Two days after his 56th birthday weekend, James Nesbitt is in fine fettle. No hangover, no regrets, no existential crisis about now being closer to 60 than 50. Speaking to me from what looks like a bedroom office in his second home in Portrush, the Northern Irish actor is relaxed in unfussy dad-wear of sweater and shirt, his salt-and-pepper hair a little askew. When I ask how he celebrated, the actor shrugs.
‘I didn’t really. I think I trained,’ he says. This is a reference to the home gym and personal trainer he makes good use of these days, as evidenced by the slim, rangy physique he brings to the police detective (a former rugby player) he plays in his latest TV series, Northern Irish-set thriller Bloodlands. ‘Then I had a few social-distance drinks in the garden. Am I allowed to say that? Whatever we’re allowed to do, I did!’
Given that all three of his closest childhood friends have homes within walking distance of his house here in this coastal Country Antrim resort town, it’s not unfeasible that those drinks made up for in decades-spanning emotional intimacy what they lacked in the physical kind.
Did his Covid protocol-friendly non-celebrations also involve a partner? The prolific star of Cold Feet, The Hobbit, Bloody Sunday, Murphy’s Law, The Missing and dozens of other films and TV dramas over the past three decades isn’t saying. Last year, certainly, he was in a relationship with Irish actor Katy Gleadhill. She had a small part in 2009’s Five Minutes of Heaven, the Troubles-set BBC film he made with Liam Neeson, and in the 2016 ITV miniseries The Secret, a true-crime story in which he played ‘killer dentist’ Colin Howell.
But today Nesbitt, inhaling sharply, refuses to confirm or deny his relationship status: ‘Well, ah, I’m not talking about that.’
In terms of birthday presents, one of his three sisters Margaret, Kathryn and Andrea (who are all teachers) gave him some ‘photo memories’ found in their father’s house – retired head teacher and community pillar James Sr died last August, aged 91 – plus another childhood souvenir. He holds up an LP cover showing a shepherd on a hillside drystone wall: The Pride of the Braid by the Ballygelly Accordion Band.
‘I was in the band when I was a kid. I was the youngest member, and we made this record,’ he explains. ‘My dad wasn’t in the band, but wrote the blurb for the back of it. And he goes, “The youngest member of the band is J Nesbitt, whose father, James Sr, is a well-known and much-respected music-maker in the area.” He wrote more about him than he did me!’ he laughs.
Nesbitt puts down the slightly battered 1975 record and looks up and out of the window that overlooks the coast and Royal Portrush golf course.
‘But the main birthday present, I suppose, was just me walking on the beach, looking out at the Atlantic.’ In fact, he adds, he’ll be back out there this evening, ‘swimming in the very cold, dark north Atlantic. It’s, ah, refreshing!’ he smiles of a new-found hobby he insists he’s kept up throughout the winter. Again, the improving benefits of this frankly bracing fitness regime show: as midlife transformations go, Nesbitt arguably looks fitter and better than he did at 33, when Cold Feet began in 1998.
Even the loss of his father (his mother May, a retired civil servant, died in 2012) was, it seems, all things considered, as OK as it could have been. ‘I’m terribly lucky – in the sense that I was able to be here for most of the first lockdown. So I was able to spend quite a lot of time with my father.
‘We spent a lot of last year talking, and he actually revealed to me: “The thing is, James, I was more like you than you think.” I always thought Dad was someone who was very applied and studious. But he said to me, “I was always like you, a real dreamer.” It’s why he was so supportive, although maybe didn’t show it as much, when I decided to give up my degree and go into acting.’
This was a family of educationalists, after all. Nesbitt acknowledges that ‘they were worried about the instability, and about me maybe going off the rails a wee bit – which was prescient in itself,’ he admits with a wry smile. ‘But ultimately Dad recognised that it was my vocation. And I think he was just waiting for me to come to that realisation, too.’
The Northern Irishman is, it seems, in a good place, both geographically and figuratively. The extra-curricular activities involving women and drinking that landed him in the tabloids two decades ago – that ‘off the rails a wee bit’ interlude – seem small and distant in his rear-view mirror.
