Bill Nighy Dishes on “Emma.,” Gender Equality, and Modern Dating

Veteran actor Bill Nighy, whose professional career spans more than five decades, brings plenty of warmth and charm to the role of Mr. Woodhouse, the eccentric and lovable father of Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) in “Emma.,” Autumn de Wilde’s clever and eye-popping adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Regency-era novel. Whether he’s overseeing his servants as they deal with drafts, fretting over the healths of his family members and friends, or sighing in the background as Emma interferes yet again in someone else’s personal life, Nighy lights up every scene that he is in.

While Mr. Woodhouse has a soft spot for Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma’s eventual suitor, he is resistant to the idea of any man marrying his younger daughter. This is not because he feels like he owns her, as he gives her plenty of space to be independent and exert control both in and out of their household. Rather, he has a fear of being left alone, and he absolutely breaks the viewer’s heart in a scene in which he asks Emma never to leave him

Nighy recently sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss his role, what draws him to a script, why equality between the sexes is an urgent issue, becoming a respected comic actor relatively late in his career, “Love Actually,” and why you won’t find him on anytime soon.

You’ve stated that you weren’t familiar with the novel “Emma.”

No. I’m not familiar with any Jane Austen. Not because I’ve avoided it, particularly. I’ve read other writers of that period, but for some reason — I didn’t study at it school. What replaced her, in my year, was George Eliot. She was the great writer of that period that we studied. So I just never got around to [reading Austen]. 

Also, when I’m doing adaptations of novels, of books, I tend not to read the book, anyway, because it’s just too much information, and it’s not all going to be in the movie. There may be loads of stuff that I want to be in the movie, which is never going to be in the movie, and the book is not the movie, so I stick with the script. But I understand she’s a great satirist and a great writer.

What drew you to the script?

What drew me to the whole enterprise was Autumn de Wilde, because I met Autumn, she was my first contact, and she was really, really interesting and really, really smart. And she spoke about [the project] in a way that I never heard anybody speak quite like that about it before. She’s really clever, and she had some plans, what sounded like really good plans.

She said that one of her favorite films was “Bringing Up Baby.” It’s not a bad way to judge somebody. I think probably nearly everyone who’s seen “Bringing Up Baby,” it goes into their top ten; if not, I probably don’t want to have dinner with you. She screened it for all the rest of the cast — I’d seen it and I already was away — to give a tonal reference to that kind of screwball thing. I was interested in that. I was drawn to [the film] through her. And Eleanor Catton, the Booker Prize-winning novelist, who wrote the script. The sessions that I had with Autumn and Eleanor Catton were so funny, and they made me laugh so much, that I thought that I should spend more time with these people. They love each other and they make each other laugh all the time.

Mr. Woodhouse, he’s so interesting because he’s a valetudinarian and he’s resistant to change. Did you relate to him at all?

Yeah, I supposed I did. Not that I feel it’s necessary for me to relate to him, in terms of doing the job. I play lots of parts, and I don’t necessarily relate to any of them. I may have observed such behavior in other people. Anecdotally, I do, I suppose. I’m no stranger to uptightness and paranoia and anxiety. But I’m not obsessively concerned with other people’s health, or even my own. I’m not even a hypochondriac, really, I don’t think. But if you’re really a hypochondriac, you probably wouldn’t [realize it].  

And I’m a parent, so I know about the instant responsibility of having a child, and for the rest of your life, to some degree, being concerned about their welfare, that instant thing, as soon as a baby is handed to you. No one prepares you. People tell you stuff, but nothing prepares you for the moment when someone hands you a baby and says, “Welcome to the rest of your life.”

Anothing thing about Mr. Woodhouse is that he’s so devoted to his daughter. He idolizes her. You and Anya are so great together on screen. How did you go about creating that chemistry?

It was very, very, very satisfying working with Anya Taylor-Joy. She’s absolutely exemplary, super prepared and incredibly intelligent and bright, and I couldn’t have done any of the things that she does when I was her age. She’s phenomenal. We had a good time. I’m very, very fond of her as well. I think she’s a sensational human being. And she’s funny and a Democrat, in the real sense of the word, and she’s cool. We had fun.

Mr. Woodhouse watches Emma play matchmaker with an uneasiness. Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you’ve had to watch someone close to you meddle like that, or are you usually that person?

I’ve never tried to matchmake anyone. It’s never actually occurred to me. I sort of believe — I know it doesn’t make any sense, and I know it’s not true, but when I think about it, I believe it has to be left to chance. Obviously, it doesn’t, and in the modern world, half the people meet on [dating] sites. And there are many happy marriages, I’m sure. Occasionally, it’s been suggested to me that I might want to meet somebody, and then I go missing, because I can’t do that. I would become very, very self-conscious. …The sort of organized element of it, the idea that you go to a prearranged place to meet someone with a view to either being intimate with them or spending the rest of your life with them, that just freaks me out. I just don’t think — I’m never going to turn up.

