It’s been almost two decades since Bill Nighy delighted audiences with his turn as a rock ‘n’ roll legend with a heart of gold in “Love, Actually.” Now the actor steps into a real musical legend’s shoes as he plays Thomas Jerome Newton in the Paramount+ series “The Man Who Fell to Earth” – a role originated by Davie Bowie in the 1976 feature film version of the same name.
In the sequel, Nighy stars as the extra-terrestrial Newton opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor and Naomie Harris. As Paramount Plus launches in the U.K. and Ireland this week, Nighy sat down with Variety to discuss his career, whether he’d ever take part in “Love Actually 2” and monetizing his posthumous hologram.
What attracted you to “The Man Who Fell to Earth”?
Everything about it was attractive to me. The scripts were sensational. Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman have done something really, really remarkable… I am a big fan of literature of the imagination (I’m trying to avoid the word “sci fi.”)… So this was really my thing and it’s brilliantly put together and brilliantly achieved. And it’s a wonderful vehicle for examining all the big questions, all the big subjects from racism, environmental issues, the general response to migration, all the big stuff…But also, I was a big fan of the movie, and I was a big fan of [the original film’s director] Nick Roeg. I’m a big fan of David Bowie. And I know Chiwetel and Naomie very well, I’ve worked with them both extensively before and everything about it was great.
Was there any hesitation about stepping into Bowie’s shoes to play the role of Thomas Jerome Newton?
I’ve played other parts that have been previously played by other actors so it’s no different in that regard.… but the fact of David Bowie makes it a whole different thing because he was such a massive figure for most people. So it was daunting, until I, you know, came to my senses and remembered that it’s me, and not David Bowie, and that [I’m] playing the same role but I’m not required to play it as David Bowie or like David Bowie did it. So then I was free to go to work.
What would be your dream project?
I’m one of the most fortunate actors in the world. I’ve been given my dream project over and over and over again. Not that I’ve actually dreamed them. It’s only when they present you with something you think ‘Gosh, yeah… that’s my dream.’ Because I don’t have very high expectations and I started out with what I think were – I don’t think I’m deceiving myself – when I was young, I had very low expectations, like a lot of English actors. I mean, I didn’t expect to be on television. I didn’t expect to be in a film for sure.
But in terms of now, what would it be? It would be contemporary. When people used to ask me this question, I always used to say I want to do a farce that will bring down the government. And that’s basically it. I’d like to – can I swear? – I’d like to fuck up their plans, you know, that the bad guys have for us. So I’d like something that was in vigorous opposition to the bad stuff that happens in our world, in which I got to be heroic, obviously. And elements of [an] action career. It’s a bit late, obviously. I could be the most unexpected action man in the history of action.
Maybe Paramount could hook you up and you could do the next Mission Impossible movie with Tom Cruise.
I have done a film with Tom Cruise [2008’s “Valkyrie”]. And it was a very pleasant experience but jumping out of buildings is probably off the menu. He’s a superhuman human.
Next year is going to be the 20th anniversary of “Love Actually.” Did you ever anticipate that it would be something people are talking about two decades later?
No! I really didn’t. I don’t think anyone could have. It has had a sort of unique life for a movie in the world. Well perhaps not unique, there are other examples of films that enter the language and stay there. But it’s kind of remarkable. And I don’t think anybody would have been able to predict it.
Would you take part in “Love Actually 2”?
Yeah, definitely I’d be there. Because I love working with Richard [Curtis, who wrote and directed the film] and with everybody else. We had a very nice time. So yeah, I’d be perfectly happy to reprieve that thing.
This is probably a slightly impolite question, but do you ever consider retirement?
No, I don’t really. I don’t think it’s good for you. I’ve heard bad things about it. I’m quite good at loafing and I’m quite good at hanging out in between gigs, but I like it to remain in between gigs rather than forever [done]. In 2020, I had a practice run [during the pandemic]. I sort of did my retirement. So that’s kind of done it. And it was okay, it was fine. But actors don’t have to retire as long as you can remain upright and you know, deliver a line, then you can still be in business. So, I have no plans in that area.
You can even still be in business long after that, for example with holograms and CG.
Is that a thing now? My God that’s scary isn’t it. Well, I better look into that. Maybe there’s money in it.