Andrew Billen finds James Nesbitt a real charmer — but also a man with a darker side
A game of Hyde and seek
Andrew Billen finds James Nesbitt a real charmer — but also a man with a darker side
BBC One’s high-value Jekyll reboots not only the Robert Louis Stevenson classic but our notions of evil. James Nesbitt, who plays both Dr Tom Jackman and his devilish alter-ego, is explaining to me the writers’ vision. “Modern evil,” he says, “is not monsters and fangs. It is actually seductive and cool.” There’s another concept that knocks about the show: that Mr Hyde is actually Master Hyde, a big, greedy, selfish, amoral baby cursed with an adolescent’s sex drive. Nesbitt, father of two, is not so sure about that. He has yet to meet an evil toddler. “Although I’ve met difficult toddlers. I have had a difficult toddler,” he says with feeling.
Never mind, for a moment, what Nesbitt thinks. We now know the reason that he was cast: there is no actor working in Britain today more seductively cool than Nesbitt, and no one either who, at the grand old age of 42, has such access to his rampant inner toddler. The combination is said to make working with Jimmy Nesbitt a treat. He’s professional but fun, an actor who enjoys his work and can charm the hardest-bitten film crew and then spend the evening getting slaughtered.
We met ages ago for dinner in a flash restaurant in Dublin, where he is filming the next block of his undercover cop drama Murphy’s Law. He arrives looking weather-beaten and moustachioed, much more Tommy Murphy than Cold Feet’s twinkly Adam (the role that made him famous) or the charming eejit from the Yellow Pages ads (which made him rich but cost him some credibility).
He is enthusiastic about Jekyllbut passionate about Murphy’s Law, mainly because after the first two series Murphy’s personality was rethought and became harder. Nesbitt had to play against type. “Six years ago I would not have had the balls to play that, nor would I have been cast as that.” He sees the revamping of Murphy as a career turning point to match Bloody Sunday in 2002, in which Paul Greengrass cast him as the Catholic-sympathising Protestant civil rights leader, Ivan Cooper. He says he sometimes thinks of himself as “BBS” and “PBS” – “You know, Before Bloody Sunday and Post Bloody Sunday”.
There is, then, a side to Nesbitt that takes itself very seriously. When A. A. Gill in The Sunday Times accused him of being one of television’s laziest actors, he was furious and stared him down at a restaurant. He is serious, too, about his native Northern Ireland, talking up the Province’s “huge” potential. In the spring, as a Unicef ambassador, he visited Sudan and its child soldiers, some as young as his nine-year-old daughter. He is serious about his family too, his wife Sonia Forbes-Adams, and their girls, Peggy and five-year-old Mary, who live in South London.
But for the grown-up stuff, there is another side to him that turns the 42-year-old into a teenage Hyde. I wonder if the drink will bring it out to play, for we certainly seem set to drink enough of it. Inspired by wine drawn from the giddier heights of the restaurant’s list (he decided while making Jekyll that he would henceforth drink only decent wine), his anecdotes get so indiscreet that some have to be retracted the next day.
His judgments on fellow performers get meaner and his sentimental streak ever wider. No Hyde appears, but he does become confessional and one of the things he seems anxious to confess to is his drinking, which seems inextricably bound up with the headlines he earned a few years back – “the type of headlines that tend to involve words like ‘sex’ and ‘romp’ and ‘rat’ ”.
One does not wish to dwell, but the stories featured a prostitute who claimed she had spent the night with him while he was filming Murphy’s Law, a legal secretary who grumbled that a two-month affair had ended without so much as a goodbye, his Cold Feet co-star Kimberley Joseph (although she has never spoken to confirm it) and, from some years earlier, a dalliance with a former Miss Ireland. It would be naive to think that alcohol explained each of his four alleged indiscretions, but I’d take a punt and say they all involved it.
“Did I have a nadir? I think I was just a bit like, ‘Well f***! I’ve been caught.’ That’s actually what you think. The reality is that someone sold a story about me. That’s the reality. But with that nadir, maybe came a fallout. Maybe why I got into that situation was because I was unhappy for a while and while I was unhappy, I was drinking as a different person. And now I’m choosing fine wine.” Why he was unhappy, he is not sure (or won’t say). “But I am pleased to say – and your readership may not even be interested in this – that I’m happy now. It’s nice to be able to say I feel very happy.”
After some dark times? “Well, we have all been through dark times, mine have just been darker sometimes. But the work. In all the years I haven’t lost sight of the work.”
It is true that his professionalism on set has never been questioned. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note the company he keeps – Steve Coogan and John Thompson, for example – and the heroes he admits to: George Best, Alex Higgins, Richard Burton, Richard Harris. It is as if being a highly successful actor was never going to be enough: he wanted to be a hell-raising actor.
“I was attracted by the Burton and O’Toole legend. I thought they had a bit of b****cks, you know. There is something sanitised about that world now. I don’t do it on set but I like the idea of having a bit of a lash. Thank God I’m able to be incredibly disciplined. I’ve always loved a party and I like drinking but I’m also able not to drink. I keep well and healthy and fit and also I’ve got a wife and two kids.”