You’ve been in multiple other films that featured strong female protagonists, such as “Their Finest” and “The Girl in the Cafe.” Is that something that’s important to you, to be in films that champion women?

Well, I chose those jobs because they were good jobs and the writing was very high quality, and because I thought the projects themselves would be useful in the world, as well as there was, obviously, a great part for me. I don’t think I ever thought, in terms of the director, as with Lone Scherfig, “Oh, she’s a woman,” or Autumn de Wilde, “Oh, she’s a woman,” or Isabel Coixet, “I’m being directed by a woman.” Never at any point did that occur to me, “Oh, I’m being directed by a woman.” 

Me taking a job is one thing. As a person in the world, I think the more that we can do in any area of life to redress the balance between the sexes, is deeply and urgently desirable. I think it’s almost number one on the list of things the human race has to get around to in order to become civilized, truly civilized. It will take generations, perhaps, so it’s a good thing we’re starting now. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t claim to be an expert on it, but my observation is that if there is that imbalance between the sexes, it’s just wrong, and also it means the world is underpowered and imbalanced in an unnecessary way. 

This is also another role that allowed you to showcase your comedic side. You’ve said that you didn’t realize that you had a knack for comedy until you were 46. 

It was something like that. They gave me a job — I didn’t use to get those kinds of calls. I didn’t get comedy calls. I’d done plays in the theater where there were jokes, but no one would go to a Tom Stoppard play or a David Hare play or a Harold Pinter play and say, “Oh, we saw that comedy by Harold Pinter.” But in fact, he writes world-class jokes, same with David Hare, same with Tom Stoppard… I’d had some experience doing [comedy] live.

“Still Crazy” was a film I did about 20 years ago, which was the first time I was ever employed on film to be funny. It was very daunting, but it was a great part. I had a really great part, and Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, who wrote that movie, gave me some world-class jokes, so I was in a good position. And then from then, I got lots of calls for comedy things

But I think what it is, is you realize, that all those years of being a kid and watching comedians on TV, something to do with delivery, or what they call timing, something’s gone in. Like everybody, I used to love watching comedies on TV and sitcoms and watching stand-up comedians, so I think that, over the years, something goes into your mind.

You’ve also been great in dramatic roles. “The Lost Prince” comes to mind. Once you take on a role, what’s the first thing you do to prepare?

The first thing I do is I learn [the script] backwards, because I want to be able to fully give the impression of spontinatity, which means that I require myself to say it over and over and over and over and over and over again, and wear out the living room carpet and say it 18 million different ways so that when I come to do it, I’m prepared to be able to deliver it as if I’ve never said it before; it’s just occurred to me, and I can give the appearance of spontaneity. That’s basically my job. That’s all I do. I don’t have any other job. That’s what I’m paid to do. There’s some other stuff too, but, mostly, that’s basically it.

Out of all of your characters, is there one that you’d want to revisit? 

Oh, my god. Well, most of them. All of them, really. You never think you’ve done it [perfectly]. I’ve become reasonably comfortable with the disparity between what I think went on, and what happened when I was working, and how other people receive it. And I’m just happy that there is a disparity, because if it was left up to me, they’d never see the light of day, because I’m quite hard on myself, and I’m not the best judge. But I would love to do all kinds of things again. One thing about the theater is that you do get to refine [a role] over a long period. 

But in terms of film and television, I’d love to do “Love Actually” again. I’d love to do it again in order to get it really, really right, in my view. It’s one of the few films in over the years that I have seen all of it. In fact, I did sit down in New York and watch if, which is not something I normally do… I was persuaded to watch it. It was excruciating, but, on the other hand, they all laughed at the moments where I had hoped they would, so that’s kind of indisputable; you just go, “Well, job done then.” There’s one particular gag in it where a fellow actor phoned me up and he said, “You know that gag, you do the gag,” and I went, “Yeah,” and he said, “The pause is too long.” I said, “I know. I know. It’s too long, but they laughed, so maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’re both wrong.

Was it the part where you said, “Don’t do drugs”?

Yeah, it’s actually that joke…. The thing about timing, who knows, it’s mysterious. Everybody’s got a different idea of when you should say it. 

What’s next for you? Do you have anymore plans to collaborate with [“Love Actually” writer/director] Richard Curtis again?

I would love to work with Richard Curtis again. He’s given up directing. He said “About Time,” the [last] film that I was in that he directed, that was his last film to direct. He’s writing, obviously. What I’m actually doing is, I made a trilogy for HBO/BBC which was called “The Worricker Trilogy.” David Hare and I, who is the writer/director, we are going to make what we like to call “Worricker IV,” which just makes me laugh. I’m also going to do a reimagining of a Kurosawa movie called “Ikiru,” which means “living,” to be transposed from Japan to 1950 war-torn London and the screenplay to be by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel laureate. 

Emma.” opens Feb. 21 in select theaters, expanding nationwide March 6.