Despite the fact that he grew up in Northern Ireland during the height of the bloody conflict between Protestants and Catholics, actor James Nesbitt admits he "kind of had an idyllic and rural upbringing -- or so my parents keep telling me."
Still, says the 44-year-old Protestant, "in a way, I think that was a complication for many like me. As the rest of the world was viewing where we came from with such pessimism, I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world to grow up."
But that wasn't the case for the Catholic character he plays in the dramatic political thriller "Five Minutes of Heaven," which opens in theaters today.
It's a film based partially on a true story. Nesbitt plays Joe Griffin, a high-strung, rage-filed man who, in 1975 at the age of 11, saw his older brother gunned down in a small Northern Irish town by a Protestant teenager named Alistair Little (played by Liam Neeson).
Griffin never recovered from seeing his brother murdered nor the subsequent abandonment by his mother, who blamed him for not doing more to help his brother. Little was arrested, convicted and served 12 years in prison for the murder.
The movie uses these real events and characters to tell the fictional story of what might happen if these men were to come face to face 30 years later on a TV show meant to render a reconciliation between them.
"Heaven" marks the second time Nesbitt has starred in a film dealing with the Catholic-Protestant Troubles. He received numerous accolades for his performance in 2002's "Bloody Sunday," as Northern Irish Protestant politician Ivan Cooper, who led an anti-internment march that turned into the tragic Bloody Sunday incident in 1972 in Derry.
Though Neeson decided not to meet Little until filming had concluded, Nesbitt felt compelled to seek out Griffin before shooting started.
"The Joe you see depicted in the film is very close to the actual Joe," says German director Oliver Hirschbiegel ("Downfall"), who won the World Cinema Drama directing award at Sundance for "Heaven." "But the real Joe is even more agitated. He goes through these mood swings even more than the guy you see on the film. That was a challenge. I wanted to keep him that way, but I didn't want Jimmy to do it in a way that alienated the audience. It's a very thin line Jimmy had to walk."
Initially, Nesbitt thought Griffin's character was too over-the-top to be entirely realistic in Guy Hibbert's script, which also won in the World Cinema category at Sundance. "I almost couldn't believe that Guy could have captured him completely honestly because he was so extreme," says the actor.
So, he spent a day with Griffin, filming their conversation. "For someone who was not educated necessarily and someone who has lived a life of truly pent-up and bitter rage and isolation, he nevertheless was able to be very expressive and articulate about the events of that night and the subsequent impact it had on the rest of his life."
It didn't take him long to figure out that Hibbert had captured Griffin perfectly in his script.
"It made me completely trust Guy's vision and what he wanted to say," says Nesbitt. "It made it easy to throw myself into it, so I was pretty well prepared on who I thought the character was and how I would like to interpret him.
"Oliver was extremely generous and trusting. We would talk an awful lot of where Joe was. And he really let me go with it."
The actor was pleased that the producers chose a director who didn't hail from the British Isles. "That means he wasn't bringing his own baggage or his own political bias," Nesbitt says of Hirschbiegel. "He was coming in as a filmmaker, a filmmaker with a history of political filmmaking, and that brings with it an important and general knowledge of politics. He was able to make his stamp on the film without being burdened by growing up on either side of the conflict."
Griffin and Little, whom Nesbitt has also met, "are both satisfied with the fictionalized account of the meeting," says the actor. "They feel the film overall is psychologically and emotionally truthful to them."
In fact, Nesbitt reports, the film has been cathartic for Griffin.
"For a long time, I have been a patron of a charitable organization in North Ireland called WAVE, which was set up by women on both sides of the Troubles to counsel those who have been bereaved," says Nesbitt. "It was later incorporated to include children, which is when I came on board. Joe now receives counseling from WAVE. Through the film, he has begun to move on."
But what about Little?
"He had a form of rehab in prison," says Nesbitt. "But in terms of his trauma, it's hard to know what his day-to-day existence is."