James Nesbitt has done a lot of growing up recently. To be fair, he says, there was a lot to be done. Nesbitt, aged 52, used to say that he felt he was permanently aged 17.
The Northern Irish actor says it was the return of Cold Feet after a 13-year gap that made him realise how much he’d changed. Nesbitt plays the charming if feckless womaniser Adam in the drama; many people assumed they were pretty much one and the same – including Nesbitt himself.
Not any more, though. “This year I looked down and thought, ‘God, I’m not anything like him at all.’ I assumed I was quite like him because I would put an awful lot of me into him. But now I think there’s a real childishness to him; there’s a little lost boy thing to him that I don’t have that much.”
The Cold Feet reunion
Nesbitt is a great talker – open, expansive, thoughtful. He’s got views on pretty much everything, and you don’t have to spend long with him to realise many of them are shaped by his Northern Irish background. Take the chaotic state of the world. No, he’s not happy about it.
“But it’s hard to focus everything on the worry of Brexit, extremism and Trump because at home we’re just enjoying what I suppose would be called a postwar optimism.” Or on coming of age as an actor, 15 years ago in the Paul Greengrass drama documentary Bloody Sunday: “Paul always said, ‘To a Northern Irish actor the Troubles were like Lear. You have to take it on at some point.’” Football? Like most Northern Irish men of a certain age raised on the feats of George Best he’s a Manchester United fan. Education? He just happens to be the chancellor of Ulster University.
As for the latest series of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, he says it’s a privilege to be able to play a superhero in his own accent. “How many Stan Lee characters get to say, ‘You fickin’ eejits’ in a Northern Irish accent? I like that collision.”
In Lucky Man, Nesbitt plays Detective Inspector Harry Clayton, a gambling addict given an ancient bracelet that makes him unnaturally lucky. And lucky is a word that comes up often when he talks about his own life.
Stan Lee’s Lucky Man
Nesbitt grew up in the village of Broughshane in County Antrim. He had three older sisters (all of whom became teachers), and was taught by his beloved father.
Nesbitt started a degree in French at Ulster University and considered following in his father’s footsteps. “I didn’t go into teaching because I knew I couldn’t be the teacher my father was.” He was taught by him for four years at primary school. “It seems like such a different world – just over 30 in the school, the other children were the children of farmers. My father wanted to open windows into all sorts of things.” What made him such a good teacher? “There was no set syllabus. If it was a decent day we’d just go out into the fields. He believed in numeracy and literature and music and sport, but never in a heavy-handed way. He was loving, actually. He came alive in a classroom. We were all his children in the classroom. I just happened to be his child at home.”
He talks so movingly about his parents. Four years ago he lost his mother to Alzheimer’s. As a child he spent so much time around her and his aunts, listening to their chatter, already easy in the company of women. It sounds an idyllic if solitary childhood.
“I spent God knows how long until I was ten kicking a ball against a wall on my own. The house was attached to the school, but the garden backed onto a field.” He grins. “I’m just remembering this for the first time, the field belonged to Jim Hall the farmer next door, and he had Friesian cows. And I used to use them as goalposts.” Did he hit them? “No, I just used to fire the ball through them.”
He dropped out of university after a year to study acting at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. After a period in theatre, he made his film debut in the movie Hear My Song, and there was no looking back.
Acting came easy to him, he says. Too easy, perhaps. For a long time, Nesbitt was slightly embarrassed about his line of work. “Because I came from a Northern Ireland Protestant background, acting was considered a bit feminine, a bit worthless, not a real job. And for a long time I would have probably thought that. It was just something I did, just something I was quite good at. It felt like a hobby, it felt like I was getting away with something.”
Why? “Maybe because it came so easy to me. It couldn’t possibly have been a real job because it was so enjoyable.”
The writer AA Gill once said Nesbitt was in danger of becoming one of TV’s laziest actors. Not surprisingly, Nesbitt took umbrage. “I was filming Murphy’s Law at the time, and one day we were in Brick Lane in London having a curry, and he walked in. He saw me and I could sense him thinking, ‘Oh f***.’ And we had our curry and I said, ‘Right, time for Britain’s laziest actor to get back to work.’” He and Gill went on to become friends.
