It's good to talk, James
Glenda Jackson had an intriguing theory on acting: the most important thing was to be able to laugh and cry. "If I have to cry, I think of my sex life,'' she said. "If I have to laugh, I think of my sex life.'' I imagine it was a mixture of both for James Nesbitt in 2002 when his sex life with women-who-weren't-his wife was splashed all over the newspapers.
In one red-top tabloid, a legal secretary alleged she had a "two-month, cocaine-fuelled affair" with naughty Nesbitt. Then another paper ran a story that he had an affair with another woman, who claimed Nesbitt had bragged of trysts with his Cold Feet co-star Kimberley Joseph, to say nothing of our own Amanda Brunker.
It is perhaps testament to Nesbitt that he has long since pulled his life back together. He lives in South London with his wife Sonia Forbes-Adam, whom he'd met on a 1989 tour of Hamlet, and their two daughters, Peggy and Mary.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry after 50 minutes in Nesbitt's intriguing, if slightly exasperating, company. Robert Mitchum used to say he had three expressions: looking left, looking right and looking straight ahead. Nesbitt appears to have only the one: distracted.
At moments during our interview, he alternates between texting on his mobile phone to looking into the middle distance waiting for the beer he ordered 20 minutes earlier to arrive. He gazes into the existential nothingness like one of Beckett's tramps in Waiting for Godot. With me gazing back at him.
There is, it transpires, a lot of this. He sends a text at the start of our tête-à-tête. Then his phone bleeps with a text coming in. He is distracted from the beginning. We both are.
I ask about what research he put in for his part in new movie Five Minutes of Heaven. (The title is not a reference to his nights of passion with Brunker; it is, in fact, a reference to his freedom from guilt when his character Joe Griffin eventually meets the man -- UVF killer Alistair Little, played by Liam Neeson -- who killed his older brother as he watched 33 years earlier.) The film is fictional, but the first act -- a reconstruction of the killing of Jim Griffin in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, in 1975 -- is based on real events.
Nesbitt starts to say something about "the great thing about having a strong script is that it takes a lot of the research away'' when the reply to his text message comes back. He pretends not to look at it and then says, camply: "Turn that off!'' (Then, thankfully, he turns the bloody thing off.)
"I suppose I had to make a choice about whether or not I wanted to meet Joe, the real character,'' he says. "I knew he was happy to meet me. The character that Guy [Hibbert, the writer] had created on the page was so extreme and so sort of ... a kind of a real ball of pent-up frustration and anger. I thought: 'I wouldn't know where to start with that.' I didn't want to meet Joe to do an impersonation of him. I just wanted to see if [Hibbert] had captured him because I felt he was so extreme.''
Nesbitt spent a day with Joe and found him very funny and clever. "He was very articulate for a man who is not necessarily that educated, because his life stopped at the age of 11, as the film shows,'' he says.
"Also, there is a lot of stuff that Joe would have liked to have been in the film that isn't: about the rest of his life; the difficulty he has had with violence; serving time in prison. He has been alienated from his family. But he was very honest. So I went in there and said: 'Tell me about that night.' He told me everything.''
Nesbitt adds that Joe discussed how his life was destroyed; how his mother -- who irrationally blamed him for not doing anything to stop the killer -- abandoned him; how his father died not long after. And how his mother on her deathbed came out of a coma and pointed at him, saying: "You!"
"His story was littered with great honesty, self-awareness and, interestingly, an appetite for something in his life to change,'' he says. "And that perhaps this film may be part of it.''
Did you learn anything about yourself from playing him?
"I learnt ... oh, I don't know about myself," he says with characteristic guardedness. "What I learned most is how one single act of violence can have such a terrible impact on not only one person but on all the people around. What is brilliant about it now is that Joe is happy to say that he is, for the first time, receiving counselling and has been for quite a while.''
Ironically, Nesbitt doesn't think it so brilliant to talk about his own sessions with therapists in the past and is far from happy to discuss them. I'm happy to share with you, however, that Nesbitt is brilliant in Five Minutes of Heaven. It is probably his best acting.
