James Nesbitt Discusses ‘The Missing,’ the Story, and Getting Into Character

James Nesbitt The Missing Exclusive Interview
James Nesbitt (as Tony Hughes), Oliver Hunt (as Oliver Hughes), and Frances O’Connor (as Emily Hughes) in ‘The Missing’ (Photo © Company Television Productions and New Pictures 2014)

Starz is set to premiere the dramatic series The Missing on November 15, 2014 at 9pm ET/PT starring James Nesbitt, Frances O’Connor, and Tchéky Karyo. Nesbitt and O’Connor play the parents of a child who’s abducted while the family’s on vacation, with the series following the couple’s attempts to find their son and the toll it takes on their marriage and their personal lives.

The idea of a child being abducted is every parent’s nightmare and in my interview with James Nesbitt we discussed the emotional impact of the story and how he went about approaching the role of a father desperately searching for his son and never giving up hope for his return.

Exclusive Interview with James Nesbitt:

What did you pick up on from the first script that made you want to be a part of The Missing?

James Nesbitt: “Well, I mean I knew that it was writing of a very high quality. I knew that it was a story that we all kind of, in our subconscious, have access to. It’s the very worst thing that can happen. Some of it is unimaginable. It’s about the worst that people can be, but it’s also about hope and determination. It’s about love; it’s about loss. So I think I knew fairly early on that this was something that had real drama obviously, but also it was something that comes with a responsibility. The characters, particularly with Tony, I warmed to him so quickly. I felt for him. I still feel for him very deeply. So you never what’s going to happen, but I realized that it was not only a challenge but a privilege.”

Were you at all worried about the emotional toll it was going to take on you?

James Nesbitt: “Well, you know, you don’t know before you go into it. Now I have to say five months down the line when we finished, I was ready for it to end because so often in my past when I’ve taken on roles … I mean, I’ve done kind of a wide range of roles, but I’ve certainly taken on things in the past which have great emotion, and you have to go to certain places to kind of achieve the truth of the character. But, for example, when you get in the past say and [Frances O’Connor] is my wife, we talked about this during filming that previously with scripts you’ll kind of have a look and you’ll think, ‘That’s going to be a tough day in a couple of weeks’ time when I do that. That’s going to be hard next week.’ But because Oliver goes missing right at the beginning, early on we realize, Jesus, every day was going to that place. So it was a question of sustaining that and I think we were helped by the fact that we were kind of cocooned in Belgium.

People have asked me before how helpful it was being a parent, in terms of playing the role well. You know, being a parent of two girls it helped me locate Tony’s pain of losing a child, but I have to kind of locate Tony in a sense to really be able to sustain the level of horror and loss, determination and guilt, and that drive. I had to kind of be in the moment all the time, because I couldn’t really think of my own daughters. If you think about your own daughters, it’s so unimaginable. I had to try to work in the reality for five months every day that this was about a man whose life has been torn apart and been completely driven by the search for his son. He’s lost everything. So it was, I’m not going to lie, it was grueling.

But as I said, the writing was so strong, and it’s my job. It’s a dream to get that. No one said it was going to be easy, and it shouldn’t be easy. But once I found him quite early on and I was constantly communicating with the director, not only on set but off set. My apartment in Brussels, I kind of didn’t turn quite into a shrine to Oliver, but I had all the information I could get my hands on. Early on I got the art department to give me all the information that Tony had kind of collected over the years. All the news reports, all the children going missing, anything that could be a clue. I had that up all over my walls in my apartment. So it was inescapable in a sense. And that was very helpful, to tell you the truth. I mean, it sounds quite grand and dramatic and method-y, but it was actually incredibly helpful for me because the reality of Tony’s life since Oliver goes missing in 2006 is every morning when he wakes up, there’s probably just a little moment where it’s not primed and then all of a sudden, there it is.

So, yes, it was grueling. But it was never going to be a laugh a minute.”

Do you go to that extent with every role you take on? Do you gather everything you can and take it home with you to study and live with?

James Nesbitt: “It depends, really. I mean I’ve done roles in the past…you know, I did Bloody Sunday a long time ago and I did a lot of research on that. I mean, I had to get kind of fully versed in the particular vocabulary of 1972. I had to be able to improvise. So, it depends on the role.

Five Minutes of Heaven, I did with Liam Neeson, I spent a lot of time with the guy I played. So with this it was more just being isolated. That’s why I didn’t want to stay in a hotel. I wanted to stay in an apartment in the same way that Tony gets up every morning on his own in the present day and then kind of faces the work ahead. I mean, I would go home at night to my apartment and try to kind of recover from the day, and then get up in the morning and go back on set and kind of throw yourself back into that terribly isolated, destroyed, but determined mindset of trying to find out what happened.”

How was it for you to play both the younger version of him from 2006 and the present day version of your character?

