James Nesbitt on turning a real life tragedy into drama in The Missing

As his new drama begins on BBC1, the Hobbit actor reflects on fatherhood, Method acting and the long flight to New Zealand

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James Nesbitt does good grief. Watch his latest drama series and you see it etched hard into his face, sunk deep through his eyes. In The Missing he plays Tony, a man for whom the pain of losing his young son eight years previously has consumed him and robbed him of his life. TV drama veteran that he is – stretching back to ITV’s Cold Feet in the 1990s and through to the likes of the BBC’s Murphy’s Law and Jekyll, as well as ITV’s Monroe – Nesbitt portrays grief rather well.

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In the BBC’s latest eight-parter, he plays Tony, a father who can’t give up hope that Olly, his five-year-old son who vanished on a family holiday in France, is still alive somehow, somewhere. So Tony is dragged back over the Channel to chase up a lead – and, it seems, scare up some ghosts, no matter whom he upsets. He’s angry and desperate, a man adrift and trapped in a lonely existence, with a booze habit, unkempt hair and dressed in charity-shop chic.

But it’s a lean, smart chap who sits down for brunch with me in a London private members’ club to discuss his latest role. Nesbitt says that a lot of thought went into Tony’s character and appearance in 2014 and how that contrasted with the scenes set in 2006.

In 2006, Tony was a buzzy, busy professional with a loving wife (Frances O’Connor); fast-forward to 2014 and he’s a divorcé, ragged both internally and externally. The couple’s marriage was, it transpires, sunk by both Olly’s disappearance and the rumours surrounding it.

In terms of The Missing’s plot, “a lot of people have mentioned the Madeleine McCann case,” admits Nesbitt. On the evidence of the first two episodes, the parallels are striking: British couple suffer inexplicable loss of a child while on European holiday… Media firestorm engulfs family… From more scurrilous quarters the finger of suspicion is pointed at the parents… The Missing’s storyline even encompasses the publication of a book purporting to contain the “truth” about the disappearance, which is one of the more unsavoury developments that Kate and Gerry McCann had to deal with.

“But it’s much more of a thriller than that,” says Nesbitt. “That’s not to say there aren’t thriller elements in any child abduction. But it’s the notion of dropping a pebble in water and the ripples… the ramifications are huge.

“It’s not just about the father and mother and immediate family. It’s about other people’s lives being affected over a course of time. That brings the thriller element.”

Nesbitt, 49, admits it was a gruelling shoot: emotionally demanding scenes day in, day out day; 20 weeks from January to June this year. And all that in a production set in France, but based in Brussels. Harrowing stuff for anyone, more so for Nesbitt, a father separated from his own children and, it was revealed last October, from Sonia, his wife of 19 years.

“I tried to live as isolated a life as I could. What was helpful was that I didn’t live in a hotel in Brussels, I lived in an apartment. And I got the art department to send me all the things Tony would have had had access to, all the newspaper clippings and files. So I was surrounded by all that stuff in my flat.

“And I tried not to be social with the crew or cast. I would go out and eat by myself, and I would have these files with me. And I pounded the streets like Tony did, went into bars to have a couple of drinks. So, very much his world – because Tony was totally alone.

“I wouldn’t say it was Method acting,” he grins, “but that was an easier way of locating Tony’s pain – the determination, the guts, the anger and frustration at the police procedure.” 

Didn’t those heavy days and lonely nights ever get a bit, well, much to cope with? “What would occasionally get to me was the sense of isolation, the sense of being on your own. Being away from my kids, that was not easy. But the strengths of it were almost the negatives of it. It was very helpful for the piece. But certainly at times it was, ah, difficult.”

Enforced isolation and domestic separation are, of course, the actor’s lot. And Nesbitt has endured more than his fair share of late. To play the dwarf Bofur in The Hobbit trilogy, the south London-based actor spent two years in total on the other side of the world. He thinks he undertook the “brutal” journey to New Zealand about 12 times, “Although to be fair, we were turning left on the aeroplane!”

His family – he has two daughters, Mary, now 12, and Peggy, 17, – accompanied him Down Under for the bulk of the filming. Peggy even helped her dad write a drinking song for his character Bofur although, in a development that would become emblematic of Nesbitt’s time on The Hobbit, his musical performance didn’t make the version of the film screened in cinemas, only “the extended DVD version”.

He admits that he was far from a fantasy fan beforehand; he hadn’t even seen director Peter Jackson’s previous Tolkien trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Now, of course, having been inducted into the thespian fellowship of the Ring, he understands the global reach of Middle Earth.

