Exclusive interview: Jimmy Nesbitt on new film, TV role and hosting the Balon d'Or

Jimmy Nesbitt says he'll come back to live in Northern Ireland
Jimmy Nesbitt says he'll come back to live in Northern Ireland
Jimmy as Bofur in The Hobbit
Jimmy as Bofur in The Hobbit

Jimmy Nesbitt is the proverbial kid in a sweet shop.

At the height of a career that continues to soar, he has just finished filming Let This Be Our Secret, the story of killer dentist Colin Howell and his lover Hazel Stewart.

He landed the lead role in Luckyman, the latest creation from superhero legend Stan Lee which is set for a 10-week run on Sky, and he’s returning as lovable rogue Adam in Cold Feet. Next week he co-hosts the Balon d’Or where he will announce the name of the world’s greatest footballer.

Oh, and he’s just been awarded an OBE for services to drama and to community in Northern Ireland.

Sport and acting, it just doesn’t get any better for the Ballymena-born actor who has become Northern Ireland’s official cheerleader.

Chancellor of the University of Ulster, he is an active patron of Wave which offers counselling and support to those traumatised during the Troubles and is closely involved in the campaign to recover the remains of the Disappeared.

He’s a Unicef ambassador and Coleraine football club’s biggest fan.

“I heard about the OBE in November and the first people I thought of were my dad, and of course my mum, who would have been so pleased.”

May Nesbitt passed away in 2012 after battling Alzheimer’s.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday World, the 51-year-old reveals his plans to return to live in Northern Ireland, and the money he is pumping into his beloved Coleraine.

“I always knew some day I would come back and live here,” he said. The plan is to build a house on the north coast close to Portrush.

“The older I get the harder I find it is to escape, to get away. Home is the best place for that, and that is why I was so pleased the OBE citation mentioned community in Northern Ireland.

“It’s a great privilege for me to have a role in Northern Ireland, if, through my success Wave’s profile is raised or we keep the issue of the Disappeared in the public eye, then great.”

The bodies of 12 people snatched by republican paramilitaries in the early years of the Troubles have been recovered. Four remain undiscovered.

“It is so terrible and tragic, every week Wave see people who are still traumatised by what they experienced in the Troubles. For those who get the remains of their loved ones back it’s not so much a sense of justice or closure, more relief.

“It might seem like quite small thing but it symbolises the whole (peace) process, their agony has to end.”

His enthusiasm for his homeland is infectious which explains why he wore broadest grim in the SSE Arena when Belfast hosted Sports Personality of the Year last month.

“When you and I were growing up the backdrop to our lives was hatred and bigotry, what has been achieved since is remarkable.

“I shared a flight with (presenters) Claire Balding and Gabby Logan and they were so excited, genuinely, about SPOTY coming here. The atmosphere on the night was incredible, just wonderful.”

It gave Jimmy the chance to rub shoulders with his sporting heroes.

“AP McCoy, sorry Sir Anthony, was so nervous. He’s so inspirational and honest when I asked him how he was he said ‘I don’t recommended retirement James’ – he misses it so much. This is a man who dedicated his life to his sport, people might say they get paid a lot of money and so on, but their dedication is amazing.

“Look at Rory (McIlroy) he is such an impressive young man, he carries his responsibilities so well, he has done since he was a teenager. I’ve got to know him and his mum and dad quite well and they’re wonderful people.

“Rory does so much for this place, although he could afford to throw a few quid the way of Ulster rugby!”

Which brings him neatly to his overriding passion – football.

It would be hard to find a more dedicated Man United, Coleraine or Northern Ireland fan. Despite a busy schedule he is clearing his diary for a summer trip to France for the European Championships.

“I was speaking at a function recently and I was paying tribute to (NI manager) Michael O’Neill and his astonishing achievement. I mean it’s not everyone who has scored four goals in 18 appearances for Coleraine!

“I’ll be in France, it’s going to magical. My dad took me to all the qualifying games when we got to the World Cup in 1982 and 1986, we never thought then it would be another 30 years before we tasted that sort of success again. It would be criminal to miss it.”

He admits to being intoxicated by sport and football in particular. He is on first names terms with Man Utd legend Sir Alex Ferguson with whom he shares a passion for horse racing.

“I remember sitting at home watching Coleraine play Linfield on Sky,” he said. “Coleraine were 2-1 up and I got a text from Alex: ‘Great game Jimmy, hope Coleraine hang on I’ve got two quid on them!’

“United were playing in the Champions League the following night, but he’s just so obsessed with football he was watching an Irish League match!”

Speaking of the Irish League, Jimmy revealed he is not just a fan of Coleraine but a financial supporter of the club.

“I haven’t really spoken about it before, I’ve given them money in the past and I’ve committed more money to help them buy players.

“A football club is the heartbeat of a community and it’s a privilege to be able to do it.”

It’ll be a different world next week in Zurich when he co-hosts, with Sky Sports presenter Katie D’Abo, football’s equivalent of the Oscars, the Balon d’Or.

“Bonkers, totally bonkers. I don’t know how it came about, but I guess Fifa which, let’s face it, are not having the best of times, were looking to make the ceremony more fan-friendly.

“That’s all I am, a fan, I go with a sense of wonder.”

 Katie D'Abdo

Fantasy football is all well and good, but what about the day job?

He’s just finished seven weeks of intensive filming on the story of killer dentist Colin Howell.

“It’s a sensational story, but we were mindful of treating it with sensitivity given there are families involved, but I think it’s going to be very good.”

It brought him back into partnership with producer Mark Redhead with whom he worked on Bloody Sunday.

With a lead role in Stan Lee’s forthcoming series Luckyman on Sky and the eagerly awaited return of Cold Feet he’s never been busier.

“I’m very grateful to be able to work all the time, acting can be a precarious business, as Liam Neeson said to me ‘we’re still getting away with it!’