Thirty-seven years since he quit his French degree at Ulster Polytechnic after one year and, aged 19, left Northern Ireland to study at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, he’s returned home for his latest job. Bloodlands is a contemporary BBC series, co-executive produced by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty, Bodyguard), in which he plays Tom Brannick, a detective investigating the re-emergence of a Troubles-era assassin.
Explaining his enthusiasm for the role, he mentions his friend Paul Greengrass, director of Bloody Sunday. In that 2002 film about the killing of 13 unarmed demonstrators by British paratroopers in Derry in 1972, Nesbitt played civil rights campaigner and politician Ivan Cooper. ‘Paul always said that, for Northern Irish actors, Northern Ireland was our King Lear: there was a sort of responsibility to tackle it. And from my point of view, like so many artists from Ireland, there was always a sense you had to be in exile in some way… to then have an opportunity to come back.’
The actor now splits his time between his homeland – he grew up in nearby Coleraine – and south London, where his ex-wife Sonia Forbes-Adam (whom he met at an audition in 1989) and two daughters live. The couple split up in 2013 after a 19-year marriage and seem to have had what is commonly, and somewhat euphemistically, termed a ‘good divorce’. How did they manage that?
‘I think through communication,’ he says. ‘And through someone being extremely understanding. I think I was very, very fortunate to have such an understanding partner.’
He beams when he discusses his relationship with Peggy, 23, and Mary, 19, even as he laments the lot of his daughters and their peers in the time of Covid. Mary had her A levels cancelled, and her gap year plans to teach English in Honduras with the charity Project Trust.
‘I really feel sorry for that generation. Mary really wanted to do her A levels, she’d worked extremely hard. Then missing out on all their festivals and a summer of snogging and partying. Then her gap year was taken away from her. I think the ramifications and repercussions are yet to be seen.’
But she and her older sister, who has a psychology degree from Bristol University, have both been working with subscription service Freddie’s Flowers in London throughout the pandemic year, and Mary has also been volunteering at a local food bank in Southwark. ‘When I’ve been over, I’ve been doing a lot of the deliveries with her. That’s when you really do see just how hard some people, the vulnerable, have been hit.’
Mary wasn’t the only Nesbitt whose university-related plans were scuppered. Her dad’s 10-year tenure as chancellor of Ulster University ended last year, and should have been capped with one last graduation ceremony for students and Nesbitt alike. ‘It was always the graduations I looked forward to most, because that’s when you really got to connect with the students and share that joyous day with them.
‘It was one of the great privileges of my life to be chancellor at Ulster,’ he continues. ‘The idea that I’m connected to where I come from, and to have a wee bit of influence on students’ lives, was great.’
That desire for boots-on-the-ground kinship with the people and place that formed him is one of the root appeals of Bloodlands. Nesbitt’s Brannick is dragged into his past when a former IRA gunman-turned-businessman is kidnapped, seemingly by a long- dormant assassin. Codenamed Goliath, the killer was implicated in the disappearance of four people in the period leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Despite Brannick’s best investigative efforts, the victims – including his own wife – were never found.
To play Brannick, Nesbitt had experience to spare. Away from his day job he’s been actively involved for several years with Belfast’s WAVE Trauma Centre. As well as supporting anyone affected by the Troubles, it campaigns on behalf of the families of the ‘Disappeared’: 16 people, mostly civilians, who were kidnapped, killed and dumped in unmarked graves by republican paramilitaries during the Northern Ireland conflict. Through the efforts of WAVE and the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR), the remains of 13 have been recovered.
‘It’s a world I know. I’ve spent years meeting these people. I understand the reality of the never-ending, dull wait and the uncertainty of not knowing. Of course they get on with their lives, but it’s constantly there, a little glimmer of hope. In Bloodlands, when Goliath reappears, it’s a trigger for Tom. I’ve seen that in the families before, when the ICLVR says there’s new information. The desperate grabbing hold of that has been a very painful thing to bear witness to. So the show is the collision of a reality I know [and a] fictionalised thriller.’
