Veteran actor Bill Nighy plays a modern sort of patriarch, albeit a neurotic one, to the title character in director Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.
De Wilde, who’s best known for directing music videos for the likes of Florence and the Machine, Jenny Lewis, and Beck, delivers a fresh take in her Emma., although it’s still set in Austen’s time. In an interview with The Advocate, Nighy (Love Actually, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) refers to de Wilde as a “self-styled punk,” which lends a bit of quirk to the material.
“I can’t say enough about Autumn de Wilde. She’s remarkable. She’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met and she has a wonderful atmosphere on set,” says Nighy, who plays Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse. “I think she’s going to be a major filmmaker.”
Beyond de Wilde’s knack for teasing out the comedy and romance in Austen’s work, he praises her unique casting choices of actors who are not “the usual suspects.”
Emma. stars up-and-comers including The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma, Suspiria’s Mia Goth as Emma’s protégé/girl crush Harriet, and Johnny Flynn (Beast, Vanity Fair) and Callum Turner (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) as the men in their lives — Knightley and Churchill, respectively. Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) plays Mr. Elton, the vicar obsessed with Emma.
The film is Nighy’s first deep dive into Austen.
“I have no relationship with Jane Austen. I don’t know why I’ve never read any of her books, but I never have,” he says. “And I don’t like to read the novel if it’s an adaptation into film because you’re not shooting the novel, you’re shooting the script.”
Of Austen’s themes of class, privilege, female agency, and preordained marriage, he has the most to say about the evolution of marriage and why same-gender weddings make him emotional.
“When I was a young man, I used to work with people who could risk seven years in jail in this country for any public displays of affection or any rumor of sexual activity between two people of the same gender,” Nighy says of England’s criminalization of homosexual activity that was on the books until the late ’60s.
“Show business, or the theater in my case, was a refuge for gay people,” Nighy says. “Now, to stand in a public place and have two people turn to one another and say the big things, I find it overwhelmingly moving.”
“If I were to be asked, ‘What were the developments in my lifetime that I was obscurely proud not to have gotten in the way of, one of them would be (It’s not over yet, as you know) the emancipation of gay men and women in my lifetime,” he says.
Watch the interview below. And read about how de Wilde leans into the queerness inherent in the friendship between Emma and Harriet.