Should he stay or should he go Hollywood?

Times Staff Writer

The morning of the day he was to return home to England, James Nesbitt sat smoking in the patio of a Sunset Strip hotel, hung over but with his moss-green eyes still piercingly clear, and considered the newest phase of what he calls his "absurdly lucky" career.

The Northern Ireland-born, 40-year-old star of the BBC cop drama "Murphy's Law" became a household name in Britain after his run as Adam, a romantic with bad habits, in BBC's smart "Friends"-like comedy "Cold Feet," which ended in 2003. Nesbitt earned some international attention from the films "Waking Ned Devine" and "Bloody Sunday," in which he played real-life Irish civil rights activist Ivan Cooper. Now, with "Murphy's Law" set to air on BBC America on Mondays starting Jan. 31, while the cable channel is also showing "Cold Feet" on Sunday nights, Nesbitt's trademark brogue and cocky charm will be beamed into 41 million U.S. homes. And this year he'll also be seen in a major role as a cop in Woody Allen's "Match Point" and in the lead role as a widowed father raising two sons in Danny Boyle's "Millions."

So Nesbitt is facing an old quandary: Should he use the platform to springboard into a full-on Hollywood career or stay where he is known, loved, already well paid and able to secure constant, quality work?

"I love it here," he said, his fingers stretching upward as if he could touch the big-screen idols of his childhood, all the glamour, talent and luxury sparkling in the January air. "I love the people. I love the enthusiasm. In a way, I love that everywhere you go in this vast city, it's about the business."

He paused to take a drag on his cigarette, then said, "It's also kind of weird."

Tragic and funny character

The first in a Protestant family of country teachers to choose acting as a career, Nesbitt was brought on to "Murphy's Law" by the series' creator, novelist and fellow Irishman Colin Bateman. Together they crafted the complicated character of Tommy Murphy: a poignantly tragic and darkly funny Irishman who lost his young daughter to an IRA gunman and now works in London as a roguish undercover cop. As funny, passionate, playful, serious, loquacious and philosophical as they come, Nesbitt makes playing the classically Irish contradictions of Tommy Murphy -- he's cynical and idealistic, lighthearted and gloomy, anti-authority and morally responsible -- look like cake. Should he start preparing for the vagaries of a career in Hollywood?

"I knew that would be the question," he said, rubbing his stubbled chin. "The gruff Irish machismo in me would respond, 'I'm not interested in that.' But actually, the truth is," he leaned forward confidentially and looked up through thick lashes, "it excites me. It excites me greatly."

Nesbitt looked sweetly scruffy in a T-shirt and cords. At home, he's used to recognition, even unwelcome pursuit by the tabloid press. But here, people didn't appear to recognize him either in the cafe or at the press junket he had been attending to promote "Murphy's Law." He was prepped to answer questions about his reported sex- and drug-related exploits. But in what could be read as a bad sign for any Hollywood aspirations, no one had asked.

After his success in "Bloody Sunday" and "Waking Ned Devine," Nesbitt said, he came to L.A. to visit friends and take a few meetings, and people did stop him on the streets. It was very cool. But to crack Hollywood, even successful actors from abroad need to set up shop here, and Nesbitt chose not to move to L.A. It would have been too hard to uproot his wife, Sonia, also an actor, and their two young daughters, he said.

Then he added: "Also, I don't want to sit beside a pool for six months in L.A. on this never-ending ladder toward some supposed career utopia and end up getting a part as a body in an American film with an accent I can't do and the film is not very good."

Competition -- even for minor roles -- is fierce. "I don't want to get a job here and have the best thing about the experience to have been getting the job.... To come here and not be the success I would want to be is worrying to me. My nightmare is that I don't want to be OK."

British actors often joke that Hollywood's main attractions are the weather and the money. But the real draw is the movie business, Nesbitt said. "It's hard to make a film in Britain. It's hard to raise money. The best stuff that is shot on film in Britain is usually shot on film for television.

"Because you have films like 'Notting Hill' or 'Love Actually,' people say you've got a huge industry. But actually, it's the same people." Keira and Hugh do not an industry make. "Here," he said, "it's about mega-movies, big movies, small movies, medium movies, movies that make money, movies that don't."

The BBC is still "the cradle of quality" for drama and comedy on television, he said. "It's an honor and a pleasure to work in it. I think at home we should get that as opposed to trying to compete in the film world.

"Of course, the main reason why a British actor wants to be in films," Nesbitt noted, is the same reason he keeps taking up smoking after each time he quits: "There's still an element of cool about it. You can say to your mates who are working in television, 'I'm doing a movie.' "

Nesbitt sometimes engages in mock-envy conversations with actor friends such as Jason Isaacs ("Peter Pan") who have successfully leaped to L.A. "Jason loves it here. He would say," -- Nesbitt switched to a posh English accent -- " 'God. I'm so envious of your career. Here I am doing these Hollywood shallow movies, and you're doing this important work.' I say to him, 'Yeah. Look out your window. The sun is shining and you're making a million dollars a movie.' "

Viewing U.S. TV shows

During his childhood in Northern Ireland, Nesbitt immersed himself in U.S. television and movies. He was obsessed, he says, with "Cheers," "MASH" and "Hill Street Blues." "When English people talk about Americans' lack of irony, I reel off those shows." While there's "a lot of American dross," Nesbitt said, "American writers are great. The work we're doing on 'Murphy' is absolutely being driven by what recent American television is teaching us," he said, citing "24" and "The Shield."

He also idolized Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Bill Murray and even the younger John Cusack. But he went to university at Belfast to pursue a career in teaching.

"I started a French degree but made the existential choice to give up studying the existentialists. At 4 o'clock in the morning when I was writing a very overdue essay on 'Les Mains Sales' by Sartre, I thought, 'It's time to give this up,' " he said. "I very bravely went to my elder sister's house and said, 'Will you ring Mom and Dad tomorrow and tell them I'm giving up the university?' "

Nesbitt is particularly proud of maintaining his Northern Irish accent and persona regardless of whether the role calls for an Irish character. "It's easier to act in your own accent," he said. More important, he believes he can introduce viewers to something new -- a contemporary character from Northern Ireland who doesn't carry "the burden of the Troubles."

In Hollywood, though, his accent could hang him up -- at least in network television. Then again, who knows?

The previous evening, out on the town with fellow BBC actor Steve Coogan, Nesbitt had run into Owen Wilson. "He knew Steve. He's just this great guy who's loving life. I love that." And he ran into an agent friend whose encouraging words made him think again about that crossroads.

"I do want to work here," he said with some finality. And then he clarified: "I'd love someone to ask me to come here and work."

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