James Nesbitt and Frances O'Connor in THE MISSING - Season 1 |  ©2014 Starz

James Nesbitt and Frances O'Connor in THE MISSING - Season 1 | ©2014 Starz

In Starz’s eight-part miniseries THE MISSING, Saturdays at 9 PM, James Nesbitt plays Tony Hughes, who in 2006 is happily married to Emily, played by Frances O’Connor, and loving father of eight-year-old Oliver (Oliver Hunt). In 2014, Tony is haunted and isolated, having spent the last eight years fruitlessly searching for his son, who vanished in an instant when the family was in a small town in France. Then Tony thinks he’s found a clue, and he is the epitome of an unstoppable force when it comes to finding out the truth of what happened.

Nesbitt, originally from Northern Ireland, has appeared in a wide variety of fare, including the title role in the BBC/BBC America miniseries JEKYLL. He is perhaps best known to feature film audiences as the dwarf Bofur in THE HOBBIT films, with the third and final installment, THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, due in theatres next month.

Seated in a suite set up for interviews at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, Nesbitt talks about playing a man caught up in the darkest of situations – and a little about his adventures with Peter Jackson and Bilbo Baggins.

ASSIGNMENT X: How did you become involved in THE MISSING?

JAMES NESBITT: I came back from New Zealand, where I’d been doing THE HOBBIT for quite a long time, and taken a bit of a break, and my agent Sue said, “I’m sending you something quite special, I think.” And I read four episodes [the series is written by Jack and Harry Williams] that night and was immediately gripped, arrested – extraordinary writing – and met [director] Tom [Shankland], auditioned, read with him. A lot of actors, I think, were up for it. And I was delighted to get it. That was in November, I think, of last year. And then started shooting in January and here we are, talking about it.

AX: Given that you’d spent a really long time doing the three HOBBIT movies, did you have any thoughts of, “Do I really want to do something else that’s going to take this enormous amount of time?”

NESBITT: Well, you know, it was such a very different project. THE HOBBIT was more of an experience, it was an opportunity to go to the other side of the world with my family, it was an opportunity for my girls to be imbued with a whole different culture, and also to be part of something that was obviously going to have weight and length, and to be one of the [characters] – there were only ever going to be thirteen dwarves in THE HOBBIT, and I was one of them. So that was very exciting. [THE MISSING] was very different. This was like re-entering a world which I’ve been in before, taking on a huge role that has a responsibility that has you going to a dark place that involves you really being in the moment, that is about the very worst that you can be, but also loss, it’s about hope and determination. It’s a huge arc. So I knew it was going to be demanding and grueling, but of course it was a privilege to be asked.

AX: Some actors who are real-life parents feel hesitation about playing the parent of a kidnapped child …

NESBITT: Well, I would have thought that I would have relied very much on my own role as a parent to access a lot of Tony, but it didn’t actually turn out like that. I mean, certainly being a parent helped me try and look at the pain that Tony or anyone would feel, but to really be able to sustain that for five months, you had to really look at Tony and be in the moment with him, so I tried very much to live a life similar to his. I didn’t live in a hotel in Belgium [which stood in for France through most of THE MISSING’s shoot], I had an apartment, and I had all the information that Tony has gleaned over the years from investigation, from the police files – I had photographs all over the place – so I was never really out of sight of his world. And so that made it much easier to be able to be in that sort of hell.

AX: Did you ever just turn it off for awhile and go for a walk, or to a movie or something?

NESBITT: Oh, yeah, of course. Brussels is filled with very good restaurants, which I visited, and I was constantly talking to the director, Tom, the whole time about where Tony was. That was the key – where is he now and what’s he thinking, what’s driving him? One of the big differences between Tony and Emily, of course, is that Tony is always sustained in a sense by the horror of the guilt, the guilt that he was holding [Oliver’s] hand and then he wasn’t, and then he was gone. That never leaves him for eight years. We never tried to lose sight of it.

AX: Part of THE MISSING was shot in London and part of it was shot in Belgium. Had you been to Belgium before this?

NESBITT: Yeah, I worked in the theatre in Antwerp a very long time ago. But Brussels, I’d never been to Brussels and I grew to love it. I spent a lot of time there and I loved the people, wonderful, warm, friendly, proud people. I love the mix of the Flemish and the French-speaking Belgians and the food was great. I had a great time there. I shot it all in Belgium – I didn’t shoot in London at all. I think what was useful for us, certainly for me, was I was cocooned. I wasn’t going home to my kids at night, and I think that was important, that I was isolated, that even though I speak French, I was nevertheless in a world, again, as Tony finds himself, with a different language, so you’re not quite sure what’s going on a lot of the time. And that all was very, very helpful. From my point of view, it would be very different if we’d shot in London, but also, if Oliver had gone missing in England, it would be very different for Tony and Emily. I mean, they would have been involved at least in the language, which they could understand. They would have understood the bureaucracy, they wouldn’t have come up against the battles that they came up with the French due to the two different cultures, so I think that’s what really adds to the terrible sense of isolation that they go through.

AX: Is it difficult to modulate – or is that part of the joy of the craft – when Tony’s just feeling the guilt and when he’s feeling the excitement of the chase?

NESBITT: Yes, one replaces the other at times, because you have to find those different moments. I mean, he would have to, to be able to keep living. If he just focused on the guilt, he wouldn’t want to get up. Eventually, he would take the easy way out, or a quite difficult way out. Certainly as an actor, you have to find those different textures, those different colors that drive him. The moment some new bit of information becomes, “That’s it, that’s a hook,” that’s an obsession, and often it leads down roads very dark and fruitless alleys, but that texture was very important.