Nesbitt and the director of Bloodlands, Pete Travis, go way back – he worked with Nesbitt in 1999, on two episodes of series two of Cold Feet. Travis tells me how the actor is able to convey both wrenching emotion and light-hearted comedy. He cites a Cold Feet scene shot in the back of a taxi, in which Nesbitt’s character Adam is in tears at the news of his testicular cancer diagnosis.
‘But it also made you think of Frank Capra – comedy that got to your heart. Everybody remembers the rose-up-the-bum moment when he proposed,’ he says of another key Cold Feet scene when, well, Adam put a rose between his buttocks to propose marriage. ‘But I don’t think anybody else could have carried off that scene in the cab. Jimmy has this ability to be really manly, but also vulnerable and lost for words.’
Cold Feet made a star of Nesbitt. The Manchester-set show – which co-starred Hermione Norris, Robert Bathurst, Fay Ripley, John Thomson and Helen Baxendale – about three 30-something couples was a ratings hit for ITV from its launch to the end of series five, when it went on hiatus until its successful return for another four series, beginning in 2016 and ending last year.
Its writer Mike Bullen tells me that Adam was partly based on himself, and that the character was the heart of Cold Feet. On first meeting Nesbitt he was struck by his ‘cheeky chappiness, and that charm. It’s rare that a person can be equally attractive to men and women. That’s the thing about Jimmy: most men want to be him, and most women… ha ha!’ he laughs teasingly down the phone, ‘…want to be with him, let’s put it like that! That was certainly not something I had [written] in the character, but it was a big part of making the character work.
‘Jimmy just has this winning way that, even when he’s behaving badly, you kind of forgive him,’ he explains. ‘There’s nothing bland about him.’
For his part, Nesbitt professes undying affection for Adam, and for the Cold Feet world. ‘I really enjoyed it,’ he says of the show’s return. I’d love it to come back, if there’s an appetite for it, but it would have to be absolutely right. Even though it’s only a TV programme – but it was an important TV programme to a lot of people.’
Indeed it was. But just as Cold Feet made Nesbitt hugely famous, with that success came the static of fame. ‘I saw the stories in the press, but that’s not the guy I knew,’ Bullen says of reports of Nesbitt’s infidelity. ‘The one time I got a sense of how big Jimmy was, was when we to Chester Races for a filming recce. People were coming up, shaking his hand, wanting to buy him drinks, women were pinching his bum. That was an eye-opener.’
I wonder, when Nebitt’s private life was splashed all over the tabloids, was his mortification deepened by the thought of how his father would feel about that public shaming?
‘Unquestionably, always, yeah, yeah,’ the actor fires back, hurriedly. ‘Yeah. And… and… [how] anyone [would feel], you know? But my mortification was really about the fact that it did happen,’ he says, laughing lightly. ‘Anyway,’ he states with a note of finality.
Not unreasonably Nesbitt is unwilling to dwell on exploits that made tabloid headlines. Still, what regrets does he have?
‘Och well, I think everyone’s got regrets,’ he says. ‘But I feel I put all that to bed, to tell you the truth. It was 20 years ago. But I think you learn from everything’
He’s considerably more upfront concerning another issue that became the subject of fascination: his hair transplants. Beginning in 2007, Nesbitt has had six transplants. He’s previously insisted this has helped his career, notably his being cast, still, as a leading man. As a balding middle-aged actor, did he genuinely feel his professional avenues were narrowing because of hair loss?
‘Ach, I don’t know if they were,’ he replies with a grimace. ‘But if I’m absolutely truthful about it, I think I did it more through vanity than anything else. I was filming Murphy’s Law in Dublin and this guy Morris Collins from Hair Restoration Blackrock was starting to do these [new kind of] transplants. It wasn’t the old kind of plugs, it was removing a bit here,’ he says, indicating the back of his head, ‘and putting ones and twos and threes here,’ he continues, touching his crown.
‘At that stage I’d lost a lot of hair,’ recalls Nesbitt of his first procedure, ‘I was working a lot. But unquestionably [the transplants] would have had an impact in terms of maintaining [momentum] – although for God’s sake, Mark Strong hasn’t done badly!’ he laughs of the very busy star of the Kingsman movies. ‘You don’t have to have hair for leading roles! But it gave me more confidence to feel like I could continue to be a leading man.’
