There’s a joke currently doing the rounds that actor James Nesbitt stars as a policeman in so many crime dramas, ‘every cop show on TV should just be called Nesbitt’. He laughs when he recounts it and concedes there’s truth in it: ‘But you really don’t plan these things. They come to you.’
They certainly do if you’re James Nesbitt. One of his first roles all the way back in 1986 was as a policeman in Northern Irish children’s film The End Of The World Man, and since then he’s played all sorts of coppers in shows from Murphy’s Law to Babylon, Bloodlands to Line Of Duty.
‘I’ve played a lot of cops in very different worlds,’ he says. ‘Policemen who’ve been corrupted; who’ve lost loved ones, who face invidious choices – often you start with a policeman and get strong stories, extreme situations.
James Nesbitt, 57, (pictured) first played a policeman in The End Of The World Man in 1986. The actor’s next show is an eight-party psychological thriller called Suspect
‘There’ve been so many. In Lucky Man, I played a detective with a gambling addiction who can control his own luck.
‘Then in Stay Close I was an optimistic, funny cop who was unable to let go of a missing persons cold case.
‘When I first played undercover officer Tommy Murphy in Murphy’s Law in 2001, it must have planted a seed in the mind of casting directors and writers, but I certainly didn’t chase roles as policemen.’
His latest TV incarnation is as tense and compelling as ever, an eight-part psychological crime thriller called Suspect in which he plays yet another brooding cop. Veteran detective Danny Frater – complex, flawed, vulnerable – arrives at a hospital mortuary for what he assumes to be a routine ID check on a corpse and discovers the young woman’s body is that of his estranged and troubled daughter who has, according to a post mortem, taken her own life.
Danny refuses to believe this and begins a crusade to find out what happened to his only child. ‘I’m a father myself – to two daughters – and unquestionably you lean on bits of yourself, on relationships you’ve had, and a parent’s biggest fear is of something awful happening to their children.
Danny isn’t a very likeable character, but you have to look for the humanity and the worst imaginable thing has happened to him, which gives him redemption in a way.’
He’s speaking to me from Belfast where he’s filming the second series of BBC’s Bloodlands (in which he plays another detective investigating a series of abductions) and I wonder, what with all the tragedy and criminality, doesn’t he yearn for something lighter? ‘Oh yes!’ he says.
James with Helen Baxendale in ITV drama Cold Feet in 1997, playing the lovable, vulnerable, roguish Adam
‘A funny, musical romcom would be great. I’d love to do a comedy musical.
‘How about a new version of Seven Brides For Seven (Old) Brothers?’ he hazards.
‘We could have Liam Neeson, Ciarán Hinds, Adrian Dunbar and Stephen Rea joining me.’
He’s warming to the theme now, listing friends and fellow Irishmen for the leading roles. What about the brides though?
‘Well, I’d love one of them to be Lesley Manville,’ he says. ‘We’re about the same age and I’ve always wanted to work with her.
I would do a period drama, I’m just never cast in those sorts of things. You may yet see me in breeches!
‘In fact I’ll be seeing her soon at Charlene McKenna’s wedding.’ Charlene, who plays a fellow copper in Bloodlands, actually married actor Adam Rothenberg last year, but their wedding was scaled down because of Covid.
‘Now they’re having a proper celebration, which is exciting,’ says James.
Ever since he first arrived on our screens as lovable, vulnerable, roguish Adam in the ITV drama Cold Feet in 1997, Nesbitt has been a ubiquitous presence. His appeal was universal; men wanted to be him, and women adored him.
It’s hard to believe 25 years have elapsed, I tell him, since I first interviewed him over a few pints of Guinness in his favourite Belfast pub. Then, everyone clapped him on the back and claimed an affinity, however distant, with him. Today they still do.
But now he’s 57. ‘Heinz 57 Varieties’, as I used to say when I was a bingo caller.’ (His first job was at a holiday camp in the seaside resort of Portrush, Northern Ireland, when he was 15.)
He remains a proud Ulsterman, never abandoning his Northern Irish accent – even when he played a Glaswegian. I remark that I can’t imagine him in a period drama, but he demurs.
James’s latest TV incarnation is as tense and compelling as ever, an eight-part psychological crime thriller called Suspect in which he plays yet another brooding cop
‘Oh, I would! I’m just never cast in those sorts of things. But I remember watching Arthur Lowe as Mr Micawber in David Copperfield and Donald Sutherland in the 2005 film of Pride & Prejudice [Sutherland played the patriarch Mr Bennet], and they’d be great roles.’
So we might yet see him in breeches in a Dickens or Jane Austen adaptation? ‘You might!’
I wonder if he has a secret hankering to be young again and play parts like Jamie Dornan’s in the film Belfast. ‘Oh God, yes. It’s no secret that I wish I were younger.
‘Who doesn’t? I proclaim it from the rooftops!’ When he was 45, he famously had the first in a series of hair transplants. ‘I’ve had four in all,’ he tells me.
‘It certainly had an impact on me and my career. You don’t see many leading men who are bald.
‘And I spoke about it because what was the point in trying to hide it? It was so blatantly obvious I’d had it done.
‘ALLO ‘ALLO ‘ALLO – JAMES’S TOP COPS
James Nesbitt’s made a career out of playing coppers since his turn as a maverick detective with a dark past (and a huge handlebar tache) in Murphy’s Law. He was a maverick detective with a gambling problem and a supernatural power in Lucky Man, and, er, a maverick detective haunted by a cold case in Stay Close.
