Are you right there, Michael?

HAVING committed himself to playing Michael Collins for Neil Jordan over a decade ago and immersed himself in the eventual movie…

HAVING committed himself to playing Michael Collins for Neil Jordan over a decade ago and immersed himself in the eventual movie for most of the past two years, Liam Neeson was not displaying even a hint of Collins fatigue when we settled down in his Cork hotel this week. It was the first interview of the day for him in what was going to be a very long day indeed, with some round table interviews to follow, a press conference, the reception preceding the Cork premiere, the flight to Dublin for the evening's other premiere, and finally at midnight, the post premiere party at Dublin Castle.

"I'm still thinking about Collins, still reading about him," the six foot four Ballymena born actor says when he settles down with a cup of tea. "Colm Connolly has brought out this wonderful pictorial history of him which I'm always delving into.

"First and foremost what impressed me about Collins was his dynamism. The guy's energy was extraordinary. And what panache he had. He really had the stuff of heroes cycling around Dublin, which was much smaller then than it is now, with £10,000 on his head. He was an absolute realist with no illusions about himself. Actually, he was a much better politician than he made himself out to be."

In Jordan's riveting movie Liam Neeson is physically every inch The Big Fella and he settles into the part with supreme ease and flair, delivering his finest and most complete screen performance to date. In his diary accompanying the published screenplay of the movie, Jordan observes at one point how, of all the cast, the production is "releasing a storm of energy in Liam in particular".


"It did," the actor concurs. "There were so many locations in the film, around 90 of them, and it was really busy going from one to another, but it was exhilarating and I couldn't wait to get back to work every day. And while we were shooting, Natasha was expecting our first child and of course, that added to it all. All that was happening at the same time, so there was a built in dynamism.

His wife, the cinema and stage actress Natasha Richardson, gave birth to their first child, Micheal, in Holles Street hospital while the film was shooting in Dublin.

On the second day of shooting, Liam Neeson recalls being in uniform with a large cast of extras in the grounds of Dublin Castle when the President, Mrs Robinson, happened to be driven in to the castle. "Myself and this whole crowd of Black and Tans saw her coming through," he says, "and we raced over and gave her a salute. She had a strange look on her face."

Hardly a surprising reaction from an outsider happening upon a film set, but how does Neeson, as the star of the movie, deal with the complex collision of art and real life, as in, for example, the crucial scene at Beal na mBlath when Collins has been shot and Neeson, playing him, is lying there with a bullet in his head?

"Obviously, when you're doing it, you're dealing with all this technical stuff, like getting the angles right and so on," he says. "At first I Was concerned that the death scene was too short and if we were throwing it away, but I think it works. I don't think you need a slo-mo death, even though I'm sure audiences wanted something more dramatic and heroic. But I love the way Neil dismissed that option, and it's just the way death is just a blink of the eye."

Michael Collins is the second Neil Jordan film in which Liam Neeson has starred. What changes did he detect in the director since they worked together on High Spirits eight years ago? "Funnily enough, I was just talking to Stephen Rea about this yesterday," he says, "because Stephen has been in so many of Neil's films, it's like Scorsese's relationship with De Niro. Stephen kind of coined it when he said Neil is interested in directing and you're the actor and you act as long as you know that you're telling the story.

"Stephen loves that kind of direction and I do, too, actually. Neil's not the kind of guy who'll put his arm over your shoulder and take you into a corner and talk about it. Actors generally want that, to be held and feel protected, but I don't and Stephen doesn't. I think Neil senses that and knows it, and I think that's the way all the great directors like John Ford and John Huston worked."

Working again with so many old friends was one of the pleasures of making Michael Collins for Liam Neeson, and something which made them all so comfortable with each other. "Stephen and I were doing radio plays together in Belfast way back in the mid-1970s," he says. "And there were so many actors coming on the film for a few days work and I'd worked with them years ago at the Abbey or the Project. It was such a great experience."

One of the most tender and touching elements of Michael Collins is the development of the relationships in the emotional triangle that comprised Kitty Kiernan, Harry Boland and Collins. Liam Neeson has known Julia Roberts, who plays Kitty Kiernan, since they used to go out together a decade ago. "There was an ease between myself and Julia on the set, a real ease," he says. "She was dying to do the film. Ironically, she first heard about Michael Collins from me, 10 years ago. It's funny how these things happen in life."

