“Is James Nesbitt ‘the drinking woman’s George Clooney’?” – an interview with James Nesbitt by Mark Dapin
It’s 11.45am,and the jet-lagged Northern Irish actor James Nesbitt – Adam from Cold Feet; Bofur from The Hobbit – is sipping a fat pint of Guinness in the time-worn Fortune of War pub in The Rocks in Sydney. We started talking at the more salubrious Shangri-La Hotel, before alarming Nesbitt’s publicist with the announcement we were going out for a “sandwich”.
They do not, however, serve sandwiches at the Fortune of War.
The night before, I was watching last year’s UK drama series The Missing (released on DVD in February) in which Nesbitt stars as Tony Hughes, the desperate and obsessed father of a five-year-old boy who goes missing in France. If there were a drinking game based around taking a sip each time Tony drains a glass, every player would end up dead. So it seems fitting that Nesbitt and I should go for a beer – although not, perhaps, to the publicist.
Nesbitt is a 50-year-old man with a 15-year-old’s grin. He once described himself – with ever-present self-mockery – as “the drinking woman’s George Clooney”. While any woman who mistook Nesbitt for Clooney would have to be abusing stronger drugs than alcohol, he is character-actor handsome, with a seductive Irish brogue.
He is also relentlessly candid, which is unusual for actors, who tend to spend their working days posing as people more interesting than themselves, and their media appointments pretending to have no personality at all. But Nesbitt largely interviews himself. Luckily, he is a fairly severe auto-interrogator and, if he feels he has not responded with sufficient rigour to something I didn’t ask him in the first place, he will gently but firmly harass himself until the facts are out in the open.
Nesbitt was born to a Protestant family in Ballymena, County Antrim, in January 1965, and grew up in the village of Broughshane. His father – “an extraordinary teacher” – was headmaster of the tiny local primary school and Nesbitt had three older sisters. “You grow up respecting and loving women,” he says, “but you also probably spend a lifetime trying to replicate that love your sisters give you, and your mother gives the only boy.”
The family moved to Coleraine, north-west of Belfast, where he was enrolled in a grammar school. “At school, I fitted in most of the things,” he says. “I was a prefect, yet I was a bollix [jackass]. I wasn’t bullied, but I was hated and loved by the bully guys. I was sporty yet musical. Teachers were very frustrated by me. We used to get hit at school: I used to f…ing love it, because I could handle it. And the best way to get hit by a teacher was not to be annoyed by it.
“What I quite liked about going to a boys’ school in Northern Ireland was not only were girls automatically more interesting because you were segregated from them, but because of the whole Protestant-Catholic thing, I was always into Catholic girls, because that was really taboo. The convent girls, I f…ing loved – particularly on a Friday night before they confessed on a Saturday. That’s when you’d get more action out of them, because then they knew they could redeem themselves the following morning.
“I was of that generation that didn’t want to acknowledge the Troubles. I quite enjoyed it, in a way – the segregation, the secrecy, the taboo, the convent girls – because it wasn’t having an immediate, obvious impact on my life and my family and friends.”
He grew up thinking he might become a teacher like his father and sisters. But when he was 14, he says, his dad dragged him off the rugby pitch and took him to the theatre. He auditioned for a production of Oliver and won the role of the Artful Dodger.
“And only now, 35 years on, can I truly say: the minute I put on the old Dodger’s long coat and walked on stage – I’m probably articulating this for the first time – I f…ing felt awesome.”
He allows the weight of his confession to sink in to himself. “I find it almost quite moving,” he says. “You can’t be a Northern Irish Protestant and go into acting. It’s absurd. It’s not a real job. It doesn’t have any worth.”
Nesbitt met his wife, actor Sonia Forbes-Adam, in 1989. They were both performing in Hamlet, on an international tour with a Russian director. They married in 1994, had two daughters, and separated in 2013. Nesbitt has said he won’t talk about the end of their relationship, or the various rumours of his infidelities, so he only addresses these subjects sparingly, when he – as his own interviewer – feels they are vital to the story.
This is the point when we adjourn to the pub.
