Liam Neeson: Unexpectedly beating up people at age 65
Liam Neeson never expected to be beating up people on a train at the age of 65 – or still getting into trouble for opening his big Ballymena mouth
In the course of my Imminently Redundant Liam Neeson Interview, I touch upon his habit of saying stuff that lands him in the hot water. He comes across as the most reserved of men. His Ballymena accent largely unaltered by decades in the United States, he answers question with the sluggish equanimity you’d expect from a chap who’d just finished his Sunday afternoon nap.
Yet these kerfuffles follow him around. About 15 years ago he didn’t quite tell a journalist that he was sick of the business and meant to retire. He got in a fight with the burghers of Ballymena after pointing out that Catholics felt like “second-class citizens” when he was growing up. A few hours after we say goodbye, one such outburst will transform Imminently Redundant Liam Neeson Interview into Now Redundant Liam Neeson Interview.
“I am always saying something . . .” he says.
Oh, remember that time he was set to become a Muslim?
“Ah, now that was taken out of context,” he explains. “I remember doing a picture in Istanbul. The five calls to prayer initially drove me crazy. But after a few weeks I absolutely loved it. I bought a CD so that I could play it when I got back to New York. So then I was becoming a Muslim . . .”
It would be hard to argue that the words that caused such a fuss on The Late Late Show have been significantly decontextualised. Asked about the fallout from the Weinstein scandal, Neeson suggested the affair had sparked “a bit of a witch-hunt”. He said he was “on the fence” about allegations concerning Dustin Hoffman. That noise you heard resulted from a million faces being slapped by a million palms.
Anyway, we didn’t talk about that in the Shelbourne Hotel. The last time we met was back in 2009. We did a public interview together during the Dublin International Film Festival.
“God, that was centuries ago,” he says with a furrow. “My . . . Yes, we did. Were Jimmy Nesbitt and I promoting a film called Five Minutes of Heaven?”
That turned out to be one of the most significant years of Neeson’s life. Just a few weeks after we spoke, his wife, the actor Natasha Richardson, died following a freak skiing accident. He has spent much of the succeeding decade coaxing their two sons, then teenagers, towards adulthood.
At the same time, his professional life was going through an unexpected transformation. Though released a year earlier in France, Pierre Morel’s Taken had, when we last spoke, just emerged in the United States. Punters were genuinely surprised to see this Big Serious Actor in a Euro-thriller. He subsequently became the busiest punch-up guy in the world. Just this week you can see him thumping a whole train in the agreeably mad The Commuter.
“It was a fluke. My agent at the time had sent me the script of Taken. It’s a lovely little kick-ass European thriller,” he says.
He fancied the idea, but he knew that car-crashing and bomb-throwing were not what audiences expected from the star of Schindler’s List. Then he saw Luc Besson, the producer of Taken, at the Shanghai Film Festival.
“I got together with him and said: ‘I know I am not on the list, but I used to be an amateur boxer. I have wielded a light sabre in a few things. I know how to fight in movies. I would love to give it a go.’ Push came to shove and I shot it and forgot it. I thought it would go straight to video. It did well in France. Then it did well in South Korea. ”
This is not where he expected to find himself at 65. Raised in a working-class family, he is old enough to have experienced the tense years of uneasy inequality before the Civil Rights movement gave Northern Ireland a shake. He would have been a teenager when the ill-named “Troubles” really kicked off.
“It was divided,” he remembers. “Catholics lived here. Protestants lived there. I personally never really experienced huge sectarianism there. I have said before – and I got in trouble for saying it – that we were second-class citizens in the North. That being said, I was made head boy at a school that was predominantly Protestant. We got on with our amateur boxing. We got on with our amateur drama. I had a good healthy upbringing, but I was aware of these traumas. I’m sure there are still pockets of resistance. There are a few guys who are living in the past.”
The interest in amateur drama led to a spell at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Then he spent time at the Abbey Theatre and the Project Arts Centre in Dublin. In 1980, John Boorman found a part for him in Excalibur, but proper, bankable fame took a while to arrive. I served him a cup of coffee in a New York restaurant during the summer of 1988 and he still wasn’t well known enough to be pestered.
Then I got a phone call. He said: ‘I want to you to play Oskar Schindler’. Then I lost control of my bowels. Ha ha!”
“There were a few lean months,” he says. “I was living in London in the early 1980s. The IRA were still at work and I was very aware of being Irish in London. It was an uncomfortable feeling. Then I moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and I suddenly had this sense of freedom. I was a citizen of the world. Nobody was asking if that was an Irish accent. Nobody was asking if I was Catholic or Protestant. I said to my agents: ‘If they ask where I’m from, say I’m European.’ They did. And then it rarely came up where I was from.”
That’s interesting. I wonder if that generic Europeanism helped him towards the role in Schindler’s List. Everyone was chasing that part in 1993. Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner and (the mind boggles) Mel Gibson were mentioned in the trades.
“The myth is Steven came to see me and Natasha Richardson, who became my wife, in an antiquated Eugene O’Neill play called Anna Christie,” he says. “Afterwards he came backstage. His mother-in-law was quite emotional and I gave her a hug. His wife, Kate, on the way back said: ‘That’s what Oskar Schindler would have done.’ That’s the myth.”
Am I not allowed to ‘print the myth’?
“When I asked Steven he said: ‘it was your screen test that did it,”’ he says with a laugh. “We were together for two-and-a-half hours. I thought: ‘if I don’t get this, I have had a masterclass with one of the great cinematic storytellers. Then I got a phone call. He said: ‘I want to you to play Oskar Schindler’. Then I lost control of my bowels. Ha ha!”
Man of Antrim
Neeson slipped into a pleasantly stable career. A year after the film’s release, he married Natasha Richardson. He was drafted into the Star Wars universe for The Phantom Menace. He became a mentor to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. He has worked for Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York and Silence. He stayed in the US, but, a little stoic, dry in his humour, he remains unmistakably a man of Antrim.
“It’s funny when I am back here, I miss it,” he says. “When I am back at home, I don’t. I get my Irish-American newspapers. I try and keep abreast of what’s happening. America is my home. I have been there for 30 years.”
And his sons are now basically American?
“I don’t think he feels a burden. But he’s aware of it and that heritage goes back to the 1700s. He has just finished a series that hasn’t been sold yet. My other boy is in university in New Orleans and he loves the student life.”
He shrugs. The interview is brought to a close and he is driven away to make much of what you’ve read redundant.
Thanks for bothering.
Five great train films
Neeson is manipulated by criminal maniacs during a tense train journey in The Commuter. Here are five more great rail films.
The General (1926): This Buster Keaton (ahem) vehicle is often described as the greatest of all silent comedies. The title refers to a locomotive.
20th Century (1934): Another film actually named for a train, Howard Hawks’s madcap comedy makes great use of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard.
The Lady Vanishes (1938): Possibly Hitchcock’s greatest British film, this delightful romp pitches Margaret Lockwood against Liam’s grandfather-in-law Michael Redgrave.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974): Critics were snitty about it, but Lumet’s film remains the best ever Agatha Christie adaptation. Features Liam’s mother-in-law Vanessa Redgrave.
Snowpiercer (2013): Brilliantly mad science-fiction epic from Bong Joon-ho. Yet another film with the train’s name as its title.