Liam Neeson – aka Michael Collins, a Jedi, Oskar Schindler, God (in the sitcom Rev), an otherworldly lion deity, a Batman villain, the avenging fury of the Taken films, Hannibal from The A-Team – is unafraid of playing icons.
The 63-year-old Ballymena man is to receive an Outstanding Contribution to Cinema award at the Iftas tonight at the Mansion House, and he speaks, over the phone, with a familiar deep rich voice, that has both a strong Northern accent ("You sound a wee bit distant," he says of the poor phone reception) and an American inflection that creeps in on certain words ("status" is "staid-us").
Neeson started playing icons early in his career. His first professional role was as the socialist leader Jim Larkin in a Lyric Theatre performance of James Plunkett's The Risen People. "I remember auditioning for Mary O'Malley, the founder of the theatre, and I did a very, very passionate, but I imagine, not very good, performance," he says. "It was just me and her in the auditorium and she asked me to sit down beside her. She asked me why I wanted to be an actor and I tried to tell her."
What did he say? “Something ridiculous like, ‘If I can’t do it I’ll curl up and die’.” He laughs. “She tried to put me off by telling me how hard it was, how 70 per cent of actors are always unemployed and I thought to myself, ‘My God, I think she’s going to offer me a job here’. I remember being so elated. She said, ‘right, we’re going to sign you up for the next season . . .’
“I think she needed someone shorter than 6ft – and I’m 6ft4in – but Mary gave me my start and I remember being euphoric, thinking, ‘my God come January 26th I’m going to be a professional actor and I’m going to get paid for it’.”
His working-class parents – his mother was a cook and his father a caretaker – never acted, but his skills are rooted firmly in a strong Northern tradition of amateur dramatics. "There were all these festivals going on, usually around Easter time," he says. "There were all these little towns – Bangor, Larne. They'd have these dramatic festivals for a week or a week and a half and all these groups would be presenting plays – American plays, European plays, Irish plays – and these would be going on throughout all the years of the Troubles." He says this with wonder.
He had other more idiosyncratic influences. "I went into a little gospel hall a couple of times to hear Ian Paisley preach," he says. "I just slipped in and my gosh, what an orator he was. He'd put the fear of God in you. You could see this extraordinary performance, the charisma that he had. It was very powerful. It had an effect on me. At the Catholic church we tend to be a lot quieter. What Reverend Ian was doing in those days was your old classic bible thumping – fire and damnation. I remember thinking . . ." he laughs . . . "I'd love to be able to do that."
Doors opened for him after he played Sir Gawain in John Boorman's Excalibur. He moved from Ballymena to Belfast to Dublin to London to LA but London was the biggest adjustment. "[In London] I was very conscious of being an Irish actor as distinct from an actor from Ireland if you know what I mean. I was kind of aware of being a Paddy over there."
More than in the States? “When I went to the states I was European.”
Was that sense of difference exacerbated by the Troubles? "Do you remember when the Queen's horses were blown up in the Mall [the Hyde Park and Regent's Park bombings of 1982]? I'd actually worked with those horses in a sword and sorcery film. The Troubles were very much going on. I was conscious of it. I was conscious of it whenever I went into a bar or restaurant. I was conscious of my accent and what people might be thinking. 'Ah, there's another Paddy'."
He had to contend with a different set of stereotypes in the US, he says. “There was very much a romantic tradition of ‘ah, you’re Irish, you must be so familiar with poetry and writing and so in touch with the artistic side of life’.”
And was he? He laughs. “Not as much poetry as I liked, but you certainly had to develop a little bit of the gift of the gab.”
There weren't many Irish actors trying to make a living in the US when he moved there in the 1980s. "Early on, and I think Gabriel Byrne would tell you this too because he was there at the same time, you consciously try to change your accent going in for an audition. Inevitably they would say, 'You are so right for this part [but] can you change your accent?' Gabriel or I would say 'of course we can change our accent' because we're actors, that's part and parcel of what we do.
“In those days, there’d be lots of auditions where you’d get ‘well you’re just a bit too tall, you’re just a bit too Irish, your nose is a bit too this’. There’s always rejection in this business. You have to develop a tough skin.”
