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Liam Neeson - as tough as old boots

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Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson

DANGER: Liam Neeson in his latest action thriller, Non-Stop

DANGER: Liam Neeson in his latest action thriller, Non-Stop

DANGER: Liam Neeson with Julianne Moore. Photo: Myles Aronowitz

DANGER: Liam Neeson with Julianne Moore. Photo: Myles Aronowitz

Behind the scenes on Non-Stop

Behind the scenes on Non-Stop

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Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson fixes me a steely look and I shrink a little in my seat. He's a big man, a man who boxed in his youth, quite likely a bit of a badass; he is not someone with whom a sensible person would pick a fight.

My unease comes courtesy of my most recent question. We're meeting up ahead of the release of Neeson's latest film, the airborne action ride Non-Stop, and I have just asked him about his joining the mile-high club – which, in my defence, is a story containing quotes purportedly from Neeson that's circulating online on the day of our interview.

It is a good line of questioning, I hope, but Neeson looks perplexed. "I never said that," he states. "The fucking British press." I point out that it was an American news network that first carried the story. He looks irritated. "I've joined the mile-high club?" he asks with disdain.

Then, at last, a small smile surfaces. "It'd have been nice," he says softly, before continuing. "Actually, that might explain something. I had a text yesterday from a friend, which read, 'I hope it didn't happen on an Aer Lingus flight.' I didn't understand what she was on about. But I do know now."

My unease evaporates with Neeson's anger, which is a relief. After all, the Ballymena-born actor might be 61-years-old but he is a bona fide action star these days, and probably knows all sorts of dangerous moves.

He displays a number of dangerous moves in Non-Stop, a tense action thriller directed by Spaniard Jaume Collet-Serra, who also worked with Neeson on 2011's Unknown and the forthcoming film, Run All Night.

Non-Stop sees Neeson playing a US federal air marshal who, while in the air, receives a series of threatening text messages, stating that a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a bank account. A series of airborne twists and turns ensues.

"I was drawn to him because, in a very basic, cinematic, iconic-figure way," Neeson says of his character, "he fits that mould of someone who does what he has to do to save the day. He's an everyday guy who rises to the challenge."

The likes of Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery and his acclaimed co-star on the 2009 thriller Chloe, Julianne Moore, provide support. The latter also offers insight into Neeson's action credentials.

"People are always asking Liam about being an action hero," notes Moore, when we meet later in the day, "but he has a wonderful sensitivity and humanity that you feel in everything he does. When you combine that quality of his with this heroic genre, it's really appealing. I think that's why people respond so well."

And they respond very well indeed. Now 61 years of age, the one-time Oscar-nominee has been reinvented as a successful action hero.

He is "a phenomenon," according to his producer on Non-Stop, Joel Silver, the man behind action flicks Die Hard, Die Hard 2 and all of the Lethal Weapon and The Matrix films. "He has been thought of as this great actor for his entire career, and suddenly, later in his life, he has become an action star."

In truth, Neeson has appeared in plenty of action roles across the years (see sidebar) but, following the death of his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, in a skiing accident in 2009, he has thrown himself into his work and action roles have proliferated.

Earlier this month, when promoting Non-Stop in the US, the actor opened up about his wife's death to TV show 60 Minutes. Richardson died following a fall while taking a beginners skiing lesson at the Mont Tremblant Resort in Quebec, Canada.

"I was told she was brain-dead," he says on the show. "She and I had made a pact that if either of us got into a vegetative state, we'd pull the plug. So, when I saw her and saw all these tubes and stuff, that was my immediate thought, 'Okay, these tubes have to go.'"

The actor met Richardson – the daughter of Oscar-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave and the late theatre impresario Tony Richardson – while shooting the film Nell and they married in 1994. They have two boys, Michael and Daniel, who are 19 and 18 respectively.

He says that even today, almost five years on, he still finds it hard to believe that she is gone. "There are periods now in our New York residence when I hear the door opening," he says, "especially the first couple of years. Anytime I hear that door opening, I still think I'm going to hear her."

The grief still hits him, "like a wave." He says, "You just get this profound feeling of instability. It passes and it becomes more infrequent, but I still get it sometimes."

Neeson concedes that his work provides a tonic and a focus, and he admits that he did not expect to become a fully-fledged action hero at this stage of his career.

"I am surprised," he tells me, of his professional evolution. "I was working away comfortably and it was fine, then I took myself off to France for three months for this Taken film that I was convinced was going straight to video."

Directed by Pierre Morel and written and produced by Luc Besson, Taken took in excess of $225m at the worldwide box office, spawning a 2012 sequel and a third instalment, which Neeson will begin shooting in a few months' time.

"They made Taken and I saw it and thought actually it was a kick-ass little thriller," he adds. "It then had this extraordinary life, and people started seeing me in a different pigeon-hole. Suddenly I was sent a lot of action scripts."

Since Taken's surprise success, directors have queued up to cast him in action roles, and he has subsequently featured in the likes of The A-Team, The Grey and Taken 2. "I love it," he smiles. "It's great, and as long as my knees hold out, it'll be fine."

In truth, Neeson's international fame came relatively late in his career. Born in Ballymena, Co Antrim, he worked in a brewery and boxed during his youth. "I lacked the killer instinct. I'm better at acting like I have the killer instinct!"

Neeson was working in theatre in Belfast when John Boorman cast him in his 1981 breakout film, the Arthurian adventure, Excalibur, and he has worked ceaselessly ever since, racking up more than 70 film roles. He currently moves from project to project with alacrity.

He has signed on to work with Martin Scorsese again – following his small but vital role as prominent Irish gang leader in Gangs of New York – appearing alongside Andrew Garfield in Silence, and recently wrapped on Run All Night with his Non-Stop director, Collet-Serra.

"It's a father-son story," he says of the Collet-Serra movie. "I kill Ed Harris's son and he comes after me. We then run all night! It is like a mythic Western."

He'll also appear in a real Western, the comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, from Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, American Dad and the hit feature film, Ted.

"It's set in Santa Fe where we shot it," Neeson says of the MacFarlane film. "It's about all the crazy things that can happen to you – how you could have died in the Wild West, which we kind of over-romanticise. Seth takes the piss out of it all.

"It's not joke after joke," he adds, "but it is that really modern Family Guy sensibility set in the Old West. I play a gunslinger, a badass guy."

You can be sure he'll be convincing in the role. After all, Neeson is good at playing badass; I was right - he's not someone with whom you would pick a fight.

 

Liam Neeson, action hero. Five of his finest outings

Rob Roy (1995)

In high demand following his Oscar nomination for Schindler's List, Neeson takes to the Highlands of Scotland for this historically based romantic adventure.

Star Wars: Episode I (1999)

He's wielded swords from Rob Roy to Kingdom of Heaven, but as the Jedi Knight Qui-Gon he hefts a lightsaber with considerable style.

Gangs of New York (2002)

He only appears in the opening scene of Scorsese's epic, but it's a memorable, blood-soaked and bruising turn as the priest, Vallon, which echoes throughout the film.

Taken (2008)

In the movie that elevated Neeson to an action superstar, he plays a former CIA operative who tracks down his daughter after she is kidnapped in France.

The Grey (2012)

His director from The A-Team, Joe Carnahan, elicits a typically excellent performance from Neeson in this grim and gritty survival adventure.

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