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The Hero Inside

Photo/Lorenzo Agius

Liam Neeson, the thinking man's action hero, has a particular set of skills

Liam Neeson takes a sip of his tea, his mitts dwarfing the mug in his large hands. He’s speaking about the role that made him a star, the lead in Steven Spielberg’s monumental 1993 film Schindler’s List. Reclining in his Manhattan office on an October afternoon, Neeson admits that the classic tale of Holocaust heroism, which won seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture, probably couldn’t get made today—even with Spielberg at the helm. 

"I remember, when I got Schindler’s List and it was going to be in black and white,” Neeson says. “Someone at Universal said, ‘Why don’t you just take the money and put it into a Jewish cause instead?’ Hard to believe, but true. Even with Steven, I wonder if it would get made today. Probably not.”

Nor, probably, with Neeson—at least not the Neeson of the early 1990s, before Schindler’s List forever changed his career. But, as Spielberg himself has said, Neeson was the perfect actor for the role.

“Liam had the charm and the bearing of Schindler,” Spielberg told Inside Film, an online movie magazine. “And he had the presence of Schindler. He had the charisma, just existing there without doing very much. And he also had the humanity that would always be there, you know. It could be latent, but it would always come out when he summoned it.”

Schindler’s List made Neeson a star for his heralded performance as a German businessman who saved 1,200 Jews from the ovens of the Holocaust. But he won the role precisely because he wasn’t a star when Spielberg cast him.

“I didn’t want to put a movie star in the part because I didn’t want the distraction of a whole bunch of other movies to cloud this one,” Spielberg said in the interview. “It would have been easy, I had the movie stars coming to me for this part. I just didn’t want to go that way.”

Neeson was nominated for an Oscar as best actor for his performance (though he lost to Tom Hanks for Philadelphia.) Statue or not, Neeson says, the film moved his career to another level.

“I remember thinking that, if Steven Spielberg thinks I can carry a film, maybe I can,” he says. “Working with him gave me great confidence. He’s a superb director.”

Neeson’s tasteful but homey office is awash in honeyed light from the late afternoon sun over the Hudson River, visible in the distance from this high-rise perch. The walls are decorated with framed snapshots of Neeson and his family and friends, including his late wife, actress Natasha Richardson. 

Cradled in a holder on a shelf near the window is the intricate-looking hilt of the Jedi lightsaber he wielded in Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, a weapon his character used to slice through villains and steel doors alike. Neeson himself is an imposing figure, a 6-foot-4 gentle giant. Movie-star handsome? Maybe not. Ruggedly handsome? Absolutely. His wide-set brown eyes toggle from warm to wary, with occasional hints of sadness. 

His face is a geometrist’s dream, a construction of angles and planes that includes cheekbones like tectonic plates. The nose, with its distinctively beaky bend, offers evidence of his teen years in the boxing ring.

You can’t really talk about a comeback when you discuss Neeson, for you can’t come back if you’ve never really been away. With seven different movies in theaters in 2014 (including animated films to which he lent his voice) and four movies lined up for release this year, Neeson is as busy as ever. You could think of this as a renaissance in Neeson’s career, a chance to expand his reach and try something new, putting on the booster rockets for the autumn of his career. 

To his own great surprise at the age of 62, Neeson finds himself rebranded as a box-office magnet and action hero. And not just any action hero, but one the mass audience loves to watch kick serious ass. In fact, Neeson has mushroomed into almost a genre unto himself, populated by movies in which he doesn’t just beat the bad guys—he demolishes them.

That grew out of the unexpectedly robust box-office performance of Taken, the brainchild of French action auteur Luc Besson. Made and released in France and elsewhere in 2008, it opened in the U.S. in 2009 and blew up its competition with the violently exciting tale of an ex-CIA man rescuing his teenage daughter from Eastern European sex-slave traders. 

When he made the film, Neeson was convinced that virtually no one would ever see it.

“I knew we’d made a good, pacey little European thriller, but I figured that was the end of it,” Neeson says, reclining on a sofa in his office near Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. “I was totally surprised. It had reasonable success in France. And it did very well in South Korea. After it opened there, I got a call from my nephew in England and he said, ‘I saw your movie, Uncle Liam.’ I said, ‘How could you? It’s not out yet.’ He said, ‘Oh, my friends and I downloaded it.’ But I’m a technophobe and didn’t really know what that meant. So, even then, I thought that was the end of it.

“Then, toward the beginning of 2009, Fox did this amazing PR job on it for the American release and it became this success. It was No. 2 at the box office, then No. 1, then No. 3—it had this very strange little treadmill life at the top there for a few weeks. I was shocked. I really was.”

The $25 million film grossed almost $150 million in the United States alone, taking in more than $220 million worldwide. Its success—and the box-office power of its sequel and other Neeson action titles—led some critics to accuse Neeson of slumming, of taking so-called “paycheck” roles, films chosen for the cash instead of the quality.

