Is Bill Nighy, who plays Slartibartfast in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the coolest man on the planet? I think so. Who else could get away with the following sentence when asked about the iconic novel's transfer to silver screen? "It is one of those books that if people dig it they dig it profoundly."
"Dig it"? Er, what decade are we in? At the press conference earlier in the week he used the word "groovy", a word usually heard from less-than-cool old men drunkenly dad dancing at the office party. But somehow Nighy pulls it off. No one sniggers, we even laugh at his jokes - of which there are many. You can take the actor out of the '60s but you can't take the '60s out of him. We like it that way.
"Sam Rockwell is just the coolest man on the planet, and you would just kill yourself if he walked in the room, because he is always going to be cooler than you."
- Bill Nighy gives it up for his Hitchhiking colleague.
He swings into the room dripping ironic self-confidence in a dark suit of impeccable cut and black-rimmed glasses and launches into a monologue about working with his "very classy" Hitchhiker's co-stars. Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent is "just perfect"; Zooey Deschanel as Trillion brings "intelligence" to the role; and Sam Rockwell is simply "one of the most talented actors currently working". From any other actor it would be a piece of vomit-inducing luvvie gush, not with Nighy. It is generous and genuine praise.
Not that Nighy regards himself as the King of Cool. "Sam Rockwell is just the coolest man on the planet, and you would just kill yourself if he walked in the room, because he is always going to be cooler than you," he says in his distinctive creamy voice. The admiration is mutual. "He is my hero," says Rockwell.
Nighy was always first choice as Slartibartfast. His languid delivery and slight air of bemusement make him perfect for a role that requires the Earth's architect to be played with the air of a project manager. "I had plans to be a god-like figure with a big deep voice," the 55-year old actor says, a plan nixed by director Garth Jennings.
"The embarrassing things you get with older actors, which I didn't think would ever happen to me, is that you get a part in which it says he is quite old. In this case it said that he was ‘incredibly elderly', so I thought I shall have to act really old, so I go along to Garth and play it like this," he mimes a quivering old man pushing a Zimmer frame. "But the director said actually none of that is necessary, be yourself, and you realise that you are old." He laughs, a constant twinkle in the eye shows this actor does not take himself too seriously.
He avoided seeing Richard Vernon in the role in the 1981 television series, preferring to approach the character fresh. "I take Martin [Freeman] on this huge intergalactic trip and show him things of which you can't imagine and I do it as if I am showing him round the office, which is in fact what I am doing," he explains of his interpretation.
"I was very proud of my wig and was almost a brunette, which is what I have always wanted to be because I had an elder brother who is very good looking. He is a brunette and I always wanted to be like him."
- Bill Nighy on wacky wig wearing.
It would have been obvious to have Skartibartfast played in robes, white hair and long beard, but instead Nighy has him clean shaven, long hair coiffured and suited and booted: a typical bureaucrat. "I loved my hair," he proclaims. "I was very proud of my wig and was almost a brunette, which is what I have always wanted to be because I had an elder brother who is very good looking. He is a brunette and I always wanted to be like him."
Since the 2003 television series State of Play, Nighy has been a constant presence on movie and TV screens, appearing in films as varied as the adaptation of Ian McEwan's Booker winner Enduring Love and Shaun of the Dead. This year he will be seen in the Underworld sequel, Underworld: Evolution and Richard Curtis' TV play The Girl in The Café, a BBC/HBO co-production, to be screened around the world during the G8 Summit in Gleneagles as part of the Make Poverty History campaign.
It is a project about which he is passionate and the laid back demeanour is momentarily dropped to give a glimpse of the man behind the louche image. His becomes quieter, more thoughtful and his voice quickens to an emphatic pace that betrays a deep anger about the situation in the Third World: "People like me see it as an unique opportunity to try and stop 30,000 children dying completely unnecessarily every day." He plans to be among the protesters led by Bob Geldof circling the summit in July.
"I sometimes think, give me a decent lounge suit please and let me sit in a chair and say philosophical things and look great. But you know there is not much call for that."
- Bill Nighy on the effect of costumes.
The protest will have to fit in with a punishing work schedule led by a role in the ultra-secret Pirates of the Caribbean follow-up Dead Man's Chest, which will involve "a bit of action". "I play a very bad man who makes people suffer but I am not at liberty to tell you how, if I do I will be fired," he says with typical candour. Does the laconic Mr Nighy enjoy playing evil characters? His answer is more thoughtful than expected: "I don't mind. Traditionally it is quite good fun playing the villain. It is more fun than playing the romantic lead."
What would be his ideal role? It is hard to say whether his answer is ironic. He leans back in his chair, looks thoughtfully at the ceiling and says: "I sometimes think, give me a decent lounge suit please and let me sit in a chair and say philosophical things and look great. But you know there is not much call for that." Pity, right now in his lounge suite saying thoughtful and witty things, I am struck by how it is the best role I have seen him in and that is saying something.