He says he’s equally pleased to go public about it. ‘In doing that, it removed a lot of the stigma. Because before that, men viewed it as something, like terrible plastic surgery that was quite embarrassing.’
His tonsorial rebrand reflects a more settled Jimmy Nesbitt as he heads towards his seventh decade. Physically, that lean fitness is in part the legacy of his extended period in New Zealand filming Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy (2012-14), in which he played Bofur the dwarf.
‘I’m still no stranger to a glass of wine,’ he says, clearly keeping his diet sensible rather than stringent, ‘so the only way I can balance the two is to keep fit. And on The Hobbit, we were very lucky in that we trained a lot, we had our own gym, had personal trainers… It started me on a discipline and a sense of looking after myself and exercising a lot. And it’s so good for my mind.
‘Then I was doing a musical in Chichester a couple of years ago,’ he adds of his part, alongside Sheila Hancock, in 2019’s This is My Family. ‘I hadn’t been on stage for a long time, and I realised you needed a lot of stamina to do that – it was a very physical role. And also because you were on stage at night, there wasn’t much to do during the day. You couldn’t go for long, boozy lunches.’
So, he stays fit and rolls with the ageing process – and fights it where he can – both for his own sake, and for the work.
‘There’s still so much I want to do. Fifty-six is an interesting age – in terms of work, is there another sheet of paper I can create things on, or is the canvas pretty full? Am I just going to get wee bits and [have] big gaps here and there?’
It sounds like he needn’t worry. This month he’s back filming in Manchester, playing another detective in Netflix’s transplanted-to-the-UK adaptation of US author Harlan Coben 2012’s novel Stay Close, which reunites him with his fellow Hobbit alum Richard Armitage.
‘I’ve never done a Netflix show, so that opens me to a new audience,’ Nesbitt says, adding that he’s aware of how lucky he is to still be in demand. Equally, though, ‘I’m self-aware enough to know that I’ve created a lot of that luck, because I like to work. So there’s still plenty to do.’
Anything in particular? ‘I’d love to have a crack at something musical. I do sing – I started off doing that. My first role was the Artful Dodger. So I’d love to take on some big, grand musical, something like Sweeney Todd. I’m a bit old for Sky Masterson!’ Ballygelly Accordion Band’s unsung hero is, it seems, finally ready for his close-up.
Cold Feet: James Nesbitt’s best moments
A rose between two… cheeks (1997)
The iconic 1997 scene from the first series of Cold Feet will go down as one of the most unexpectedly romantic scenes in British TV history. It sees James’ character, Adam, serenade a startled Rachel Bradley, his girlfriend at the time, (played by Helen Baxendale) with a single rose - placed in a somewhat sensitive spot - with a bid to win back her love.
Adam comes to terms with his cancer (1999)
In a surreal taxi ride in series two, Adam unloads to a cabbie, played by Ricky Tomlinson, sharing his fears over his recent testicular cancer diagnosis. In the back of the car, Nesbitt frets over possible surgery and how treatment could impact his fertility.
The wedding we’ve all been waiting for (2000)
As series three drew to a close, the show’s favourite couple Rachel and Adam finally ties the knot - but the union isn’t without a few speed bumps, namely the fact that Adam turns up late to the registry office after best friend Pete (played by John Thomson) fails to sort the wedding car.
Rachel’s funeral (2003)
The death of Adam’s wife Rachel in series five, following a car crash, leaves viewers, and Adam completely heartbroken. Her funeral makes up the last episode of the season, and indeed the last episode of the show, until its return in 2016.
Adam and Karen finally get together (2019)
Adam and Karen finally get together (2019)
After a number of will-they-won’t-they moments, Adam and longtime friend Karen (played by Hermione Norris) finally get it together in series eight of the show in a much-anticipated stoned kiss at a festival. And series nine, the last in the current series, suggests a happy ending for the couple, as the final episode shows them planning a round-the-world camper van adventure.
Bloodlands starts on BBC One at 9pm on 21 February