
So when they played it for me, I had no memory of whoever made that noise. It was like, “I don’t remember making that noise. I don’t remember that voice. I don’t remember anything about it.” But it was good. I thought, “Hey, that’s OK.”
And it worked with the drawing. It worked with the character. It looked like a little old man, and he had no teeth. It was kind of great.
What’s the best childhood memory you have of Christmas?
I’m not being cute because of the movie, but the Christmas I got a bike was … I can remember it vividly. I can feel it. I was standing at the top of our stairs and there’s a frosted window looking down into the yard, and I could see the outline of a bike against a wall in the garden.
I came over all funny. I remember my heart going funny. It was like the biggest thing. It was so big, and that bike stayed with me about 10 years. It was a constant.
How old were you when you got this bike?
I was probably about 8 probably or maybe 9. My dad denied me. I’d wanted a bike so badly, but he wouldn’t let me have one because I wasn’t tall enough. That was a big memory.
One the best parts of “Arthur Christmas” is when Arthur, Byrony and Grandsanta take a crazy trip around the world. What’s the craziest or most memorable trip you’ve ever taken in real life?
I drove across the Serengeti in a Land Rover in Tanzania — and nothing prepares you for that. It’s immense and extraordinarily beautiful and impressive. I went to the Ngorongoro Crater, which is a huge bowl of lush green and water in which there are all the major animals (excluding tigers), including lions, giraffes, zebras, hyenas. It’s an incredible place.
And the weirdest thing I’ve seen in my life is a giraffe. They are beautiful and terribly moving. It made me want to cry. They just move in the stupidest way, and yet it’s elegant in a messed-up way. They are so extraordinary. It makes you believe in things from outer space. You think, “How can you exist here?” But they’re gentle. And they’re massive! They’re huge! That was a great journey.
You mentioned earlier that you don’t like to hear the sound of your voice in animation when you’re the middle of working on it. Can you elaborate?
I don’t dislike the process any more than I dislike any of the other processes. I don’t know whether it’s above-average difficulty, but I have difficult persuading myself and thinking positively about things. I won’t go on too much about it … I don’t dislike the process of animation … I find it daunting, but only as much as I find everything daunting.
And how do you feel as an actor when your voice, not your body language or facial expressions, is the main instrument that you have to use in animation?
I don’t mind that at all. I kind of like that. My apprenticeship, proper, was on the radio in England, on BBC radio. When I was young, the only people who gave me a gig were [in] radio. And they passed me around. And I’d get gig after gig. At the end of one gig, they’d say, “What are you doing next week?” And I’d say, “Nothing.” And they’d say, “OK.”
It saved my bacon, because you had money, the usual things. They kept me alive, in terms of money. And also, you got to work with lots of great actors in very close proximity. And you got to work on a microphone, and you did only have your voice.
And you got to play parts. Not only did they give me leading roles which nobody was going to give me anywhere else, but also you could play a range of characters that you couldn’t play anywhere else because it didn’t matter what you looked like, obviously. Although they did call me at one point “the tallest man in radio.” But they were drunk.
What is your favorite movie and why?
It’s tough, but I really, really do like “Punch Drunk Love” by Paul Thomas Anderson. I think it went straight in at No. 1 [on my favorites list]. It’s everything I like. It’s romantic in the extreme, but in a kind of messed-up way, in a kind of tolerable way.
I have nothing against romanticism. I’m all for it. I’m helpless in the face of romance. But it’s funny, really funny. And I think the two central performances are marvelous: Adam Sandler and Emily Watson.
I made film shortly afterwards called “The Girl in the Cafe,” which was the next thing I made after I’d seen [“Punch Drunk Love”]. And I wrote “Adam Sandler” inside the front [of “The Girl in the Cafe” script] so I wouldn’t forget, because I wanted it to be kind of an undercover comedy performance. I wanted it to be buried. I wanted it to be disguised.
My favorite thing, the Holy Grail, is being amusing whilst apparently making no concessions whatsoever to the idea that you might be. That’s the Holy Grail. That’s what I like. That’s my major preoccupation. You don’t always get to do it because the material doesn’t need it or allow for it.
But “Punch Drunk Love” makes me laugh out loud. It’s just smart and very moving. There are moments in it that I never forget. I’ve seen it I don’t know how many times. It went on TV in England, and it was on a loop on TV. It was one of those films that when you get there, why go anywhere else? It’s like “The Godfather.” You might as well stay there.
What does the Christmas spirit mean to you?
The Christmas spirit is something to do with your children. I remember my daughter the year that she got the hamster and the doll that she wanted. She wanted this doll that had real hair. It was very, very expensive. And I’d been working, so it was OK. And I bought this doll. And she got both the hamster and the doll on the same day. It’s the thing you want.
She woke me up ay 4:30 in the morning. She sat on my chest. And she couldn’t express it. She was too small to contain this feeling, she was so excited. And you become a camera. You think, “Become a camera. Take a video of this and keep it.” That’s the best thing.
That and other things are the best things that ever happened to me in my life. I’m not a philosopher, but I presume somewhere in there is the meaning of my life. And that moment is what I think people look for in Christmas.
For more info: “Arthur Christmas” website
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