The Cold Feet actor talks about showing off his grittier side in BBC One’s new Iraq army drama, Occupation

What were your feelings about dramatising the Iraq War?
“There is a concern about how you can make drama about Iraq when the news covers it so well, but Occupation presses the pause button on the news and finds out the human stories. The only human elements we normally come into contact with are the casualties and funerals, so I hope the drama shows the lives these people live, and the devastating impact of war on their families.”

What’s the relationship like between the three soldiers?
“It starts with them all together in Basra, where an event changes their lives. Eventually, they all go back to Iraq: one for love, one for money and one for his conscience.”

Was Mike a challenge to play?
“He was. People still think of me as a roguish Irish guy, so it was brave of them to cast me in his because Mike is quite a different character for me. He is straight down the line, emotionally unaware of himself, and not necessarily charming.”

How does he cope back in the UK?
“Mike has risen through the ranks in the Army, he’s coming to the end of his time, and seems settled, but cracks appear in his marriage. These awful circumstances have unlocked something in him that becomes a terrible need, and in the end he returns to Iraq for love. Army divorce statistics are frighteningly high and I hope Occupation shows the difference between being out there and then being expected to walk back into normal life, which is impossible.”

Did you do any research?
“We didn’t do a full-on boot camp, but we had a soldier advising us on set. He had been to the Balkans, Afghanistan and Basra, and showed me how to rally the troops. He was really strict about us standing the right way, because discipline is so important. Even putting on a uniform in the baking heat suddenly makes it easier to play.”

What impression of the Army have you come away with?
“Soldiers don’t fit the often misguided perceptions about them. I marched against the Iraq War, but I came away from Occupation with respect and admiration for soldiers’ courage, what they give to their job and how they work together. The programme shows how important it is that these men and women are not forgotten. They don’t really want to be seen as heroes, but they do want their stories to be told.”

Do you still have any unfulfilled acting ambitions?
“I would like to do a musical on film or TV. I’d also love to do a really great love story and a witty, US-style comedy. People say Americans can’t do irony, but their best comedies, such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Cheers, are full of it.”

What’s been your favourite role?
“I’ve been blessed to have had many. I loved the way Murphy evolved in Murphy’s Law because it was very different for me, but I also really enjoyed playing Hyde in Jekyll. That was a great opportunity to go really crazy with a character.”

Who are your acting heroes?
“When I was a kid I loved Paul Newman, who was massively underrated. Now I’d love to work with Ray Winstone, while Jason Isaacs, who I lived with at drama school, is wonderful too. The beauty of getting older for both of us is finding more interesting characters to play.”

Would you ever do a Cold Feet reunion?
“I’d find it hard without Helen Baxendale because her character has gone, so I don’t think it will happen. I loved it though. It was good for all of us and created a big platform for me. The cast is still in touch, but it is dangerous to go back because it was so good.”

Occupation begins on Tuesday June 16 at 9pm on BBC One.