Its never about the book. Thats why I dont read the book. Ive never read a Jane Austen novel as it happens, says Bill Nighy. This comes as something of a surprise. Not only because the 70-year-old is playing Mr Woodhouse in the new film adaptation of Austens great novel, Emma. But because this well-read, famously witty actor has never made acquaintance with one of the wittiest writers in the English language.
[Its] not because I am averse to it, he says. Its just that Ive never got around to it. Ive read other female writers of that time and other writers of that time, but you have to remember that youre never filming the book.
He sits across from me in a hotel room, cheekbones big enough to hang clothes on, still every bit the sort of heartthrob capable of making your mums voice wobble up two decibels.
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Prior to Emma, Nighy has appeared in surprisingly few period dramas given how many have been made for British film and TV over the course of his career. This isnt an accident; Nighy dislikes the sort of stiff tone and body language that period dramas tend to draw out of actors. There are certain conventions in place, and people, including myself, are persuaded into a certain kind of behaviour, a way of speaking which I find a bit unsettling.
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1/16 Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, 2016
The title says it all. This is possibly the worst of all the adaptations, proving that Austen and zombies really dont mix. It is based on Seth Grahame-Smiths 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a parody of Austens novel. It stars Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy. When zombies attack a ball that the Bennet sisters attend, they fight them off. At the end of the film, when Darcy and Elizabeth have a joint wedding with Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Jane (Bella Heathcote), zombies threaten to ruin it all. That sort of thing.
2/16 Bride and Prejudice, 2004
This Bollywood-style romp of Pride and Prejudice was directed by Gurinder Chadha. It got mixed reviews from critics, but it is still highly entertaining as it swaps bonnets for saris. It centres on Lalita Bakshi (the equivalent of Elizabeth Bennet), a young woman living in India, played by Aishwarya Rai. Her Darcy is a suave American businessman, played by Martin Henderson, but the all-singing, all-dancing spin on Jane Austens novel lacks any real depth.
3/16 Sanditon, 2019 (ITV series)
Period drama adaptor Andrew Davies turns his pen this time to Austens unfinished novel, written four months before she died. It starred Curfews Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood and Downton Abbeys Theo James as Sidney Parker. But it was criticised for too much nudity and labelled cringe-worthy by The Independent.
4/16 Death Comes to Pemberly, 2013 (BBC TV series)
Based on the fan fiction novel by PD James, this picks up the story six years after Elizabeth and Darcy were married in Pride and Prejudice. Revolving around a murder mystery, the three-part BBC TV series garnered just as much acclaim as Jamess book, with The Independent praising the casting of Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth. There were stand-out performances, too, from Jenna Coleman as Lydia Wickham and Matthew Goode as George Wickham.
5/16 Pride and Prejudice, 1940
The well-received MGM film ends with a long kiss between Laurence Olivier (Mr Darcy) and Greer Garson (Elizabeth Bennet). The is one of the funniest film adaptations of Austens most famous novel, with flamboyant costumes that look like they were borrowed from Gone with the Wind. It was directed by Robert Z Leonard with the screenplay written by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin.
6/16 Mansfield Park, 1999
This romantic comedy stars Frances OConnor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram. It is not faithful to the text; director Patricia Rozema claimed it was not a Jane Austen film, but a Patricia Rozema film. My job as an artist is to provide a fresh view. Rozema added character traits of Jane Austen to the character Fanny, created a lesbian frisson between Mary Crawford and Fanny, and made slavery a central plot point. The film’s boldness earnt it favourable reviews.
7/16 Emma, 1996
Gwyneth Paltrow makes a resplendent Emma according to The New York Times review, while Rolling Stone said, Gwyneth Paltrow works such magic in Emma that you can almost hear the click of a career locking into high gear. The first-time director Douglas McGrath adapted the 1816 Austen novel, having written Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen. While others found Paltrows nasal voice annoying and her Emma lacking in irony, she carried off the English accent close to perfectly.
8/16 Persuasion, 1995 (BBC film)
Theres nothing like a happy ending and Austen was a pro at them. Director Roger Michells Bafta-award-winning film is based on Austens 1817 novel of the same name. It stars Amanda Root as Anne Elliott and Ciaran Hinds as her love interest, Captain Frederick Wentworth. The pair are reunited eight years after Anne was pushed into rejecting his marriage proposal which she deeply regrets. He feels hurt by the rejection but eventually the path of true love runs smoothly for them.
