James Nesbitt & Frances O’Connor on the Pain of Making ‘The Missing’

James Nesbitt & Frances O'Connor on the Pain of Making 'The Missing'

"The Missing" is anything but an easy viewing experience. Chronicling the two most difficult time periods of its characters’ lives, the Starz miniseries (co-produced by the BBC) focuses on the hunt for a lost child, both when he first disappears in 2006 and when the case is re-opened in 2014.

It’s dark territory for anyone, let alone real-life parents, and the eight-episode drama makes for a fascinating, if difficult, new mystery to watch. It was far from an easy shoot as well, especially for its two stars, James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor. 

"I think I didn’t really understand what it would take to make—and what you would have to give […] because I’m a parent, too," O’Connor said during an interview in August. "So to have to contemplate that week in and week out was pretty full on."

"Now, one would think that as a parent I would rely on that a lot, but actually that wasn’t the case," Nesbitt said. "I was surprised myself. Because if I tried to get into the location of ‘if anything like that happened to my girls,’ you just can’t because you just can’t imagine it, you know? So, the only thing that was really helpful about being a parent I think, from my point of view, was that it helped me locate, in a way, the horror that Tony and Emily must feel."

Tony and Emily are, of course, the parents of Oliver, the titular boy whose disappearance breaks the hearts and marriage of the show’s leads. After the abduction, Tony becomes an alcoholic insistent on finding new clues as to his son’s whereabouts. It’s his obsessive efforts that get the case reopened, while Emily is trying to move on and remarry. Despite her progressive exterior, Emily is still emotionally and mentally stuck in the past with Tony. It’s a tricky portrayal, and one the veteran actor was excited to tackle. 

"It was kind of intimidating because sometimes you’ll get a really great script and you’ll go, ‘Okay, I’ve got about five scenes that I really need to hit in this piece.’ But, with this it was just in every episode," O’Connor said. "Every scene you had to step up."

"With this, […] every day for five months was fucking [hard]," Nesbitt said. "There’s probably a little moment of tantamount when [Tony and Emily] get up and are nimble and are saying, ‘The world’s okay. The world’s a fine place,’ and then the realization comes back. Doing the job as actors, in the morning you’d wake up and think, ‘Oh man, we’ve got to go to that place again.’ So the way we were able to do that was to kind of be supportive of each other." 

What made their efforts worth it was in Harry and Jack Williams’ script, a piece both actors repeatedly pointed to as their source for motivation and inspiration.

"I would rather be in something where you felt like it was worth going there than not," said O’Connor, a veteran of film and television thanks to "The Hunter" and PBS’ "Mr. Selfridge," among other popular projects. "You’ll work on something where you feel like you had to go there, but the script doesn’t really warrant it. With this, you really felt that you wanted to honor the writing. "

Nesbitt, a Northern Ireland native who plays Bofur in Peter Jackon’s "Hobbit" triology, agreed with his co-star. "My preference is for good writing," he said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s for film or TV. Whatever. It starts with the writing. Even though I’ve had problems with writers, it doesn’t matter how great of an actor you are. If the writing is bad, you’re going to struggle."

To that end, the actors were both excited to be taking part in a miniseries. Though both are quite familiar with British television "series" consisting of only six-to-eight episodes, they’re excited that the trend to make shorter, close-ended anthology shows is sweeping America. 

"I think it’s great for the writers because they have an endgame," O’Connor said. "They can create really exciting storytelling because it’s inherently more interesting if it has to be squeezed into eight episodes. It makes it more intense. I think audiences are getting more sophisticated in terms of the storytelling they like. I think ‘True Detective’ is an example that people really loved and identified with. Matthew McConaughey’s not coming back and the other characters aren’t coming back, but people really loved it. […] I think it’s a really exciting time in television."

"With this, we put so much work into it, there had to be an end," Nesbitt said. "I liked the kind of circle of this a lot, but you know, if I was up for ‘The Sopranos,’ would I mind doing five, six, seven seasons of that? No. I’d jump at it."

The actor certainly isn’t afraid to voice his opinion. Back in 2008, Nesbitt actually took himself out of the running to play The Doctor of "Doctor Who," after rumors floated around writer Steven Moffat was considering him (the two worked together on "Jekyll," which earned Nesbit a Golden Globe nod). At the time, he said he was too old to follow Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, but now the new Doctor is Peter Capaldi, who’s seven years older than Nesbitt.

"Yes," Nesbitt said. "Actor eats his words. There was chat about me taking it on, but all I meant at the time was you had to be a real ‘Doctor Who’ kind of geek to take on that role. I wasn’t. I never really was, and I just didn’t think I could serve it. There was never an offer, but I think there was interest."

After "The Missing," there’s bound to be more interest in the both of them.

"The Missing" premieres Saturday at 9pm on Starz. You can watch the first episode at Starz.com. 

READ MORE: Review: Starz’s ‘The Missing’ Is Compelling, But Is It Great?

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