“I think he’s bemused that, at his age, he can command that kind of box office and salary. It’s amusing to him,” says actor Aidan Quinn, a long-time friend. “He was always very charming. He had this great wit and energy. And he had a plan. He wanted to have a great career. It was so in his mind, in his destiny. He had a vision of it, a drive, a determination.”

The intensity of Neeson’s work schedule may be explained, partly, by the impulse to distract himself from the grief of Richardson’s death after striking her head in a fall while skiing in early 2009.

“Work was a huge solace,” Neeson says. “I come from a background steeped in the work ethic and that stood me in good stead. In terms of juggling work and the kids [son Micheál is in college, younger son Daniel graduates from high school next spring], well, you just do. It’s a tight-knit family, so if I’m away for any stretch, they move in: my mother-in-law and such.”

Neeson and Richardson (the daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson) met when they were cast opposite each other in the award-winning 1993 Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, for which both received Tony nominations. They worked together again in the film Nell in 1994, the same year they were married. His grief over her death has dissipated, he says, but can still creep up on him at unexpected moments.

“I think I’ve put it in its proper place,” he says. “It’s less and less. But it still happens now and again.”

“There was a period where he threw himself into work almost maniacally,” says Quinn. “Yet, when Natasha died, he was incredibly graceful and emotional and open with everyone that came. He’s talked about bottling the grief up and, around the time of the funeral, he was busy taking care of everyone else. The long-term grieving—I think he let that in later.”

Raised in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, Neeson was a working-class kid, the only boy among three sisters. He got a taste of acting in high school, but acting wasn’t regarded as a real profession, so he tried college, twice. 

“I couldn’t get a scholarship or grant to go to drama school,” he recalls. “They didn’t recognize drama school as furthering your education. But I couldn’t handle the freedom of college life. Not that I was out gallivanting or boozing or smoking or anything. I did nothing other than all these little amateur plays.

“I got a grant and completed two years (of three) of teacher training, but, again, I spent all my time in the drama studio. I couldn’t have been a teacher. I couldn’t have done it; I didn’t have it in me. I have two sisters who have been teachers for 35 years and I admire them. I couldn’t handle a classroom full of kids, keeping them under control and trying to educate them.”

He quit school to pursue acting, taking day jobs to pay the bills, driving forklifts and trucks and spending his evenings onstage. Eventually, he found paying work as an actor at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, before being spotted by film director John Boorman, who cast him as Sir Gawain in Excalibur, the 1981 reworking of the King Arthur legend. Neeson became romantically involved with one of his costars, Helen Mirren, with whom he lived in London and who he has credited with helping him get an agent.

“That was exhilarating,” he says. “It was my first big film and you’re in a shiny suit of armor on horseback. You’re one of the knights of the Round Table, surrounded by beautiful women. I remember thinking, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’

“After that, getting work in Los Angeles felt like a big achievement. I was in London and my agent in L.A. kept saying, ‘I can’t do anything with you in London.’ So I moved to L.A. with enough money to last five or six weeks. Before it ran out, I got a small part in a TV movie with Dabney Coleman and Peter Coyote. So I had a little money and was able to stay. Work breeds work, you know, and I just started getting work.”

Neeson moved up steadily, from supporting roles in such films as The Bounty, going toe-to-toe with Clint Eastwood in The Dead Pool and romancing Diane Keaton in The Good Mother. He graduated to starring roles in 1990, with the British film The Big Man about an unemployed coal miner forced into bare-knuckle boxing to make money. The role played directly to Neeson’s comfort zone: As a teen, he had won boxing championships in Northern Ireland’s equivalent of the Golden Gloves.

“I was 16 and I was OK, I was competent,” Neeson says. “But I could never have been a professional. And it’s not nice to get hit. The older you get, the more it hurts. Boxing is a form of theater. You’re performing, to a certain extent. You’re there with all your strengths and weaknesses, which is an incredibly vulnerable position to be in. 

“Does that apply to acting? To a certain extent. Because of my boxing, I still keep myself in good shape. You need stamina, particularly if you’re going to be playing leads in movies. You’ve got to set an example for the rest of the cast. There’s no room for you to be sloppy or late. You’ve got to have your shit together.”

It’s a late afternoon and Neeson is just back from the looping studio, recording dialogue that needed to be replaced in Taken 3, which will be released in January. He’s heading out in a while to a New York Rangers’ game with son Daniel. When he pursued the original Taken, he assumed he wasn’t anyone’s idea of an action hero.

“I read the script and it just appealed to me,” he says. “It was a simple story but it connected. But I never thought I’d get it.” He met writer/producer Besson at the Shanghai Film Festival and they started talking. Neeson told Besson he wanted to take part. “I liked the idea of the physicality of it. And he offered it to me. So I spent three months filming in Paris. How bad can that be? I was working with a great bunch of stunt guys, doing all this wonderful choreography.”

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