Over Guinness, he tells me about his time on the TV comedy-drama Cold Feet from 1998 to 2003. “Ten million people were watching,” he says, “and, as much as at the time I would’ve said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m great with all this, I’m the people’s champion, I can get on with everyone,’ it’s confusing, that world. It has an impact on you. It probably damaged my family quite a bit – that’s really where the duality of my life was forming. On one hand, here I am, the family man, providing, doing all the things I was supposed to do, being the son that my mother would’ve wanted me to be. Yet there was this secret: the fame, the excess, the disconnection. The split was really happening.
“I partied too much and I got a bit lost. I regret stuff like that. I also now take ownership of things. I can go, ‘You know what? It doesn’t make me a terrible person.’ I mean it’s a bit of shame but, f… it, the sun’s going to get up tomorrow, so I might as well.”
But Nesbitt’s heart was in films. In 2002, Nesbitt played the lead in the TV movie Bloody Sunday, about the British Army’s massacre of unarmed civil-rights demonstrators in Northern Ireland in 1972. Nesbitt’s character, the Protestant MP Ivan Cooper, leads his largely Catholic constituents on a march through Derry – for some, to their deaths. Nesbitt’s Cooper is courageous yet nervous, unflinching yet conflicted, empowered by the strength of his righteous cause, yet ultimately impotent.
Nesbitt met with Cooper before production, finding him tormented with guilt at having encouraged the march. He asked Cooper to retrace the route with him. “It was a kind of exorcism,” says Nesbitt.
Cooper told Nesbitt of his horror upon viewing the bodies of the dead in the hospital, young men who had become nothing more than “slabs of meat”.
Nesbitt’s voice cracks. “I find it really hard to talk about actually,” he says – which is strange, since he asked himself about it in the first place.
Bloody Sunday marked “the first time I really began to look at where I came from”, he says, “what had happened to the country I was so proud of.”
In 2009, he made the TV movie Five Minutes of Heaven, about the possibilities of individual reconciliation in Northern Ireland. He had become involved in WAVE, a charity for people traumatised by the Troubles, and is increasingly drawn to politics.
“I want to cut a swathe through f…ing politics in Northern Ireland,” he says. He believes the former gunmen have a responsibility to help heal society. “I get angry that they are seen as peacemakers all the time now, when actually they were cowardly murderers at times.”
In 2011, now an established, admired and awarded serious actor, Nesbitt travelled to New Zealand to begin to film Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. “You don’t go into The Hobbit for the acting thing,” he says. “You go for the experience, and that was sensational.”
He says it was wonderful to have his daughters with him, in a strange and beautiful country. It was a good time with Sonia, too, “funnily enough”.
“We separated after,” he says, “but we had one of the best years of our marriage, in a sense, out there.”
His mother died in 2012, lost to Alzheimer’s. Although their relationship was always close, “I wish I could have another crack at it sometimes,” he says, “because I miss her so terribly.”
Last year, when he made The Missing, Nesbitt tried to harness his love of his family to understand Tony Hughes’ agony at losing his child. “Because I’ve done that in the past,” he says. “I’ll exploit my children. I’ll use the way I might feel if something happened to them. I’ll use the loss of my mother sometimes. But in rehearsal I discovered that if you try to imagine that happening to your own children, there’s an instinctive self-defence mechanism within you that disallows it. So it transpired that I was going to have to do my job.”
Nesbitt immersed himself in Tony. “It helped that I was filming in Brussels,” he says, “so I was automatically disconnected from my girls – also I separated halfway through it, so I was able to find that disconnect; it was an isolated world anyway. I got an apartment. I turned it into Tony’s den. In the evenings, very much like Tony, I would trawl the streets of Brussels with a fag. I’d drink too much, I’d deliberately get myself into bad places.”
We’ve been in the pub longer than we’d promised and Nesbitt is fielding anxious text messages from his publicist. We have to leave, because life is short, but Nesbitt has found his own route to immortality.
“There were only ever 13 dwarfs [in The Hobbit],” he says, “and I was one. I’ve got a little Lego piece of my character: I wear a funny hat in The Hobbit and my Lego head is recyclable. So, long after I’m gone, all over the word, that little tiny Bofur Hobbit Lego piece will be lodged up the noses of three-year-olds.”
MARK DAPIN | GOOD WEEKEND, 2015