Liam Neeson - Alpha Male
Liam Neeson keeps drawing on his “particular set of skills” to mow down the bad guys in Taken 3, the latest and possibly final installment of the highly successful action franchise. This time out, however, no one gets “taken”—unless you enlarge the sense of the term to include retired CIA agent Bryan Mills’ ex-girlfriend (Famke Janssen) who is murdered at the beginning of the film. Mills is framed for the murder and forced to go on the run while taking revenge on the bad guys along the way.
“I guess this guy just has a way of attracting trouble,” Neeson smiles, his Irish brogue still as charming as ever. “My guy sees all the forces turning against him, but he’s always ready to fight back. He will never back down, even if he’s basically alone and the odds are stacked against him.”
“I’m attracted to characters who are loners. There’s something mysterious, manly, and stoic about them.”
Adds Neeson: “There’s a lot of heart to this movie, though, and a lot of action and twists and turns—much more than in the first two films. I think audiences will get into it.”
For the 62-year-old Neeson, Taken 3 is merely the latest chapter in a career renaissance that began with the original Taken in 2008. Financed by Luc Besson’s French production company, EuropaCorp, the original film shocked Hollywood when it went on to earn over $250 million at the global box office. Suddenly Liam Neeson was a hot property again and he would go on to star in a succession of movies that included The A-Team, Clash of the Titans, Unknown, Grey, Battleship, The Dark Knight Rises, and this year’s Third Person. For a distinguished dramatic actor, the transformation to alpha male action star has been an interesting twist of fate and given him a renewed purpose as an actor. “It’s a great life,” he observes.
Life, unfortunately, hasn’t always treated him kindly. Neeson suffered a terrible tragedy in March of 2009, when his beloved wife, Natasha Richardson, died in a freak skiing accident near Montreal while he was in Toronto filming Chloe. He remains haunted by her memory and has admitted of late that, “her death still doesn’t seem real.”
Neeson is currently single, having ended a relationship with Freya St. Johnston, an English PR executive, earlier this year. Liam lives in New York with his 18-year-old son, Daniel. His other son, Michael, 19, left home this summer to travel before beginning university studies next autumn. Born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, Liam trained as a boxer during his teenage years before a particularly nasty punch he took to the jaw suggested he try another line of work. He was recently seen in A Walk Among the Tombstones, a dark film, which prompts him to remark: “I like graveyards. I find them very peaceful. I like window-shopping.” Next year, Neeson begins work on Silence, a drama directed by Martin Scorsese and co-starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver.
During the Zurich Film Festival, we were able to sit down with the ever-so-gracious Neeson, where he openly discussed losing the love of his life and his strong appreciation of the success he has had through the Taken film trilogy—and continually being offered stoic characters to portray.
STRIPLV: Liam, how is life in New York these days?
NEESON: We’re all good, and thank you for asking. My boys are getting bigger now—the youngest is a senior in high school, and the oldest is on a gap year and traveling. We’re good, they’re all healthy. We’ve got a great family, a grand support system; I’m lucky enough to be able to work in a profession that I love doing. And for all that, I feel very blessed—every day.
STRIPLV: Is it fun for you to be enjoying so much success as an actor of late?
NEESON: I love working. I’m getting the chance to do a lot of interesting films and playing different kinds of characters—not just getting to do damage to people all the time! (Laughs) I don’t really know what else to do with myself, although I would dearly love to go back on stage at some point. I haven’t done any theater in six years and it’s starting to weigh on me. It gets harder for you the longer you’ve been away from the stage and I’m still looking for a great new play to get me back into that world.
STRIPLV: How does it feel to be playing Bryan Mills again in Taken 3?
NEESON: The character has a strong sense of duty and mission, and I’m drawn to men of that nature. There’s so many ways to get lost in the world if you don’t have some sense of purpose and direction. In his case, he’s been trying to defend his daughter from danger and now he’s having to defend himself. But he intends to put a finish to it and you better believe he’s serious about that! (Laughs)
STRIPLV: Can you see yourself doing another Taken?
