In fact, he says, he spent years onstage paralyzed. “I’d have conversations with myself about why I’d just put my left hand in my pocket,” Nighy recalls. “ ‘And what are you going to do now? Are you going to move it? Well move it, take it out, that’s what people do.’ ‘No I can’t move the arm.’ ‘Just put it there.’ ‘Why would you put it there?’ And in the end I’d just stand there and do nothing.
“So I’m very good at inventing a hostile parallel universe and living there for a while. And maybe I shouldn’t bring this up”—but, he admits, it wasn’t a process that inspired him to throw off the shackles of self-doubt but a Dame: Judi Dench, with whom he acted in The Seagull at London’s National Theatre in the mid-nineties. He says there was a moment before he went onstage one night when he just “let go”—and was never the same. Nighy will appear with Dame Judi in a juicy crypto-lesbian psychodrama, Notes on a Scandal, that opens in December, and has given a lot of thought to why he reveres her. “She has the courage to arrange to arrive onstage unarmed,” he says. “She’s defenseless. She walks on and lets it happen to her. I wouldn’t claim to understand it, any more than I’m sure she would, but it is something mysterious and beautiful. The air kind of changes.”
With Dench, Moore, and Cate Blanchett (also in Notes on a Scandal), the air around Nighy is rarefied indeed, and in the spring he’ll return (transformed by CGI) as the mandibled demon Davy Jones in the third chapter of Pirates of the Caribbean. One can almost imagine Bill Nighy exulting in his newfound stature—
“Is this all right, or am I talking bollocks?” he asks. “I know when I go away I’m going to have post-interview trauma or something because I always think … Anyway, don’t worry, don’t panic. What was I saying?”