Living director Oliver Hermanus on why Bill Nighy was the film's perfect leading man

The actor has earned his first career Oscar nomination for his role in the remade film

Bill Nighy stars as Williams in Living. Photo: Number 9 films / Sony Pictures Classics
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Some films are just tailor-made for one specific actor.

Take Living, the new film from Oliver Hermanus, the South African director behind the stirring 2019 military drama Moffie. A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru and adapted by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Living stars Bill Nighy as an English bureaucrat named Williams living in 1950s London who discovers he only has months to live.

“It was written for Bill,” says Hermanus. “Ishiguro had the brainwave at a dinner party: somebody should really make a British version of Ikiru and Bill Nighy should play [a version of] Watanabe, the Japanese character.” In the original, Tokyo office worker Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, seeks meaning in his life after realising he has a fatal illness.

Casting Nighy in a British remake is a masterstroke. Who better than the dapper veteran actor from Love Actually to play this refined, reserved, bowler-hat wearing English gent? It was truly a role he was born to play, and not just because he looks splendid in the immaculate pinstripe suits designed by Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell.

“Bill has so many faces. He’s played pirates and vampires, he’s a real shapeshifter,” says Hermanus. “But the ask of Living was to do nothing. And that took a while.” Nighy found a deeper voice for Williams, while Hermanus also got him to slow down, “banning” him from moving his eyebrows and shoulders. “If you have a character called Mr Zombie [a nickname Williams earns], you’ve got to find the resonance in that.”

Whatever he did clearly worked. Nighy is up for a Bafta for Best Actor (he has already won a Supporting Actor trophy for Love Actually in 2004). Then he will compete for the same prize at the Academy Awards, the first time he's been Oscar nominated during his career, which spans more than four decades.

At 73, it’s not before time. Nighy, though, is unlikely to hit the campaign trial. As Hermanus explains, he’s about as shy and retiring as they come. “He never sees the films that he’s in. He’s never seen anything he’s ever made. So he’s never seen this movie. I’m sure people like Picasso probably did go to the Louvre and stare at their work for days. But I think Bill... it's not why he does it. Bill does not want to see a frame of his.”

If this makes Nighy sound precious, nothing could be further from the truth. “He hates it [but] I always say Bill’s an artist,” the director says. “He prepares, he has a process, he tears into himself. He has a compulsion to do the thing that he does. And the thing that he does is not always comfortable to him because it asks so much. He could never live his life any other way. But if you ask Bill he would say: ‘I’m just a man who has a job, and that job happens to be acting.’”

Equally vital to the success of Living is Ishiguro, the Japanese-born, English-raised writer who fits this project like a glove. The author has, says Hermanus, “been celebrated for his writings that have studied the nature of the English gentleman of the 20th Century. This kind of English gentleman that used to exist that no longer does”.

As a youngster, Ishiguro watched the original Kurosawa movie Ikiru repeatedly and it’s easy to trace a path from that film to The Remains of the Day, his 1988 Booker-winning novel about a deeply reserved post-war English butler.

“It was the interesting fact that there was so much similarity between these two men [in Ikiru and The Remains of the Day], these very small people who have been initiated into a life where they really shouldn’t question the system,” says Hermanus. “[At the time] Japan is coming out to the war devastated and England was coming out of the war pretty liberated. So there’s opposing kind of national identities. But these two men are somehow similar.”

The film has also helped Ishiguro get nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, although his work on the film is deeply respectful of the Kurosawa version. As Hermanus notes they tried to keep the “particular architecture” of the original movie.

Like his Japanese predecessor, Williams refrains from telling his son about his illness, befriends a stranger for a night out and finds friendship with a young female co-worker (played by Aimee Lou Wood). Above all, Williams uses the time he last left on Earth positively.

It’s why Hermanus feels the film will resonate with audiences, especially post-Covid.

“So many people have lost, so many people’s lives have been drastically changed. And the film I guess, is hopefully cathartic in some sense. If things happen to you — unexpected things, terminal things, bad things, things that you have to face — you can find something in that journey, in that time that remains, that can be fulfilling.”

Living is in UAE cinemas now

Updated: February 12, 2023, 3:07 AM