Accidental actor Bill Nighy on his Surrey roots

PUBLISHED: 18:06 11 August 2020 | UPDATED: 16:21 13 August 2020

Bill as Mr Woodhouse in Emma Image: Focus Features / Everett Collection / Alamy

Bill as Mr Woodhouse in Emma Image: Focus Features / Everett Collection / Alamy

Credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

He may well be the toast of Hollywood but after half-a-century working in film, TV and theatre Bill Nighy still refuses to believe his own success – according to him, he should have been a writer.

Bill Nighy Image: Geisler-Fotopress GmbH / Alamy Stock PhotoBill Nighy Image: Geisler-Fotopress GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

“I still cannot believe it when people stop me in the street,” he says. “I never refuse a photograph in case they think I am someone else.”

In a profession where people are assumed to be larger than life, Bill Nighy is quite the opposite and has never forgotten where and how it all started for him – in Caterham.

“I was born in Caterham and I was just an ordinary kid brought up in an ordinary family so there were no high expectations, which is just as well really,” he explains. “I liked where we lived though. Caterham has built up a bit and I believe there are plans for more improvements, which is good. When I was a boy it was Caterham, Surrey. I know it still is but with the housing developments and so on, Caterham has slipped nearer London somehow. It is a wonder that it has kept its own identity but it has.”

Bill’s mother, Christine, was originally from Scotland and worked as a psychiatric nurse, while his father, Alfred, came from a family of chimney sweeps before moving into motor engineering, working at the garage next door to their home.

Bill Nighy starring alongside Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma. Image: LANDMARK MEDIA / Focus Films / AlamyBill Nighy starring alongside Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma. Image: LANDMARK MEDIA / Focus Films / Alamy

“It’s funny how childhood smells stay with you for the rest of your life and I can remember the aromas of my mother’s excellent baking mingled with the smell of motor oil and the inevitable Swarfega,” remembers Bill.

One of his own favourite pastimes when he was young was reading – a hobby he retains to this day, along with walking. “I still like reading and I walk a lot. I would much prefer to walk than drive, it is much less hassle. As a boy I walked the areas in and around Caterham quite a bit and my reading tastes were quite diverse. My favourite author though was Ernest Hemingway and I wanted to be like him when I grew up. That was my ambition– to be a writer,” he admits.

Bill attended John Fisher Grammar School in Purley, coming away with two O levels in English language and literature but although he did take part in some school plays he never pushed for any lead roles.

“I had the perfect start for an actor because I wasn’t a brilliant pupil,” he jokes. “When it came to leaving school I didn’t know what to do, I was a bit of a fish out of water so my mother took me along to the youth employment office for an interview. The man behind the desk asked what I wanted to do and when I answered that I wanted to be an author, my mother almost stamped on my foot.”

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Fortunately for Bill, there was a vacancy for a messenger at The Field [country and field sports magazine], which he jumped at “because I thought I might well be on the way to my dream of a glamorous job as a writer.”

But at 17, Bill shocked his friends and family by running away to Paris. “I think I must have been inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s famous globe-trotting and thought that I only had to get myself into a foreign land and I would write a bestseller,” he admits. “It didn’t work of course, I ran out of money, my dad had to bail me out to get me home and I was back where I started.”

Although it wasn’t quite back to where he’d started. While he did return to Surrey, it was with a bit more of a sense of direction and he enrolled with the Guildford School of Acting.

“That was my girlfriend’s idea,” he recalled. “I thought she was crazy because I had only been to the theatre a couple of times in my entire life. I probably told her about being in school plays and that started the idea.”

It turned out acting was quite Bill’s forte and after a few years of small rep jobs, the parts started to get bigger. In time he was landing major roles in film and theatre. He’s since starred in blockbusters such as Notes on a Scandal, Love Actually, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Pirates of the Caribbean and recently took on the role of Mr Woodhouse in Autumn de Wilde’s adaption of Emma – with Surrey once again providing the backdrop for the iconic picnic scene, albeit this time on Leith Hill rather than the equally beautiful Box Hill.

Along the way he’s picked up a host of awards including a BAFTA and a Golden Globe – surely that’s proof enough that he made the right career choice?

“I still don’t think I’m much good at it but being an actor is better than working for a living so I’ll settle for that,” he says. “I get time off too... and often return to my roots in Surrey.”

Emma is available to stream and buy on DVD now.

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