Cigar Aficionado

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.”

He had no trepidations about making a sequel or even a third. “I had such a good time making the first one,” he says. “I thought, ‘If they can come up with a good story, I’ll do it.’ And they did.”

Laura Linney, who has appeared in three films with Neeson, says he makes action movies better than what is typically expected in that style of film. “Those movies are really good because he’s in them. He elevates the genre,” she explains. “Any of those films could have gone in a more stereotypical direction, but he elevates the whole thing. There’s a great honesty to him onscreen.”

Hollywood studios have reappraised Neeson, as an actor who also has the ability to attract audiences to the multiplex.

“Hollywood sees me in a different light,” he says with a shrug. “I’ve had several scripts come through where I could see that the heroes were meant to be in their mid-30s. But that had been scratched out, so now it said, ‘early 50s.’ ”

Yet the idea that Taken somehow revived a slumping—or even slumbering—career is misguided. 

“I was always working,” he says, amused.

Indeed, Neeson’s resume in the ten years leading up to Taken should be the envy of his colleagues. It includes some of the decade’s biggest hits as well as some of its most critically acclaimed films. In addition to donning the Jedi robes in the first Star Wars prequel, he appeared in such films as Batman Begins, Kinsey, Michael Collins, Love Actually and Gangs of New York.

The list of his more recent films is just as varied, running from art-house drama to big-budget action. He’s even able to wink at his own image as someone who plays very serious characters, teaming up with Seth MacFarlane for last summer’s comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, where he played a vicious gunslinger with an out-of-place Irish accent, a detail Neeson insisted on adding. And he took on the big-budget movie remake of a TV series in 2010 with The A-Team.

That film, in which he played John “Hannibal” Smith, the group’s leader, required Neeson to smoke cigars, a trademark of the character when George Peppard created the role during its 1980s’ run on television. Neeson was reluctant at first.

“I’m a nicotine addict and I’d quit smoking cigarettes,” he explains. “So I had this idea to pay homage to that original character: I wanted the props department to make me fake cigars of different sizes and I’d just hold them in my mouth. And whenever someone offered me a light, I’d say, ‘Thanks, I’m trying to stop.’

“But Joe Carnahan (the director) insisted that the cigars not only be real but that they be Cuban and that I smoke them. If I was doing the film now, I would have told him to fuck off. But I didn’t. When we were filming, [costar] Bradley Cooper had just quit cigarettes; I’d been off them for 15 years. So I’d light a cigar for the scene and when the scene was over, I’d say to the props guy, ‘Take this away.’ And Bradley would say, ‘No, give it to me,’ and he’d smoke it.”

Despite his attempt to avoid the Cubans, Neeson’s experience on the set of The A-Team opened his eyes to the pleasure that cigar aficionados take from a well-made puro.

“I just got it,” he says. “I appreciated the artistry and craft that goes into making them, especially the hand-rolled ones. I could imagine Sir Walter Raleigh in the 17th century, a stogie in his mouth, with Queen Elizabeth saying, ‘What the hell is that?’ and him saying, ‘Try it, mum.’

“When a character in a film smokes a cigar, I always think of them as being someone who is at peace in their world. There’s something very contemplative about it.”

Contemplative? Neeson? He seems too busy for that, perhaps because he’s good at what he does. And those who work with him commend him on his talents. 

“He always seems to be able to ground any character,” says director Paul Haggis, for whom Neeson has acted in two films. “He’s got nothing to apologize for. He can elevate a script and bring dignity to it. I think he brought a new generation to appreciate his work. He’s a very unlikely character for that. Because he has this natural gravitas that makes you think, ‘This guy’s serious.’ And he does it effortlessly.”

Neeson has carved out a career as an actor sought by the major filmmakers of his era: Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Woody Allen, Sam Raimi, Neil Jordan, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan. What he wants from a director is clarity: “I like a director to be in charge, to know what they want but not be a total dictator. They’ve got something to offer, and that creates a window for you.”

Not many actors have worked for Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas, but Neeson got his chance with all of them. Spielberg, Neeson says, “is extremely special. He’s still the bar by which I judge.”