AX: While it’s not the same thing, in FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN, you played somebody who’d been living since childhood with a great darkness, rage at the man who had murdered his older brother. Did you draw on anything comparable within yourself for those two parts?

NESBITT: With FIVE MINUTES, I was able to spend time with Joe [the real person who is the basis for Nesbitt’s character], because on the page, he was such an extreme guy that I didn’t believe it until I met him. With this, I think although this is a thriller, it’s not based on anything, but certainly the subconscious imprint in all our minds is, there are real-life stories like this, abduction. The main thing – the writing was so strong that once I’d located Tony early on, there was a responsibility about being truthful to him, and then it was, not easy, but it was much easier to kind of locate that world that he’s in, because I liked him and I felt a great allegiance with Tony and a loyalty to him. So it wasn’t that hard to locate those things.

AX: And how much did you and Frances O’Connor work together on your relationship as Tony and Emily?

[At this moment, O’Connor enters the room. Nesbitt sees her, projects his voice.]

NESBITT: She’s very difficult …

[O’Connor laughs.]

NESBITT: No, it was incumbent upon us to work closely because they go through an awful lot and funnily enough, we filmed 2014 first, as Tony and Emily have separated. Thank God she was cast. It’s [one of] the best working relationships I’ve had with a woman.

AX: How was working with Tcheky Karyo, who plays Julien, the French police inspector who is originally on the case?

NESBITT: In 2006, they don’t have much to do together, but as Tony and Emily kind of fall apart, Julien and Tony forge this odd relationship in 2014 that’s kind of an Odd Couple thing where they rely on each other. Yeah, again, that was a real treat.

AX: Did you have to learn how to do anything whatsoever to play Tony?

NESBITT: Well, every day was kind of a voyage of discovery, because you’re going into a very dark place. You’re going into the worst thing imaginable on a daily basis and so from a craft point of view, it was quite interesting in trying to find the discipline to be able to sustain that and trying to make each moment truthful, to not waste any words, to not look back on the day and think, “Oh, I missed that there.” So that was what was new, was just sustaining that level of darkness.

AX: How was Tom Shankland, the director?

NESBITT: Tom’s very, very collaborative, [he is] amazing. I’ve worked with some great, great directors and he stands shoulder to shoulder with [Paul] Greengrass [who directed Nesbitt in BLOODY SUNDAY] and [Danny] Boyle and Woody Allen [who directed Nesbitt in MATCH POINT] and all those. We would always find, “What would Tony do? What’s Tony thinking? What would Tony do?” And that was a joint pursuit for me and the director.

AX: The first time you read through all eight episodes, did you guess where it was headed, or were you completely surprised at the end?

NESBITT: I had no idea what happens towards the end. That was delivered quite late. When I first read it, it was called HOTEL EDEN, actually. [The title] THE MISSING didn’t happen until well after we were filming. Early on, when you read it, you found out pretty quickly that it’s a story about a son going missing. But it’s like if you drop a pebble into a pool, there are many ripples, and there are many characters in this. It’s not just about a mother and a father and a missing son. There are ramifications for so many characters. So it’s interesting piecing all that together. It’s interesting as an actor, piecing Tony together and that work, but also from Tony’s point of view, piecing every little bit of information together was fascinating.

AX: Was there ever a question of making your character English, as opposed to you using your normal speaking voice?

NESBITT: No, not at all. I mean, Tony could have come from wherever. And from my point of view, there would be no reason to play him English, because it’s easier to find the truth of the character with my own voice, rather than worry about my accent.

AX: Do you like playing characters in dark situations, or do you like alternating with lighter pieces?

NESBITT: I don’t mind. I don’t look for a genre, I don’t think, “Oh, I’ve got to go out and do this.” I’ve been very fortunate that good writing’s come up. Everything is led by the writing. It doesn’t matter how good of an actor you are, if the writing’s not there, it’s going to be hard to sell. You can be not a good actor and make good writing work. I started off as a comedy actor a very, very long time ago. But no, I’ve never been genre-led in my pursuit of roles.

AX: Speaking of genre work, was it a relief to get out of the heavy dwarf costume of THE HOBBIT and back into modern clothing for THE MISSING?

NESBITT: Oh, very true. That was one of the difficulties – I mean, I don’t think I’m doing a disservice to THE HOBBIT to say [the heavy costume] was a rather frustrating element of it.

AX: How was working with all the green screen?

NESBITT: Funnily enough, there wasn’t that much, because they have so much money after the success of [LORD OF THE] RINGS that they were able to build the sets, and Peter [Jackson]’s got eight studios there, so what was sensational about THE HOBBIT was, the sets were real. It was only kind of peripheral stuff that was green screen. But for us, it was all pretty real. Of course there has to be an element of [green screen for the dragon, et al], but the actual Bag End [is a real set], and then of course we went on location a lot, so it was pretty real. New Zealand is so epic, and such is the skill of the crew and the craftsmanship of the crew that they were able to construct most of the things for real.

AX: You had a Middle Earth experience.

NESBITT: I sure did, I really did. I mean, it was incredible to be involved in it.

AX: Do you have any other projects you’re working on right now?

NESBITT: Yeah. I’ve got BABYLON, which I just did with Danny Boyle, a one-off [miniseries] which I think is going to be on Sundance, about the [London] Metropolitan Police and the relationship it has with the PR, and then I have THE HOBBIT.

AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about THE MISSING?

NESBITT: Well, I think it’s something that people will relate to. It’s a character-driven thriller and it’s about, as I say, the very worst that can happen to people, but it’s also about the very best that people can be.

Related:Exclusive interview with THE MISSING star Frances O’Connor

Related:Exclusive interview with THE MISSING star Tcheky Karyo

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