NEESON: It’s a rollicking good story and I’ve had great fun doing them. Making these films has helped me get back into very good shape and it’s given me a lot of attention that I’m obviously grateful for. But I don’t know whether people will look at me and wonder whether the guy is getting too old to be getting banged around and delivering all that punishment. Maybe he needs to retire and lead a quieter life. (Laughs)
STRIPLV: Do you ever shake your head and wonder what your career would have been like if the first Taken hadn’t been such a massive hit?
NEESON: (Smiles) No one expected that. Certainly not me. I thought it was a well-made European thriller, which might have some limited success in the U.S., nothing more. But then it took off and suddenly I started receiving a lot of action scripts and they’re still coming. It’s also led to a lot of other work for me, so I’m immensely grateful. At my age, it’s a gift to still be playing leading roles—every actor knows that there will be some periods where you’re the flavor of the month and then you disappear. Some people come back, others don’t. I didn’t expect to be so busy and it’s been good for me.
STRIPLV: Is it hard on the body?
NEESON: Sometimes my knees feel stiff or sore, but otherwise it’s okay. I trained as a boxer for many years as a teenager, and I’ve always tried to stay fit. Ever since Taken, I’ve been training very hard again, and I’ve gotten to enjoy that. It’s not just learning the choreography for the fight sequences, it’s getting in the gym, running, and getting very fit. For the last ten films or more I’ve worked regularly with a trainer who specializes in fight sequences and he’s helped me get into better shape now than I was in thirty years ago.
STRIPLV: Do you feel a lot stronger now?
NEESON: I feel stronger and I also have more energy during the day, because I’ve been maintaining a high level of fitness—especially at my age, where I’m working 16-hour days often, and a lot of fight sequences or running and the like are involved.
STRIPLV: Do you feel like you could handle yourself in a real-life fight?
NEESON: Definitely. When you’ve trained as a fighter for six years as I did when I was young, you learn how to throw a punch. Your boxing instincts never leave you, and now I like the feeling of knowing that I’ve brought my physical level back to a fairly high level. There’s a level of pride and confidence knowing that you still have a few skills! (Laughs)
STRIPLV: Does that give you a certain kind of fearless attitude?
NEESON: No, I wouldn’t say that. I have a lot of anxieties... Driving in New York is very scary. My sons are always complaining that I’m driving too slowly. I remember working on Unknown and I had this crazy French stunt driver who was tearing around the streets of Berlin at night with me in the car, and I kept thinking that I had a fairly good chance of dying. (Smiles) I can handle hand-to-hand combat, but I’d be very bad at doing a high-speed car chase. I let other people handle that.
STRIPLV: In your previous film, A Walk Among the Tombstones, you played a man who suffered from tremendous guilt and torment. Was that a difficult role to play?
NEESON: No, because I understood the man. He’s convinced he’s failed people in the past, that he didn’t do enough, and he has a great deal of guilt about it. And I think just being Irish, and being Irish-Catholic especially, helps a great deal in playing that. (Laughs)
STRIPLV: Apart from guilt, what kinds of attitudes or principles did you grow up with in Northern Ireland?
NEESON: What I learned growing up was a work ethic. That’s a real characteristic in the North, and my parents drilled it into my sisters and myself: Get a job, no matter what your profession is going to be. Get a job and provide for yourself and provide for your family. Also, a man should be true to his word. And that he should defend his viewpoint, even if everyone else is against him. You should believe in yourself and be honest and authentic and respect others. Those are the qualities I value in life and what I appreciate most in other men, in particular.
STRIPLV: You said in the past that after your wife Natasha Richardson’s death, that work helped you deal with the grieving process?
NEESON: It was the only thing that was really going to help me cope, because you just focus on the job and you don’t allow yourself to dwell in sadness. I still think about her all the time—you don’t get over something like that. My kids have also been the best support for me. Hopefully, I’m the same for them, too. Work gives your life structure when you lose your way. That explains why I’ve deliberately worked a lot in recent times. Plus, there’s the fact that I’ve always had the feeling my run of good luck won’t last forever.