Liam Neeson isn’t a man for bull. He always calls it like it is. Like when actors who work with Martin Scorsese suddenly call him “Marty”. The 64-year-old legend has no time for that. “I just think it’s wrong,” he says, his arms folded across a barrel chest. “I don’t know him well enough to call him Marty, so I always address him by his name. When I hear this ‘Marty this, Marty that’ nonsense, what gives you the right to call him that?” Neeson is a busy man today. In a dated hotel suite, he holds court promoting two new movies, A Monster Calls and Scorsese’s Silence, both released on New Year’s Day. And they couldn’t be different. The former is a heartrending children’s fantasy based on a boy’s experiences with his mother’s terminal cancer and the imaginary friend, a mythical tree monster (Neeson) he conjures to help him survive the tragedy, while the latter is a historical epic focused on the brutal persecution of Jesuit priests in Japan in the 1600s. Alongside Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, Liam is a shadow of himself as the enigmatic Father Ferreira, a priest who commits apostasy under torture. And while the films are hugely different, both prompted Neeson to ask questions about life, death and faith, themes he must surely be familiar with after the tragic death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, eight years ago. Charming and warm, he delivers a typically engaging conversation that ranges from ping-pong balls covering his ‘extremities’ to the existence of God, weight loss and mortality. He also chats about his future career goals, fame and relationships with Natasha’s family. Typically handsome yet casual in a beige shirt and black suit jacket, the actor lives in upstate New York. He has two sons, Michael, 21 and Daniel, 20.
A Monster Calls, what drew you to this material?
It’s a charming, powerful film about learning to navigate life, and facing the fragility of life and death. And it was told in a fantastic, imaginative way, a very rare find with very distinct layers of fantasy and reality. It’s a very honest, truthful portrayal. You know, I think children can be shielded too much from the serious issues when they are a lot more capable than we give credit. They desire the truth but they’re dismissed, always hearing, “You wouldn’t understand.” Of course they understand. They may not process it the same way but they get it. I thought Patrick Ness’ writings was an intricate, detailed understanding of childhood and Juan Antonio Bayona, as we’ve seen from his work on The Orphanage and The Impossible, both exceptional films … [also] has a deep comprehension of what it’s like to be a child. All the elements felt right, it clicked.
Was this your first experience with motion capture and how was that for you?
I was … stuffed in a leotard with ping-pong balls attached to every bit and extremity on my body; I lived it. And each extremity was filmed by its own individual [camera] and each camera was connected to its own computer and all the movements and expressions was collated as data. And I found it terribly unsettling.
… When you did these kinds of films, [it used to be] all green screen and CGI. Standing in front of the green screen and letting them paint the magic around you. Stand in front of a crew for two weeks in a body sock … when you’re 64 and you’ll feel a little vulnerable and exposed. It’s a stripped back experience. But I learned to accept the challenge and I tapped into something entirely fresh and new in my mind and that was exhilarating. I’m glad I did that instead of just throwing my voice in a sound booth. It allowed me to properly engage, even if I wasn’t there for the traditional process.
When I interviewed Sigourney Weaver for the movie…
One of the greats. Isn’t she one of the greats? Just a marvellous actor… Completely agree – and she commented on cancer being a universal connector of us all.
What have your experiences been with the disease?
She’s right, it does. It’s a horrible, insidious, devious disease that touches every one of us. Just recently, I lost someone close to me to breast cancer, she was barely in her 40s. Her 40s! It’s just horrible and my dear hope for the future is a cure is formulated. Probably not in my lifetime but I truly hope in my sons’. Wouldn’t that be a gift? A gift after man’s disgusting inhumanity to man in Aleppo.
Does a story like this make you think about your own relationship with life and death?
It didn’t while I was making it, because of the technical aspects involved. But I certainly ponder those thoughts. I try not to allow myself to dwell too much. It is what it is. There’s nothing you can do about it. You do think about your mortality a lot more as you get older, not to get heavy about it but you do a lot more because you’re a dad; I want to be around for them and that’s a concern. Those thoughts start creeping into your head. This movie asks questions about life and death. And then Silence asks questions about faith.
Did you question your faith after working on this?
I’ve always doubted my faith, in times more than others. At various times in my life. But I don’t believe you can have deep faith without serious misgivings and I think my misgivings, my doubt will stay with me until the day I die. But I’m proud of always asking questions, and know full well I’ll never learn the answers. That won’t stop me asking.
You did The Mission, where you were playing a Jesuit priest examining his faith. Did you carry that with you into Silence?
Yes but that was in the 1700s, ours was in the 1600s. But we were in the middle of the Colombian jungle, with Bob De Niro and Jeremy Irons, and I did a lot of spiritual exercises and discussions with Father Dan Berrigan, and I asked a lot of questions both or him and myself, but nothing was solved or resolved. The same happened after working on this with Martin [Scorsese], I read [Richard] Dawkins’ The God Delusion, many books like that. Science journals, learning about the workings of the human brain, and what it can do, how the brain can rewire itself, through opioids and neurotransmitters, the brain can trick itself into believing what another large group are believing. That’s one scientific explanation behind that. And then I look to my mother, a beautiful woman with a beautiful heart and soul, chastising herself because at 96 years old, she’s not able to walk to mass. And that precise faith inspires me, it always has.
