To play Davy Jones, the heartless captain of the ghostly Flying Dutchman who appears in the second and third films of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Bill Nighy did not have to spend hours in the makeup trailer, attaching waving tentacles to his face or claws to his hands or even don sea-life encrusted duds.
No, it was much more traumatic. He had to wear gray pajamas, a skull cap with a bobble on top and spots all over his face.
"The skull cap was the worst," he says. "That always took me directly to a place of humility. I felt like an inadequately informed alien."
Like Gollum before him, Davy Jones is a computer-generated hybrid, a figure informed by human action and expression and layered with digital effects. In Jones' case, the figure - and most recognizably the eyes - are actually Nighy's but covered with computerized embellishments.
Which meant that in this sweeping, colorful, historically accurate and over-the-top dramatic epic, Nighy was the only principal without a fabulous costume. "It was quite lonely making," he says. "It's difficult to stand next to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom on a good day, but standing there in gray computer pajamas with spots all over my face they ran out of jokes by about the fourth day. I'm actually quite proud that I didn't just turn around and go to the airport."
Nighy took comfort in the fact that, unlike others of the computer-generated vanguard, he did not have to perform in front of a blue screen; he was at least mixing it up on the big beautiful sets along with everyone else.
"I was grateful to be allowed in the general population," he says. "I didn't have to have long conversations with someone who was not there.
"Andy Serkis and I," he continues, referring to the actor who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, "we are pioneers. We have had many conversations about it. Of course, I was fortunate. He had to wear the white Lycra suit. Lycra." The actor shudders. "For a man of my seniority, the secret nightmare is Lycra."
Nighy, who recently came off a successful Broadway run in The Vertical Hour, is inevitably referred to as an actor's actor. Which is shorthand for being very talented and not terribly successful until later life. He came to America's attention as the lovable debauched and aging rock star in Richard Curtis' Love Actually, a role for which he won many awards. "It changed my life," Nighy says, "in that I would go to meetings and there would be people asking me to do the job instead of the other way around. It was quite unsettling."
Two years ago, he brought his haunted face and endearing lurch of a walk to The Girl in the Cafi, a TV movie written by Curtis that also won a bunch of awards here and in Britain, and last year he had played the small but affecting part of the cuckolded husband in Notes on a Scandal.
In person, sipping tea amid the soothing tones of Raffles L'Hermitage, Nighy is precisely the sort of man you hope he would be. A tall, thin, angular sort of British person whistling up, through those signature pursed lips, an endless stream of self-mocking and wry commentary.
That he is able to embody a large and menacing monster is a miracle of modern technology; that he infuses this character with humanity and even grim wit is a miracle of something less modern.
"People look at that great squid and say, 'Oh, it's Bill Nighy,'" he says. "And you know, it's oddly flattering."
The technical difficulties of acting a part that would later have a giant squid dropped on top of it were not the biggest challenge. Nighy, a classically trained actor, also had to figure out how to give a performance underneath all that marine life. "It was a challenge to pitch it right," he says.
He chose a Scottish accent to differentiate Jones from the other various British dialects in the films, and turned it harsh and violent.
"Once I got the voice," he says, "that informed much of the physical acting."
His mien did pose some limitations - Jones cannot exactly get up in anyone's face with all those tentacles waving about - so much of the menace had to radiate from the voice and the eyes. Which are very much Nighy's - mocking and aware of all limitations, including his own.
His Davy Jones is, after all, a man - as a flashback in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End will prove - a man whom heartache has led to villainy.
Mary McNamara writes for the Los Angeles Times.