9/16 Emma, 1996 (ITV film)
This ITV film is generally considered to be better than Miramaxs starry film adaptation, which was released in the same year. It was dramatised by Davies, who had just done Pride and Prejudice for the BBC. It starred Kate Beckinsale as a wonderfully believable Emma Woodhouse, Mark Strong as George Knightley and Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith.
10/16 Pride and Prejudice, 2005
Joe Wrights first feature film, which starred Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as her romantic interest Mr Darcy, was a commercial success. Knightley received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role. It had a starry cast including Donald Sutherland (Mr Bennet), Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet), Carey Mulligan (Kitty Bennet), Judi Dench (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) and Rupert Friend (George Wickham). Screenwriter Deborah Moggach changed the films period setting to the late 18th century so that it stood out from the 1995 BBC adaptation, which has still remained a favourite.
11/16 Northanger Abbey, 2007 (ITV film)
Felicity Jones perfectly portrayed Northanger Abbeys heroine Catherine Morland. Austens protagonist has a fevered imagination and a passion for Gothic novels, but things begin to unravel when that imagination leads her astray. The adaptation also stars JJ Field as Catherine’s love interest Henry Tilney, and Carey Mulligan as her friend Isabella Thorpe. It was written by Andrew Davies, who adapted 1995s Pride and Prejudice for the BBC and the TV adaptation of Emma the following year.
12/16 Bridget Jones Diary, 2001
It was the 1995 BBC series Pride and Prejudice, rather than the book, which inspired author Helen Fielding to write her popular Bridget Jones novels. It’s fitting, then, that Colin Firth who played Mr Darcy stars as Bridgets (Renee Zellweger) love interest Mark Darcy in the films based on Fielding’s own work.
13/16 Love and Friendship, 2016
This acclaimed Amazon original comedy became a welcome addition to the Jane Austen adaption canon. It is based on Austen’s short epistolary novel Lady Susan, which was published posthumously. It stars Kate Beckinsale, who brilliantly plays the scheming Lady Susan, a recent widow who tries to find a husband for herself and her daughter. The film also stars Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel and Emma Greenwell.
14/16 Clueless, 1995
This 1990s coming-of-age cult film is a modern-day retelling of Austens Emma, but set in Beverly Hills, rather than the fictional village of Highbury. It stars Alicia Silverstone as the romantic matchmaker Cher Horowitz a wealthy high-school student who decides she enjoys helping others to find love. It became a surprise sleeper hit of 1995 and is considered to be one of the best teen films of all time.
15/16 Pride and Prejudice, 1995 (BBC TV series)
No discussion about Jane Austen adaptations is complete without a mention of this adored and critically acclaimed six-part BBC mini series, by the master of the sexed-up period drama, Andrew Davies. Jennifer Ehle won a Bafta for her role of Elizabeth Bennet, while Colin Firth shot to fame as Mr Darcy. It is considered the starting point for the booming Jane Austen adaptation industry in both TV and film.
16/16 Sense and Sensibility, 1995
Emma Thompson spent five years writing her Oscar-winning screenplay about the Dashwood sisters; skilfully updating it for a 20th-century audience. Directed by Ang Lee, the film starred Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, while Kate Winslet played Elinors wilful younger sister Mariannne. After their father dies, the sisters are cut out of his inheritance and forced to move into a small cottage in the country. Hugh Grant and Greg Wise played their suitors, Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby, with a superb and much-missed Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon.
1/16 Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, 2016
The title says it all. This is possibly the worst of all the adaptations, proving that Austen and zombies really dont mix. It is based on Seth Grahame-Smiths 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a parody of Austens novel. It stars Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy. When zombies attack a ball that the Bennet sisters attend, they fight them off. At the end of the film, when Darcy and Elizabeth have a joint wedding with Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Jane (Bella Heathcote), zombies threaten to ruin it all. That sort of thing.
