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Bill Nighy On 'Arthur Christmas,' His Holiday Single And The Best Christmas Present Ever

Bill Nighy Arthur Christmas

First Posted: 11/23/11 05:39 PM ET Updated: 11/23/11 05:39 PM ET

With Thanksgiving approaching, that means it's almost time for putting up the tree, stringing the lights and preparing for all things Christmas. But while you're getting wrapped up in tinsel, there are some very busy elves hard at work.

In Aardman's newest feature, "Arthur Christmas," Santa's oldest son Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie) has convinced his dear old jolly dad (voiced by Jim Broadbent) to ditch the sleigh and the reindeer, and now operates Christmas like a reconnaissance mission. Santa is merely a figurehead, while Steve is the real brains behind the operation. Meanwhile, grumpy old Grand Santa (voiced by Bill Nighy) longs for the Christmas of yesteryear, when the sleigh was a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and not a futuristic spaceship.

But with all of this new technology and bickering, where's the real joy of the season? The heart of Christmas?

That title belongs to Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy), the clumsy, yet well-meaning black sheep of the Santa family. There's no one who loves the holiday more than giddy Arthur, who represents the uninhibited joy of the season.

The Huffington Post recently sat down with "Arthur Christmas" star Bill Nighy to talk about the film, his wickedly fun character, Grand Santa, and some of his favorite Christmas memories, including leaving mince pies out for Santa.

I really enjoyed this film -- it got me very excited for Christmas. Did you feel the same way reading the script?

It was probably one of the best scripts that I had read in ages. I had to audition to be in it. They can't just give you the role in animation because they have to know that you've got a voice up your sleeve that will work, so I had to try out for it. I really keen on this one. There are certain jobs that you just want to be in. I mean, you want to be in a lot of jobs, but there's a shorter list of jobs that you really want to be in, and I really wanted to be in this one. I remember thinking at the time that if they did it even halfway decently, it will be one of those films that will linger and be a kind of perennial Christmas film. It's all the things I like: smart, funny and it's got a good heart.

How did you find the very unique voice for Grand Santa?

There was this moment where Sarah Smith and I were left alone, and it was this terrible moment where I had to make some kind of noise. It took me a little while. You literally look at the picture and try and imagine in your mind what it might sound like, and then you attempt to make the sound. It's not any more sophisticated than that. I didn't have any references. I just kept going. The trouble with doing voices -- and it's the same with accents -- is that if you do one, it's very difficult to switch to another. So it was difficult for me to get out a voice once I tried. I kind of had to empty my mind before trying again. I tried out loads of stuff, walking up and down my apartment, making voices that I thought a 136-year-old man might sound like and trying to avoid anything I've ever heard in a movie. I wanted it to be original.

When you're doing voice work, most likely, you're doing your part by yourself and everyone else is doing their own parts by themselves, so when you saw the movie for the first time, what did you think of everyone else's performances?

Well, I did a little bit with James McAvoy because he and I do so much together, and he lives in England, so we were able to do a couple of scenes together on occasion. But it's a two-year process, and as you say, most of the time, you're on your own, but I saw it a few days ago in New York in a cinema full of kids, and it blew my mind. I knew it was going to be good because I knew all of the actors involved were great, but I wasn't quite prepared for how brilliant it was, and the kids just loved it. It was quite perfect that I saw it in a cinema full of children. It was incredible to see how much they all loved it.

Now, you're also in my other favorite Christmas movie, "Love Actually," so I have to ask: are you a big Christmas person?

I like Christmas. I think almost everybody does. Of course, every year it's like, it's coming, I better prepare, so there's a lot of work that goes into Christmas. But it always gets me. I just wish it would snow. We never get any snow in England.

Well it snowed quite a lot in the film! Now, a huge part of "Arthur Christmas" is showing the pure joy of the holiday and waking up on Christmas morning and running to the tree and opening presents. Do you have a favorite holiday memory?

Now, this is not me being cute because of the movie, but the Christmas that I got a bike will absolutely always stay in my mind. I can remember that my dad renovated a bike for me, and he didn't tell me. He had denied me a bike for a long time because of safety purposes, and I got to the top of our stairs on Christmas morning, we had frosted glass on our stair window, and I looked out into the yard, and you could just about make out the shape of a bike, and I could feel it. I can feel it now. I can sense it. It was almost like I could taste it. It was just immense at the time. It was like the biggest thing that had ever happened, and that bike was with me for years. It was like my constant companion. That was one of my fondest memories.

How old were you when that happened?

I was about 8 or 9 at the time. But I have to say that my real fondest memory, and I think it's the same for most people, came from my daughter and experiencing Christmas through her when she was littler. I remember the year that she got the hamster and the doll that she wanted with the real hair. I thought I had killed her. I thought she was going to die. She was about 7 at the time, and she couldn't speak she was so happy. It was like she was levitating with joy. She sat on my chest until 4:30 in the morning, and I became a camera, capturing every last moment, filming it in my mind, so that I could keep it forever. It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.

Do you have any holiday traditions? In the film there were kids leaving out cookies and vegetables out for Santa, and I can still remember doing the same.

Oh yes! We used to leave a glass of milk out for Santa, and something for the reindeer, along with a mince pie. It's all very fun looking back how the myth was so great that you really did believe.

You also recorded a song for the film, as you did with "Love Actually." Is this going to be your new career, covering holiday classics?

Seems like it, yeah. We recorded a single for comedic relief in "Love Actually," but the song I recorded for "Arthur Christmas" is a charity single for Starlight. It's the English version of the Make A Wish Foundation. They honor the wishes of terminally ill children. For those of you who are old enough to remember, it's the Jimmy Durante song, "Make Someone Happy." But the groovy thing for me was that I got to record it in the Beatles room in Abbey Road studios, which was incredible. I started to go a bit funny. They don't even dust this Beatles room. It's exactly the same as it was when the Beatles recorded their albums. I'm not a singer. I've sung for certain jobs, but I'm not a professional.

But to sing that song in front of an orchestra, no pressure, in the Beatles room at Abbey Road studios was quite a big deal. If you would have told me that as a kid, listening to the Beatles, I would have laughed at you. It was quite a cool thing. I was mad about the Beatles, so I can't think of anything better than that.

Looks like your Christmas present came early this year thanks to Santa.

Yeah, it really did! I still can't believe it happened.

"Arthur Christmas," starring James McAvoy, Bill Nighy and Hugh Laurie, hit theaters Wed., Nov. 23. Watch the trailer below.

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