Two years after his famous wife died in a skiing accident, the actor Liam Neeson speaks candidly about his varied career and his new film, Unknown, the latest in a string of adventure thrillers.
Liam Neeson is doing just fine
Liam Neeson is not known for being forthcoming in interviews. The Northern Irishman has tended towards the monosyllabic, making it plain he dislikes talking about himself, and has shown little patience with questions he considers to be unworthy of an answer. It is only to be expected that now, in one of the first interviews he has given since his wife, Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident in 2009, he will be even less communicative.
But in fact he is friendly and, although not exactly talkative, is willing to share his thoughts and even tell a few anecdotes as he sits in a hotel suite in Los Angeles to discuss his new career as an action star and, in particular, his latest film, Unknown. He is wearing a dark jacket over a grey sports shirt and dark slacks. His dark hair is brushed back and he has a neatly trimmed moustache and goatee. He has a dry sense of humour and talks quietly in a distinctive Irish brogue, making it sometimes difficult to hear what he is saying. He apologises by explaining: "I'm doing a movie up north [in the Alaskan wilderness] so I've been shouting and roaring all week".
The movie is The Grey, in which he plays a plane crash victim struggling to survive in the back country as he and the other passengers come under attack by vicious wolves. It is not what we are meeting to talk about but it is another in a line of adventure-thrillers that have given him, in his late 50s, a new lease on professional life as an action hero. It started with Taken, the 2008 thriller in which he played a rough, tough retired CIA operative whose daughter is kidnapped.
"Its success was a huge surprise to me. It seriously was," he says. "After that I started getting sent some action scripts."
They included The A-Team, the yet-to-be-released Battleship, The Grey, Wrath of the Titans and Unknown, in which his Dr Martin Harris awakens after a car accident in Berlin with partial amnesia to discover that another man (Aidan Quinn) has taken his name, his job and even his wife. With the help of a taxi driver (Diane Kruger), Harris sets out to reclaim his life. "He is alone and not just abandoned, but rejected by everyone he thinks he knows," says Neeson. "And his every impulse makes him more determined to find out the truth and prove he is who he says he is."
The action is virtually non-stop, with several plot twists and turns along the way, giving Neeson the chance to showcase his considerable acting talents.
"I totally locked in to what Martin was going through," he says. "I was an amateur boxer as a kid and I got my bell rung a few times. It's always stayed with me, that memory of not having a memory, even for a short time. It was an interesting life experience to draw on for this role."
Although he has lived in America since 1987 and is a US citizen, there is no doubt about the 58-year-old Neeson's origins."There's an old expression that says you can take the Irishman out of the bog but you can't take the bog out of the Irishman," he says with a quiet chuckle. "I'm very much from that school and although America's my home and where I'm raising my kids, Ireland is still a spiritual home and my sisters still live there."
Neeson was born in Ballymena, where his father was a school caretaker and his mother a cook. As a child he discovered what he thought was his vocation and began his amateur boxing career at the age of nine. He was Northern Ireland champion for three years and a professional career beckoned until, at the age of 15, he entered the ring for three rounds against a British boy, who beat him senseless. He made it through the fight and even believed he had won but when he climbed out of the ring he suffered a blackout walking up a flight of stairs.
"My father and my trainer were talking to me but it was as if they were speaking ancient Arabic and I just couldn't figure out what they were saying," he recalls. "I felt I had just landed from Mars and that stayed with me for quite a while. I didn't know at the time it was a concussion but it made me give up competitive boxing."
He thought about becoming a teacher and took courses in physics at Queen's University in Belfast, but became depressed and gave it up. He took various jobs and ventured into acting when he auditioned for the Belfast Lyric Players' Theatre Company. He made his first stage appearance in a three-minute role as an Irish labour leader and impressed the company so much that he earned a regular spot, staying on for two years.
He moved to Dublin and joined that city's famed Abbey Theatre, where a starring role as Lenny in a 1980 production of Of Mice and Men caught the attention of the director John Boorman, who cast him as the sword-wielding Sir Gawain in Excalibur, marking his film debut. He landed regular work in films, including The Bounty and The Mission, and then, after a guest role as an IRA operative in the television series Miami Vice, he moved to America to begin his Hollywood career in earnest.
"I didn't come out to Hollywood until I was 35," he says. "I wasn't 16 or 17 and I was never on the booze or into the drug culture. I had a little bit of maturity."
He also had a roving eye for the ladies and became involved in a series of well-publicised romances with Helen Mirren, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Grey, Barbra Streisand and Brooke Shields, among others.
His first starring role was as the tortured anti-hero of Darkman and his heartfelt portrayal helped to elevate the film above its comic book origins and marked his debut as a genuine movie star. After several romantic leading roles he was drawn back to the stage in 1993 to star on Broadway opposite Richardson in Anna Christie. He and Richardson, the daughter of the late director Tony Richardson and the actress Vanessa Redgrave, rekindled a close relationship that began in 1984 when they appeared together in the television mini-series Ellis Island. They were married in July 1994.