2/16 Bride and Prejudice, 2004
This Bollywood-style romp of Pride and Prejudice was directed by Gurinder Chadha. It got mixed reviews from critics, but it is still highly entertaining as it swaps bonnets for saris. It centres on Lalita Bakshi (the equivalent of Elizabeth Bennet), a young woman living in India, played by Aishwarya Rai. Her Darcy is a suave American businessman, played by Martin Henderson, but the all-singing, all-dancing spin on Jane Austens novel lacks any real depth.
3/16 Sanditon, 2019 (ITV series)
Period drama adaptor Andrew Davies turns his pen this time to Austens unfinished novel, written four months before she died. It starred Curfews Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood and Downton Abbeys Theo James as Sidney Parker. But it was criticised for too much nudity and labelled cringe-worthy by The Independent.
4/16 Death Comes to Pemberly, 2013 (BBC TV series)
Based on the fan fiction novel by PD James, this picks up the story six years after Elizabeth and Darcy were married in Pride and Prejudice. Revolving around a murder mystery, the three-part BBC TV series garnered just as much acclaim as Jamess book, with The Independent praising the casting of Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth. There were stand-out performances, too, from Jenna Coleman as Lydia Wickham and Matthew Goode as George Wickham.
5/16 Pride and Prejudice, 1940
The well-received MGM film ends with a long kiss between Laurence Olivier (Mr Darcy) and Greer Garson (Elizabeth Bennet). The is one of the funniest film adaptations of Austens most famous novel, with flamboyant costumes that look like they were borrowed from Gone with the Wind. It was directed by Robert Z Leonard with the screenplay written by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin.
6/16 Mansfield Park, 1999
This romantic comedy stars Frances OConnor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram. It is not faithful to the text; director Patricia Rozema claimed it was not a Jane Austen film, but a Patricia Rozema film. My job as an artist is to provide a fresh view. Rozema added character traits of Jane Austen to the character Fanny, created a lesbian frisson between Mary Crawford and Fanny, and made slavery a central plot point. The film’s boldness earnt it favourable reviews.
7/16 Emma, 1996
Gwyneth Paltrow makes a resplendent Emma according to The New York Times review, while Rolling Stone said, Gwyneth Paltrow works such magic in Emma that you can almost hear the click of a career locking into high gear. The first-time director Douglas McGrath adapted the 1816 Austen novel, having written Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen. While others found Paltrows nasal voice annoying and her Emma lacking in irony, she carried off the English accent close to perfectly.
8/16 Persuasion, 1995 (BBC film)
Theres nothing like a happy ending and Austen was a pro at them. Director Roger Michells Bafta-award-winning film is based on Austens 1817 novel of the same name. It stars Amanda Root as Anne Elliott and Ciaran Hinds as her love interest, Captain Frederick Wentworth. The pair are reunited eight years after Anne was pushed into rejecting his marriage proposal which she deeply regrets. He feels hurt by the rejection but eventually the path of true love runs smoothly for them.
9/16 Emma, 1996 (ITV film)
This ITV film is generally considered to be better than Miramaxs starry film adaptation, which was released in the same year. It was dramatised by Davies, who had just done Pride and Prejudice for the BBC. It starred Kate Beckinsale as a wonderfully believable Emma Woodhouse, Mark Strong as George Knightley and Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith.
10/16 Pride and Prejudice, 2005
Joe Wrights first feature film, which starred Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as her romantic interest Mr Darcy, was a commercial success. Knightley received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role. It had a starry cast including Donald Sutherland (Mr Bennet), Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet), Carey Mulligan (Kitty Bennet), Judi Dench (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) and Rupert Friend (George Wickham). Screenwriter Deborah Moggach changed the films period setting to the late 18th century so that it stood out from the 1995 BBC adaptation, which has still remained a favourite.
11/16 Northanger Abbey, 2007 (ITV film)
Felicity Jones perfectly portrayed Northanger Abbeys heroine Catherine Morland. Austens protagonist has a fevered imagination and a passion for Gothic novels, but things begin to unravel when that imagination leads her astray. The adaptation also stars JJ Field as Catherine’s love interest Henry Tilney, and Carey Mulligan as her friend Isabella Thorpe. It was written by Andrew Davies, who adapted 1995s Pride and Prejudice for the BBC and the TV adaptation of Emma the following year.
