Liam Neeson: action man

Gabrielle Donnelly / 24 June 2014

Irish actor Liam Neeson has shot into the action-hero A list with the hugely popular Taken films franchise. But he's experienced tragedy in his personal life with the death of wife Natasha Richardson.

To meet in person, male movie stars can be something of a disappointment. The burliest of them on the screen can prove surprisingly puny in the flesh. But then there is Liam Neeson. Liam is a broth of a man from County Antrim, 6ft 4in tall, with hands like country hams, and shoulders that seem to stretch as wide as the Giant’s Causeway.

In recent years he’s been discovered as an action star – which amuses him, given how long he’s been around the film-making business – and on-screen his bulk can menace the bad guys with the best of them.

A gentle giant 

Off it, reassuringly, he is the typical gentle giant, ambling into the hotel in his adopted home city of New York, with a firm handshake, his speech peppered with endearments and sly jokes. With the latter, there can be a smile that raises his eyebrows into a massive crescent across the top of his battered pugilist’s face.

He’s about to be seen in Third Person, a devilishly complex thriller written and directed by Crash’s Paul Haggis, involving three interlocking love stories that take place in Paris, New York and Rome. He plays a writer who finds life considerably easier on the page than he does off it when his much-younger lover reveals a terrible secret.

Filming in Paris 

‘It’s a very clever script,’ he says. ‘And it had Olivia Wilde, ugh!’ He feigns disgust at the thought of his beautiful co-star, whom we might know as ‘Thirteen’ from Hugh Laurie’s House. ‘And we shot it in Rome and Paris. Life’s a bitch, isn’t it?’

It is also a rare return for him to the kind of dramatic role that made him famous. It is six years since, slightly to his own surprise, he landed the role of a former CIA operative who left no villain unpunched in his search for his kidnapped daughter in the blockbuster Taken. Since the success of that film, it seems that scarcely an action movie has been made without the Neeson fists making their presence known somewhere along the way.

A third Taken film opens next year, which promises the usual mayhem, although he tells me that in this one, no one from his family gets kidnapped: ‘Otherwise it’s starting to look like bad parenting.’

An action man 

All of which, given that action movies are traditionally a young man’s field, and that Liam himself was hardly a spring chicken even six years ago, is surely just a little bit, well, surprising?

‘It’s crazy, isn’t it?’ he cheerfully agrees – you will look long and hard to find a shred of pretension clinging to Mr Neeson. ‘I’m still bemused by it. I do like doing it because it’s just fun to pretend to beat people up. But I’ll be sent a script that I read and like, and the main character will be described as 32, 33 years of age, and I’ll say to my agent, “Look, this is really good, but I’m not right for the lead here, he’s only 32”.

‘My agent will say, “Don’t worry, that’ll be changed”. And a month later, the same script will arrive, everything’s the same, but now the character is described as “in his mid-fifties”.’

In fact, he’s just turned 62, and it must be said he looks good on it. ‘It’s all the soft Irish rain,’ he jokes. ‘That and the milk I drank when I was a kid. I do try to keep fit – you have to when you’re making a film, especially if you’re the lead. I’ve always exercised anyway.’

Kettle bells and push-ups

He nods towards the window and Central Park beyond. ‘I’m in the park every day, power walking, and if I’m not at home I have these wonderful kettle bells that I travel with. That’s about it apart from the usual boring push-ups and sit-ups and stuff like that. Nothing fancy, you know?’

He was born William John Neeson, in 1952, in Ballymena, the son of Barney Neeson, a school caretaker, and his wife Kitty, a cook. His parents were strict but loving, he says, and he was kept further in line by his sisters, Elizabeth, Bernadette and Rosaline. ‘I always wanted a brother. Probably so I could beat him up. I could never beat up my sisters, although actually Bernadette used to beat me up quite a bit. Because there were no other boys at home my friends became very important to me. I was a boxer from the age of nine until I was 17 or 18, and our group were very much brothers in arms there.’

He had originally planned to be a professional boxer until concussion changed his mind. ‘It was after a fight I’d won, actually. I got hit in the head and I didn’t know it was concussion at the time. It shook me up so badly I gave up competitive boxing there and then.’

Amateur dramatics 

Meanwhile, he had been becoming increasingly interested in acting. ‘It started with the cliché thing of fancying a girl,’ he grins. ‘We were both about 12, and I was wondering, “How do I get closer to her? Aha, she’s in a play at school and they’re looking for a male!” So I auditioned and I got the part and that’s where it started.

