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One on One: Bill Nighy on 'Arthur Christmas,' 'Total Recall' and 'Love Actually'

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Nov 21, 2011 | 6:12am EST

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ALTCrafting a great Christmas movie is no easy task. You need an authentically magical story, actors who can give themselves over to the joy of the season and a style that evokes the warmth of the holidays—more than just a barrage of reds and greens, for sure.

Arthur Christmas, which hits theaters this Wednesday, delivers on those expectations. Aardman Animation (the studio behind Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and Flushed Away) pulls back the curtain on the secret, high-tech business of Christmas present delivery, run by the militant Steve Claus, his bumbling brother Arthur and the placeholder face of the company, Santa. Joining in on their fun (and Arthur’s greater adventure), is Grandsanta, the former head honcho who spends most of his time acting cranky and talking about “the good old days.”

The legendary Bill Nighy, a holiday staple in his own right thanks to a little movie called Love Actually, brings Grandsanta to life, and I had a chance to talk to him about creating the right voice for the 136-year-ol character, the pleasure of making a Christmas movie, the performance differences in his earlier 2011 movie Rango, the upcoming Total Recall remake, Love Actually and more:

How are things going? You’re a busy man! I was sifting through everything you have coming up for the end of the year and in 2012.

Bill Nighy: Yeah!

How do you do it all?

BN: I don’t know. One day at a time. You just get up and think, ‘Where am I today?’ And you do that bit. I’ve been quite busy, and it’s been a nice mixture of things in the last year. And I’ve been able to travel a bit. I’ve been to India, which was extraordinary. I made a film there with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson, directed by John Madden, called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

And India was incredible?

BN: It’s unlike anywhere else. And we met some extraordinary people and had a very big…a kind of “big” time, and a big experience. We were a month in Udaipur and a month in Jaipur. It’s quite beautiful and quite mad.

Mad?

BN: Well, sort of mad. In terms of noise…rush hour in Jaipur. Nothing quite prepares you for rush hour in Jaipur. But it’s kind of exhilarating. But the noise, and the number of vehicles, and the frenzied—no, it’s not frenzied. It’s just, the degree of activity is a lot to take in.

I assume working on Arthur Christmas was a very different experience than being in the middle of India.

BN: I like to mix it up. I like the fact that I get to play a wide range of things. Partly because you kind of present a moving target. If you didn’t like that, you might like this. But also, just because it’s fun.

But with this, I had to audition to be in this. I read the script, and it was a very, very, very good script. It was one of the best scripts I’ve read for a long time. And I sensed that it might be—if they made it halfway decently—it would be a kind of perennial. And I quite seriously wanted to be in it. There are just certain jobs you really want to be in, and I really wanted to be in this. And it was Aardman—and I like working for Aardman. I’ve worked with them before, and they’re great.

What was your previous experience working with the studio?

BN: I worked on Flushed Away. They’re just really decent people to work with, and they’re smart. It’s a long process, and it’s good to have the confidence of knowing that it’s probably going to be worth it because it’s Aardman. And in this case—I saw it for the first time yesterday, with a bunch of kids in New York. And it was great circumstances to watch it with a cinema full of under-nines. I was bowled over by it. I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t know how good—I was very proud. Honestly, this is not PR. I just thought, it’s amazing what they do. It’s five years of [director] Sarah Smith’s life and it’s beautifully put together.

Anyway, the experience: yeah, you are in a booth. Occasionally, I got to meet James McAvoy because we had most of the stuff to do together. I’ve played his father before, and now I’m his granddad. It’s okay.

How do you find the performance when you’re in that kind of setting?

BN: Once you sort of click into work, it’s the same really. All right, the circumstances are different. And mostly, with animation, there’s no one else there, apart from you and the director. But the experience of acting, once you get into it, it’s the same whether there are people there or not. The fact that it’s all concentrated in your voice. Although I think if there were a video of me doing this, which I hope there isn’t—

On the Blu-ray.

BN: [Laughs] Exactly. …You’d probably see me screwing my body up into some sort of representation of a one hundred and thirty-six year-old man.

That’s what I imagine. When you’re doing something that’s going to be filmed, you have to be reserved, but if you’re doing something in the booth, you can be as wild as you want to be. Animate yourself.

BN: Yeah. I do tend to wave my arms. I don’t know why, because I’d never do it—even if I were playing a hundred and thirty-six year-old man on screen. I don’t think I’d wave my arms.

ALTI don’t know if a hundred and thirty-six year-old man could wave his arms!

BN: No. Probably not, actually. He’d be dead. No, but I do, and I know that because they often say, ‘Can you take your shirt off and we’ll give you a t-shirt?’ Because shirts always rustle. It doesn’t matter what they’re made of. When you start moving, you hear that…and they’re always so sensitive. So, I always end up in some terrible t-shirt, so I know that I wave my arms a lot. It’s kind of an unconscious thing. You don’t plan to wave your arms, but you just end up doing it.

Did Sarah give you references to help you find the voice of Grandsanta? A previously-existing starting point of some kind?

BN: No. There was nothing she wanted me to mimic. She doesn’t direct like that. She’s very brilliant at directing. She’s really good at it. But she’s quite relentless. And it took a while before I made any noises that she liked. The references weren’t so much to do with other voices or other characters. They were more to do with…they were attitudinal suggestions. Story considerations. She’s really good at that. And she’d give you ideas from life, generally, but not specific cultural references, or anything.

