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Prolific British actor Bill Nighy.VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

It may surprise you, but the prolific, respected and highly dashing British actor, Bill Nighy, has never been nominated for an Academy Award – despite the well-intentioned misconceptions of, well, everyone everywhere.

“I don’t have a car, so I walk around a lot, and I’m often congratulated on the street for winning an Oscar,” the 73-year-old says over Zoom. “A taxi driver in Toronto once asked me, ‘What’s it like?’ What’s what like? ‘Winning an Oscar and being at the palace with the Queen!’ Well, I don’t know, I’ve never won or been knighted. ‘Yeah, you have.’

“When you get old enough, everyone thinks that you’ve done everything.”

Nighy just might get his chance to validate everyone else’s image of him, though, as the actor is currently garnering the highest praise of his career for his lead role in Living. Directed by Oliver Hermanus, the film is a lovely, soft-touch drama in which celebrated author and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro reimagines Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 character study, Ikiru – which itself was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Illyich.

This time, Nighy plays a quiet 1950s British bureaucrat who decides to embrace what he’s long put off after he’s diagnosed with a fatal illness. Playing a man reckoning with his legacy, he hits several difficult, graceful notes that give purpose and passion to what might have otherwise been an impossible remake.

Ahead of Living’s Canadian release this weekend, Nighy spoke with The Globe and Mail about life, lines and Love, Actually.

Nighy in Living, a new British drama film.Courtesy of Number 9 films / Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel Media

I understand that this project started because Kazuo and producer Stephen Woolley were out for dinner, and your name came up.

Well, it was actually because I was invited to Stephen’s apartment for dinner, and I fell asleep on my sofa. When the phone rang, they were well into the evening and I realized that I had almost stood up a Nobel Prize winner, which is not a great feeling. At the end of the evening, Kazuo said to me that he knew what my next film should be. Oh? He had long harboured a desire to marry Kurosawa’s story with the atmosphere of 1950s post-war Britain, and in a way I don’t understand, he connected those two things with me. I don’t want to ask him why he thought of me; I’m too embarrassed to ask.

When the film premiered at Sundance almost a year ago, you said that you never had a chance to watch Ikiru. Has that changed since?

I did watch it afterward, and admired it tremendously. I should have been more frightened about trying to reimagine the project, it is kind of reckless, but I wasn’t daunted. I knew we would be on a different path.

There was no desire to a deep dive into the history of the story, to go back to Tolstoy’s work?

No, no. If I’m doing an adaptation of a book, I never read it. It’s not useful. It doesn’t hinder me, but it doesn’t help either.

What does help? What gets you to where you need to be?

Studying the lines and learning them meticulously to give the impression that I’ve never said them before. I’m lucky to work with a level of writing most of the time where most of the information that I need is in the script. I’m not fancy, I just do a lot of study. I also make decisions based on what has been done before, and I do the opposite. It’s not very sophisticated, but it works.

In Living, Nighy plays a quiet 1950s British bureaucrat diagnosed with a fatal illness.Ross Ferguson/Sony Pictures Classics via AP

Does that include what you yourself have done before?

I’m not seeking to avoid repetition, I don’t think about it in those terms. If you’re into a good thing, stick with it. I wish I was Steve McQueen, who is one of my favourite actors of all time. He made every part look effortless and natural.

There’s still time for you to get behind the wheel. Steven Spielberg is remaking Bullitt, after all. Time to lobby him.

Is he remaking it? Wow. I love that performance in Bullitt. We could talk about McQueen for the rest of the interview, if we’re not careful.

Have you read Quentin Tarantino’s new book of essays? There’s an entire chapter about McQueen, in which he notes that the actor would limit the amount of dialogue in his scripts because he knew that he had that natural magnetism.

I’ve heard about that phenomenon with American actors. I’ve heard that English actors count their lines, and Americans cut them.

Living is a film about a man facing down his own mortality. How much did you let the film’s themes bleed into your own life?

You get to my age and you look at the clock more often than you used to. You buy a pair of shoes and think, well, maybe these are the last ones. But it’s not in a morbid way. I have no plans to leave the planet any time soon, and right now my team behind my screen are shaking their heads because they love me and don’t believe that I’m ever going to die. I’m not entirely convinced that I am going to die either, but you have to be like that. There is an infinitesimal degree of denial that is essential to get you through the day.

Nighy says he studies his lines meticulously to give the impression he's never said them before.Ross Ferguson/Courtesy of Number 9 films / Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel Media

We’re just getting through the holiday season now, and you’ve talked about being recognized on the street. How much of that is for Love, Actually?

A good number. A woman came up to me not too long ago and said, “Hey, Mr. Christmas!” I suppose I am Mr. Christmas. But the movie that most people talk to me about now by a good mile is About Time, another Richard Curtis film. That movie has entered the language in a different way than Love, Actually. Lots of different generations of people have watched it over the years, and they treasure it. That’s satisfying. Almost as much as this green juice I’m drinking, which I know looks terrible but has everything that is good for you.

It’s probably better for you than the Diet Coke that I’m nursing here.

Oh, this here is power juice. See, we’re not winding down this operation here because we have this special juice. This is rocket fuel.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Living opens in select theatres Jan. 20.