"I'm not David Bowie": Bill Nighy picks up where the legend left off in "The Man Who Fell to Earth"

On "Salon Talks," watch the "Love Actually" star discuss playing an alien rock star and the show's modern relevance

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 15, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Bill Nighy attends the premiere of Showtime's "The Man Who Fell To Earth" at Museum of Modern Art on April 19, 2022 in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Bill Nighy attends the premiere of Showtime's "The Man Who Fell To Earth" at Museum of Modern Art on April 19, 2022 in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Nearly two decades after "Love Actually" came out, people still associate Bill Nighy with the role that stole that movie, the gleefully self-absorbed Billy Mack. Strike up a conversation with him, and it soon becomes clear that he's nothing like that rock star. However, playing Billy may have paved the way for Nighy to take on a role intimately associated with a real music legend, the one who played Thomas Jerome Newton in Showtime's series "The Man Who Fell to Earth."

Although the drama's plot expands upon Walter Tevis' 1963 novel, most people are more familiar with the 1976 film adaptation starring David Bowie as an alien who comes to our planet and quickly innovates game-changing technological wonders. His goal is to build a spaceship to return to his dying planet Anthea and ferry the few survivors to Earth, but on his way to his test flight he's captured and tortured.

Nighy's turn with Newton finds him 45 years later, addicted to alcohol and a sight more embittered than he was when he first arrived, and it's difficult to envision any other actor picking up where Bowie left off quite as seamlessly. Point that out to him, however, and he'll react with complete humility. In our wide-ranging "Salon Talks" episode, Nighy says he enjoys playing "people who are kind of quietly falling apart, people who are assailed by self-doubt."

RELATED: "The Man Who Fell to Earth" lifts off

Neither Newton nor the actor fit that personality, although in terms of his sense of self-assurance, Nighy proclaims he feels closer in spirit to his co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor's character Faraday, a member of his planet's drone class as opposed to Newton's designation as an "adept." That spirit played into his decision to become an Irish citizen following Brexit, as many British people with Irish parents did. (Nighy's mother was Irish, he explains, making him "Irish enough" to get that country's passport.) And it certainly enriches his portrayal of Newton, a man being hunted by human tormentors despite only wanting to go home.

In our conversation about the Showtime series, which you can watch here, we discuss the experience of stepping into a role that defined Bowie's image, along with what the drama has to say about technology and class.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

At what point did you see "The Man Who Fell to Earth" film?

I saw it when it came out. I was already a Nicolas Roeg fan. I'd seen other Nicolas Roeg movies and I was, like everybody, a huge David Bowie fan. I think everyone I knew went to see "The Man Who Fell to Earth." It was a big movie when I was young. I saw it at the least twice, and it was an influential movie, and it was not like anything I'd ever seen before. . . .

The movie was big in my mythology, and so when I was asked to do this, I had to disengage from that, because the TV series extrapolates from that movie, and it tries to imagine, and in my view, imagines very successfully what might have happened 45 years later. And my character and David Bowie's character, Thomas Jerome Newton, has been trapped on earth for 45 years. As you'll remember in the movie, he was introduced to alcohol, and it turned out that he had a catastrophic relationship with alcohol. It's how they manipulated him, and he's been drinking for 45 years and smoking and making his human body very sick, but he still functions sensationally, and has managed to evade capture by the CIA for 45 years, as well as make plans to get back home.

"The theme of environmental damage that was introduced in the movie is 45 years worse now . . . In terms of relevance, it's not only as relevant. It's far more so."

When I look at that film now, particularly in relationship to this series, it's this interesting precursor to the series' themes. This is much more about environmental degradation and the fact that humanity has this way of prioritizing wealth and power instead of actually doing the best for all of humanity and saving itself. And I'm wondering what that means for your interpretation of Thomas Jerome Newton. How did you find that bridge between what was, back when the film first came out, and what is as you present him in this new world?

