James Nesbitt: 'My cocaine days seem a lifetime ago... I was a bit lost at the time'
James Nesbitt talks to Maureen Paton about his troubled new role, staying busy in acting and that hair transplant
There's always a bit of devilment in James Nesbitt. Even jet-lagged from a holiday in Mexico with his two teenage daughters, he talks with quick-witted intelligence about everything from losing his faith in God because of personal tragedy to the "great love" that persists between ex-spouses.
Nesbitt's latest TV role as a superhero gifted with the power of luck seems like the ultimate typecasting, given his charmed life as one of our most prolific actors. Twelve years ago, he told me that he sometimes worried about over-exposure; yet he has adroitly avoided that with an astonishing range, from silver-tongued charmer Adam in the hit comedy-drama Cold Feet to the anguished, obsessive father in The Missing and the real-life, dead-eyed killer dentist in The Secret.
"Do I feel lucky? That sounds like that line from Dirty Harry," he quips.
"Yes, I've been very fortunate - I'm an actor that works, which is rare."
Yet in the second series of Lucky Man - created by the legendary Marvel comic-book writer Stan Lee, produced by the makers of Sky 1's biggest hit drama and Downton Abbey - Nesbitt's troubled murder detective, Harry Clayton, is battling a gambling addiction.
Nesbitt became tabloid fodder in the early Noughties for doing everything he shouldn't - drink, drugs and alleged dalliances. He told me in 2007 that "my coke days seem a lifetime ago. I was a wee bit lost at a time when I was beginning to get successful".
"The old excess, not a million miles from that Mad Men lifestyle, was part of so many businesses at one time, but now you wouldn't think of doing it," he adds.
It's clear that he's now a reformed character - without sacrificing his trademark charm. "I can be a bit reckless and all that, but I don't get up in the morning and want to gamble, want to drink. I don't think I'm an addictive personality like Harry.
"He's trying to be abstemious, on his guard against temptation, but as many an addict will testify, it never goes away. To be honest, I wasn't really that attracted to the superhero genre before this job, but I discovered that the genius of Stan Lee is to make something very human and vulnerable about them, something exposed and raw, conflicts that lie within them - and I can empathise with that."
He certainly can. "Over the years there was quite a lot of me in Adam," he admits of the charismatic, womanising chancer who became his best-known character, "but I think it's quite different now. Adam has not grown up nearly as much as hopefully I have, but I've always loved playing him - he's a positive character."
Ironically, Nesbitt came back to last year's sixth series of Cold Feet looking younger than his character did in the fifth, 13 years ago, thanks to a well-documented hair transplant. It was recently reported that he felt it helped with getting work because of the pressure on men to look younger on high-definition screens. Today, he insists that it was "simply my own vanity - I did it for myself. Although I think it did probably help with work, that's not to say that bald actors can't be successful - look at Mark Strong, for God's sake."
As for the car-chasing, casino-haunting, babe-magnet Harry Clayton, he's shaping up to be a James Bond of the Met with moral dilemmas. Nesbitt (52) did so many of his own stunts that, he says drily, he began to feel as old as Harrison Ford, the accident-prone 74-year old Hollywood veteran.
"It just gets a bit harder the older you get, you're a bit creakier. But I'm someone who trains regularly anyway; I like to enjoy my life and the only way to do that is to be pretty fit."
His mother, May, had originally wanted Nesbitt, who describes his upbringing as "God-loving and grounded", to be a missionary. "I suppose I became a missionary of a different sort; [Mum] was pretty happy [with my acting career] in the end."
He lost her four years ago: "She got Alzheimer's unfortunately, a terrible old journey, that," he discloses. "I'm not a believer in God now; it's increasingly hard with, on a grand scale, what goes on in the world and, on a personal scale, with what happens to one's loved ones."
It's tempting to make parallels between his personal life and Clayton's marital problems, too. In the opening episode, he has a revealingly tender scene with co-star Eve Best as his estranged wife Anna, with whom Clayton very clearly wants a reconciliation. "It's a very difficult situation to be a flawed superhero with a power that can be destructive and get in the way of a marriage - yet there is still great love there. Can I identify with that? Yes, of course," says Nesbitt without hesitation.
Although I'm told the subject of divorce is strictly off-limits, Nesbitt casually mentions "my ex, Sonia", referring to former actress Sonia Forbes-Adam, mother of Peggy (19) and Mary (14). The couple announced their separation in 2013, citing difficulties due to Nesbitt's two years of filming The Hobbit in New Zealand.
Their 23-year marriage finally ended in divorce late last year, but they still live around the corner from each other in south London.
Everything is so easy and amicable, it seems, that they spent last Christmas together as a family.
Meanwhile he's pursuing a heroic work schedule, what with filming of the seventh series of Cold Feet starting tomorrow in Manchester. He and his co-stars, John Thomson, Fay Ripley, Hermione Norris and Robert Bathurst, had cold feet about the comeback, he admits.
"We were quite nervous about revisiting it. But what I found interesting was that so many viewers came to it new; they hadn't seen any of the previous series. That was probably the strongest tribute to it, that people were able to enjoy it without knowing anything about it beforehand. And, of course, those who had been watching it from the beginning were just delighted to see the characters back."
He is proud the latest series bucked TV's obsession with callow youth and seems to have started a trend for exploring the fascinating complications of middle-aged sexuality.
Will we see him doing more love scenes, then?
"If they make them, I will come," he says in a wicked paraphrase of that famous line from Field Of Dreams.
I think we can assume that missionary calling is permanently on hold.
Lucky Man is on Sky 1, Fridays at 9pm