“It’s incredible just the response you get,” he marvels. “That amount of mail you get from all over the world. You forget just how much it means to people.” 

But in the first instance, he concedes, it was about taking a punt on what seemed a huge opportunity: a role in a mega-budget, multi-part, block- buster franchise. “Absolutely it’s a leap of faith. You have to think: listen, it is a job. And it’s gonna be a job that lasts forever. But it’s an experience to take your girls to the other side of the world, where they’ll be imbued with a slightly different culture, which will live with them for the rest of their lives. It’s a whole new package. When you look at it that way, it’s the most sensational thing to do.”

But still. For a busy actor whose currency is, in part, his TV “presence”, it was an awful long time, if not off the map then certainly on the edge of it. And for what? As one of a baker’s dozen of dwarves in Peter Jackson’s sprawling cinematic trilogy, Nesbitt was part of an ensemble within an ensemble.

“It was extraordinary,” he reflects. “The experience of entering Tolkien’s 3D-enhanced world was incredible, and there will only ever be 13 dwarves in The Hobbit – and I was one of them. If I had my time again, would I do it? Yeah, I would.

“But – and I don’t think they would mind me saying this – at times it was frustrating. Just in terms of the acting, in terms of what you were given the opportunity to do.”

Coincidentally, Ken Stott, who is also in The Missing, was another of the dwarves, “And I think Ken would have found that at times frustrating as well. So, yes, we often looked at each other during The Missing and went, ‘it’s bit different, eh?’” he recounts with a wry chuckle.

Yet there were other, more personal challenges, too. “We filmed a lot of the end just after I’d lost my mum. She died in summer 2012 when I was in New Zealand. So I flew home for the funeral, then went back to film the end.

“And people who’ve read the book will know that it’s not all a happy ending for everyone. So that was quite interesting, coming back and doing scenes that involved the aftermath of people close to you dying.”

Having interviewed Nesbitt before, and enjoyed his company, as well as the impressive range of his onscreen work – movie-wise, it ranges from Paul Greengrass’s political drama Bloody Sunday in 2002 at one extreme to Danny Boyle’s charming comedy-drama Millions (2004) at the other – I tell him I was frustrated he didn’t appear more in the two Hobbit films released so far.

“No, I know,” he shrugs. “I thought I was gonna be. But that was one of the difficulties – there wasn’t a script per se before we agreed to it. But then there are an awful lot of people to keep happy. But in Three,” he adds, referring to December’s final chapter, which is sub-titled The Battle of the Five Armies, “I think there’s a lot more for everyone to do. And my kids are in it – they play Bard the Bowman’s daughters. They’ve got nice parts.”

Have they got more screen time than dad? “Not far off it, actually,” he smiles ruefully. Still, “after you do something like The Hobbit for such a long time, and you’re away for a long time, you can’t help but think: ‘Oh God, it’s gonna be really hard to reconnect when I get home, and maybe my time has passed…’ So when I came back I was just looking for something that was meaty.”

Nesbitt needn’t have worried. He secured The Missing, and landed a leading part in Channel 4’s Babylon, too. After premiering with a feature-length, Danny Boyle-directed pilot earlier this year, the Metropolitan Police-set show from the creators of the comedy series Peep Show Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong is back on C4 this month for a six-episode run. Nesbitt is once again Commissioner Richard Miller, the ramrod-straight man at the heart of policing London. 

Does he understand the position of critics and viewers who found Babylon a strange hybrid. Is it drama or comedy? “Dramedy”, or um, “coma”?

“It’s very tough. Babylon’s a very odd tone,” he agrees, before suggesting that once viewers reach the third instalment, they’ll have a firmer, more enjoyable grasp of the comedy-drama’s quirky charms (having seen that third instalment, I agree with him).

And for all that, Nesbitt loved shooting the series, even when it overlapped with filming The Missing. Playing a poker-faced top cop with brisk aplomb was one aspect of the show’s appeal. The other was Commissioner Miller’s Northern Irish heritage.

“It’s probably that old thing that still lies mostly dormant in me,” he begins. “In the same way that Adam in Cold Feet was Northern Irish and [me] insisting on that, I love the idea that the most important policeman in the country is actually from Northern Ireland.

And he is the king. “There’s definitely a wee bit of my own personal Northern Irish defensiveness in there.”

James Nesbitt – still buoyant from witnessing first-hand another pal and countryman, Rory McIlroy, helping Europe retain golf’s Ryder Cup – gives a hearty grin. “A Northern Irishman at the top of the pile – I like that.”

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The Missing is on BBC1 tonight at 9:00pm