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Taken aback: Laurence White on that Liam Neeson interview

It started off as a routine interview to publicise the popular actor's latest revenge movie but became a classic Hollywood meltdown. However, while some have accused the Ballymena-born star of racism, there's also been a rush to defend him for his honesty

Racism storm: Liam Neeson
Racism storm: Liam Neeson
Racism storm: Liam Neeson in new movie Cold Pursuit

By Laurence White

As journalistic scoops go, it was one of the easiest, and most unexpected, that any reporter could hope for. A Hollywood A-lister confessed out of the blue how he had spent a week trawling the streets of some unknown city hoping to find and kill some "black b******".

The fact that it happened 40 years ago did nothing to lessen the shock of the revelation by Northern Ireland's Liam Neeson. He explained that he was motivated by anger after a close friend, now dead, told him she had been raped by a black man. That prompted him to fashion a cosh and potentially seek a deadly revenge.

It was an astonishingly candid admission by the Ballymena-born actor and prompted the keyboard warriors of the Twitterati to fly into a purple-faced rage, accusing him of being racist, demanding that people boycott his forthcoming film, with its theme of revenge, and a rush by some media outlets to engage the most outraged to denounce him. Hell hath no fury like a media outlet which misses out on the big story.

In stark contrast, when he appeared on ABC's Good Morning America programme after his interview was published in the London-based Independent newspaper, he was embraced by some black members of the audience and applauded by the broadcaster for facing up to the controversy he had stirred.

So, why did Neeson reveal the story? Even the journalist who interviewed him, Clemence Michallon, was at a loss to understand.

She was on a Press junket to interview the stars of his latest film, Cold Pursuit. These question-and-answer sessions are more strictly controlled than a Donald Trump White House briefing, with time limits set and public relations experts hovering to ensure stars keep on-message.

Perhaps in this case - he had just brushed off the reporter's question about why his character in the film had suddenly flipped to become a serial killer - they were as taken by surprise as the journalist when he launched into his story.

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But, then, Neeson is not a typical politically correct movie star. He may not court controversy, but he is not afraid to give a straight answer to a straight question, or to challenge something he feels is wrong.

In 2000, he declined the offer of the Freedom of the Borough from his hometown because the honour was opposed by some DUP members who had remembered earlier comments by the star about how he had felt like a second-class citizen growing up in Ballymena.

But he did attempt to stifle any controversy over his actions, saying how proud he was of the town and those within it who had supported him throughout his career, and he did accept the award in 2013.

He also recalled at one time how, as a young teenager, he used to sneak into Free Presbyterian Church services conducted by the Rev Ian Paisley and found his firebrand style of preaching "electrifying". He described it as "acting, but very good acting", and that inspired him to take to the boards.

The star of action movies in recent times, including the Taken franchise, ran foul of the firearms company which provided the guns for Taken 3 when he said: "There are just too many guns out there, especially in America. I think it's a disgrace.

"Every week now, we're picking up a newspaper and seeing, 'Yet another few kids have been killed in schools'."

Neeson made his comments in reply to a question about the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in 2015.

PARA USA later said it "regrets" working with the star and would cut ties with the Taken franchise. It urged other companies to follow suit.

Nearer to home, his voiceover on an Amnesty International advertisement urged support for a change to the abortion laws in the Republic. The advertisement led one commentator in the Daily Telegraph to opine that it seemed more like a campaign to exorcise the Catholic Church from the Republic than to open a debate on the serious subject of abortion and what rules should govern it.

It was later reported in our sister newspaper, Sunday Life, that Neeson had stood down as president of Ballymena's All Saints boxing club over disagreements on his pro-abortion stance.

In January last year, he accused the #MeToo campaign, outing famous stars and Hollywood moguls, as "a bit of a witch-hunt".

So, perhaps it is not so surprising that Neeson would share his story from 40 years ago.

In a way, his reaction to his friend's assault was akin to the climate he experienced in Northern Ireland at that time, where tit-for-tat murders were commonplace.

It wasn't racism, but its other dimension, sectarianism, where people of opposing religions were dehumanised by those who saw the other side as a homogeneous group, rather than individuals guilty of no crime whatsoever, but nevertheless targeted.

That was one of the points he made in his ABC Good Morning America interview, where he expanded on his original story.

One of the points seized on by his critics is that he inquired about the race of the person alleged to have assaulted his friend, but he stressed on TV that he had also asked if he was short, colour of hair, etc, and that, in any case, he would have felt the same had it been a white man.

"I had never felt this feeling before, which was a primal urge to lash out," he told the audience.

He admitted he had gone looking for a black man to assault four or five times before he became so shocked by his behaviour that he decided to seek help.

He confessed to a priest and also sought advice from two very good friends and - strangely - began power-walking for two hours daily to regain his equilibrium.

"I am not racist," Neeson said. "I was brought up in the north of Ireland during the Troubles. I had acquaintances who were involved in the Troubles. I saw the bigotry in action - one day, a Catholic would be shot dead, the next day a Protestant in retaliation. I grew up with that but was never part of that, thank God."

He also urged people to talk about such issues, saying: "We all like to pretend that we are politically correct. Sometimes, you just have to scratch the surface and you discover racism and bigotry - it is there."

The controversy he unleashed left the movie industry struggling on how to react.

The red-carpet New York premiere of his latest film was cancelled, although the movie was still shown.

Talking about race is to cut to the very quick of the American psyche. From slavery, through the racial hatred, particularly in the deep South, where lynchings of black people were commonplace, to the continuing battle for equality today, it is an issue which will not go away.

Even the movie industry has been caught up in it, with accusations of inequality in the use of black actors and lack of recognition for black film-makers.

One successful black film star, Whoopi Goldberg, was one of the first to come to the defence of Neeson, categorically denying that the man she has known for many years was racist.

John Barnes, one of the leading English footballers of his generation, who suffered gross abuse from racist fans, was another defender.

He reacted strongly to an accusation from provocative TV presenter Piers Morgan on ITV's This Morning that "he (Barnes) had been put forward and used as a pawn".

Barnes added: “First of all, a lot of people are saying I am an apologist for a racist. If anyone has known me in the last 10 years, I have been talking about racism throughout society, of which we are all a part. But when you talk about racists, people get very defensive, because that is a horrible word. We prefer a softer word, ‘racially biased’.

“Now, if you asked me if Liam Neeson is ‘racially biased’, I would say yes, but no more than me, than you (pointing to co-presenters Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield). And we have to admit we have an opinion on different races, based on what we have been wrongly told, historically and otherwise, and the way the media portrays certain groups. So, we are all racially biased — let’s start at that.”

Neeson has ridden out some storms before because of his comments, but this time it is a different level of controversy.

How it will pan out is anyone’s guess, and perhaps the final word should go to Clemence Michallon, the journalist who broke the story.

When asked what she thought would happen, Ms Michallon replied: “I have been asked if I think this marks the end of Neeson’s career. That is not my call to make, and my opinion genuinely does not matter. The future of Neeson’s career rests not in my hands, but those of movie-goers and film studios.

“They will decide respectively whether they still want to see Neeson’s films and hire him. The next chapter of this story is up to them.”

While opinions can change, a snap poll taken by Sky Data in the immediate aftermath of the interview found that 44% thought he was right to make the admission, with 30% saying he was wrong. Some 19% answered neither and 6% were unsure.

However, 74% said it would make no difference to whether or not they would want to watch one of his films.

To read Clemence Michallon’s full interview with Liam Neeson, go to: www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/liamneesoninterview

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