James Nesbitt, 47, went straight from drama school to a BBC biopic and he has never looked back, becoming a hit in several television shows and movies.
But his work/life balance changed dramatically in 2010, when he was cast as Bofur in Sir Peter Jackson's feverishly anticipated adaptation of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit.
''I got a call to read the character of Bofur on tape and it seemed to go quite well, but then I didn't hear anything,'' he recalls.
Two months later he met Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh. At that stage there was no script and Jackson wasn't even sure he would direct the film. After a long delay, Nesbitt had ''kind of forgotten about it. Then I was offered the part. I didn't see it as life changing. For me, it was just a fantastic opportunity''.
But life changing it was.
The job took him to New Zealand and he uprooted his family for the duration. It could have been a disaster.
''My daughters [Peggy and Mary] were absolutely f...... devastated,'' says Nesbitt. ''It was the worst. But then we got out to Wellington and I had some time to spend with them before I started filming.''
His daughters were also given the benefits of an idyllic-sounding Kiwi schooling. If it was hot, classes would take place on the beach. How conducive was that to studying?
''It was a very good education, actually,'' explains Nesbitt. ''They don't have the same notion of targets, or the obsession with exams, or the same nightmare amount of homework. It was also very multicultural; I mean, we live in London, which is a multicultural city, but I think my girls lead pretty cosseted lives.
''In New Zealand, they got involved in Maori culture, and the relationship between the whites and the indigenous people felt very harmonious.''
Was it hard to leave?
''Peggy said to me recently that it was the best thing that ever happened to her,'' says Nesbitt, smiling, ''but that she was pleased to be back.''
Nesbitt made some close friends among the cast. He describes Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf, as ''funny and generous'', while Martin Freeman, in the lead role of Bilbo Baggins, is ''a young lead shouldering huge responsibilities, but being witty and collaborative at the same time''.
Of course, this could all sound like thespian blub, except Nesbitt doesn't seem like the sort of person to tolerate that kind of talk.
''The fact is that we really had to become very close to make everything work. Me and the other dwarfs - Aidan Turner, Dickie Armitage - I suppose we were trying to achieve a level of brotherhood. In the film we are on a quest and it was kind of the same when we were filming.
''There were times when it was tough,'' he says. ''It could be incredibly gruelling. There were long days, we were moving around a lot. We would spend hours in prosthetics and then film these long battle sequences ...''
Nesbitt's soft voice trails off and I wonder whether he is already feeling nostalgic for his band of brothers. Certainly, he's convinced of the wow factor of the entire production.
''It was incredible being taken from location to location by helicopter. And when you get there, the whole thing is huge. They have created this entirely Tolkien world. We had glass-blowers and mechanics on set all dedicated to this fantasy vision. I have seen quite a lot of the film already and it is incredible.''
When I suggest The Hobbit could turn Nesbitt into a big Hollywood name, he looks daunted.
''I think it's fair to say that the world will be watching. Air New Zealand is running a big advertisement across its planes with a picture of Bilbo Baggins and us dwarfs with a tag underneath saying 'Air New Zealand, the airline of Middle-earth'.''
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has its world premiere in Wellington on November 28 and opens on December 13.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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