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Rocker's a role he can love, actually

Bill Nighy has a blast playing a boorish, aging pop star in Richard Curtis' new romantic comedy.

November 03, 2003|Steven Rosen | Special to The Times

"The bad granddad of rock 'n' roll? Yeah, that's me, I guess," Bill Nighy says, laughing at the thought of his late-blooming screen persona.

In Richard Curtis' romantic comedy "Love Actually," Nighy's Billy Mack -- a devil-may-care, foulmouthed aging British rock star -- is given the "bad granddad" moniker by a DJ. He has recorded and is promoting a loathsome (to him) version of the 1960s hit "Love Is All Around," with lyrics altered for Christmas. (The film opens Friday.) His dubious publicity tactics include impertinent and often-salacious remarks on interview shows. With his "stray cat blues" of a scratchy and growling voice, he gleefully cackles and snorts through his outrageous remarks. Whether or not he's too old to rock and roll, he's certainly too old to be polite. The record stinks, he says, so please buy it. He's having a blast -- as is Nighy in the part.

This is Nighy's second turn as an aging rocker. In 1998's "Still Crazy," another comedy, he played the fumblingly insecure, frightened and wife-dependent lead singer of a 1970s-era British band attempting a comeback tour. It was "This Is Spinal Tap" humor, but undercut with melancholy and pathos. His character anticipated the Ozzy Osbourne we came to know on "The Osbournes."

"We have rock 'n' roll pioneers now -- they're my generation or slightly older than me," says Nighy, 53, sipping a Coke with lime on a restaurant patio. "We never had middle-aged rock 'n' rollers before because there was never rock 'n' roll before. So this is a new breed of survivor. And I seem to have the legs for it, apparently. In the 1970s, you had to have legs so thin you could get into those skin-tight pants."

Indeed he does. Tall and slender, wearing a blazer over a blue sports shirt with his long legs packed into crisply pressed slacks, the British actor has a casually proper look far removed from his visually loud on-screen rockers. His thick black glasses tucked in a pocket so his blue eyes are unobscured, thinning brown hair gently brushed back, he exudes quiet politesse. If he were a British rock star, he'd be shyly debonair and erudite like Bryan Ferry. He even greets the arrival of his Coke with a liltingly delivered "lovely, smashing" compliment to the waiter.

This is only his second time in Los Angeles. The first was when "Still Crazy" received several Golden Globe nominations (but lost). "I'm terrible. I had never been to America until 'Still Crazy' came out," he says. "My only excuse is that all actors get out of the habit of going places unless it's part of their work. The idea is that if you leave, the phone will ring. And if you're like me, you spend a lot of time without money in the early days so you didn't go anywhere."

Nighy is like this in conversation, almost apologetic in responding to questions. He has a self-deprecating manner, along with a wry sense of wordplay, that makes him seem embarrassed about his career, even though he clearly is proud of his work.

"I have a kind of recognizably average British career," he says, without irony, before listing some enviable highlights. "I worked with David Hare a great deal, Tom Stoppard, Trevor Nunn. I've done world premieres of plays that I would suggest will be performed 200 years from now." During one of those productions, of Hare's "A Map of the World" at London's National Theatre, he met his wife, actress Diana Quick. They have a 19-year-old daughter.

In the 1980s, Nighy also started appearing on British television -- he most recently played a newspaper editor in the miniseries "State of Play." And he also made the odd movie. "And then I got to be in 'Still Crazy,' which meant I could play principal roles in the movies," he says. "And I've been in a number of independent British movies since."

"Love Actually" is actually his fourth film to reach American theaters this year, following British indies "Lawless Heart" and "I Capture the Castle" and the wide-release horror film "Underworld." In "Love Actually," Nighy could be called a scene stealer, no easy feat in an ensemble-cast film featuring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton and others. Curtis, the writer of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," wrote and directed this bittersweet look at love and friendship in contemporary Britain. The characters range from the idealistic new prime minister (Grant) to the shameless sellout entertainer (Nighy). Not all the characters know each other, but there are degrees of connection among them.

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