James Nesbitt thinks he knows me. As we swan into the swanky confines of the 'Director’s Room' at the Odyssey centre, he turns and fixes me with suddenly non-twinkling eyes. 'Do I know you?' he says. He might do. We were nodding acquaintances in south London years ago. We’ve both changed since then: I’ve gone grey and Jimmy, well, recently Jimmy’s grown an awful lot of hair.
Where he probably actually knows me is from my sitting directly in front of him while he delivers a filibustering 45 minutes of wit, insight, and fatherly advice, with just the merest hint of life coach professionalism. Towards the end he utters the phrase 'going forward' and my toes curl in my boots. But Jimmy Nesbitt can talk and the invited audience here today are rapt.
That audience is here as part of the programe launch of the Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival, which runs from November 19-29, and is comprised primarily of school children, who judging by the questions, are of a theatrical bent.
Nesbitt bounds down the auditorium and grins enthusiastically at the audience while he is being introduced by interlocutor Brian Henry Martin, betraying none of the nervousness he will later claim. He is trim, in skinny jeans and a modish cardie, the familiar long-toothed grin and spade-like chin in ample evidence. And then there’s his hair. The Daily Mail recently described him as resembling 'George Clooney’s moodier brother' and if you squint it is possible to imagine him in Clooney’s roles: a patrician liberal battling the military industrial complex in a pair of horn-rims.
Later in the, blinding light of the glass-fronted Director’s Room he talks about his early days in acting and how his family, all teachers and expecting him to follow suit, reacted when he quit a French degree after a year and enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama, in London.
'I think the prospect of my going into acting horrified them. But my enthusiasm ultimately swayed them and they became extremely supportive.' The twinkle is back as he adds: 'All you need to know about the Central School is: Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench and me!'
Is drama school still the best avenue into a career as an actor? 'I think this is a key question for young people. Training at school is good but the best training is working. Drama school is much better as a showcase for getting an agent, for getting representation in the business. And it’s a tough business: of the twenty or so people who left drama school with me only four of them are still working as actors, including me. And it wasn’t because they couldn’t do it – they could – it was considered a very strong year. It was because you need a lot of luck in this business and I’ve been very lucky.'
Was he ever asked to change his accent? 'Not really. There are some things where it is appropriate to use another accent, and I was always very good at that as a kid. But really I thought it was an opportunity to use a Northern Irish accent away from that political baggage. I always felt it was important to have that sound divorced from negativity. I think films tended to focus on one story here for a long time because there was only one story. And I think now, with things like Cinemagic, all that’s changing. There are new stories and new people to tell them. To be able to be involved with the film makers of tomorrow is a privilege for me.'
I’m right next to the man desperately trying not to look at the new hair. But I do. It’s a fantastic job. If he hadn’t been subtly balding on television for twenty years you would never know. Nobody mentions the woolly mammoth in the room. Instead we talk about his other hair related activities; his heavily bewigged turn as Bofur the dwarf in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a trilogy of films to be rolled out over the next three years. Nesbitt has moved his entire family over to New Zealand for the duration of filming so I ask him given Jackson’s famous perfection and near infinite largesse, does he think he’ll ever get home. For the first time he looks uncertain.
'Oh, I think we’re nearly done.' How did he get the role in the first place? 'I got a call in 2010 asking me if I wanted to audition for this Hobbit film and I said no way! I like to move quickly, be collaborative, not get too tied down by anything and obviously a project like this is the opposite of that. But I was persuaded to do an audition tape and afterwards thought “Oh dear, I thought that went quite well!” And it obviously did, as Peter offered me the part.'
How was it working with Peter Jackson? 'The man’s a genius. He’s very quiet, very a nice. He’s a lot like a hobbit himself, actually. And then occasionally you see that thing, the flash of inspiration and you realise just how fast his brain is working, how he is putting everything together. It’s remarkable.'
And the rest of the cast? Any juicy gossip there? 'Ian McKellen is undoubtedly the most talented person I’ve ever worked with. He works so hard on the text, he’s an inspirational figure. Martin Freeman is incredibly disciplined, unbelievably funny. The whole experience was an utter privilege. It’ll take me a few years to digest it My face is on the side of a passenger jet! Air New Zealand: the airline of Middle Earth! I have my own Lego piece! It’s amazing!'
The interview over, I shake his hand. His grip is firm and business-like. I don’t mention the hair. And I don't get to use my 'Bofur and After' gag either.