Liam Neeson: 'I like doing all that fighting stuff and it's fun to train for it, but I leave the stunts to the professionals'
For the past 10 years, his surprise middle-aged action hero status has dominated, but Liam Neeson's two new movies are quiet, contemplative yarns. He talks to Susan Griffin about his own quest for enlightenment
Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't ask Liam Neeson to quote the words, 'I will find you', from 2008's action-thriller, Taken. Even his two sons, Michael (21) and Daniel (20), have been guilty of making this request - despite their nonchalance over their dad's status as an action star.
"'Oh, that's cool'," Neeson (64) mimics, when asked what they make of his reputation. "That's all you get," adds the towering actor (he's 6ft 4in), looking slim in a black suit.
He was in his mid-50s when he made Taken, and admits he was surprised to find himself suddenly hailed one of Hollywood's new action heroes.
"Totally; are you joking?" he exclaims with a laugh, pushing his glasses back to their precarious position on his forehead.
"That first Taken was going straight to video, I thought. Seriously. I'm not tagging how the film was made, because I think it's a real cool little European thriller, but then it became this success. It was quite embarrassing, really."
After two sequels, he insists those movies "are finished with", but he's still sent "action stuff".
"I said to my agent, 'Do they know what f****** age I am?' Maybe another 18 months and then that's it, because I think audiences start going, 'Oh c'mon'.
"But we'll see," he adds, his familiar, gravelly voice almost inaudible at times. "I like doing all that fighting stuff, and it's fun to train for that. I don't do my own stunts; people think I do but I leave it to the professionals."
The actor, who was born in Ballymena, to a cook and caretaker, only recently wrapped on the action movie The Commuter, due out next year, and today is cradling a Thermos he was given at the wrap party.
What's the film about?
He pauses for a moment, before stating with a grin: "S*** happens on a train.
"Strangely enough, it's set on a train that goes past my house in upstate New York. But you know the movie industry... 'Let's shoot it in a studio in London'."
Right now though, Neeson's busy promoting two movies set for release on New Year's Day. The first is Silence, Martin Scorsese's passion project. An epic two hours and 40-minutes long, it tells the story of two 17th century Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), who travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Neeson), and to spread the gospel of Christianity.
Based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 award-winning novel, it examines the spiritual and religious question of God's silence in the face of human suffering - and proved a tough sell, even for someone of Scorsese's ilk.
"There are 29 producers credited in this film... 29," exclaims Neeson, who also worked with the veteran film-maker on 2002's Gangs Of New York.
"I heard even two weeks before I went out to join them, one of the investors pulled their money out. I think there was a big scrambling about to get extra finances."
Neeson recalls delving into Endo's tome before production.
"It was painfully dry, I had trouble finishing it," he admits. "And then Marty gave me the script that he and screenwriter Jay Cocks had been working on, and it suddenly came alive." He's only in a few scenes, but his approach was no different to when he's shouldering an entire movie.
"I kind of personally like it, because they've been labouring away for seven or eight months and you come in for three weeks, do a little bit and go off, and the characters are talking about you for the rest of the film," Neeson confesses.
He questions his interpretation of faith "all the time".
"In fact, when I came back from shooting Silence, I immediately went into Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and various books on atheism," he reveals.
"I'd been with a Jesuit priest for research and done quite a bit with Father Daniel Berrigan in the Eighties for (1986 movie) The Mission and I was intrigued by all of that, but then read an article in this science journal and it just tweaked something else in my brain.
"I thought, let's leave God aside for a second and see what science has to say about all of this, and the inroads they are making into this stuff in here," he continues, tapping his head.
"It's very, very interesting. Science will always and ultimately answer all the 'how' questions, but what they can't and won't is the big 'why' question."
The other new title he's promoting - A Monster Calls, a stunning film written by Patrick Ness and directed by J. A. Bayona - also examines human suffering, albeit from the viewpoint of a young lad, Conor, played by Lewis MacDougall, who's coming to terms with his mother's terminal illness.
"It's an extraordinary book, and certainly ranks up there with Oscar Wilde's fairy tales and Grimm Brothers, all those classics," observes Neeson, who plays the titular monster; an ancient tree who comes to life and acts as a guide for Conor by telling stories.
"This kid has no one to turn to. Even his mother isn't telling the truth and he's desperate to be told, as kids are; kids can handle it," notes the actor, who lost his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, following a tragic skiing accident in 2009.
"Treat them like adults. Tell them the big issues in life if they come up. Easter Bunny, Santa Claus; it starts there."
He has nothing but praise for his young co-star MacDougall ("This kid, I mean, hello, there's no acting there. This guy puts Shakespeare's Hamlet to shame") and Bayona, who also directed The Impossible and The Orphanage.
"I loved how he nurtures these performances from these kids. The only other person I've seen do that was Steven Spielberg (Neeson was nominated for an Oscar after working with the director on 1993's Schindler's List). He's got that gift. He doesn't talk to them as kids; he talks to them as adults."
More than three decades since he rose to prominence in 1981's Excalibur, Neeson admits that a few months ago he finally found himself thinking, "I'm really tired".
"I'd been very, very lucky," he says, reflecting on the opportunities that have come up over the years. "I also tend to go, 'Oh my God, they're offering me a film? How much? I'll do it'."
He still loves his job - "between action and cut" - and while he hasn't lost faith in the industry, there are times he's concerned about its future.
"I'm concerned that with all the technical know-how they have now, with computers and screens of all sizes, that people will stop going out to sit in an empty room with strangers and watch something hopefully magical," Neeson admits.
"That's still a very important thing."
- Silence and A Monster Calls are both out on New Year's Day