Life

James Nesbitt has super powers in Stan Lee role

James Nesbitt has started 2016 with a bang. Keeley Bolger discovers why the Co Antrim man certainly didn't have cold feet about signing up for comic book legend Stan Lee's first television venture on this side of the Atlantic, Lucky Man

James Nesbitt as DI Harry Clayton in Stan Lee's Lucky Man

AS well as being the title of his new drama series, Lucky Man is an apt description of James Nesbitt.

He started the year by receiving an OBE for services to the community and to drama while his entertainment company, Brown Cow Films, was reported to have made a whopping £2.59 million profit last year.

While it might seem like good fortune on the outside, four decades of grafting prove that the actor, one of the north's most successful, hasn't been handed his plum career on a plate.

Nesbitt, who has just turned 51, has steadily lit up screens, both television and cinema, since his big break as wisecracking Adam in comedy drama Cold Feet in the mid-90s.

Soon he will reprise that much-loved character – who memorably performed a naked serenade to his future wife with a rosebud clenched between his buttocks – in a new series expected to return to ITV later this year, after being cancelled 13 years ago.

In the interim there have been many shades to Nesbitt's career, perhaps most impressive his portrayal of civil rights campaigner Ivan Cooper in Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday, for which Nesbitt won the British Independent Film Award for Best Actor in 2002.

Greengrass sent him the script while he was filming Cold Feet. A Broughshane, Co Antrim-born Protestant who was only seven at the time of Bloody Sunday and who grew up knowing little about the killings, Nesbitt said that reading it had "an extraordinary effect" on him.

Today he is a patron of the charity Wave, which supports people traumatised by the Troubles, a Unicef ambassador and chancellor of the University of Ulster Coleraine, a ceremonial role.

Nesbitt played the mustachioed main character in Murphy's Law, a BBC cop drama that ran for five series between 2001 and 2007, and a particularly irritating failed writer in Emilio Estevez's 2010 film about the Camino de Santiago, The Way, alongside Estevez's dad Martin Sheen. (He shows off his mace-throwing skills in the film – like his own dad Jim, Nesbitt played in the Ballymena Young Conquerors flute band as a youngster.)

There were turns as cheerful dwarf Bofur in The Hobbit film series, and as the distraught father at the centre of the action in 2014's critically acclaimed television drama series The Missing, for which he was nominated for a Bafta.

In Lucky Man Nesbitt plays brilliant but troubled police officer Harry Clayton, whose compulsive gambling is in danger of losing him his beloved family. Harry's fortunes change when he is given a bracelet by a mysterious woman, which is said to endow the wearer with immense luck.

It was an idea that 93-year-old Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man Iron Man and the X-Men, had mulled over for a while.

"People always ask me what superpower I would have, or what power there is that I haven't already given to a hero," says Lee, who penned the scripts and co-created the 10-part series with screenwriter Neil Biswas. "I have always thought that luck would probably be the greatest power of all, because if you are lucky, everything turns out right.

"If it were an adventure story, the bullet would miss. That led us to working out how that concept could be transferred to a television show and we decided that a man, our modern-day hero, receiving a certain type of luck, would make an interesting show. Luck is something that affects everybody, and everybody can relate to it."

Though Harry's luck changes for the better, he pays a heavy price for his shift in fortune.

"We learn that the crimes Harry and his team are getting further and further involved in may all be linked," explains Nesbitt.

"He starts to believe the mysterious bracelet may be able to help with his investigations, but that there is a price to be paid, a yin and yang effect.

"That is where the Stan Lee aspect of the show comes in. It's essentially about a flawed, modern-day hero, who gets more and more entangled in this complex story."

Having moved to Coleraine with his family at age 11, Nesbitt landed his first role at 13, when he starred as the Artful Dodger in a school production of Oliver! After embarking on a French degree at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown, he dropped out and eventually enrolled at London's Central School Of Speech And Drama, to pursue an acting career.

Evidently, it was the right choice, and he soon scored a string of TV jobs – including roles in Soldier, Soldier, Ballykissangel and Lovejoy – before Cold Feet came along and changed everything.

In 2013 Nesbitt, the father of two daughters, announced that he and his actress wife Sonia Forbes-Adam were separating after 19 years together. The couple said infidelity was not one of the reasons for their decision, though in previous years newspapers had carried allegations about Nesbitt having had several affairs. In a 2006 interview he spoke of his bitter regret about having "lived a dual life".

Despite the varied roles he has played over the years, he says his work still surprises him.

"Driving a speedboat at 4am through the Thames Barrier was incredible, we were absolutely flying," he says with a laugh, as he recalls filming stunt scenes for Lucky Man.

"At one point, Harry ends up going into the water, and we filmed the scene in an underwater tank in a studio. It's amazing. There are speakers in the water, so the director can watch you and can speak to you."

The shoot didn't come without problems, though.

"If you're having issues with chlorine and your eyes, and mine are incredibly sensitive, the way to deal with it is to drop full-fat milk on your eyes," he explains. "There you go – a secret from the set!"

Clearly, he is proud to be part of Lucky Man.

"There are so many things that make this story amazing, it just seemed so different to me.

"It's a Stan Lee creation. There's a great hero, and a massive thriller element to the show. The episodic stories alone are great, but the way the serial arc is woven throughout the episodes adds an exciting twist of old-school-style storytelling, but in a modern context," says Nesbitt.

"The show also has a very strong ensemble cast with wonderful directors, some I'd worked with before and some I had wanted to work with. It appealed hugely and I'm well aware of how lucky I am to be in this show."

:: Lucky Man begins on Sky1 on Friday January 22.

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