Bill Nighy is a quintessential scene-stealer who, off-screen, is as known for his razor-sharp sense of humour as his self-deprecating attitude. And with two big roles in Underworld and Love Actually under his belt, it looks like he's found a whole new audience.
"I'm quite famous now with the kids around my way," he says. "I've always slightly worried the kids who play football around my house. They know I'm an actor, but felt sorry for me because they'd never seen anything I've done."
Born in 1949, Bill, the son of a psychiatric nurse and a mechanic, grew up near Croydon in a flat above the garage where his father was works manager. "The big smells of my childhood were Swarfega, oil and Marmite," he recalls. He dreamed of being a rock star like his idols the Rolling Stones, and to this day lists air guitar as one of his hobbies. "The fact that it's so deeply uncool encourages me even more," he says. "I can even tune my air guitar, which not a lot of people can do."
As he entered his teens, however, Bill who suffers from Dupuytren's Contracture, which keeps the little and ring finger of each hand permanently bent back against the palm aimed for a different career. "I wanted to be a journalist," he says. "I thought it was glamorous and that I'd meet beautiful women in the rain." But with just two of the requisite five O-levels, he opted for the closest he could get, landing a job as a magazine messenger boy.
As a teen, his adventurous streak led him to set off on his own for the Persian Gulf. He only made it as far as the south of France, however. "The British consul shipped me home for 25 quid and I had to pay my father back," he recalls. "He was a wee bit cross." It wasn't long before the 16-year-old was back in France this time in Paris intending to "write the great novel", as his literary idols Hemingway, Fitzgerald and James Joyce, had done before him. He returned to the UK just four months later, bringing back great memories but not much else. "I never wrote a word of the novel," he confesses.
He then enrolled in the Guildford School of Dance and Drama, where his now-well known insecurity reared its head. "I used to stand in the wings and imagine the audience's disappointment when I walked out, that there were other actors they would prefer to see," he says. "Talk about ways to drive yourself nuts."
After nearly ten years on stage, screen and TV, it was his role in 1991's sexually-charged series The Men's Room which earned him fame in the UK and a reputation as "the thinking woman's crumpet". "It certainly did me no harm," he says of the part. "I got briefly mistaken for someone who might be good in bed, which was very, very good."
Now in his 50s, Bill labels his current character trajectory including Still Crazy and State Of Play as "confused middle-aged men", quipping: "If you get to my age and you're lucky enough to be working, the guys you're playing are going to have a mid-life crisis." And, in a case of life imitating art, his rock star wish came true thanks to Christmas Is All Around the Christmas number one sung by his Love Actually character in the film which became a real-life 2003 holiday release. "The bad granddad of rock 'n' roll?" says Bill. "Yeah, that's me I guess."
The father-of-one daughter Mary is at university has been in a relationship with actress Diana Quick, whom he refers to as his wife though they've never been married, for more than two decades. "I may have asked her (to marry me) once when I'd had a few drinks," he says. "She told me in no uncertain terms not to ask her again."
Now a "sober alcoholic", having left booze behind more than a decade ago, it seems the rave reviews he's received have also helped him leave behind some of that insecurity. "You come to realise there is this huge disparity between what you think about yourself and your work and what other people think about you and your work," he says. "At first you either think they're insane or that it's a conspiracy to make you look stupid. Or maybe, just maybe, they're right, and you're sometimes quite good at what you do."