Liam Neeson’s ‘Good Morning America’ interview fails to address the key question
The interviewer needed to press Neeson harder on the venom of his racist language
So has Liam Neeson got himself out of jail? Following the publication of an extraordinary interview in which he admitted planning to indiscriminately kill a random black man following the rape of a friend, Neeson turned up on Good Morning America, ABC’s breakfast show, to offer some explanation.
It could have gone worse. Others might not have turned up at all (either course would surely anger some). He was there to atone and to plead for tolerance. But several important questions went unanswered and unasked.
He said that the incident had happened around 40 years, but was less clear about the location of his midnight prowls.
“I asked her: ‘did you know the person?’ It was a man. ‘No’. ‘His race?’ She said he was a black man, I thought: okay,” he told the viewers.
In the earlier interview with the UK Independent, he admitted to walking out with a cosh in the hope that some “black bastard” (his own air-quotes, apparently) would have a go at him and he could then “kill him”.
On Good Morning America, he explained: “I went out deliberately into black areas in the city looking to be set upon so I could unleash physical violence, and I did it maybe four or five times until I caught myself on and it really shocked me, this primal urge I had.”
Robin Roberts, a respected, warm interviewer, who is herself African-American, did raise one particular question that had caused much angst on social media. The earlier interview gave the impression that, in seeking to identify his friend’s rapist, he had asked only if he was black.
Neeson had a crack at defusing that bomb. He had asked other questions. “If she had said an Irish, or a Scot, or a Brit, or a Lithuanian, I know I would’ve felt the same effect. I was trying to... stand up for my dear friend in this terrible medieval fashion,” he commented.
At this point, Roberts should have asked Neeson to address the venom of his earlier language. The phrase “Irish b*st*rd” doesn’t have quite the same resonance as its African-American counterpart. It requires more than virtual quotes to defang that sort of racist language.
Indeed, the speech marks gave the impression that “black b*st*rd” was a common sort of everyday phrase.
But he didn’t get into that. What he did do was summon up two words that are probably best avoided in all conversations involving race. Those words begin with “P” and “C”.
“We all pretend we’re kind of politically correct. I mean, in this country, it’s the same in my own country too, you sometimes just scratch the surface and you discover this racism and bigotry, and it’s there,” he said.
To be fair, there were some qualifications here. He was not, thank heavens, arguing that the kerfuffle was all “PC gone mad”. A generous listener could even argue that, by saying we “pretend” to be politically correct, he was suggesting we weren’t actually PC enough.
That sort of Jesuitical wrangling might have appealed to the priest whom he apparently consulted after waking up to the madness of his nocturnal vigilante patrols.
Roberts did press home the hurt that African-Americans felt on reading his comments.
“The one point I want to make out is this wasn’t discovered by somebody, you admitted this ... so I give you credit there,” she said, “But also having to acknowledge the hurt, even though it happened decades ago, the hurt of an innocent black man, knowing he could’ve been killed, for something he did not do, because of the colour of his skin.”
Neeson accepted this, but then lost some ground by suggesting merrily that: “They could have killed me too.”
Who’s this they? The imaginary black man who didn’t actually assault him? This was the most awkward moment in a conversation that felt tense and uneasy throughout.
The arguments will never cease about this incident. Many will point out that an older man has recognised the error of his earlier ways and stepped up to atone. “I’m not racist,” he said. He expressed horror at his earlier actions throughout. What’s the problem with that?
The problem is the bizarre, off-hand manner of the initial revelation and the inappropriate language.
Liam Neeson is not the most sparkling of interviewees. He tends more towards Northern introversion than flights of indiscretion and vivid storytelling. Every now and then, however, he blurts out something that causes interviewers’ jaws to hit their navels. Last year, discussing the #metoo campaign on The Late Late Show, he described the campaign as “a witch hunt”.
In 2014 he told The Guardian: “We all racial-profile. It’s a horrible thing to admit to but we all do it. I know I do.”
The interview with the Independent was a peculiar place to unveil this grim story. Neeson was conducting a series of brief slots to promote the upcoming (rather good) revenge thriller Cold Pursuit. In this instance, he was partnered with his co-star Tom Bateman.
Doubling up shorter interviews in this manner is – among other things – a ploy to keep interviewers talking about the film and to keep them away from personal matters. It can seem rude to engage the really famous guy with chats about his second marriage while the up-and-coming youngster is sitting ignored by his side. That didn’t stop Liam.
Asked about the film’s themes of revenge, he voluntarily dragged the conversation round to this appalling corner.
If Neeson did wish to address the incident, he would have been better advised to do so in a major interview carried out one-on-one over an afternoon (such things still occasionally happen). It’s the sort of subject that requires every angle to be thoroughly investigated.
Clémence Michallon, who conducted the interview for the Independent, would – even if Liam had been on best behaviour – have been plucked ruthlessly from her seat the second her 20 minutes were up.
In this case, the PR people would surely have got her out much sooner if they were able to.
In the wake of the interview’s publication, Jake Garriock, head of publicity for Curzon, offered some clues as to how his colleagues must have felt. “I know this isn’t really the point but five seconds into that Liam Neeson anecdote and, as a publicist, I’m hitting the fire alarm. Sprinklers on, everyone evacuates,” he tweeted.
Michallon got her unexpected exclusive and, inevitably, was abused both for going too easy on Neeson and for ruthlessly shafting the Northern Irish actor.
It will do her career no harm. Time will tell if Neeson is punished. He’s now 67. He has money in the bank. He may no longer give a hoot.