He describes the close relationship between Collins and Boland as being "like brothers" and he has been a friend of Aidan Quinn, who plays Boland, since they first worked together on The Mission 12 years ago. "Even though we had no scenes together in The Mission, we struck up a friendship. And early last year when Neil and I were talking about actors for Michael Collins, I told Neil that I could only see Aidan Quinn doing Harry Boland. I admire Aidan's acting tremendously. He's always so absolutely believable and real especially for someone who looks so dashingly handsome. I was thrilled when he agreed to do it."

Liam Neeson says he anticipated the negative criticism of Jordan's film in the British media. "When I was preparing for the film, I looked up some obituaries which were published in Britain when Collins was killed and the papers that have attacked the film had the same view back then. It was like reading the same writers 75 years later. Yet the Daily Telegraph critic, Quentin Curtis, gave it a smashing review and then the editorial side of the same paper lambastes the film. That itself in the one newspaper would make me want to see the movie.

"I did an interview with a London radio station this week and this little f-- kept saying, `surely you see this as an IRA recruitment film?' and I kept saying `No'. And he was determined to get something out of me that he could use to stir up controversy.

The first reviews of Michael Collins appeared when the movie had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August and it took two of the festival's major prizes, the Golden Lion for best film and the best actor award for Liam Neeson. For Neeson, the trip to Venice combined the agony and the ecstasy.

"It was weird," he says. "I flew over from America with Aidan. I'd been on this protein diet. I just wanted to lose about 10 pounds because I knew I had all this publicity coming up and I wanted to look photogenic again - I'd taken a year off after filming Collins because I wanted to spend time with my wife and my son, and one allows oneself to go to seed."

"So I was in fighting shape again, ready for the cameras. On the plane I was eating caviar and blinis and the blinis were curling around the edges. Aidan said, `God, I'm not going to eat those', but I was knocking them back. I started getting an upset tummy and I thought, `oh, the food's off.' But it wasn't as it turned out it was this blocked colon that was starting to affect me. I saw a doctor, and even though I was feeling terrible, I went to the gala screening in Venice. But you know what we bloody actors are like when the applause starts we feel much better.

"Then they were going to fly me back to the States, but the doctor said no, I had to be hospitalised. It all went incredibly smoothly. You know Aidan stayed by my bedside for a week and he collected the award for me. They told me I had won the Venice award on the morning of the ceremony, but I was in this antibiotic haze. I remember waking up and seeing a bit of the ceremony carried live on television. I fell asleep and woke up again and there in front of me were Neil and Aidan walking in with this shimmering gold, the Golden Lion it was like a real Fellini image. I remember getting out of bed and for some reason I remember pulling on this black Armani T shirt, and holding this award and shaking hands with them. That gave me a lift."

Having collected the Venice award, how does he rate his chances of a second Oscar nomination - his first was for playing Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List in the spring for Collins? "Oh, God, it would be great," he says quietly, "but it's a long way down the line and it's totally out of one's hands."

Speaking of Oscars, is he still committed to playing Oscar Wilde in the film written by David Hare? A rival film on Wilde starring Stephen Fry has gone into production with Wilde's mother played by Vanessa Redgrave, who just happens to be Liam Neeson's mother in law. "Hopefully we'll do our version within the next 18 months," he says. "I can see Stephen Fry being physically more like Wilde and certainly very good with the wit because he's such a natural comedian. I read that script, too, and it's pretty good, but we're going to do something different. You can't just do the trials again."

He says he is not sure about the press stories that Hugh Grant plays Bosie in the David Hare version. And he is amused, to say to least, when I raise the prospect of himself and Hugh Grant doing love scenes together. It would be a big change for both of them, I point out. "Well, I'll have to kiss whoever gets the role, that's for sure, he laughs.

Prior to the production, Neeson - is likely to play Jean Valjean in a non musical movie of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables for the Danish director, Bille August. "We're in discussions still and the script is by no means ready yet," he says. "Bob De Niro seems to be quite keen to play the police inspector, Javert. But that film won't happen until February or March."

Now 44, Liam Neeson seems quite happy to stay off the set for another three or fours months as he savours the joys of parenthood. "I love it," he says. "I've taken to it like a duck to water. The two boys are wonderful Micheal is 16 months now and Daniel is just 10 weeks old. It's great. It is great. You know, I'm pining for Micheal at the moment. He's in New York and Daniel's with Natasha and me because my family haven't seen him yet."

After living for over six years in Los Angeles, he is relishing an idyllic lifestyle in the upstate New York home he shares with his wife and children. "We're in the country," he says. "We've got 40 acres and a huge garden. We grow all sorts of vegetables and we've these two pools that I stock with fish. And I ride the roads on my Harley Davidson. I really love it at this time of year when the leaves are turning and. it's all so unbelievably beautiful. I feel so lucky."