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Like the beanstalk from the fairy tale that inspired his new movie, Bill Nighy sprouts up almost 16 feet for Jack the Giant Slayer.

The best screen actors are always larger than life, but in Jack the Giant Slayer, English actor Bill Nighy bests them all. Playing a 22-foot-tall wicked giant in the film, the 6-foot-2-inch Nighy was stretched by some 200 inches for the screen using state-of-the-art motion-capture technology. No stranger to effects films like Underworld, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Shaun of the Dead, Nighy enjoyed the process of bringing to life the Jack and the Beanstalk story for modern audiences with director Bryan Singer.

“Apart from the initial embarrassment of someone of my vintage getting into a black vinyl zip-up jumpsuit, which is always a lonely day, and wearing a helmet with cameras attached, which basically shoot up the nose, it was all very good fun,” he says dryly. “Plus, it allowed me to pick up [co-star] Ewan McGregor in the palm of my hand, which is many an actor’s great, fanciful wish.”

When Nighy was 15 years old, his primary wish was to be anywhere but where he was. He spent countless hours staring out his classroom windows in Purley, a suburb of London, “just aching, yearning to be anywhere else,” he remembers. So like the titular Jack the Giant Slayer, the teenage Nighy struck out on his own hero’s journey, heading quite arbitrarily for the Persian Gulf.

Warner Bros. Pictures
“It sounded exotic,” he says. His parents, who thought he had enrolled in a student foreign-exchange program, were quite perturbed to receive a call from the British Consulate in the South of France requiring they claim their errant son. “I didn’t make it to my destination,” Nighy cracks, “because I’d gotten very, very hungry. My parents were rather angry with me.”

But the wanderlust never left Nighy’s blood, suiting him particularly well to the working actor’s nomadic lifestyle.

“When I was first becoming an actor, older actors would say, ‘You have to understand, there may be long periods of unemployment in this career,’ ” he recalls. “At which point, I’d struggle to keep a straight face because that’s exactly what I had in mind. I thought, ‘That sounds great!’ I didn’t want to go to the same place every day with the same people and know how much I’d be making in 25 years.”

Though it took Nighy nearly 30 years of stage work and bit parts before his breakout role as washed-up rock star Billy Mack in the romantic comedy Love Actually arrived, he says acting has been the perfect journey for him.

“I never know where I’m going to be next, or who I’ll be next,” he says. “Could be a vampire, a zombie, a squid. One never knows, and I like it just like that.”