James Nesbitt on Monroe series two and The Hobbit

The versatile actor says playing a neurosurgeon on ITV1 is just as fulfilling as filming Peter Jackson's blockbuster

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James Nesbitt on Monroe series two and The Hobbit
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What was it like coming back from playing Bofur in The Hobbit in New Zealand to working on Monroe?
I always knew I was coming back in January - Peter Jackson [The Hobbit’s director] had given me that time off. I had a fantastic year in New Zealand and it’s an amazing country, but I was looking forward to getting back and slipping into the familiar writing of Pete [Bowker], who’s written for me a lot before. 

Monroe is a show I loved doing the first time so I couldn’t wait to get cracking, which is in no way to denigrate what was happening in New Zealand. It’s two very different things and on two very different scales, but it was very easy. From an acting point of view, if you’re coming back to characters as strong as that, it’s something you can’t wait to do. 

Are you squeamish when it comes to surgery?
No, because before we did the first series, Tom Riley [Lawrence Shepherd in Monroe] and I were afforded the amazing opportunity to see real surgery, which turned out to be incredibly important in terms of the authenticity of the show. 

It’s something we’ll never forget. The operation was being given by Sir Henry Marsh, who in many ways changed the face of neurosurgery. To begin with we stood right at the back as the surgeons – in a fairly invasive and industrial way – got into the brain. Once you’re in there, the surgery is incredibly delicate, balletic and choreographed and rather beautiful. But to get in there, you need a JCB.

After that, Sir Henry Marsh brought us over and that moment really felt like jumping off a cliff. Luckily we were fine with it, if anything I was fascinated by it. Seeing your first brain and being told “see that, that’s ‘thought’”, well, it sets you up rather brilliantly and magically for the whole process. It was enormously helpful to witness the operations and I stood through four or five.

It’s got to point where I’m now fairly confident that if you give me six months I could be a real surgeon! 

Do people ever confuse you for a real doctor? And how immersed in the part do you get?
There is an element of that, but I’ve played terrorists and people didn’t think I was going to bomb them! 

It’s impossible not to get very involved in it, of course. What I understood most about Monroe is the duality of his life and how his work/life balance is often skewed. He can get a bit lost in work. And because the intensity of the job was such that I was away from home, there was something to relate to there. 

The difference is that Monroe is working in a life or death situation every day. I’m just saying Pete’s words and then getting into a nice car and going to a nice apartment. 

I feel very close to the show, maybe closer than with other jobs I’ve done, because I’ve enjoyed it so much. But no, I’m not thinking of getting into the medical profession yet. 

Do you end up thinking that your aches and pains are worse than they actually are?
Well, actors, you know – we’re a very insecure breed! 

What are the differences between working on a movie like The Hobbit and a TV series like Monroe?
The Hobbit is huge, so you have to emotionally fight sometimes for your part and make sure you’ve got screen time. With Monroe I can arrive, go in make-up for a minute, into your scrubs and then, bang, you’re into it. I love that. 

It actually helps with that particular dynamic of Monroe where we’re afforded incredible sets, wonderful scripts, great directors, fantastic cast, but you’re working to a pretty tight schedule and you have to get things done. On The Hobbit you might spend a day on a shot. 

So that is very different in a sense, but in terms of the work I didn’t see much of a difference between a massive film like that and a drama like this. It’s difficult particularly in this country to be snobby about film, because a lot of the best stuff we shoot is for the small screen, so the approach to the acting doesn’t change. 

But it was lovely and comforting to be back dealing with the nitty gritty, humour and realism of Pete’s writing because, of course, that can sometimes get lost on a project as huge as The Hobbit. I’m very lucky to be involved in both, but I’d fight to appear in Monroe. It’s something I love. 

What’s your costume like for The Hobbit?
It’s just a big heavy thing, which you need to work out for a year to be able to wear. 

And what do you like to watch on TV?
I think reports of the demise of British television drama have been hugely exaggerated. I think there’s an incredible amount of good drama on. I recently watched Anna Maxwell Martin in Accused – she’s an extraordinary actor. Just beautifully nuanced. 

But I usually watch sport: I’ll watch tractor racing if it’s good.

Monroe returns on Monday 1 October at 9:00pm on ITV1