12/16 Bridget Jones Diary, 2001
It was the 1995 BBC series Pride and Prejudice, rather than the book, which inspired author Helen Fielding to write her popular Bridget Jones novels. It’s fitting, then, that Colin Firth who played Mr Darcy stars as Bridgets (Renee Zellweger) love interest Mark Darcy in the films based on Fielding’s own work.
13/16 Love and Friendship, 2016
This acclaimed Amazon original comedy became a welcome addition to the Jane Austen adaption canon. It is based on Austen’s short epistolary novel Lady Susan, which was published posthumously. It stars Kate Beckinsale, who brilliantly plays the scheming Lady Susan, a recent widow who tries to find a husband for herself and her daughter. The film also stars Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel and Emma Greenwell.
14/16 Clueless, 1995
This 1990s coming-of-age cult film is a modern-day retelling of Austens Emma, but set in Beverly Hills, rather than the fictional village of Highbury. It stars Alicia Silverstone as the romantic matchmaker Cher Horowitz a wealthy high-school student who decides she enjoys helping others to find love. It became a surprise sleeper hit of 1995 and is considered to be one of the best teen films of all time.
15/16 Pride and Prejudice, 1995 (BBC TV series)
No discussion about Jane Austen adaptations is complete without a mention of this adored and critically acclaimed six-part BBC mini series, by the master of the sexed-up period drama, Andrew Davies. Jennifer Ehle won a Bafta for her role of Elizabeth Bennet, while Colin Firth shot to fame as Mr Darcy. It is considered the starting point for the booming Jane Austen adaptation industry in both TV and film.
16/16 Sense and Sensibility, 1995
Emma Thompson spent five years writing her Oscar-winning screenplay about the Dashwood sisters; skilfully updating it for a 20th-century audience. Directed by Ang Lee, the film starred Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, while Kate Winslet played Elinors wilful younger sister Mariannne. After their father dies, the sisters are cut out of his inheritance and forced to move into a small cottage in the country. Hugh Grant and Greg Wise played their suitors, Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby, with a superb and much-missed Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon.
But Nighy wanted to work with director Autumn de Wilde, a rock photographer making her feature debut, because he trusted that she would bring a different feel to Austens literary classic. She comes from California, I dont know whether that seriously affects anything, but I think that it may allow her to have some distance on the genre. She talked about it in a way that was fresh, and I thought maybe she had an interesting angle and it turned out she did. Nighy is right; Emma doesnt update the language of Austens original text, but avoids feeling like its suffocating inside a corset.
In the past, Nighy has admitted to turning down roles because they wouldnt allow him to wear a suit. How did he fare in Emma given the endless ruffles and high collars of period dress? I got lucky this time, he tells me, his mouth an ever-indecipherable straight line. During my first fitting with the costume designer, Alexandra Byrne, she told me that I had narrowly avoided tights. Thankfully, in 1815 men were still wearing trousers.
Still, he admits: I felt nervous before we started filming, during rehearsals, when we started filming, most of the way through filming, all the time, actually.
This is not what would expect from a man who seems so effortlessly cool. Nighy is such a smooth operator, it was surprising to learn that his nerves on Emma were not a one-off. Rather, behind that well-fitting navy suit, whoofed steel hair and chic black eye frames is a man often gripped by self-consciousness. 
Nighys ageing rogue in Love Actually (Moviestore/Rex)
Nighy has made a name for himself playing smarmy but ultimately forgivable English gents. In Love Actually he falls somewhere between charming and sleazy as the washed-up rockstar who hangs out with a harem of twentysomethings dressed as Mrs Claus. In State of Play, hes a dry-witted, eternally smirking newspaper editor who saves the day. He even retains a certain level of suave as a tentacle-bearded squid in Pirates of the Caribbean.
An anxious single parent with control issues, Mr Woodhouse is quite the departure from the sorts of roles we have come to associate with Nighy. During filming, I learnt what the word valetudinarian means, the actor says of his time existing inside Mr Woodhouses frenzied headspace. Its not to be confused with hypochondria. Where the hypochondriac is worried about getting ill, the valetudinarian is worried everyone else will get ill.
