Bill Nighy, Oliver Hermanus and Kazuo Ishiguro Talk Capturing Beauty of Life for ‘Living’

Bill Nighy, Oliver Hermanus and Kazuo Ishiguro Talk Capturing Beauty of Life for ‘Living’

12/21/2022

If you’re a creative person plagued by insecurity, you’re in good company. Bill Nighy is an actor’s actor and a likely Oscar nominee this year (finally!) for “Living,” yet he says matter-of-factly, “I am traditionally besieged by self-doubt.” He adds dryly, “I don’t know if it’s different from anybody else because I’ve never been anybody else.”

Whenever Nighy lands a role, “I invented a hostile parallel universe where I’m about to be fired. Which is sort of a joke, but it’s tragically true. But I didn’t do it on this one.” That’s because Nighy knew that he was part of the package when the film was born.

On a panel with Nighy and “Living” director Oliver Hermanus, scripter Kazuo Ishiguro said he’d been “obsessed” with Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 “Ikiru” since he was 12 or 13. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a new version for this generation? This needed to be made, set in England with Bill Nighy.”

He pitched the idea to producer Stephen Woolley.

Nobel-winning novelist Ishiguro continues, “I said, ‘Go make it and you will be grateful to me.’ Stephen said, ‘Why don’t you write the screenplay?’ I said, ‘I’m not a screenwriter.’ He said, ‘Give it a go and if it’s awful, we’ll give it to somebody else.’ But it wasn’t awful.’”

The three were speaking at a Q&A following a screening and it was clear from audience reaction that this is a special film. Some Oscar contenders impress you; some move you. But there are very few, like “Living,” where audience members feel a personal attachment.

The film concerns government bureaucrat Mr. Williams (Nighy), who learns he has a fatal illness, so he tries to experience things he’d missed out on, in the short time he has left.

It’s a tour de force for Nighy and even the smallest roles are vividly filled.

Director Hermanus gets the most out of the script and his actors. “I like to talk with actors a lot. I’m very strict on the crew, they have to be quiet and give the actors space.”

The director adds, “Actors are magic, when you watch them bring an emotion to life. The scene where Bill sings in the pub — I’d walk to the monitor, past crew members who were crying, every time he sang it, which was what, 15 times?”

Hermanus says 90% of his job is casting and “we had an extraordinary casting director, Kahleen Crawford. It’s great to have an ally like that.”

Ishiguro smiles, “When I met Oliver, he seemed like a reasonable guy. But when we started working, I realized he is not reasonable: He’s obsessively perfectionist. Every scene, he wanted a rewrite ‘just for fun.’ So things changed. But everything got better.”

Ishiguro adds, “This is a film I’d been thinking about for a long time. In my head, I could see Bill performing every line. But when I saw one of the early cuts, it was better than I expected. If you’re a writer, you learn a lot about your characters from the actors. It was a revelation. You realize a script is a little thing that people build things on. It’s a fantastic experience.”

Asked about the film, Nighy shrugs, “I’ve never seen it.” The actor has been turning in great performances in film and TV since 1976 and onstage even before that. But he’s avoided watching everything, including “Living.”

It’s a process that works for him, so there’s no point in changing it. But he’s missing out on some great performances.

Hopefully awards voters won’t miss out on this one.

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