Liam Neeson loves making action films and isn’t about to take his leave of the genre just yet, says Stephen Applebaum
When Liam Neeson walks into a hotel room in London and puts a green metallic mug on the table, I’m instantly curious as to what the drink of choice is for a 62-year-old action star.
In truth, Neeson looks at least a decade younger than his real age, and fit enough in the flesh to get away with (most of) the moves that he pulls as retired special ops agent Bryan Mills in Taken 3 – the third entry in the popular meat-and-potatoes Taken franchise. So, that mug: Does it contain an energy drink? Some kind of high protein shake? Or a liquid reminder, perhaps, of the New York-based Irishman’s old homeland?
“It’s Yorkshire decaf tea,” Nee son reveals, in a perfect northern accent. “I have this cup with me everywhere I go. I think people think it’s filled with vodka and stuff.” In fact, Neeson recently gave up alcohol after realising that he was drinking too much as he struggled with the tragic death of his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, in 2009, following a seemingly inconsequential fall while skiing.
The Schindler’s List star has said he never drank at work, but at night could happily drink several bottles of pinot noir, and still be fine. When action films like Taken and Non-Stop – effectively Taken on a plane – suddenly started coming his way, Neeson decided to ring some changes. He admits to being as surprised as anyone to find himself in this position, at this point in his career. Neeson loved the script for the original Taken – in which Mills used his “particular set of skills” to track down the human traffickers who kidnapped his daughter (Maggie Grace) in Paris, and then followed through on his promise to kill them – when his agent sent it to him, but never imagined that the film’s French producer, Luc Besson, would see him in the part.
“Then I was over at the Shanghai Film Festival,” he recalls, “and Luc was there. We met and I said, ‘Listen, I’ve read the script and I know you’re not going to think of me, but I wish you would.’ Anyway, push came to shove and they offered it to me.”
Taken was a lean, mean, highly-efficient action thriller, with a hero that out-Bourned Bourne. When he signed up to do it, though, Neeson was convinced the movie would go straight to video. “It was very much a one-off. I thought I’d get three months in Paris, do all this physical stuff, which is great, and then it would disappear.”
Only things didn’t happen that way. Taken opened well in France, then South Korea. “Then I got a call from my nephews in England: ‘Er, Uncle Liam, we saw your movie,’” Neeson recalls, doing a passable impression of a teenage slacker. “I said, ‘Which one?’ They said, ‘Taken.’ I said, ‘You couldn’t have. It’s not even out yet.’ ‘Er, yeah. Sorry. We downloaded it.’ I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s the end of that.’”
Twentieth Century Fox had other plans, though. Thanks to “an amazing PR job” and strong word of mouth, the film took off in America, almost making back its $25 million production budget over the opening weekend alone. (To date, the film has grossed $227 million worldwide.) “I was amazed, to be honest,” says Neeson.
In hindsight, he believes that Bryan Mills caught the zeitgeist. “My own little theory is the world was turned upside down in 2008 because of these financial criminals [he practically spits out the word “criminals”] that were ruining all our lives, and what audiences saw with Taken was a guy who’s not going to call a figure of authority if he gets in trouble, because who are the figures of authority?
“We were all experiencing that then, we were all being played with, and here’s a guy that takes the law into his own hands and does something about it. I think audiences really empathised with that, in a big way.”
Whatever the reasons for the scale of Taken’s success, the box office numbers meant that a sequel was inevitable. Thus, in the second film, Mills and his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) found themselves in trouble, and it was up to their daughter to help save the day. Again, the film did well.
Neeson publicly stated his reluctance to return as Mills for a third time, but was coaxed back when a script was written meeting his desire that no-one is actually taken. (A rumoured $20 million pay day was no doubt also part of the draw.) This time, Mills goes into action after he is framed for the murder of someone close to him. There are some unexpected deaths, several ludicrous escapes, lots of over-the-top action, and a number of winks to die-hard fans.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a fourth instalment would be possible; however, Neeson insists that this really is the end. “It’s the final one. Audiences were kind of demanding a finish, you know? I think that Luc and [co-writer] Robert Mark Kamen came up with a good story-line to make it all finish.” I remind him that he said there would be no Taken 3. “I know I said that last time. But no, it’s over. That’s it.”
Besides, action scenes are already having to be designed in a way that takes Neeson/Mills’s age into account. “With this one, I said, ‘I’m 62 years of age, so we’re making the guy 55, say. What’s the quickest way, if one’s going from A to B, and there’s two guys in the way, to get rid of these guys rather than getting into Jackie Chan stuff?’ I said, ‘Let’s just keep it down and dirty, as guys like Mills do in real life.’”
The interview segues into a discussion about violence, and gun crime in particular, in Neeson’s adopted America (he became a US citizen in 2009 in response to the outpouring of sympathy following his wife’s death). He calls the gun lobby “an absolute disgrace” and the right to bear arms “a very painful subject”.
“We’re now so used to picking up a paper and seeing that a kid in a school has killed more students,” says the father of two teenage sons. “But everybody says it’s in the Constitution. I think the Founding Fathers would be turning in their graves if they knew what this right to bear arms is leading to in America in 2014.”
The actor, who grew up surrounded by violence in Northern Ireland, has a point. But how does he reconcile the Taken films, which feature lots of thrilling ballistic action, with this point of view? Neeson doesn’t flinch.
“Given what I have just said, I am an exponent of gun violence in these films,” he admits. “You can slap me in the face with that and say I’m a liar. My defence is that it’s very much cartoon violence. That’s what I see it as: Tom and Jerry played out with human beings.”
Moreover, just as he finds acting therapeutic and cathartic, so he believes audiences get something similar from the viewing experience. “People aren’t going to go out and buy Uzis and start shooting people up [after watching a movie],” he says. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, that guy’s done it for me in my imagination.’”
Neeson loves making action films and isn’t about to take his leave of the genre just yet. “As long as my knees still work, I will keep doing them,” he insists. “Once the knees go, you’re f***ed. I’ve got maybe two more years.”
Off screen he has more sedate passions, such as fly fishing. He does it whenever and wherever he can, often travelling to a preserve in upstate New York, where he lives, to engage in a battle of wits with the trout there. He says he makes his own lures, which leads to a surprising anecdote involving road kill.
“A few years ago, if I was driving up there and there was a dead deer in the road, I would get out with my knife and cut off some of the fur, because deer fur makes amazing flies. The hair around the ear – oh, that’s great.”
This is ironic, as Neeson almost died after hitting a deer on his motorcycle in 2000. Anyway, he doesn’t do it anymore. “The last thing I need is a paparazzo photographing me with a knife and this deer lying dead,” he laughs.
In any case, he’s unlikely to have much free time. In March, he starts filming Silence, which will reunite the actor with his Gangs of New York director, Martin Scorsese. As in that film, he’ll once again be playing a man of the cloth; this time, a 17th century Jesuit priest who disappears while proselytising in Japan. He’s looking forward to it.
“It’s a little bit like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. And this guy Scorsese, he seems to have a future,” quips Neeson. “They’re saying he’s quite good.” • Taken 3 is on general release from 8 January