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Mr Woodhouse certainly is a valetudinarian and its his unsettledness that provides most of the laughs in Emma. A baby is sick and he insists the doctor must be called. A draft no one else can feel seeps through the window and he requires his whole body to be shut in with room dividers. When snow falls, he calls a dinner party to an end and herds everyone into homeward bound carriages.
While Nighy has admitted to enjoying being typecast in the past, playing Mr Woodhouse in all his neurotic glory was something he found immensely enjoyable. I see Mr Woodhouse as a certain kind of Englishman whos under siege from his own mind. I find that quite funny. The idea that hes constantly on alert.
Bill Nighy stars in Richard Curtis 2003 romcom Love Actually (Rex Features)
According to Nighy, filming Emma was great fun, even if he does then immediately undercut this comment by calling it a cliché. While Nighy says he has already forgotten most of what happened, he does remember Josh OConnor (who plays Emmas would-be suitor Mr Elton) passing the time between takes by forcing cast members to rank their top 10 sodas, biscuits, and crisps. They were very hot on crisps, Nighy recalls. Im a bit behind on crisps. I sort of gave crisps up.
Looking at his elegantly upright posture and stiff collar, youd find it difficult to imagine Nighy even knows what a crisp is. Perhaps Tyrells veg crisps? Some kind of smoked chorizo flavour? But Nighys life hasnt always been filled with custom-made Margaret Howell suits. He grew up working class in Caterham, Surrey, to Irish parents, in a house that smelt of petrol because it was attached to his dads garage.
Nighy cant say whether his nerves on the Emma set were justified, because he hasnt actually seen the film. This isnt unusual; the actor refuses to watch himself perform: It takes me too long to recover. I see all the compromises, all the moments of cowardice, the default things I do when I cant pull something off. Its upsetting. Its always so far short of what you had in mind. Because somehow, what you had in mind is never translated into action. On people who say watching yourself back is how you learn, Nighy sighs: That would make you learn nothing except that you must give it up and do something else for a living.
Forever in suits: Bill Nighy in the BBCs Ordeal by Innocence (BBC/Mammoth Screen/ACL/James Fisher)
I tell Nighy that Im quite disappointed. As a 24-year-old, I assume I will reach a point in my life where the endless second-guessing gives way to something like confidence. I dont think you should take me as an example, Nighy warns, his jaw tensing at the thought he could possibly be anyones role model. But yes you do think that when youre young. I remember standing backstage with Anthony Hopkins about to go on stage at the National Theatre. It was probably the biggest first night I had ever been involved in by that point, and it was in the Olivier Theatre, you know, the big one. In the darkness, Hopkins leant over to me and asked, How do you feel? And I said: Im terrified and he said, So am I. I asked: Doesnt get any better? and he said, No. It gets bloody worse. 
Even when reeling off his discomforts, Nighy retains his cool exterior: a Rolling Stones lyric sprung to life. One hand calmly rotating in the air, his voice never erring away from husky and sonorous.
For Nighy, performing on stage is a traumatic experience because the expectations placed on you only get higher and higher. Maybe your name is above the title, maybe the audience has come to see you, maybe theyve paid a lot of money. The first time I ever did a play, I made the mistake of walking past the box office and I saw how much the tickets were. They were £2.50 which doesnt sound like anything now, but given that I was earning about £10 a week, that was a lot. I only had six lines, but the experience really drove home that people were coming here to see me act.
In retrospect, it makes sense why Nighy would relish playing a man under siege by his own mind when he is so often under siege from his own. A voice whispering in his ear that he might not be good enough. That he shouldnt be here. If you imagine how you would feel walking on stage and delivering lines in front of thousands of people, thats how I feel. This is clearly not the case. I would have a panic attack. But I appreciate his point: he doesnt enjoy it.
Is performing always so painful? You might get one Wednesday night matinee where you forget to be nervous. Everything flows, everything is beautiful, everything is perfect, and you cant remember why this was ever difficult. And it will never happen again. And its always frustrating.
Nighy has said before that he only applied to drama school because he wanted to impress a girl. Does he think she would be impressed by what he has achieved? She wasnt particularly bowled over at the time, he says, then relents. I hope so.
Emma is in UK cinemas now