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There are great films in the canon that cinema purists consider to be hands-off when it comes to remakes — especially anything in the filmography of the great Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa. But when you have a script written by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day, an English-language adaptation of the filmmaker’s 1952 drama, Ikiru, immediately becomes a prestige project rather than a regurgitation of art house IP.
Members of the Academy clearly think so too, as Sony Pictures Classics’ Living earned first-time Oscar nominations for both Ishiguro and the film’s star, Bill Nighy, for whom Ishiguro wrote his gentlemanly protagonist Mr. Williams. Set a year after Kurosawa’s original film was released, Living follows the humdrum life of a stoic London bureaucrat and widower whose life is upended when he receives a fatal diagnosis. With his time running out, Mr. Williams begins to wonder if the disciplined life he has led is absent of meaning and, shirking his civil duties, ditches his job to spend more time with a former colleague whose youthful vigor he admires.
In a conversation with THR, Nighy reflects on what he considers the “great honor” of inspiring Ishiguro to write the script and how the film’s costumes — particularly Mr. Williams’ bowler hat — aided in his understanding of the character.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the project?
You can imagine [what it’s like] for someone as eminent as Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel Prize winner, to decide that he wants to write a screenplay with you in mind. … It was a very unexpected and tremendous development. I must have been very good in a previous life because it’s a marvelous screenplay.
Were you familiar with Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru before you received the script?
I don’t think I’d ever heard of it. I watched it, and I admired it tremendously. I suppose I should have been more daunted by the whole prospect, but I wasn’t at the time. It’s probably because the central performance [from frequent Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura], which is tremendous, is so different from anything I might come up with. So I didn’t feel oppressed by it. If I was doing the adaptation of a book, I wouldn’t read the book. It’s a slightly different thing.
Mr. Williams stands out among your dramatic roles because of how restrained he is. Was getting into that kind of character a challenge for you?
I was born into that atmosphere; I would have been one of those kids playing around in the playground. I’m not unfamiliar with that degree of restraint, that extreme modesty of conduct that certain people, particularly the middle class, required of themselves at that time. It was exotic as any kind of behavior in any culture. In Mr. Williams’ case, I took as the central thing that he had been, I assumed, institutionalized by grief because of the loss of his wife. He was reluctant, physically and emotionally and mentally, to fully engage with the world. And that’s on top of the English stiff upper lip [mentality]. Oliver Hermanus, who I have to say was absolutely brilliant at directing the film, wrote me a four-page, very precise and detailed backstory for my character. He studied the possible schools he might have gone to, the events in his life. He imagined his progress through his professional life. But in the end, a lot of it is what I suppose they call instinctive.
Oliver Hermanus is from South Africa. Do you think it was helpful to have an outsider directing this film about a very specific era in England?
Producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen favored having someone from overseas who would have some distance from it. The value of that is not so much to do with being an outsider in terms of the culture as it has to do with resisting the conventions in place for making films about that culture. Ishiguro and Stephen sent Oliver dozens of films from that time. Those guys have seen everything, and they have many areas of interest and encyclopedic knowledge of black-and-white British films from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. Oliver said that part of his responsibility visually was to make a black-and-white film in color — not just to pay homage to films of that period but to use the atmosphere of those films to make a contemporary one.
Did your costumes help you achieve Mr. Williams’ rigid personality?
The costume is so important to me, as important as anything. The great [costume designer] Sandy Powell found that suit, which is probably 100 years old — older than me — and we had it fitted. I don’t like lots of costumes; I like having a sort of office that you put on, and that’s what you work in. In this case, I was lucky in that regard. It alters the way you hold yourself, carry yourself and think about yourself. And, of course, the bowler hat. Oh my God, that very, very strange item. I don’t know how they caught on, but everybody had one.
Mr. Williams has a style evolution when he trades in that stiff bowler hat for a looser-fitting trilby. Did that benefit your performance, too?
It really did. It was a relief. The day that we heard of the Oscar nominations, I was in a restaurant having lunch. Stephen and Elizabeth burst in carrying a hatbox with the trilby in it. So I now own the trilby — film trivia fact! I wore hats a lot when I was younger, and there was obviously a degree of irony because you were a young man in the 1980s or something, wearing what would be seen as a period hat. If I wear a hat now, I’m just an old guy. The irony has left the building.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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