Typically, his reply to my compliment says so much about Nesbitt the man rather than Nesbitt the actor. "I'm good in lots of things!'' he smiles. "It won two awards at Sundance. I won one at Sundance for Bloody Sunday, so I have a 100 per cent record at Sundance ... I think the balance works very well between my character and Liam's: my kind of energy and his stillness."
He pauses before adding that he thinks it is interesting "that Liam is a Catholic playing a Protestant and I am a Protestant playing a Catholic". He adds: "Liam is a very generous actor and a very generous man."
He continues that it would be wrong to think of Five Minutes of Heaven as a film "about truth and reconciliation".
"Joe and Alistair are linked for the rest of their lives -- it is an inextricable link between perpetrator and victim. Joe in real life still carries Alistair a lot, every day of his life. He carries his mother more.''
I tell Nesbitt that, from reading his past interviews, he carries a lot of heavy 'stuff' himself. A few years ago, he questioned the worth of acting. He said it didn't feed his soul. "Yeah, yeah. Think I used to talk a lot of shite in interviews just to make it sound good,'' he says, dismissively.
"There is a contradiction. There is an element of the acting and socialising that I embrace fully, but there is also the old Protestant in me that is a bit dour.''
At the start of this decade, I say, it appeared you were a Protestant playing a Catholic in your every day life: in terms of the guilt you seemed to suffer.
"I think that's a salient point," he says, edgily. "Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing. I am beginning to realise that. The older I get the more I realise we are not here for that long. So f**k it. Nobody's died.''
You seemed almost set to destroy yourself in the early Noughties -- alleged affairs, alleged cocaine, too much drinking ...
"That was people's perception. I mean, I did a couple of things that people got a bit ... Of course, it wasn't ideal, those things, but as I said before I don't regret that it was written. I do regret that there's an appetite for that kind of stuff. I kind of regret some of the things that I did but, you know, I did it and nobody died. There was difficulties. I mean, it can be awkward.''
Nobody died, but you hurt your wife.
"That's terrible," he exclaims. "Oh, absolutely, of course people were hurt, but things happen in life. It is grand. It is also something I don't talk about at all.''
In the past, he talked about having three older sisters growing up in Coleraine and how that left a big responsibility for the rest of his life: trying to recreate or match that experience. Nesbitt noted that to want to love and be loved at that level can be complicated.
"I think it is [complicated],'' he says. "If you have been adored by three older sisters and you're the only boy, that is quite a responsibility for the rest of your life to try and find that again, to find that level of devotion. As great as it was growing up with girls, I think it also brought a burden.''
He appears uneasy and restless at this line of questioning.
Did you have a drink problem?
"Not at all,'' he answers matter of factly.
You said all the stuff you did -- the stuff that the tabloids wrote about -- was to do with drink.
"That's not having a drink problem. That's just acting the eejit when you're drunk. Most people make mistakes.''
What about cocaine?
"Nothing. I don't talk about that.''
What did you learn from going to a therapist?
"I don't talk about therapy.''
Do you still go?
"I don't talk about therapy. I think it is a very good thing to do. It should be on the school curriculum. What's wrong with self-awareness?''
Tell me about your own self-awareness then.
"It is an ongoing thing. What I find out now is that I enjoy my work and I enjoy my daughters.' [I make a mental note that he doesn't mention his wife.] And as long as I can find the right kind of balance between those two, I will be happy. And I am increasingly doing that."
And are you happy?
"Yeah, yeah. There are times I might be unhappy but there is nothing wrong with that. But yeah, I am trying to find the balance. I adore my daughters and I love my job.''
You didn't say you adore your wife.
"Ah, yeah! My family, yeah. I adore my family and I enjoy my work. I am not talking about any more family stuff.''
He continues: "People think I'm very gregarious,'' the 44-year-old says. "I'm actually not. I've actually got a low tolerance for people, to tell you the truth.''
No shit, Sherlock.
Then, the complex Coleraine actor gazes once more into the existential nothingness like Beckett's hobos. With me gazing broodily back at him. Maybe we should do something on the stage together some time?
'Five Minutes of Heaven' is now showing nationwide at selected cinemas