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Actor Bill Nighy on the movie 'Living'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Living" is a film that began as a story written by Tolstoy in 1886. It was refreshed and retold by the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in 1952 in his movie, "Ikiru." Now a new version's in theaters from the director, Oliver Hermanus, with the screenplay by the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. But Bill Nighy makes "Living" all his own, starring as a senior bureaucrat who confronts an illness, the end, and life. Bill Nighy, the star of "Living," joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

BILL NIGHY: My pleasure.

SIMON: Tell us about this man you play - Mr. Williams. He's a polite, circumspect bureaucrat in the public works department in post-war London - neat piles of files around his desk. Is he the man he wanted to be?

NIGHY: Almost certainly not. The central fact of his life is that he lost his wife very early on when they were young. And everything since then has kind of formed around that loss. He's also employed to work in an institution which is designed, more or less, to stop things from happening. It's an institution devoted to procrastination, which must be pretty grueling, I think - to spend your life trying to prevent stuff from happening. He's also imprisoned, you might say, in the 1950s in Britain within the kind of complex set of manners and social behavior that they required of themselves at the time, which was sort of recklessly restrained.

SIMON: Why did you want to play this character? He's so buttoned-down.

NIGHY: It was a great script, and I was impressed by the fact that Mr. Ishiguro had - he'd long wanted to marry the Kurosawa movie with the kind of what's called Englishness. And I also - I am interested in that period, and I'm interested in that - what's called Englishness, and I'm interested in that sort of - that degree of repression. It's fun to play, actually. And you have to express quite a lot with not very much. And it becomes kind of fascinating, and it's a bit of a game, you know? And it does make me laugh, with how constrained they were.

SIMON: Tell us about how you'd let - and you absolutely do so beautifully in this film - the full range of emotions - how you make them manifest in somebody who was so closed off.

NIGHY: I don't know really. I think it might be easier with a limited range of facial expressions or physical exhibition at your disposal rather than if you were allowed to really kind of let it out. Maybe because, you know, I'm familiar with that - you know, things haven't changed that much in England, you know? I mean, there have been obviously enormous developments, but we still require ourselves to be quite circumspect. So I don't know quite - I mean, I just tried to imagine how that guy would operate in those circumstances.

SIMON: Yeah. Mr. Williams receives this very discouraging health diagnosis. What does it set off in him?

NIGHY: There's that irritating thing that people always say, which no one can pull off - or at least I can't - which is to live every day as if it were your last. It just kind of triggers a panic that there is no meaning in his life whatsoever. And he does this quite touching thing, which is he takes half of the - all the money that he owns - takes it out and takes it to a seaside town called Brighton because he's heard of this thing called a good time.

SIMON: Yes.

NIGHY: You know, he's never had one. But of course, hedonism turns out not to be the answer. And he searches elsewhere for meaning.

SIMON: But, you know, it's that sequence in Brighton, which I love, that leads to what's become one of my most favorite film moments ever - I mean, right up there with singing "La Marseillaise" in "Casablanca." And it's when you sing.

NIGHY: Oh, yes. Oh, well, thank you, thank you, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIVING")

NIGHY: (Singing) Thy leaves were aye the first of spring, thy flowers the summer's pride. There was nae such a bonnie tree in a-the countryside.

That song is actually - it's kind of Mr. and Mrs. Ishiguro's song. Ishiguro's wife, Lorna, is actually Scottish, and that's an old Scottish song. I had enough pressure on me as it stood without knowing that. I'm quite pleased I didn't know that at the time. It's like at funerals where you're perfectly OK, and you can kind of hold it all in until they ask you to sing. And you fall apart, you know? There's something about the act of singing that just unlocks - it makes it impossible to not to express your emotions.

SIMON: Did you find yourself getting caught up in thoughts of mortality and what our lives can mean playing this role?

NIGHY: I don't think I can think any more about death than I already do because I think about it most of the time, you know? I mean, somebody asked me a while back, did I think about death? And I said, yeah, I think about it about 12 times a day. And that became the headline - you know, 12 times a day. That was quite a conservative estimate, actually. But it's not necessarily morbid. It's just like you buy a pair of shoes, and you think, well, maybe - how many more pairs of - you know, when you get to my age, it's like you look at the clock.

I'm very fortunate that I have a job, which gives me an opportunity to be involved in things that you hope have some meaning - you know? - and might even - they're not going to change the world. But they might marginally inform the atmosphere and not be part of the problem. So I don't have any concerns about legacy or anything of that kind. I've never - it always sounds - that sounds a bit too grand for me. But I don't think it made me think about it any more than I already do.

SIMON: Mr. Nighy, you, God willing, could be with us another 25 years.

NIGHY: Well, thank you. I'm working on it. My doctor says 86 currently. The numbers are 86. I'll take that.

SIMON: Your doctor sounds like he knows something (laughter). I mean, what is he planning to do when you turn 86?

(LAUGHTER)

NIGHY: I was a bit surprised. That's - apparently, that's what they do now.

SIMON: What do you think a - particularly in these times, a film like this can put in the life of someone who sees it for - even if it's just for a few minutes or for an afternoon?

NIGHY: This film has caught fire, and I've had therefore lots of messages on my phone, all of which the general theme is they hit the street, and they want to do stuff. They're inspired. There's something about the dynamic involved that triggers something hopeful in people. And as somebody said to me last night, I expected to be unhappy by the end, and in fact, I was inspired.

SIMON: Bill Nighy stars and just takes over the screen in the new film "Living." Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Nighy.

NIGHY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMILIE LEVIENAISE-FARROUCH'S "TENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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