There's an old Irish saying - we live in each other's shadow. In Northern Ireland it's especially true - during 30 years of The Troubles over 3,000 people were killed in a relatively small geographical area, and few lives were untouched. And now, with the violence at an end, the legacy lives on. So what do you do with all that heartbreak? How do you pack away all that rage? Can you even hope to? In the new Irish film "Five Minutes to Heaven," actor James Nesbitt and fellow Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson grapple with this thorny question and the lingering fallout of The Troubles in a tense, beautifully acted thriller that wowed audiences and critics alike at the Sundance Film Festival in January. (The film won both the World Cinema Directing Award and World Cinema Screenwriting Award, a coup that's certain to secure it a distribution deal here in the U.S.) Nesbitt, 44, has never backed away from uncomfortable questions or challenging roles throughout his career, but his deeply affecting turn in this film is certain to raise his profile in the U.S. Born and raised into a non-sectarian Unionist family in Coleraine, Co. Derry, The Troubles were always happening "up the road" far away from the everyday lives of the people he knew. It was only when he went to drama school in London that he started to hear the stinging putdowns about his own identity - usually followed with a quick "Brits Out." In London he was a Paddy; in Northern Ireland he was British; in the Republic he was a Unionist - and for a long time during his adolescence and early adulthood all of these composite identities, seemingly at odds, really bothered him. "I'd hear all the comments and I'd tell them it's a wee bit more complicated than that, you know," he told the Irish Voice. Viewers in the U.S. will probably remember Nesbitt as Father Peter Clifford's rival for Assumpta Fitzgerald's affections in the popular Irish soap "Ballykissangel", which was, he says dryly, "a long time ago." (The show aired on public TV stations in the U.S. and Canada.) More recently Nesbitt appeared as Detective Banner, the cheerful homicide investigator opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen's pitch-black thriller "Match Point." Delighted to get cast in this A-list production, Nesbitt was impressed by the five star amenities in his trailer on the "Match Point" set - expensive skin care products lined the shelves, cushions adorned the sofa and fine champagne was cooling in the refrigerator. "I thought, happy days, this'll do me. I see they don't skimp on the luxuries," Nesbitt recalls with a laugh. But just as he was settling in a producer knocked on his door and told him that he was actually in Johansson's trailer. "So they led me to a cramped wee room with a half empty Ballygowan bottle in the fridge," he says, again with a laugh. But after this year's Sundance awards Nesbitt's star is officially on the ascent. He spoke to the Irish Voice by phone from Carmel (hometown of Clint Eastwood), California, where he was playing a quick round of golf at the nearby Pebble Beach course. It was Nesbitt's remarkable performance in "Bloody Sunday", the 2002 film about the shootings that ignited The Troubles, which first got him noticed as a serious dramatic actor. Cast in the role of local politician Ivan Cooper, Nesbitt, a Protestant. privately worried about what he was getting himself into. After a well-publicized interview where he remarked that Bloody Sunday was "as much a British tragedy as an Irish tragedy. We're trying to make sense of it," enraged calls to the BBC lit up the switchboards. Worse, threats were made on his life, and members of his own community even vandalized his parents' home. It reminded him of how close to the bone, even now, these themes could cut. Said Nesbitt, "It's important to move on, but I thought it was important to look at the history of The Troubles too. Patrick Spence, who is the head of drama at BBC Northern Ireland, had been looking to do something about the legacy of violence, you know, what are the stories to be told? "Guy Hibbert, the screenwriter on 'Five Minutes to Heaven,' had heard about these two real life characters, one of which, Joe Griffin, I now play in the film. At the age of 11 Griffin, a Nationalist, saw his 19-year-old brother shot dead by the Loyalist Alastair Little, played by Liam Neeson." Originally, the BBC had approached the two real life men - the murderer and the brother of one of his victims - to film their confrontation. The idea to bring them together, says Nesbitt, was inspired by the South African Truth and Reconciliation committee. However plans for the TV show were shelved when it emerged that Griffin only played along because he wanted to be in a situation where he was face to face with Little to actually kill him. Said Nesbitt, "I think the BBC cottoned on quite early on that Joe was slightly fragile, to say the least. They bottled out (meaning they halted production of the show). Guy was then commissioned by BBC Northern Ireland to write the story as a screenplay instead, a fictionalized account of what might have happened if they might come together." The real life Alastair Little served his time and is considered rehabilitated. These days he travels the world counseling perpetrators of violence and trying to prevent young people from making the same mistakes he did. But Joe Griffin's life was destroyed. His mother blamed him for not doing enough to protect his older brother from the attack; later his other brother killed himself, and his father eventually died from a broken heart. On her death his mother was still accusing Joe, so he disappeared into a life of drugs drink and violence. Said Nesbitt, "For an Irish actor doing The Troubles is a bit like doing King Lear. You have to take it all in, you feel an instinctive responsibility to tackle it. "Then when Liam Neeson got on board the director Oliver Hirschbiegel followed and it turned from a very small film into something that had quite a lot of power. The fact that it did so well at Sundance has catapulted it even further. So we're very excited about it. It became something that was very important to me." Neeson's first viewing of the film was at the Sundance festival, in a room full of 200 other people, an experience which he "dreaded." Talking to the press afterwards Nesson admitted, "It's strange - it's kind of like giving birth. You work on something for quite a long period and then you see it and there's stuff you can't change. And you're seeing it with a roomful of strangers too. It's a kind of a very odd, unique feeling." What most impressed Nesbitt about working on the film was just how destructive one act of violence can be, not only on one person but also on all the people around him. "It's extraordinary how many lives can be devastated by one act," says Nesbitt. "But in fact there were over 3,000 deaths, and that's an awful lot of people in a very small place. You can see hatred builds up, you can see a small country with a reputation for warm friendly people - you can see how for some of them that can descend into carnage and war. I learned how important it is that we stop young people from falling into that. "
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