Saturday 30 July 2016

'An Irish admirer': Liam Neeson on romance, grief and the Oscar snubs

With a documentary narrated by Liam Neeson hitting our TV screens, he tells Donal Lynch how he was 'ignorant' of 1916

Donal Lynch

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Liam Neeson. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Liam Neeson. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Liam Neeson narrates the landmark RTE 1916 documentary
Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson with Salma Hayek
Liam Neeson in ‘Taken 2’
Liam Neeson is seen in Soho on July 25, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Alo Ceballos/GC Images)
Liam Neeson in Taken 3
Liam Neeson and sons Daniel and Micheál in 2014

Some film stars boast about doing their own stunts, Liam Neeson does all his own dialling, which by Hollywood standards is far braver. Usually an A-Lister of his calibre would be patched through by one, maybe two, publicists who would annoyingly sit in on the call, eavesdropping in case the conversation steered anywhere away from the marketing angle.

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Neeson, by contrast, has to fiddle around with the country codes himself and he doesn't massively seem to care where the conversation veers. He is wearily laconic. He jocularly tells you to "go f*** yourself!" if he doesn't like a question, but that only adds to the feeling that you can ask him anything.

The last few years have been an incredible mixture of triumph and sorrow for him. He has rebuilt his life after the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, in 2009, although he tells me she is still a sore subject.

He has watched his son Michael deal with his own demons and emerge the other side as a talented young actor in his own right; Liam is justifiably proud of him. He has consolidated his position as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood; his name is a green light for any project he chooses; he can do Arthouse or Superbowl commercials, his brand seemingly unscathed by the recent attacks from gun manufacturers (who have criticised his anti-gun stance).

He has retained an incredible range and variety in terms of the work he tackles, reinventing himself in late middle age as a badass action star with a heart. Amid the pinched faces and tight smiles of Hollywood his big, craggy face stands out like a beacon of humanity.

He's on the promotional trail for 1916, a much-anticipated three-part documentary series on the Rising, which will be screened over the coming three weeks on RTE and on over 120 PBS stations in America. Of course, Neeson could narrate the phone book and zillions of people would listen to him - but given that Michael Collins was one of his career-defining roles, he would seem to be the ideal man for the job.

Despite growing up in Troubles-era Antrim, he tells me he really was not aware of the significance of 1916 until he came to Dublin 50 years ago.

"Of course, I was at Queens during the bad days of internment and all that but during the Troubles it was quite vague as to why we were fighting. I was blissfully ignorant.

"We learnt very little in English history books about the events of 1916. 200,000 Irishmen fought in the horrors of the First World War, I was completely ignorant of that fact. I came down to Dublin in 1966 to represent my county in the juvenile boxing championships and the whole city was festooned in flags and pictures of strange looking men."

It was another 1916-themed stint in Dublin that would prove really fateful for Neeson. In 1976 he acted in We Do It For Love, playing the part of Padraig Pearse. It set him on his way and after director John Boorman saw him in another Abbey production - Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men - he won his first movie role in Excalibur. He would go on to star in Suspect, opposite Cher and Dennis Quaid, and in Sam Reimi's wonderfully comic bookish Darkman.

His Irishness was an advantage in those years, he tells me: "Going back to James Cagney it was seen that there was something quite exotic about somebody coming over all the way on a boat, they wanted to pin this romantic vision on you."

It was really in 1992 that the world sat up and took notice of him. That was when Steven Spielberg cast him in Schindler's List. The film was a huge critical and commercial success and won seven Oscars, including best picture.

Neeson was beaten by Tom Hanks in the best actor category, however, and while this didn't seem hugely significant at the time, over the passing decades, through multiple stirring performances, he would be snubbed time and again by the Academy. Given the fact that this may be the year of the Irish in Hollywood - Saoirse Ronan and Michael Fassbender have gained acting nominations and Brooklyn and Room are up for Best Picture - I wonder if those omissions smarted at all.

"To be honest, when they announced Tom Hanks's name my main emotion was relief," he tells me. "I was dreading walking all those steps up to the podium and thanking 17,000 people, making that speech with billions watching me.

"I feel for the nominees every year. It's a very nerve-wracking situation to be in. I have presented a number of times. The winners are always a personal decision. There are just over 6,000 members of the Academy. Do all of them watch all of the movies? No.

"So already it's not a level playing field. The top films garner the most attention whereas a small independent film might not have the money behind it."

The 1990s was also when Liam got together with Natasha Richardson of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty - he starred opposite her in a production of Anna Christie. They were married in 1994 and had two sons together - Michael and Daniel.

Natasha died in 2009 from brain injuries sustained during a skiing accident in Canada. Liam tells me that Natasha and the grief is "still a touchy subject. Of course the grief is still there. You do your best.

"I had many little letters, beautiful little cards scrawled from people after her death. I still have them and they are very meaningful. It is really touching.

"In your soul you know that there are people out there caring for you. That means a hell of a lot to me."

Liam and Natasha's son Michael was 13 when she died. Liam and Michael are extremely close - he is following in his father's footsteps in playing Michael Collins and father and son have starred together in an ad, which will air during the Superbowl half-time show. They've also discussed getting a tattoo together.

Last year, Michael spoke about his own grief in the aftermath of his mother's death. Initially, he said, he "pushed it out or stored it deep inside", however in 2014 he began "partying a lot" and "hit rock bottom". "I wanted to be the man, doing these drugs", he had said.

Since then he has undergone "wilderness therapy" in Utah and has rebuilt his life, developing his acting career and opening a boutique in Soho, London.

As regards him following in his famous parents' footsteps, Liam tells me, "It gladdens my heart but it also makes me wary for him. My lineage (in acting) is short but my wife's goes back to the 1700s. He's taking it very seriously. He's had a couple of opportunities for screen tests for major things and he's turned them down. I asked him why and he said, 'I'm not trained yet', so I think that's wise."

Over the last few years Neeson has transformed into one of the most kickass action men in movie history but before that he was more renowned as a romantic lead. So, with Valentine's Day coming up, I wonder what Liam's plans are.

"I'll send out a few bunches of flowers to various people and I usually just say 'from an Irish admirer'." Is he involved with anyone? "Yes, but I'd embarrass her if I said her name, she's incredibly famous. I'll have to do my best for her. It's amazing how far a simple bunch of freshly picked flowers will go in a lady's life, I find."

Liam was photographed looking quite gaunt last year - he lost the weight for a role - and he tells me he is quite equanimous about getting older.

"Before I pass the mirror I feel 43. When I actually look in it I think 'no, definitely 63', especially if I haven't been to the gym that day. I think I'm a bit more philosophical about all that stuff than I was when I moved out to Hollywood in 1987. I'm fitter than I've ever been in my life so that has to count for something. I want to stay on this planet for a long time to come."

'1916', narrated by Liam Neeson, is a three-part documentary to be broadcast on RTE1 on February 10, 17 and 24 at 9.35pm

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