‘I did a lot of amateur theatre when I was a teenager because I really enjoyed it, and just somewhere in there I thought, “God, I would love to get paid to do this and do it all the time!” I still have the chit from the first acting pay cheque I ever received.  Thirty-one pounds, 50 pence, from the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 1976. I was very pleased with that.’

In 1980 he moved to London to work in television and theatre. In 1987 he went to Hollywood to appear in a thriller, Suspect, and he has never stopped working in film since.

‘I was 35 when I came to Hollywood, and I think being older helped me to keep my feet on the ground somewhat. I was never on the booze or part of a drug culture, which I think does contribute to the confusion in our young artists and can lead to… uh… unhealthy habits, you know? I wasn’t 16 or 17, I had a little bit of maturity. Plus, I come from the theatre, which gives you a bit of discipline. I’m very proud of my theatre roots.’

The Redgrave dynasty 

In 1993 Liam co-starred with Natasha Richardson in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie on Broadway. On the face of it they were an unlikely couple – he from a working- class Irish background who had enjoyed a mild although far from undeserved reputation as a Lothario; she, a member of Britain’s theatrical royal family, a Redgrave no less. But neither of them looked at anyone else from the time they met, through their marriage and the birth of their two sons, Michael and Daniel, until her tragic death following a skiing accident in March 2009.

Liam has made it plain that he will choose the occasions when he will speak about Natasha and when he won’t. Earlier this year, however, he spoke candidly of her death on the US news show 60 Minutes, saying, ‘It was never real. It still isn’t. There are periods now, especially the first couple of years, in our New York residence when I hear the door opening – she would always drop the keys on the table and say, “Hello?” So anytime I hear that door opening I still think I’m gonna hear her, you know?

Stages of grief 

‘Then, grief’s like, it hits you. It’s like a wave. You just get this profound feeling of instability. You feel like a three-legged table. Suddenly the Earth isn’t stable any more. And then it passes and becomes more infrequent, but I still get it sometimes.’

Today is not a day when he will talk about her – ‘But thank you for asking,’ he adds politely. He does, though, reveal that whenever he goes away from home he wears around his neck a small cross that Natasha gave him 20 years ago.

‘It’s sort of a miraculous thing,’ he says, ‘because I’ve left it in so many hotel rooms while I’ve been travelling, and I’ve always, always got it back. I feel a little bit naked if I don’t have that around my neck… But other than that,’ he adds, firmly changing the conversation, ‘I am not superstitious at all.’

Like any single father, he says he worries about the boys, now 18 and 16. ‘But you always do, don’t you? It seems like just last Tuesday that crossing the road with them was a major event. Then letting them cross the road by themselves was a serious major event. Then they start to learn to drive and it’s just nerve-racking.

The joy of children 

‘Right now, they’re at the stage where they’re saying – forgive me for putting it like this – “**** you Dad, tuck me in”. It’s that sort of interesting stage where they’re partly pulling away and partly still children. I used to scratch their backs when they were little, and just the other night I was reading late and my 18-year-old came stumbling in and said, “Dad, would you scratch my back?” I thought that was kind of nice.’

He is quick to add that he is proud of his boys. ‘I like that they have very close friends who are girls – I think that’s very healthy. Some of them are stunning-looking, and I say to the boys, “Why isn’t she your girlfriend?” “Dad!!!” Because they’re just pals with these girls. I think it’s lovely, actually.’

As for himself, he has been quietly dating PR executive Freya St Johnston for some time now. He makes it plain, again politely, that he would like to keep this side of his life private. But presumably he, like his sons, has other women around who are just good friends?

‘Girls?’ He recoils, pretending again to look disgusted. ‘Friends? Ugh, I don’t think so!’ He laughs. ‘Sure, yeah, I have quite a few. There were always women in the house when I grew up; I have a particular affection for your gender. I like that with women you can cut through the bull a lot quicker – get to the hub of something serious in a matter of seconds.’

All in all, then, life’s not so bad?

‘I’m blessed,’ he says. ‘There’s always luck involved in life, but that being said I think you do create your own luck, and that’s what I’ve done all along. And right now, I love being where I am. It’s a good time.’ 

 Read Liam Neeson's Wikipedia here 

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