It’s certainly a stretch from your recent winning stretch of action movies.
A slight stretch yes, mildly. Taken goes spiritual [laughs]. No, it’s definitely gripping, there’s a level of action adventure to keep the audience on their toes. But also many layers to peel back; the question of faith breathing at the centre – is there a God? Is there such a thing as unquestioning faith? Can you still believe while enduring a gamut of doubt? Can you believe in the silence? How many times can you ask, are you there? It’s a question we all ask, whether you’re of secular existence or a believer. What is the meaning of it all? Why are we here?
What is Scorsese like to work with?
Well it wasn’t my first time, we did Gangs [of New York] together. I’d a small part. Martin is a very understanding, considerate man and director. He understands actors, he’s an actors’ director, he makes the space where you exist safe and comfortable because he understands that is necessary to deliver your best because that’s what he requires. He gives you all the tools but ultimately, it’s up to us to construct the creation. And that’s appreciated but also incredibly daunting because he’s laid it out for you, and all you want to do is get it right for him.
He asked you all to lose a lot of weight.
He wanted all of us gaunt and boy, that’s what he got. Adam, he took it seriously, and I’m not surprised, as an ex-Navy guy, when you give him an order, he does it. The guy looked like something out of a concentration camp. Andrew lost a lot of weight too, and I lost about 20lbs altogether but you know, Martin, he doesn’t demand, but he expects a certain level of commitment and when you sign up, you agree to commit. That’s not to say he’s some unreasonable tyrant. Far from it.
There was a lot of concern about you during the weight loss, people thought you were sick.
I heard I was dying at one stage. That was news to me [laughs]. Those I love knew it was for the movie, it didn’t matter about any speculation. I’ve rarely entertained any speculation.
How did you lose the weight?
There’s nothing to it. Just stop eating anything that tastes nice. There’s no science. Exercise more. It wasn’t easy but it was fascinating to see how far we could push our bodies.
You’re back to your youthful, normal self today, looking much younger than your 64 years.
Should’ve seen me this morning [laughs]. I don’t think I look youthful at all, especially after this one. It … aged me. But I like to keep pretty fit. I used to do the whole [thing], the washboard stomach, I couldn’t keep it up. I gave it all up years ago, the smoking and drinking. You get to stage where you need to cradle your health more.
Do you still enjoy the job?
Absolutely. It’s the greatest job in the world. You pinch yourself on a daily basis. How famous are you, in relation to your daily life?
Are you stopped on the street much?
I rarely get anything. But strangely enough, the other day, I can’t remember where I was, in America, a child, who could not have been more than four years old, and I was wearing a baseball cap, goes to his father, “Dad, that’s Qui-Gon Jinn from Star Wars.” I had long hair and a beard [in the film], how could he possibly know that? That is a quick kid. I swear. Totally surprised. What was the giveaway? When I passed him a photograph [laughs].
Do you have any career goals?
I need to get back to the stage. It’s been years now. I need to get back and exercise that muscle.
Do you miss it?
I don’t miss it. And that’s what worries me, I feel like I have to get back.
Do you get stage fright?
I don’t get nervous, no, it’s great. There’s something you tap into, it predates cinema from four and a half thousand years. I started out in the theatre and I feel it’s time to get my feet dirty again.
What do you get out of it?
Just doing it. The feeling. If you mess up on Tuesday night, you get to do it twice on Wednesdays. Thursday, Friday, twice on Saturdays. It’s the classics, like Ibsen, the more you do it, the more you feel it. And feel the character. It’s flexing that muscle that you don’t use when you are in front of a camera.
Will you ever direct?
No, not at all. It’s not my bag. I directed a video once for Van Morrison for his song, Coney Island. I was in a movie down in North Carolina and on one of my days off, we shot on a Sunday afternoon. But it was terrifying because it was obvious I was not a director, we had the DP from the film we were shooting, on our day off. He was suggesting what I shoot because I hadn’t a clue. It was scary.
Do you ever see yourself retiring?
Never. Thing about this job is that you can do it till the day you die. There isn’t a retirement cut-off. Look at Vanessa [Redgrave]. She’s 79, you should see her schedule for the next year. I don’t know where she gets the energy. It’s good to work, I like it and it keeps you young, keeps you from reality.
Do you have a good relationship with her?
Terrific. She’s great. She stays with me, in my house in New York when she’s working over there. It’s lovely having her around, I need that, it makes me happy. It’s good for all of us.
Will you ever work with Joely or Vanessa?
I would. Joely and I did a movie 20 years ago, called Shining Through, it wasn’t terribly good, although she was fantastic.
What’s the greatest advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not advice I got personally but it was something Jimmy Cagney said. “When you walk into a room, you plant your feet, speak the truth.” And that’s what I always do. I try and use that all the time.