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James Nesbitt: The long goodbye

Hollywood actor James Nesbitt watched his mum die of Alzheimer's. Now he's raising funds to help scientists find a cure, he tells Joanne Sweeney

James Nesbitt is experiencing something of an image make-over. As he heads towards his landmark 50th birthday, our homegrown Hollywood movie star is emerging as an authentic and articulate campaigner for finding a cure for the truly debilitating Alzheimer’s disease.

A regular visitor to Northern Ireland, he was back home again last weekend, this time in Belfast to host the Forget Me Not charity gala in aid of The Patsy Duffy Memorial Benefit.

Friday night’s ball took place at Titanic Belfast and aimed to raise £50,000, the most ever raised on one evening for Alzheimer’s here, as well as building awareness about this often misunderstood disease.

Organised by the wife and four daughters of Co Tyrone man Patsy, who died at the age of 57 from early onset dementia, James — perhaps better known as Jimmy on these shores — co-hosted the fundraiser with broadcaster Sarah Travers.

Both know the pain that a family goes through when one of their loved ones is stricken with dementia, as Jimmy lost his mother May to the disease over two years ago, while Sarah’s father Ian passed away just five months ago.

Jimmy has been hard at work in Brussels on his new, eight-part drama for the BBC, The Missing, in which he plays the father of a small boy who is abducted as the family is holidaying in France.

“I was filming late last night on this drama, which is really about the father’s obsession in trying to find his son and the havoc that wreaks,” he says.

“It’s a pretty heavy piece but it’s also beautifully and sensitively written. It’s a great part and I’m enjoying it but there’s not an awful lot of laughs in it.

“As long as we are truthful, that’s the main thing.”

Having finished the first six weeks on the drama, Jimmy was committed to film for the next series of cop drama Babylon for Channel 4 this week. Despite this full schedule, he had promised the Duffy family that he would be at the fundraiser. And while he didn’t disappoint, there was some inevitable flight delay from Brussels.

So he sounds tired on the phone when we speak just before the gala but is still polite and happy to talk about the fundraiser and his support of Alzhemier’s Research UK.

The father of two daughters — 16-year-old Peggy and pre-teen Mary — may be a Bafta and Golden Globe winner, but he still has his responsibilities as a dad.

“I’m catching a six o’clock flight back to London as Mary is 12 and I’m taking her and about 20 of her friends bowling for her birthday. It will be absolutely hectic.

“But the Duffys are a sensational family, I’ve a lot of time for them. They are all very determined women,” he adds with an air of understatement.

Over the years, The Hobbit star has often made the headlines more for his personal life than his acting. There have been the well-publicised drinking bouts, the self-acknowledged ego problems, the hair transplant and rumours of alleged marital infidelities on his part, alongside his steady career climb into one of the UK’s most engaging actors.

Late last year, it was confirmed that Jimmy and his former actress wife Sonia Forbes-Adams had finally agreed to separate after 19 years together. The decision was said to have been amicably and practically agreed and was mainly due to his living away from home in New Zealand for two years while The Hobbit trilogy — the prequel to The Lord of the Rings franchise — was filmed.

His family did come and stay in New Zealand with Jimmy for some time, with both daughters getting small parts in the movies, in which he played the chirpy dwarf Bafur.

While friendly and open during our interview, he had previously made it known that questions on his personal life were off-limits this time.

But even speaking over the telephone, there’s still an unmistakable catch in his voice when he speaks about his mother May, whose third anniversary is coming up this summer.

“Ach, to lose a mother is a very acute thing, it’s just desperate,” he said. “If you go out into the street and stop 20 people, there will not be one person that won’t have some relationship or experience with Alzheimer’s — it’s that prevalent.”

His mother had Alzheimer's for about 10 years before she died and was supported by her husband and Jimmy’s three sisters. Jimmy visited home as often as his schedule could allow and often goes home to visit his father in Castlerock, Co Londonderry when he can, bringing his daughters who, he says, “are imbued with a sense of Northern Ireland as home”.