People don’t ask him to change anymore. “Everyone in America seems to be very familiar with European accents and certainly Irish accents now, because of films and because of the internet and whatnot.”
He talks a little about how the Irish film industry has developed since then. He's thrilled that Game of Thrones is shooting in Belfast. He refers to the number of Irish nominations in the recent Academy Awards as "fan-f**king-tastic".
Was he conscious of choosing iconic roles throughout his career? "It's just how it's played out," he says. "The only really conscious one was probably Michael Collins because Neil Jordan had asked me to play it years before he got the money for it, after I'd done Excalibur and he'd seen me in Brian Friel's initial production of Translations. I believe that convinced him that I might be a good Michael Collins. I was no name [and] Neil Jordan had no big commercial hit until Interview with a Vampire. [After that film] they asked him what he wanted to do next and he said 'I want to do this film about Michael Collins' and of course they said 'Who's Michael Collins?' and he told them and David Geffen of all people came on board. David was responsible for getting Warner Brothers to make Michael Collins."
How does he inhabit a role like that? “I don’t think you ever feel like you’ve got your head round it,” he says. “Certainly with Collins there was wonderful research to be done and I got to know members of his family . . . I had two buttons from his uniform [which] I wore around my neck for the shooting – just little talismans. And I actually touched his blood.”
What? “Someone, it must have been a member of his family, had a letter that was folded up in his pocket when he was shot and there were blood stains on it.”
Did he know going into it that the Taken franchise would become so iconic? "Not at all," he says. "I remember meeting [writer] Luc Besson in Shanghai at a film festival there and I had read the script and approached him [and said] 'I know you're obviously not thinking of me, but just to let you know, I'm an amateur boxer and I'd love to get the chance to do something like this'. The next thing you know I was offered it.
“To me, it was a straight-to-video movie, but it was three months in Paris fight-training every day, doing all that shit I love. So I was like a kid in a toy shop, having a field day knowing that this is going straight to video, that no one is going to see it,” he laughs. “Not that I wasn’t proud of that film. I was very proud of it.”
Despite his life as a Hollywood leading man, he seems to have his eyes cast homeward in recent years. “Look, you can take the Irish man out of the bog but you can’t take the bog out of the Irish man,” he says.
He's recently narrated RTÉ's 1916 documentary series, voiced an Amnesty International video campaigning for legalised abortion in Ireland and supported a recent Ballymena rally for jobs (he was made a Freeman of Ballymena in 2013).
“I’m a very proud Irish man and I’m also a very proud Ulster man,” he says. “Factories closing down back home, that really touched me, because I have friends and colleagues and acquaintances who worked in those establishments. If I can use my celebrity status for anything I’m certainly glad to do that. And I’ve been a supporter of Amnesty International for 30 years. I just think they’re an extraordinary organisation.”
Does he keep up to date with Irish and Northern Irish politics? He does, he says, via Irish American newspapers like the Irish Voice and the Irish Echo. "Listen, we'd need another three hours to talk about that."
He is now an American citizen. He lives in New York and had two sons Micheál (also an actor) and Daniel with the late Natasha Richardson who died tragically in a skiing accident in 2009 (later this year Neeson appears in an adaptation of Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, a children's fantasy story about grief).
When did he realise America was going to be his home? "I'll tell you a story," he says. "I was in a picture with Bob De Niro called The Mission and I came out to New York . . . to see Bob and a few other people. [It was] my first time in New York and I met a casting director who ultimately cast me in the opening episode of season three of a show called Miami Vice which was very hip and cool.
"They flew me to Miami and I got to stay in this great hotel and they brought me up to my little suite which was overlooking this gorgeous sand and surf, and the bellboy opened the curtains and showed me everything and turned on the TV and as it came to life there was a huge close-up of me in a mini-series called Ellis Island."
It was, he says, his “St Paul on the road to Damascus” moment. He packed up and moved to America, he says, after seeing that “huge f**king close-up of my face. I looked at it and I thought ‘I’m supposed to be here. This is all supposed to happen.’”