With the benefit of hindsight, does he think Gill had a point? “No, I really do have a work ethic that’s ingrained in me.” He pauses. Maybe he was lazy in his choices, he says. “I wasn’t tackling where I came from. When I first started acting I was doing Boon and Lovejoy and Soldier Soldier, then Cold Feet. I was garnering quite a lot of attention and success and making money but I still felt that something was missing. And I think that’s why Bloody Sunday shook that. That was the first time I felt I could look at where I came from and what impact the job I did could have on it.”
He also admits that after his initial success he became a little too fond of himself. “I thought, ‘Oh well that’s it, I’ve cracked it,’ but I found out quickly when I didn’t get jobs that everyone is replaceable, and that made me work harder.”
How did he change? “You disappear a wee bit, you lose contact with yourself. Forget everyone else. You get disconnected from yourself. But there was only one job that I phoned in a performance a bit. It was a thing called Big Dippers. That’s when I thought I was an arsehole.”
Did anybody tell him he had become one? “Yes – Ian Johnson, my PR and my best friend, told me I was being a bit of a knob.”
In the Noughties, Nesbitt made the front pages of the tabloids after being the subject of a number of a kiss and tell stories. Around that time, he said he feared his behaviour might cost him his marriage to Sonia Forbes-Adam, with whom he has two daughters. Last year, he and Sonia divorced, after 22 years of marriage.
Does he regret his past behaviour? “Well I certainly regret things, but I’m also aware that I can’t change them. You can try to learn from it. I regret any pain that was caused, of course. I also regret the amount of time I’ve put into work. It’s just time away from home. And that’s to do with work, that’s not to do with a mad life.”
As an actor, Nesbitt has never been in more demand – in both light and heavy drama. Recently, he was seen in the first series of The Missing, the reprised Cold Feet, The Hobbit (which took him to New Zealand for a couple of years) and as the wife- murdering dentist in last year’s powerful ITV drama, The Secret.
Nesbitt has established himself as a regular leading man in his 50s. It would not be inconceivable to see him as James Bond. The chubby baldy of his 30s has morphed into a svelte sophisticate with a full head of hair. Has his hair transplant given him a new confidence? “Yeah! I’ve just had my last one.” He points to the nape of his neck where there is a strip of hair missing. “They take a strip from here, they then separate the hairs, clean the follicles and put them back in in twos or threes. The guy who does it is a genius.”
How much does it cost? “It’s not cheap! Probably 20 grand.” Did you get it for free? “Well I went public with it. I was very happy to be open about it. I just thought, ‘Come on, somebody is going to say it before I say it’. It was something I struggled with. And that was probably the vanity in me. But also career-wise it had an impact; in terms of the range of leading roles I’ve had since then it’s probably helped.”
Does he think men are now under the same kind of pressure as women to stay youthful? “Yes,” he says. Has he had plastic surgery? “No. But I think it’s such a shame that young men are thinking that. There always used to be the sense that age adds character. You look at Samuel Beckett when he was older, Richard Harris, but I think with younger men it seems to be a big pressure.”
So much of the new Cold Feet is about people ageing together. Who has changed most? “The real hero in the renaissance of Cold Feet is John Thomson because he was in a pretty dark place and he has come back. And there are so many people who give up drinking and you think, ‘Ach I wish they’d have a bloody drink,’ and he is not that person. What he has achieved is heroic. I went to see him in Aladdin playing Abanazar on New Year’s Eve. I said to him, ‘God, times have changed.’ Because if John and me had ever been together before on New Year’s Eve it would have been a slightly different story.” Who indulged more back then? “We were pretty even. We had a great time.”
But that was then, he says – when he was the eternal 17-year-old. Now he’s embracing adulthood. His two daughters are growing up (his oldest, Peggy, is at university), he is supremely fit, and taking his chancellorship of Ulster University seriously. What changed him most?
“I think separating [from my wife] has an impact because you look at why it happened and you see mistakes that were made.” For a second, he sounds melancholy. But no, he says, he has been extremely fortunate – and remains so today. “I’m lucky enough to be able to look back at stuff and say, ‘Oh well that was then, I’ve had a good lash at that, and this is now.’”
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news