They bought a sprawling estate in Millbrook, in upstate New York, where their two sons, Michael and Daniel, now 15 and 14, were born.
Neeson returned to Broadway in 1998 as Oscar Wilde in David Hare's The Judas Kiss, and again in 2002 to star in The Crucible opposite Laura Linney. Critics were divided on his performance, some labeling it stiff and boring while others praisinghis emotional portrayal. He has not ventured onto the stage since, although it still holds strong appeal.
"The lovely thing about doing theatre is if the curtain goes up at eight o'clock and the show finishes at 10.30, you're in charge for two and a half hours," he says. "In film, the director and producer are in charge: they wheel you out of your trailer and you do your little piece of acting for 60 seconds, they wheel you back to your trailer, then you come out 40 minutes later and do it again. But in theatre when the curtain goes up you're in charge and there's no one to say, 'Cut, stop, start again'. You go through the whole play and then you get the chance to do it the next night, twice on Wednesdays, twice on Saturdays and then Sunday afternoon you get to do it again. So you're always practising and flexing a different type of muscle."
It was his stage performance in Anna Christie that prompted Steven Spielberg to cast him in the title role in his Second World War drama Schindler's List. Neeson's role as the Austrian-born businessman who rescued more than 1,000 Jews marked for death by the Nazis won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
He followed it with a series of high-profile roles in movies such as Rob Roy, Michael Collins, Les Miserables, The Haunting, Kinsey, Kingdom of Heaven and Batman Begins and as the voice of Aslan the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia films. A lesser-known fact is that Neeson, as the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn in the Star Wars prequel Episode I: The Phantom Menace, had the distinction of being the first actor in terms of chronology to utter the words, "May the force be with you".
His professional and personal lives were on steady, fulfilling tracks when tragedy hit. He was in Toronto in March 2009 filming Atom Egoyan's Chloe when the news was broken to him that Natasha, skiing at Mont Tremblant in Quebec, had suffered severe head injuries after falling on the beginner's slope.
He rushed to her side and flew back with her to New York, where she was checked into Lenox Hill Hospital amid a flurry of rumours as to the exact nature of her injuries. Neeson kept vigil at her bedside with their two sons, Richardson's mother and her sister Joely Richardson. On March 18, two days after the accident, Natasha was declared brain dead and taken off life support.
Since then Neeson has thrown himself into his work on the animated Ponyo, in the poorly received psychological thriller After.Life, as Zeus in the remake of Clash of the Titans and as Colonel Hannibal Smith in The A-Team - all while raising his sons as a single father.
Recently he has been seen with several women, including the British businesswoman Frey St Johnston, the flight attendant Leslie Slater and the actress Laura Brent, although his romantic life is not something he is willing to discuss.
"I'm doing well, thank you for asking, and my boys are doing well, too," he says, cutting off further enquiry. "We take each day as it comes."
Then, more relaxed and taking stock of his life, he adds:
"I've got my health; people still want to employ me, my bills get paid and I literally live from week to week, sometimes from day to day. So I guess I'm in a very good space."
Unknown is in cinemas now across the UAE.
Liam Neeson's knack for playing real people
The actor frequently has portrayed real-life personalities in his films. Among his roles:
SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories, in this much-acclaimed Steven Spielberg biographical drama.
ROB ROY (1995) The actor plays Robert Roy MacGregor, an 18th-century Scottish historical figure who battles with feudal landowners in the Scottish Highlands, in this historical drama.
MICHAEL COLLINS (1996) The Northern Irishman does a fiery star turn in this historical biopic about General Michael Collins, the Irish patriot and revolutionary who died in the Irish Civil War.
KINSEY (2004) Neeson won rave reviews and several acting awards and nominations for his gripping portrayal of the pioneering US sex researcher Dr Alfred Kinsey.
Neesom was set to star as Abraham Lincoln in a Spielberg film based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals. He did considerable preparation but because of scheduling difficulties was replaced by Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is in pre-production.
Yet to come
Neeson will play the former US President Lyndon B Johnson in the director Lee Daniels' developing film Selma. The film is about Martin Luther King Jr, Johnson and the civil rights marches of the 1960s that transformed America.
The Neeson file
BORN June 7, 1952, Ballymena, Northern Ireland
SCHOOLING Ballymena Boys All Saints Primary School; St. Patrick's College, Belfast; Queen's University, Belfast
FAMILY Mother Kitty, a cook; father Barney, a school caretaker; three sisters; two teenage sons with late wife Natasha Richardson
FIRST JOB Forklift operator in the Guinness brewery
LAST BOOK READ Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor
CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT My sons
CAN'T STAND The tabloid press