Well, I think I had to assume that the audience will accept another actor playing Thomas Jerome Newton for a start. . . . And you're quite correct. As a species, we always seem to be playing catch-up with technology. Nobody really examines it and has a look, a real deep thought about how it might impact on our lives, how social media might affect our children, all of those considerations. And we're always improvising, and we're always prioritizing the short-term. We don't have plans that go 20 years ahead.

Why? Because of the way the system is built up. Everyone's trying to hang on to power and trying to win votes, and therefore, they just make it up as they go along, according to those imperatives. And it's a recipe for disaster. And therefore, the theme of environmental damage that was introduced in the movie is 45 years worse now, and the emergency is even greater. So in terms of relevance, it's not only as relevant. It's far more so.

Back in 1976 when Bowie was playing the role, no one would've envisioned that something like world enterprises could actually become as prevalent. There were many companies that produced technology back then, but they couldn't have ever envisioned a Tesla or an Amazon or the figures behind them.

One of the things that I kept on thinking of was how much this character bears a resemblance to someone like Elon Musk, who's kind of seen as this very, almost an otherworldly figure, but also people are relying upon, in a way, and not just him, to kind of save humanity. And I'm wondering what you think about how the series might speak to that, since so many people do kind of see these billionaires who are going to space as rock stars.

I think the difference perhaps is that he's not entirely just altruistic, because his whole project is to get home and to save his planet. And if in the process he can save Earth as well, it's only because it feeds into the idea of saving Anthea, the planet Anthea, where they both come from.

"To try and sort of nearly impersonate David Bowie doesn't seem to me to be a legitimate enterprise and would devalue the whole project."

So therefore, he's not acquiring wealth for wealth's sake, and he is attempting to save both planets.  . . . He's not well-disposed towards us, human beings, because they stole his eyes and stole his science, and they've been hounding him across the planet for 45 years trying to destroy him. But he's philosophical about that.

There's an interesting introduction with Chiwetel Ejiofor in this role, in that when we first met Thomas Jerome Newton, there was this assumption that there was only his kind of Anthean. And now we know that there are two types, or at least two types, and they have this relationship as adepts and drones. How much did you all talk about just the fact that in its own way there's a commentary here on race and class –


– that wasn't present in the first one? For instance, one of the things that Jenny Lumet said was that was absolutely important to have Faraday be a Black man.

I don't know if it was discussed, but it was certainly understood that he's kind of the ultimate immigrant and the fact that he is treated in the way he is, and the fact that Thomas Jerome Newton was abused in the way he was as a visitor from another planet obviously speaks to the current situation.

 When I say the current situation . . . It's the situation that goes down through the centuries. And it seems that maybe now, even though there is probably another century's work to be done, it is being addressed to some degree now.

. . . It leads me to think that we are very ingenious as a species. We can do all kinds of astonishing things, but on a personal level . . . or on a species level, we don't change much. In the 1400s, the same dynamic was present. Somebody came from somewhere else. You demonized them. You were threatened by them. And if they had a different skin color or whatever, you stereotyped them, and usually always negatively. So I don't think that we change very much. It's just that we can now do astonishing things with technology.

As a story about immigrants and how we treat the other, when you first experienced this story as a film in 1976, did that part even strike you? And what do you think it is about your experience with the original film that may change, or perhaps even heighten, that message of how humans tend to treat outsiders or immigrants in this new extension of "The Man Who Fell to Earth"?

At the time when I saw the movie, I don't think it probably consciously hit me, except that it is a familiar . . . I'm not quite comfortable with the name sci-fi, but literature of the imagination. When I said that nobody addresses new technology and imagines how it might impact on us . . .  In fact, there are people who do that, and they write sci-fi. William Gibson, Neal Stephenson – Jenny Lumet, and Alex Kurtzman, they're doing exactly that.

. . . I mean, there is a familiar sci-fi trope, which is that the visitor comes from another planet, and he is mistaken for an intergalactic threat, apart from our hero, of course, who sees them as a benign presence who has much to teach us.

"They say that prejudice doesn't survive proximity. That's sort of true, and sometimes not true."