In last year’s Bloodlands he played a stony-faced detective searching for his wife’s killer, and next up he’s a stony-faced detective searching for his daughter’s killer in Suspect. Oh, and let’s not forget stony-faced DCI Thurwell, his corrupt copper in Line Of Duty.
‘In a way I broke a taboo, so I’m glad about that. I’ve had the implants, the hair is still there and it’s brilliant. It’s changed my life.’
But we won’t see him succumbing to a full Hollywood makeover. ‘It’s unlikely at this stage that I’ll have anything else done on my face.
‘Where would they start?’ He laughs. And you’d be fending off the women, I joke. ‘Ah, I’m too busy working for that,’ he protests. So he leads a monastic life, I tease. ‘Yes, that’s it,’ he says.
Divorced from his wife Sonia in 2016 after 22 years of marriage (they have daughters Peggy, 24, and Mary, 20, together), there were reports about three years ago of a romance with Irish actress Katy Gleadhill. ‘I don’t talk about that,’ he says, closing down the subject firmly when I ask about it.
He’s one of the few people I’ve met who has become less voluble after therapy, which he first spoke about having in 2008. But he’s quick to endorse its benefits.
‘I think it’s great. It should be on the school syllabus, just the opportunity to talk to people. Psychotherapy is extremely helpful,’ he says, declining to reveal why he went for counselling.
Today, tanned, lean and fit, he’s talking to me from his apartment in Belfast, with its views of the city’s historic Titanic quarter, and looking forward to a weekend at his home in Portrush where he’ll be seeing old friends, going for a round of golf.
He has a house in London too that he’s currently sharing with his 24-year-old godson Jack, his best mate Alan Hartin’s son. (Alan’s an old school friend. It’s a measure of James’s loyalty that he still has a close coterie of pals from the days that predate his celebrity.)
Jack can make things like mobile phones and laptops work in a heartbeat. That’s where the youth are very useful,’ he says with dry humour.
He’s resolutely low-tech and uninterested in social media – he doesn’t have a Twitter account – and I remark that he can never be cancelled if he doesn’t Tweet. ‘Exactly,’ he says with finality.
‘Although I do have a private Instagram account. But my daughters tell me I don’t have to like every single person’s posts all the time.
James Nesbitt’s made a career out of playing coppers since his turn as a maverick detective with a dark past (and a huge handlebar tache) in Murphy’s Law
‘I thought it was my responsibility! So I think it’s a good thing I don’t bother with all that. It would become all-consuming.’
He’s easy, genial company. Although rackety years preceded his divorce, he has preserved an amicable relationship with his ex-wife.
‘My house in London is ten minutes from Sonia and the girls. I’d say we’re a modern family.
‘We get together for dinners and lunches; we’re always in and out of each other’s houses. And the girls love coming over here.’
Neither of his daughters has gone into acting – Mary is currently at university, Peggy is travelling – although by ‘happy accident’ they both secured roles in the film trilogy The Hobbit (in which James played dwarf Bofur) when the whole family decamped to New Zealand for filming ten years ago.
‘It’s funny. They ended up with bigger parts than me,’ he laughs. ‘But it was only a brief foray into acting. I wouldn’t have tried to put them off if they’d wanted to act.
James played corrupt copper DCI Thurwell in Line Of Duty. ‘I’ve played a lot of cops in very different worlds,’ he says. ‘Policemen who’ve been corrupted; who’ve lost loved ones, who face invidious choices’
‘It’s a wonderful environment to work in, although you have to deal with rejection and long hours. And there’s pressure to look a certain way. It happens for females more than men, but lots of men are talking about those pressures now.’
We’re back to Hollywood and its obsessive pursuit of youthfulness. Does he wish he’d tried to crack America?
‘It’s not that I haven’t hankered after it, but I’ve always been very fortunate to have had work here,’ he says. ‘My friend Liam Neeson always says in a self-deprecating way, ‘I’m still getting away with it,’ and I kind of know what he means.
‘But when my contemporaries went to America, it didn’t appeal to me. Maybe it was the idea of going to all those auditions to get on a path to stardom, or perhaps a fear of rejection.
‘And I was very lucky. The day after I left drama school I was working. I’ve always been driven by a strong work ethic.’
I broke a taboo with the hair implants, and I’m glad about that. My hair’s changed my life
It was his Protestant parents James and May who imbued him with that ethos. His mother was a civil servant, and James Snr was headmaster of a one-room village school in rural County Antrim; James was one of his 32 pupils.
The youngest of the Nesbitts’ four children – he has three sisters, all of whom became teachers – James intended first to follow into the family profession. But he dropped out of a French degree at Ulster Polytechnic (now Ulster University) to pursue acting, attending the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London instead.
‘Olivier, Dench, Nesbitt. That is all you need to know about the Central,’ he laughs.
The timing of his adored father’s death, aged 91, during the pandemic in 2020 – not from Covid, but of natural causes – was actually a blessing. ‘I was in Portrush with him through lockdown and it was just gorgeous,’ he says.
‘He was my hero, my teacher, my guide. Everything. He was a great talker, and our stars aligned during his last months. Just to have had that time with him at the end of his life was a real treasure.
‘We had loads in common. We had a real laugh. We were just two pals really. He was a wonderful dad: funny, intelligent, but also very progressive.
‘He never stopped trying to learn. He was cool.’
It’s a touching eulogy delivered with unfeigned tenderness. James Nesbitt may play the part of hard-boiled cops with unerring conviction, but he also has the fondest of hearts.
- Suspect starts on Sunday 19 June, 9pm, Channel 4.