Not every Christmas movie requires the presence of Santa Claus and his reindeer or the sight of presents nestled underneath a lushly-decorated conifer tree. Sometimes a movie’s themes are enough to qualify it for holiday favorite status, even if Christmas itself isn’t explicitly mentioned. That’s the case with Living, the new drama that’s a too-rare star vehicle for beloved British character actor, Bill Nighy. Adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1952 film, Ikiru, the movie is explicitly about second chances and goodwill towards men and women — all things we think about when the calendar turns over to December.
But don’t take our word for it: Just ask Nighy himself about whether Living counts as a Christmas movie.
“I actually think it could, yeah,” the actor tells Yahoo Entertainment, noting that the film has been compared to one of the all-time classic Christmas movies, It’s a Wonderful Life. “There’s a similar trajectory for the central character. Also, there is snow at one point! So we do have that.”
In a neat bit of timing, Living is premiering in theaters nearly 20 years after Nighy’s other Christmastime classic, Love Actually. Released in 2003, Richard Curtis’s all-star holiday rom-com awarded him the scene-stealing role of over-the-hill rock star, Billy Mack — a part that completely changed his career trajectory. Though he worked steadily on stage and screen prior to Love Actually‘s release, that film led to major appearances in major Hollywood productions, from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels to Detective Pikachu.
“I was surprised to get that role,” Nighy admits now. “At the time, I would not have been in the top 20 people expected to play that part! But I got lucky. They could have hired a proper singer that was really good. I’ve been required to sing in movies, but never like a professional singer. So I just tried to get in the atmosphere of the character and sing like he might sing. And, to me, he didn’t seem like someone who was very good, you know?”
What’s especially wonderful about Nighy’s performance is that he’s essentially playing Love Actually‘s version of Ebenezer Scrooge, the humbug at the center of Charles Dickens’s oft-told yarn, A Christmas Carol. Like his predecessor, Billy is a Christmastime cynic who is curt and dismissive to anyone that displays genuine holiday spirit, including his own Bob Cratchit-like manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher). But by the end of the movie, he learns to appreciate — if not necessarily adore — the reason for the season.
Asked whether he was consciously channeling Scrooge while playing Billy Mack, Nighy expresses delighted surprise at the parallel. “That’s very good! I had never thought of it that way, but that’s absolutely right. I must say that to Richard Curtis, because I wouldn’t be surprised if that occurred to him.” And, for the record, Nighy would be open to playing Scrooge for real if the right project came along. “I’ve been offered that role ever since I turned 65,” he says, laughing. “Those particular scripts weren’t quite exciting enough, but it’s a great part.”
In a recent Diane Sawyer-hosted special celebrating Love Actually‘s 20th anniversary, Curtis confessed to his greatest regret: the film’s lack of diversity. “[It] makes me feel uncomfortable and a bit stupid,” the writer/director admitted. And Nighy agrees that’s an aspect of the movie that dates it now. “If it were made now, it certainly would be [more diverse],” the actor says. “There have been many wonderful progressive developments in recent years. And there are always those people that wish to drag you back in time for their own toxic purposes, but it seems to me that we’re just getting started — and that’s exciting.”
With Living — which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January — Nighy was excited to be “number one on the call sheet” after spending most of his career lower down on that daily roll call for actors. Trading Ikiru‘s ’50s-era Japan setting for ’50s-era England, the movie revolves around civil servant, Mr. Williams, who has been sleepwalking through his life for years. Startled out of complacency by the diagnosis of a terminal illness, he dedicates what remains of his life towards pursuing goals he previously avoided, including pushing through the construction of a playground in a working class section of London.
“People who have seen the movie come out inspired,” Nighy says, noting once again how the film taps into the holiday spirit. “They come out thinking: ‘Let’s not put things off, let’s not avoid stuff.’ The new year is coming, which is when everybody tries to make those decisions — or tries to for at least 24 hours!”
Born in the town of Caterham in 1949, Nighy was a child during the period that Living faithfully recreates, and he says that the film stirred memories of the world he grew up in. “I would have been one of those kids playing in Mr. Williams’s playground in dreadful shorts,” he says, chuckling. “That was a very progressive period in our history, because it was just after World War II, and there were these great strides made. But there was also a restrained public profile that people kept, and a reluctance to share emotion with one another. I find that fascinating.”
Nighy’s father straddled the line between working class and middle class: trained as a car mechanic, he ended up owning a country gas station and garage where the family lived. “The petrol pumps were outside our front door,” the actor recalls. “My father was a salary man, because he did go to the same place everyday, but there were no bowler hats involved! That was for the middle class office workers. They all wore one — God knows how, because they are unwieldy to wear and nobody looks good in them.”
Nighy obviously opted not to follow his father into the garage-owning business. But his own daughter, Mary Nighy, did join the acting trade, with roles in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film, Marie Antoinette, as well as the hit British TV series, MI-5. In recent years, she’s stepped behind the camera and just directed her first feature film, Alice, Darling, starring Anna Kendrick. The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival — where Living also screened — and opens in theaters on Dec. 30, a week after her father’s movie.
Nighy was in attendance for the Alice, Darling TIFF premiere and happily played the part of the proud father — not that any acting was required. “It was a marvelous experience,” he says, happily. “I watched Mary present the film, heard the audience cheering when the bad guy gets his comeuppance and then saw her do the Q&A afterwards. I couldn’t be more pleased for her: she worked really hard and dragged that movie into existence. I’m deeply impressed by her.”
Here’s a happy holiday thought: Maybe she’ll be the one to finally achieve that Christmas miracle of getting her dad into costume as Scrooge.
Living opens Dec. 23 in theaters; Love Actually is currently streaming on Peacock