. . . But now, obviously, in the interim, in those 45 years, we have been further polarized by destructive individuals and bodies of people who seek to run our world. And the most famous, the oldest way of frightening people and polarizing people is to say that there are some people who are not like us, who are going to come over the border, and they're going to steal your job, and they're going to steal your daughter.

. . .  So although I didn't think of it at the time, I think now everyone who was making this TV series was very, very aware of that and very, very aware of the environmental relevance of the TV show and the fact that we are now 10 minutes away from irreparable damage to the planet, if not five.

One quote that I just wanted to read back to you that stuck out to me was when Faraday, that's Chiwetel Ejiofor's character, says, "Antheans understand each other. We do not endure each other." And I think some of that does relate to technology the way that we as humans interact with it, versus the use of it for Antheans, for both Thomas Jerome Newton and for Faraday. What strikes you about what the new series and what your character says about how we interface with technology today?

They say that prejudice doesn't survive proximity. That's sort of true, and sometimes not true. . . . It's very easy to divide us, as we've discussed. And with media, which is now mechanized to such a degree . . . truth left the building a while back. And partly that is due to technology, because you can mimic, you can be anyone on the internet. I think if they did one thing, if the world combined – it's never going to happen – if the world combined to make every single device have to be attached to somebody, you had to license it and it be attached to somebody's name so you could no longer comment or distribute information anonymously, it would change the world. It's not going to happen, but it would change the world.

But because those corrupt powers seek to divide us, they can do it so much more effectively now because of technology. It's just a click of a button. . . . And people actually don't really want the truth. They prefer the lie, as long as the lie is attractive to them, and it will be attractive to them, as I say, if it conforms to the lie that you've already told them, which is that people from elsewhere are threatening your life, your family, and your livelihood.

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I'm going to switch gears –

Don't mistake me for an expert on anything. I have a terrible fear of hearing this back and thinking, "You pompous idiot . . ."

That actually leads into my next question. I looked at an interview that you did in Britain. I think it was with Chiwetel and Andrew Lincoln –

Oh yeah.

– talking about the craft of acting. And one of the things you said was you really don't enjoy watching yourself. I can understand that. I think that's something that a number of actors have said, but I wonder whether you went back and looked at Bowie's performance at all, if only to see the story. Was it useful for you to go and look at someone else's performance in order to inform this one, even if you don't watch it later?

I never watch myself, because I can't take it, but I did watch the film, and that was part of the process of me finding out that there were no clues for me there, because I'm not David Bowie. I'm never going to be David Bowie, and to try and sort of nearly impersonate David Bowie doesn't seem to me to be a legitimate enterprise and would devalue the whole project. So it has to be me playing Thomas Jerome Newton.

 So I don't watch, but I'm sort of happy with other people watching.

Well, I can't let you go without kind of speaking to that:  In the United States best, when people think of you, they think of "Love Actually," a favorite film. But you've also been in so many blockbusters. And then I see you in things like "The Second Best [Exotic] Marigold Hotel" and these smaller movies, and this series. Do you have a particular kind of role that is a favorite when you're looking at scripts?

Well, I quite like playing . . . people who have difficulty interacting with the world, people who are kind of quietly falling apart, people who are assailed by self-doubt. . . . People always associate it with Englishness. I'm sure there are people who are tormented in that way in every single culture in the world. But it is associated with a certain type of English man, actually. And I am one . . . well, roughly speaking, I'm officially Irish now, actually. But anyway, yeah. So those kind of people who struggle to say hi, people who have difficulty buying a newspaper, people who very successfully undermine themselves, and I've played a few of those kind of characters. And I mean, that's kind of fun.

I'm in a movie, which obviously I haven't seen it. It's called "Living," and it's coming out I think in the fall, in which I play a man who was institutionalized in grief because he lost his wife very early on, but he also has great difficulty . . . Just being around, he has difficulty. So that plays to my strengths. Did I say that? Did I just say that? I actually said that.

It's okay to play to your strengths!

Can you believe I just said that?

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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