NEW YORK (AP) — "The Missing" is a thriller etched into a portrait of the parents of a 5-year-old boy who, with his family on holiday in a quiet French village, disappears without warning.
During the series' eight episodes, the action pingpongs between 2006 (in the immediate aftermath of the child's abduction) and 2014, by which time the child's mother (Frances O'Connor) has mounted a desperate effort to move on.
She exists in stark contrast to Tony, the father (James Nesbitt), who in the ensuing eight years has only grown more fixated on finding his son as he grasps at evermore slender straws.
With the series' second episode (airing Saturday at 9 p.m. EST on Starz), the depth of the mystery starts to emerge: This is no simple kidnapping.
Meanwhile, the puzzle fuels a sense of loss that permeates the action.
"The series is an exploration of grief — how it is manifested and what it does to people," says Nesbitt, who is cheery and voluble, with frequent chuckles and eyebrows that bob merrily as he addresses a range of different topics.
Not so merrily discussing "The Missing."
"I still find it emotional talking about the role," he says, his eyes misting. "But it was painful, terribly painful to play.
"There was a lot going on I wasn't really in control of," he adds with a wry laugh. "I think I should give an awful lot of the credit to my subconscious rather than my consciousness."
So far in his career, this 49-year-old Irishman has logged an impressive list of credits on British TV comedies and dramas, including Steven Moffat's "Jekyll," and starred alongside Liam Neeson in the film "Five Minutes of Heaven."
Now, in "The Missing," he delivers a powerful two-pronged, then-and-now performance that charts a father's emotional erosion.
And there's more Nesbitt in store. Next month, he returns to movie houses as Bofur in "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," the third of the Peter Jackson-directed trilogy (in which his own two daughters, now 12 and 17, play the daughters of Bard the Bowman.
Then, in January, he stars in the SundanceTV series "Babylon," a satire about a British police department from producer Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") in which Nesbitt stars as the commissioner.
That light-hearted project, shot in London in between two stretches filming "The Missing," proved a welcome change of pace, says Nesbitt, who took up his role as the bereaved Tony for the current-day scenes last January (when Brussels, subbing for northern France, was suitably winter-dark and bleak), then, a bit later, returned there to shoot the 2006 sequences.
"For 2006, I decided Tony is sort of successful in his life and marriage," says Nesbitt, drawing a distinction between his twin performances. "By 2014, not only was he beaten psychologically but also physically. He's much more stooped and slower."
But, surprisingly, Nesbitt took no inspiration from his own real-life fatherhood.
"In acting roles in the past, I had used my own parenting to locate pain," he says, "and I know losing my own daughters would be the end of me. But the more I tried to locate that dread for this role, I found I couldn't. It was too awful to imagine. When I tried to access it, the shutters closed tight."
So the task became not one of summoning Tony's raw pain as his own, but, instead, "to find Tony overall. I was pretty much with him the whole time, immersed in him completely."
It wasn't an acting performance as much as extended role-playing, which included growing close to his TV son, played by Oliver Hunt. They hung out on the set. They went out for ice cream. By the time they shot the scene where little Ollie disappears, his vanishing truly shook his make-believe father.
"I can still see it, looking down and him not being there," says Nesbitt. "From that point, I was able to access almost everything I needed. And talking about it now, well, I haven't done that before in an interview: almost start crying."
The whodunit element sparks the drama, but only so much. Whatever the ultimate fate of Ollie may be, "The Missing" is a somber journey getting there.
"I know some parents will say, 'I can't watch that,'" admits Nesbitt. "Parents have always had this fear: 'What if I lost them?' But if you're able to vicariously project your own horror of your kids disappearing onto this program, well, it's almost therapeutic."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore