James Nesbitt Five Minutes of Heaven

James Nesbitt Five Minutes of Heaven

Inspired by a true story, James Nesbitt (Murphys Law, Cold Feet) stars in Five Minutes of Heaven with Liam Neeson as two men from opposite sides of the Irish political divide in Northern Ireland Directed by Downfalls Oliver Hirschbiegel, this is a tale about forgiveness. Set in the 1970s Belfast, Alistair Little (Mark Davidson) the head of the local unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force is given the go ahead to kill Jim Griffen (Gerard Jordan) a young Catholic worker at the local shipyard who has refused to give up his job for a Protestant. Alistair carries out the deed in front of the victims younger brother Joe. The murder ends up destroying the entire family. Joes mother blames him for not doing more to save his older brother and his heartbroken father never recovers. Fast-forward 30 years. A TV show wants to bring Joe (James Nesbitt) and Alistair (played by Liam Neeson) together. Alistair has tortured himself over the years for what he did and is genuinely remorseful. Hes eager to do whatever he can to help Joe overcome the past, but how can Joe forgive the man who not only killed his brother but wiped out his entire family? Gaynor Flynn caught up with James Nesbitt at the Sundance film festival.

What was your first impression when the script came to you?

James Nesbitt: I knew about it quite a long time ago. I knew Patrick Spence head of BBC Northern Ireland drama had it. Id done a lot of work with him and them over the years. I think there was a challenge, the last time I was in Sundance was in 2002 with Bloody Sunday, and I think since Northern Ireland was beginning to emerge from conflict, the challenge was what are the stories we are now going to tell? Because of course we want to move on as a country and also thats reflected in the drama. But its also important not to forget the legacy of the past. This story came to Guy Hibbert (screenwriter of Omagh) about these two characters from a very small town inextricably linked for the rest of their lives by one extreme act of violence. And 3,700 people died in Northern Ireland that is 3,700 acts of violence. What is the impact of that? How do people deal with that and how do they move on? If youre a Northern Irish actor I think you cant help but have a conscious or sub conscious instinct and responsibility to tackle the troubles. The troubles are like our King Lear if youre a Northern Irish actor. So you look for those stories and the script came to me. I thought it was poignant, searing, truthful and beautifully written. And I jumped at it.

As a Northern Irish actor tackling this subject matter you must feel a huge responsibility then?

James Nesbitt: Absolutely but I think at times film does have responsibility. Of course its there to entertain and Ive been lucky enough to have a fairly wide range of genre and themes but at times it can say something. It can have a message and often film is the way to do that and I think we had an opportunity to tell a story about these two human beings. It was helpful for them. Joe who I play is now in counseling.

Did you meet him?

James Nesbitt: I spent a lot of time with him.

So he was quite open to talking about it?

James Nesbitt: Its hard for him you know because his life is ruined. Its so hard for him.

But he agreed to talk to you?

James Nesbitt: Yes because its on his mind every second of every minute but I think there was something cathartic for him here. I think the film does have a message for not only areas of conflict but people who have gone through pain.

Sadly even those these events happened a long time ago, the story is still relevant.

James Nesbitt: Absolutely. It goes on and on and filters through and Liam and I were talking, its so interesting for us to have grown up with the Troubles as our backdrop. To grow up in a very small place that the rest of the world knew as a place of conflict and now we are ourselves are able to emerge and go well we actually come from a place that is actually a blueprint for the rest of the world in how conflict can end. But you can only work through and navigate a way through conflict as long as you dont forget the past, because you have to look at the legacy of the violence.

You never got involved in the troubles as a young lad yourself?

James Nesbitt: No. I was kind of very distanced from it. I grew up in the country away from it and I think in a way I had too much agro towards it. I think I avoided the troubles because I mean when I left it was something that sort of sullied the place that I came from. But I think at some point in your life you do have to look at where you come from and what happened and the impact that it had not only on you but the people around you. And if youre lucky enough to be an actor then you have an opportunity to address those issues.

I understand that when you were younger you didnt want to be an actor is that correct?

James Nesbitt: Well I think it was hard to admit that you want to be an actor.

Is that because it seemed an impossible dream?

James Nesbitt: Yes and it also seemed that it was a job without worth, not a real job and not a very grown up thing to do. You know I was 45 recently.

Happy birthday.

James Nesbitt: Thanks but theyre not happy anymore, [laughs] but its only in the last couple of years that Ive actually been able to admit that acting is something that I want to do. I think I fit the job quite well. I love the whole process. I work hard but I love everything about it. I love everything about it. I love the process right from the script and everything that comes afterwards and Im sort of proud of it now. It took a long time to get there.

Youve done a lot of TV as well as film. Is there a preference?

James Nesbitt: Listen I think wherever the work comes from. Early on I always followed good script and I you live in England as I do its impossible to say well Im just a film actor because youd never bloody work and some of the best stuff shot on film over recent years is stuff shot on film for television. Obviously its different in America. So I go where the work is really. I like the job.

What kind of research did you do for this film? Did you talk to people from the other side

James Nesbitt: Well Im from the other side. Im a Protestant playing a Catholic and Liams a Catholic playing a Protestant and that in itself is quite interesting. No the script was there and if the script is good enough its just about learning the lines and saying them. Spending time with Joe was the important thing because Liam didnt meet Alistair and I think we both made our choices about that and I think he made the right choice. But Joe on the page was such an extreme character that I didnt want to misrepresent him you know so I just spent a day with him and he is an extreme character. Ive played real characters before like in Bloody Sunday I played Ivan Cooper and I spent a lot of time with him and Ive played other real characters and it can be a very useful source. But Joe is very up and down. As a man his life was ruined not because of the murder but because of what his mother did.

She blamed him.

James Nesbitt: Yeah he was blamed and for an eleven year old boy when the love of your life then abandons you of course you disappear into anger. So it was about saving him and saving the impact it had on him but as I said Joe is now in counselling and that alone is worth doing the film.

What was it like working with Oliver Hirshbiegel?

James Nesbitt: Great. Hes great. Hes auteur and hes talented and I think it was so important at the heart of this film to have someone not from there because he could really tell the human story because he wasnt affected by it. I think that was central to the success of the film that he wasnt Northern Irish so he didnt have any agenda from that point of view. Hes really good.

Whats next?

James Nesbitt: I did a thing for the BBC about Basra about the impact of the war on a soldier which is good I think.

Youre certainly tackling all the tough subjects lately.

James Nesbitt: Yeah I know. Fuck I used to be a comedy actor, what the hell happened? Im going back to comedy. Im going back to bed and then I think Im doing a film in Edinburgh called Outcast which Im just waiting to hear if were doing it.

What else would you like to do in the future?

James Nesbitt: Id like to work with Liam again.

Is that the first time youve worked together?

James Nesbitt: Yeah. Hes brilliant.

But did you know each other from over the years?

James Nesbitt: We only met a couple of years ago but we clicked in a big way. Hes a great man.