He met Sonia 18 years ago when they were both starting in the profession. He was Guildenstern and she was understudying Ophelia. Many at the time thought she had the brighter future as an actor.
“All I will say about her is that anything that happened, or anything I did was nothing to do with whether or not my wife and I were strong.
That wasn’t how I was thinking at the time I was doing whatever I did. I could have been the happiest man in the world!” To close the topic, he excuses himself to go out for a cigarette. “Gorgeous wine,” he says. But when he returns, after a few more gorgeous glasses, so does the subject.
He concedes the press attention may have helped him to face up to his betrayals. He makes no complaints; it is just that he hates the idea of his daughter, Peggy, growing up and reading about it all: “Although I hope by then she will be up to all sort of s**t herself.” I ask whether, when he left the Central School of Speech and Drama, if he could have ticked a box marked “No publicity” would he have? No, he says, fame is recognition for good work. Infamy is different. “I would have ticked the box marked ‘no idiocy’.”
Did he ever think this would cost him his marriage? “No, that was the one thing I was certain of. That she made very clear. I’ve never known strength until I saw the way my wife reacted to everything that happened. And her strength is love. When I was thinking, ‘Well this is definitely the end’, she was thinking ‘Oh no, I think maybe I love him’. She probably thought I was a w**ker but I don’t think she thought – in the same way that I never thought – that it was a reflection of my love for her. It wasn’t.”
Britain no longer has a shame culture. Northern Ireland is different, and when Nesbitt talks about “infamy” it is to his home town of Coleraine in Co. Antrim, where his three sisters still teach, that his mind returns. “Can you imagine all of that for my sisters? Going to work on Monday after they read on the front page of the Sunday Mirror what they said about me? Can you imagine it in this little town? Imagine what it’s like for my nephew, looking at all the newspapers with his uncle, his adored uncle.”
For years he kept his drinking hidden from his abstemious Protestant family. His father was headmaster of the small school that James attended, a role that muddled their relationship. When the stories broke, he feared how he would react but Nesbitt Sr turned out to live by the biblical text he had so often read to his school, Corinthians 13, on charity. “We got through it, my dad and I, and we are more honest with each other now. We always got on well but it was great to know, you know, that this teacher believed the principle he preached.” We are both getting a little teary now. He says a little later that whatever he did, he did it for love, and I rather wish he hadn’t.
And his mother? “Until my daughters were born she was the woman I was most in love with. As much as I can talk about Paul Greengrass and acting and Ireland, what I’ve really known in my life is that I’ve loved my mother and I’ve driven her mad. And I know I love my daughters and they drive me mad. Those are the two big things really.”
His parents assumed that he would become a teacher like the rest of the family. Then a teacher suggested that he audition for the Riverside Theatre at the University of Ulster. At 13 he was the Artful Dodger in Oliver! I ask what attracted him to the stage and his answer spectacularly quashes my hunch that it was to escape his dour Ulster upbringing. What attracted him was not the glamour but the lying. “I remember being at Butlins, probably when I was 6. It’s one of my earliest memories. I must have been practising walking with a limp and I remember this woman saying to me, ‘Have you hurt your leg?’ and me going, ‘Yes’. And then I had to carry it off for the rest of the holiday every time I saw her. I’d forgotten that but I can be honest about it.”
So the Nesbitts’ fourth child – their only son – left for London to turn lying into a career. Within days of leaving drama school he won a part in a BBC film called Virtuoso starring Alfred Molina and Alison Steadman. It was two days’ work but he made an impact – just not the sort of impact he intended. The first day he bounced up to Molina and asked, pretty meaninglessly, “what’s the secret”? “Actually,” replied the actor, “I am not going to tell.”
On the second day Steadman asked if he had a twin brother. When he said no, she said: “Good.” “It was like, crunch! And with three older sisters I was used to put-downs from women.” His robust ego reflated after the modest success of his first film Hear My Song, in 1991. Puzzlingly at the time, he spent the next six months out of work. “I think that I probably gave off something in interviews,” he says now, and not just in interviews, as Sonia briefly left him.
Keeping his ego in check, one gathers, has been something he has had to learn. Today he is modest enough to know he has been “absurdly” lucky, but canny enough to know he is good enough to be able to fight his corner when need be. Towards the end of Cold Feet, the ITV executive Andy Harries had to fly out to Australia, where they were filming, to beg him to not to quit. He agreed, but he still thinks that the penultimate season was “rubbish”. He seems to like it that I agree.
Recently, we talk again on the phone, just to catch up. Again he is charming. Again he is indiscreet, blaming the falling away of some of Jekyll’s audience on its scheduling. It was never, he thought, a Saturday night show – but stay with it, it gets better and better.
There are noises off. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I am with the kids and Peggy is driving me mad.” A picture of blissful domestic disharmony forms in my mind, only for it to be disturbed a few days later by reports that Nesbitt partied outrageously at the launch do for Jekyll. He may be drinking better-quality wine these days, but perhaps it is unnecessary to reboot our ideas of Jimmy Nesbitt. Let’s be honest, it’d be a little sad if we had to.
— Jekyll is on this Saturday on BBC One at 9pm. The DVD is out on July 30 at £29.99