He movingly related some of his memories from these visits when he addressed a major dementia conference in Belfast in March 2013. It was a conference organised by Alzheimer’s Research UK and the University of Ulster, of which he has been honourary Chancellor since 2010.

Jimmy had been filming The Hobbit when his mother died from what he called the “shocking disease”.

He recalled: “As I flew back from New Zealand to bury my mother, it occurred to me that no matter how harrowing her loss was and how keenly it will always be felt, there was nevertheless a sense of relief, that my father, sisters and I could say a final goodbye after the longest goodbye. And, relief that my mum had finally been released.” Jimmy also revealed personal details of how the disease had gripped his mother as he called on the Government to take urgent action and make Alzheimer's research a new priority.

“About five years ago when it was becoming apparent that mum could no longer live at home,” he recalled. “I flew back to try and help deal with the situation. She had reached what I consider to be the true nadir of the Alzheimer's condition — flitting between the present and the past; reality and fantasy; rage and fear.

“At midnight during a storm she wanted to go out and find her father — he had died over 40 years previously. In the past I had always been able to soothe her by accompanying her on these trips on the pretence of getting her an ice-cream. But this night she was determined to go alone.

“So, as my mother strode off, bent and bow-legged, I followed her and watched the woman who had bore me, nurtured and chastised me, who taught me how to love and how to be loved, disappear into the teeth of an Ulster gale and out of my life. It was a poignant image and savage reminder of the havoc that Alzheimer's wreaks.”

One of Mr Duffy’s four daughters, Lisa, wrote to Jimmy’s agent shortly after her father died to ask him to get in involved in their fundraising plans. The gala fundraiser was poignantly held on the first anniversary of Mr Duffy’s death.

“The Duffy family wanted to do something positive out of the tragedy of their father’s passing and wanted people to realise just how debilitating and awful the disease is and the havoc it wreaks on the sufferer and the family.

“Lisa was very persuasive, I have to say. She turned up at an event I was doing with Mark Carruthers at the Lyric Theatre and basically wouldn’t let me leave until I committed to the event.

“But I definitely wanted to make it happen, it was only a question of time. I’m very impressed with them, particularly through the midst of their own pain to be so driven by this.

“It was definitely a case of us, Sarah and myself included, all having been through the same experiences and knowing the same pain and loss.

“It’s important for the public to know dementia is not an inevitable consequence of old age. It’s a disease, so it can be cured.

“The only way they find a cure for it will be by research and the only way to do research is through funding. There’s 820,000 and rising sufferers in the UK and it’s going to get much worse as we have an ageing population,” warned Jimmy.

Life has definitely changed for Jimmy and in career and geographical terms, today he’s far from his upbringing in Broughshane, Co Antrim and the Coleraine/Portrush area.

But he still sees himself very much as an Ulsterman and wishes he could work more at home, particularly with the growing television and production industry that’s emerging here.

“I love coming back here, I come back a lot to Belfast and up to Castlerock to see my father. I would love to get back and do a bit of work here but we’ll just wait and see.”

His roots are clearly shown when he causally mentions our other great Hollywood star, Liam Neeson, who also comes from the Ballymena area and who he now calls a close friend.

“I think it’s great that Liam is still an action movie star at his age,” says Jimmy. “We are close friends and have been for about eight or nine years now. You know what’s amazing, the very first thing he said to me was ‘Are you connected to Granny Nesbitt?’ as he remembers my Granny. It just goes to show you our connections.”

I remind him of the famous scene in the ITV comedy drama Cold Feet where he wooed his girlfriend by singing outside her front door stark naked with a rose clenched between his buttocks.

He was in his early thirties then and the television series marked him as an up-and-coming star, complete with his trademark Ulster accent that he has never changed, even in The Hobbit.

Jimmy muses: “Yes, it’s a very silly way to make a living, I suppose. It’s not ideal, but it’s just part of the job, You are just playing a role, and if that’s that you do, then that’s what you do.”

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