James Nesbitt immerses himself in the role of a broken father in the gripping new series The Missing premiering this Sunday 30th November at 8:30pm on BBC First. Journalist Thea Carley spent time with Nesbitt during his recent visit to Australia.
The Missing explores the heart-wrenching story of two parents torn apart by the disappearance of their young son.
Tony Hughes, played by James Nesbitt, is holidaying in the fictional French town of Chalon du Bois with his wife and child when he is reluctantly pestered into taking his son for an evening swim. His wife Emily, played by Frances O’Connor, decides to wait back at the hotel.
In the midst of a rowdy crowd of World Cup supporters, an unfortunate series of events results in Tony momentarily losing grip of his son’s hand. And just like that, he’s gone.
A father himself to two young daughters, Nesbitt makes it no secret that the role was perhaps as challenging as it was rewarding – a fact that’s hardly surprising when you’ve spent five months detailing every parent’s bleakest nightmare.
The first episode sees a father turn from hard-working family man into a desperate shell who relies a little too heavily on alcohol-induced numbness, his life forever saturated with perpetual ‘what if’s’.
The Hughes’ mutual paths through grief reveal themselves in starkly contrasting ways. Tony is obsessive, brooding and unforgiving, while Emily remains tranquil on the exterior, but soon reveals an emotional wreck within.
“Tony and Emily are screwed right from the beginning”, James Nesbitt told Nelbie on Monday. “They weren’t together when Oliver [their son] goes missing, so they cannot share in that grief. They can’t share the responsibility and they can’t share the guilt.”
“What’s interesting”, he continues, “is that the very thing that has destroyed them is the only thing that keeps them going… the only thing that gets them up in the morning.”
Eventually ripped apart by sorrow and guilt, the couple are living separate lives when Tony unearths a shred of evidence and decides he must return to the French town to investigate. There, he reconnects with former French detective Julian Baptiste, played by Tcheky Karyo, and both characters descend into an obsessive quest for answers.
With a narrative split between present day and 2006, plot twists permeate the series from the get-go, slowly but surely unraveling a complex saga of both heartache and deceit, love and fatherly pride. 2014 depicts a broken Tony, instilled with a new passion for the reopened case, but disheveled and grey from years of uncertainty. The earlier narrative, meanwhile, explores the solemn fate of his once happy family, paving an arduous road back towards the present.
Nesbitt said: “I think what’s interesting is the fact that there’s things that are heroic about Tony, but it’s not just an easy heroism. He has got this darkness.”
Frequently hailed as one of the UK’s great character actors, Nesbitt found himself deeply involved in the character of Tony Hughes, even going so far as to decorate his own room in Belgium (the French scenes were filmed in Brussels) as though it were the character’s own hotel room in the series.
“I got the art department to give me everything they told me he’d have at his disposal. I had all the newspaper articles, all the police reports, I had photos of Oliver, I had items of his clothing. I kind of turned my apartment into a Tony den,” he confessed.
Not since the Northern Irish actor’s gripping portrayal of Ivan Cooper in Paul Greengrass’ bleak ‘02 telling of Bloody Sunday, has Nesbitt felt so engrossed in a role.
“I would arrive on set every morning pretty much already in the moment… I grew to really like the character.”
So much so, Nesbitt stated, that at times it didn’t even feel like acting.
“It became (more than) Jimmy Nesbitt playing Tony and pretending to find pain… it was actually about just being in the moment and feeling that.”
That pain is made palpable for the audience through an evocative musical score.
Nesbitt also credits his emotional performance to the quality of the writing and everyone involved. “If you’re doing writing that you believe in”, he said, “it absolutely reminds you of why you wanted to be an actor.”
Directed by Tom Shankland and written by brothers Harry and Jack Williams, Nesbitt has described the script as “extraordinary” on more than one occasion.
But he also feels it important to reiterate that the series is not based on any real cases, though viewers and critics drawing parallels to real-life investigations is undeniably a given. Unsurprisingly there’s another European case on everybody’s lips.
“Of course people are going to draw comparisons with Madeleine McCann”, explained Nesbitt. But, he believes, because a missing child is something we all fear, it is perhaps human nature to express that in some way.
“We are able to project our own fear onto the program a little bit I think, and live vicariously through them [the characters]”, he said.
While The Missing was not based on any real-life missing child cases, it was in fact, based on a real French detective. The Williams brothers’ own father, Nigel Williams, was a successful writer himself. He spent a large portion of his career documenting one particular detective’s enduring search for a serial killer.
As children, the boys were intrigued by their father’s subject matter and from that point on decided their first series would feature an unwaveringly dedicated French detective.
The program has been met with critical acclaim in the UK where it first aired. The Independent said the "performances were mercilessly believable”, while The Telegraph called it “addictive.”
What does the show’s star attribute to its ongoing allure? “It’s so timeless this fear, so universal this story, that it appeals to everyone. It doesn’t matter where you are, and that’s been one of the great things.”
Nesbitt is also currently promoting the final installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, which may serve as somewhat of an emotional leveler. Though when probed about the role he is recognised for the most, the actor is quick to admit it’s still Cold Feet, the British drama series that ended in 2003.
Although he’s since been cast in much darker roles - Tommy Murphy in Murphy’s Law; Mr Hyde in Jekyll; Tony Hughes of course – Nesbitt remains jovial in spirit, refusing to take himself too seriously. Despite an almost thirty year career, his anecdotes are often prefaced with the wry warning “at the risk of sounding like an actor…”
This lighthearted side of Nesbitt is not one we see in The Missing, however. The tale is heartbreaking from the opening scene.
It’s not an easy ride – it’s as painful to watch as it is beautiful. But who knew that eight episodes of nail-biting tension and hopeless agony could be so utterly compelling?
The Missing premieres with a movie-length episode this Sunday 30th November at 8:30pm on Foxtel's BBC First.