James Nesbitt: “What was helpful and what was great was that we filmed one time zone in its entirety and then the other. We started with, actually, the present day, which I think was very useful because it meant that even though in the present day Fran and I…you know, Emily and Tony…are kind of torn apart, it gave Fran and I as actors the opportunity to kind of bond off camera for a long time, and also we spent a bit of time with Oliver by then, Oliver [Hunt] playing Oliver. By the time we came to 2006, Fran and I had spent enough time in each other’s company to be able to present kind of a happy family unit, rather than just start with that without really knowing each other. But, yes, I think it would have been impossible to switch on a daily basis, so we did one time zone, then the other.”

Did you find playing the younger version or the older version to be more of a challenge?

James Nesbitt: “You know what’s interesting? What I liked about playing the older version is that he’s kind of isolated, he’s just gone and it was quite easy for me to kind of just go into that place by myself. Whereas in the earlier version, there’s the responsibility of the family and all of that. And it was very painful. I mean it was so wonderful working with young Oliver, and also playing those scenes with Fran when Tony and Emily are happy. Knowing what comes, it was actually very painful. And that’s where I would get quite upset, and that’s where on camera and off camera would sometimes merge and you would find yourself getting quite upset with the whole thing. But I think I preferred the solitary path that he chooses in 2014.”

James Nesbitt The Missing Exclusive Interview
James Nesbitt stars in ‘The Missing’ (Photo © Company Television Productions and New Pictures 2014)

Did you have much interaction with the writers or was that even necessary?

James Nesbitt: “Well, I’ll tell you what’s interesting and what was extraordinary about the writers was that what we filmed was what they delivered. I mean, they didn’t have to do much. So they would turn up occasionally and say, ‘Yeah, we’re happy.’ They didn’t have to change an awful lot.

But I worked incredibly closely with the director. You know, I’ve had the good fortune in my career to work with people like Paul Greengrass, and Oliver Hirschbiegel and Danny Boyle and Woody Allen, any number of great directors, and Tom [Shankland], and I’m very much an actor who leans heavily on his relationship with his director. Tom Shankland stands shoulder to shoulder alongside them in the fact that they’ve got no real hidden agenda. Of course, everyone’s got an ego. But collaboration is their thing and trust is their thing, and Tom trusted me hugely in the minute. When a director trusts you right from the offset, then it’s like a parent trusting. It’s a like a parent saying, ‘Yes, you can go off and do that.’ So that was incredibly helpful. That was an extraordinarily important relationship for me.”

Do you find it more of a challenge at this point to take on a role in a TV series than in a featured film? Or is there a difference?

James Nesbitt: “I don’t think so. I mean, what was interesting about this was I had been in New Zealand for a couple of years doing The Hobbit trilogy and that was a very different process than doing this. It was a hugely ensemble piece, which I’m thrilled with being involved with something just that huge and that fun, that enormous, and in a world that big. But, you know, at times you felt a little bit disengaged. Whereas this was so involving. I mean this was my life for five months and that’s a long time to be carrying kind of that emotional baggage. So that is the craft and that is the privilege, but that is also what makes it sometimes a bit hard.”

I was talking to your costar Tcheky Karyo and he said there’s a possibility the series might not end after season one.

James Nesbitt: “Yeah, it’s hard to know. I mean, we’ll see. I’m excited you’ve got a lot more to see. [Laughing] Listen, I’ve only seen the first two episodes…but I know what happens!”

This is one of those shows I really want to binge watch because I want to know what’s going on and not have to wait for weeks to find out the answer.


James Nesbitt: “It’s funny, I do think that’s what’s interesting. But it’s interesting and it sort of raises the question, ‘Well, why do we like that?’ Well, I think we like that because it’s about people. I mean, this isn’t just an abduction kind of a story. It’s like a pebble that is dropped into a pond and it’s like the ripples that it has on all the people around it, all the different characters. And I think as an audience, we understand that and relate to it. We all have access to stories about abduction and horrible things, and I think people are interested in stories like this, which of course has a thriller element to it, but nevertheless, it is a very human story at its core.”

Speaking of the very human story it tells, did you speak to any parents of abducted children?

James Nesbitt: “No, I didn’t. I thought about that, but I thought I didn’t want to kind of invade that world of theirs. The writing was so strong. But as I say, there are a number of high profile cases that are imprinted on everyone’s minds so I think in the subconscious… I think a lot of the acting comes from the subconscious and I think certainly that it’s festering and it’s a story we all know from the past.”

The writing is sharp and crisp and not a word is said that doesn’t need to be, but it’s your facial expressions that just got to me and made me connect to your character. How do you that? How do you pull that off? How do you go that deep?

James Nesbitt: “Well, the writing is strong. Listen, everything depends on the writing. Even though I’ve had problems with writers over the years … It doesn’t matter how great of an actor you are, if the writing is bad, no one can make that work. But maybe that’s where actors can make very good writing work. So the writing is helpful; my conversations with Tom were helpful. I’m a parent, that was probably helpful. A lot of the time, I think it is the subconscious. I think you’re kind of in the moment with the character then and not really sort of thinking, ‘All right, I will make this face,’ or you know, ‘I will do that at this point.’ A lot of the time you’re just sort of in this. You’re not necessarily aware of what you’re doing. It’s kind of like a stream of unconsciousness, physically and emotionally.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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