He is getting set to work with Scorsese again; the Oscar-winning director is in preproduction on Silence, a drama about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan tentatively set to shoot in 2015: “A prequel to The Mission,” Neeson jokes. He hopes it will give him a chance to work more closely with Scorsese than he did when he played the father to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the beleaguered 2002 production of Gangs of New York.

“I don’t think that was a fair representation of what it’s like to work with him,” Neeson says. “We had very little interaction and I was only there a short time, but I sensed it was a troubled shoot. When I was in my dressing room, I could hear him shouting and roaring at one of the Weinstein boys. I can’t say I really experienced him as a director.”

Neeson obviously has no shortage of offers to choose from, yet seems as willing to work with newcomers as with the giants. He chooses scripts “fairly instinctively. I love writers and writing. I think I’m fairly good at picking up the tone of a script, no matter the genre. But it’s always the writing first for me.”

As established as he is on the big screen, it’s hard to imagine that Neeson never thought he would end up as a film actor. Film wasn’t even part of the plan in his early days. 

“I loved movies but I never saw myself being in them,” he says. “I didn’t even know how you would go about it. When I was starting out, my ambition was to be at the National Theater in London or the Royal Shakespeare Company, though I would have been nervous, because my grounding in Shakespeare isn’t good.”

It’s been more than a decade since Neeson acted on stage and he’s itching to go back, despite a film schedule that only seems to get busier.

“It doesn’t even have to be Broadway,” he says. “I’d love to do a play—a new play. Every so often I’m offered a revival, but I’d love to find a new voice, a new piece of writing. It’s been six years since I’ve done anything. If you want to play the big parts, that’s a muscle you have to keep exercising. You can’t suddenly come back and do Macbeth or King Lear.”

Not that Neeson has a burning desire to play any of the major Shakespearean roles. “Shakespeare? I like to watch it, when it’s well done. I can close my eyes and hear the words and they’re quite remarkable. But I could never do one of the plays. I was always intimidated by Shakespeare. I still am, to a certain extent. It’s the language, of course.

“Then I’ll see someone like my mother-in-law do it and it’s like you can hear Shakespeare thinking. She just transforms that language and makes it real, rooted, grounded. It’s like she’s making it up, instead of speaking something that was written 400 years ago.”

He relaxes by reading (“I’ve always got four or five books going”) and by escaping to his property in upstate New York, where he hikes and enjoys fly-fishing.

“I make my own flies—very badly,” he says with a chuckle. “There’s nothing like the thrill of casting into a little creek near your own place, to see a fish come up to the surface—and he’s going for a fly you made out of a piece of your own hair. It’s one of the great highs in life, that you made something that could catch some creature that’s been around since the Triassic period.”

Turning 60, he says, wasn’t hard. On the other hand, 50 “was a little traumatic,” he admits. “It was one of those numbers I had in my head from when I was a kid—that 50 was really old. So turning 50 was not very pleasant. But 60? It’s just a number, isn’t it?”

The sun is sinking over the New Jersey horizon as Neeson collects himself. He allows that, for all of his success—from an Oscar nomination to the pinnacle as box-office and action-movie star—he still has doubts.

“In America, if someone sees you be a success, they go, ‘Wow, look at him. He’s successful. It inspires me to do the same thing.’ Where I come from, you don’t want to be seen as getting above yourself. That’s kind of frowned upon. Back in Ireland, if you have some success, it’s ‘Who the fuck does he think he is?’ I always felt that thing—like I should go get a real job.

“To this day, before we start shooting a film, I always recast my role in my head. I’m always thinking, ‘They should have gone with this actor or that actor.’ I still get that—call it an uncertainty.

“I remember running into Morgan Freeman at a restaurant, when I was about to do Taken, and I was still thinking they’d hired the wrong guy. And he said, ‘You have to trust that you are enough. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. If it wasn’t what they wanted, you wouldn’t be getting the parts. Just keep doing it. That’s what I do.’ 

“And that stuck with me: that you have to trust that the space you’re occupying is enough.”

The profession still thrills him—up to a point.

“I love that little period between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ ” he says. “I do love it. Maybe it’s that the older I get, I get a little more weary of everything else surrounding it. But I do love that process of acting. Even in the worst film, you come away having learned something.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com. Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.