This story first appeared in the Movies and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
The cliché has it that in comedy, timing is everything — but never underestimate its relevance in drama, too. Take James Nesbitt and his riveting turn in the Starz limited series “The Missing,” which follows the disappearance of a 5-year-old boy and its effect on numerous characters over eight years.
Nesbitt plays Tony Hughes, an everyman who loses track of his boy Oliver on holiday in France. A darker mystery unfolds almost immediately, taking the series into “True Detective” territory, but the mystery is balanced with wrenching emotional portraits of a husband, a wife and their grief.
Originally airing on BBC One before heading stateside to Starz last fall, the series is split between two time periods: Oliver Hughes’ original disappearance in 2006, and a reopening of the case in 2014, when new information emerges. As Nesbitt’s Hughes and a detective played by Tchéky Karyo veer off into obsession, Oliver’s mother Emily (Frances O’Connor) attempts to move on.
“There are various targets to meet in the two time zones in terms of performance,” said Nesbitt, who won BAFTA TV and Critics’ Choice Television Award nominations for the role. “It’s a big journey, a big arc, and thankfully the writing was strong enough to support that.”
Speaking to TheWrap from London, the 50-year-old actor, who was born in Northern Ireland, added, “It was vital that we shot one time zone and then the next, and what helped enormously is that we shot the present-day stuff first. The weather was sort of gloomy and cold–it matched the template of the story.”
Another tool the actor credits for grounding him across time: having the same director, British TV vet Tom Shankland, for the duration of the shoot. “I was lucky we had one director throughout, which is becoming quite unusual,” he said. “Certainly, over here, I’m not sure if that had been done before.”
Shankland’s priority was to isolate Nesbitt while the actor worked to create Tony. “He never let me get away from where I was in the story,” Nesbitt said. “What helped was being very isolated, being away from my own daughters during the week. I was able to try to create Tony’s world as much as possible on my own in Brussels.
“I turned my apartment into a kind of Tony den. I had all the case reports, possible sightings up on the wall, media reports. I lived quite like him, and that helped being in the moment. When I came home on the weekend to my girls I was very ready to step outside that.”
The series made a celebrity out of Nesbitt in London, which took the veteran actor by surprise. “I’ve never had anything like it,” he said. “I travel on the Tube daily, and people were kind of grabbing me, desperate to know what happened with the characters.
Audiences are a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for–they’re not just crying out for a diet of reality TV or home improvement. They love drama, and there’s still a place for intelligent human drama.”
Mild spoiler: Tony Hughes’ journey doesn’t end so much as it spirals downward, with the character never truly accepting his son’s fate. The last glimpses we have are of a hunched, disheveled Hughes in an ice-coated apartment complex in Russia, knocking on the door of a home where a young boy resides who Nesbitt’s haunted character believes to be Oliver.
“There was a moment when we thought, Maybe there’s hope for him,” said Nesbitt. “Maybe he will get it together and find peace. But I think the only peace he can have is that demented peace, where he can only be searching.”