I wanted to get a voice—the two things were: one was, I wanted to do something I had never done before, I wanted to make a voice that I had never done before, obviously. And the other was, I wanted to avoid cliché. I wanted it not to be anything you’ve heard in a movie before. Or quite heard in a movie before. You might have nearly heard it, but I hope—who knows?—I hope there’s an element in there that’s original and unique to this film.

Do you remember how you found the Grandsanta?

BN: You just take this horrible leap. And luckily, there’s only Sarah there, and she’s very, very nice. Although quite direct. But it was only she and I there. But you got a sort of idea in your head, but it’s just a gamble the first time. The first time you make a noise, and you hope that it’s not too embarrassing. And then she says, ‘No. No, no, no, no, no. Well, maybe, but no. Maybe a bit more…’ Then you’re off.

She’s honest.

BN: Yeah, she’s honest. So I don’t really understand, but in the end it just was…there obviously are references, because we are all kind of computers and we take in this information whether consciously or unconsciously. I don’t have any conscious guidelines when I’m going along. I navigate blindly. But there must be somewhere in one’s memory, in the banks, there are kind of references to people you’ve met.. I know you can’t say much, but what was it like taking on Kuato, a role that’s been made popular in the previous film?

BN: Well, it was a great experience. And I love Len Weisman. I’ve done two Underworld movies with him, and he produced the third. He’s a brilliant director. I loved Die Hard 4. I think he’s one of the great directors currently working. It’s a relatively small engagement for me, but I was really pleased and proud to go and be a part of it. But Colin [Farrell] was great, and Jessica [Biel] and Bryan Cranston. I don’t want to spoil it, because it’ll kill you. But the script is marvelous. I like sci-fi.

Are you a fan of the original?

BN: Yeah, yeah, it’s great. I love it. And I’m a fan of the original story. I love Philip K. Dick. I like a bit of sci-fi. I like that kind of sci-fi. I’m not crazy about things from outer space always. I don’t mind that, I’m up for it. You know, monsters and stuff. But mostly, I like imaginative versions of a possible near-future, with technology—

And you’d say Total Recall is in that vein?

BN: Yeah. There’s these really funky ideas, which are nearly true. It’s a leap of imagination, obviously. But you figure, that’s a pretty plausible version of a possible future. And I love that stuff. I love William Gibson. I just read Pattern Recognition. Have you read the trilogy Pattern Recognition?

I have not.

BN: Spook Country and Zero History? I’m recommending. It’s a trilogy that begins with Pattern Recognition, goes onto Spook Country and finishes with Zero History.

Having spent a significant amount of time in England and America, do you see a difference in how the two celebrate the holidays?

BN: Holidays I think are pretty much the same. I do think, and I love…the first time I ever came to America was to New York. And the first time I came to New York was just before Christmas. And it was magical. It really was magical. It seemed like Christmas was taken just a little bit further in America than it is at home. I mean, people are crazy about it.

On behalf of Arthur Christmas, I turned on the Christmas lights in Regent Street in London the other day. Last week. And the whole of Regent Street, which is like Fifth Avenue, was completely jam-packed with people. I knew it was a big deal, but I didn’t know it was that big a deal. People were hanging off the buildings. People do—they crave it—they really do dig Christmas. I don’t think there are too many differences. You probably have little idiosyncratic things you do, but mostly it’s the same. And certainly the children’s relationship with the idea of Santa Claus is the same. And we burn our messages on the open fire, and we take bites out of the mince pie and we leave them out for the reindeer or whatever, for Santa. I can remember doing all of that, and a glass of milk, and tiptoeing into my daughter’s room. All of that stuff is pretty much the same.

You mentioned you thought it might be a perennial classic in the making. I definitely agree with you. You’re quickly becoming a Christmas staple. Actually, you’re already a Christmas staple!

BN: Well, yeah. Love Actually, which I presume you’re referring to—

ALTYes.

BN: It’s very nice to be a part of…Love Actually has kind of entered the Christmas language, both in England and here. And it would be weird now if you didn’t see Love Actually at Christmas, at some point. Even people who don’t like Love Actually would think there’s something missing. So it’s quite nice to be in something that people—it’s not just because about Christmas. People love that movie. A lot of people do. It’s beloved. And people use it to cheer themselves up. And if Arthur Christmas is similarly embraced, I’d be very happy.

Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?

BN: Well, this is a tricky question, and I could lie to you—

Don’t lie to me.

BN: I’m not going to lie to you. And I don’t, really. I don’t really have a favorite Christmas movie. My mind goes blank. I like films they often—because they have so much time to fill, they often show lots of movies at Christmas—and I like the fact that they nearly always show Bringing Up Baby in England with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. But it’s not a Christmas movie.

Do you think Arthur Christmas is a Christmas movie?

BN: I think Arthur Christmas is a serious Christmas movie. I think there’s a clue in the title.

But would you describe it as a Christmas movie at its core?

BN: At its core I think it is a serious attempt to…apart from making you laugh and all those things, it has a Christmas heart. And I think it might be a perennial. It might linger.

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