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Tuesday 16 July 2019

Paul Whitington: The most-remarkable thing about this Liam Neeson controversy is it happened during a film junket

Row: Liam Neeson has been criticised over his comments. Picture: Getty
Row: Liam Neeson has been criticised over his comments. Picture: Getty
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

WHEN Piers Morgan accuses you of racism, you know you’re in trouble.

Liam Neeson’s incendiary comments during an interview with the London Independent seem all the stranger given their source: ask any movie journalist and they’ll tell you that Liam doesn’t give too many interviews, and doesn’t say all that much when he does. Affable but tight-lipped, he’s tended to keep his cards close to his chest, and rarely discusses matters personal, like the tragic death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, in 2009.

He did raise some hackles last year when he appeared on The Late Late Show and suggested that the Me Too movement was becoming a witch hunt, but more or less got away with it. He was speaking his mind on Irish TV, far from Hollywood, and cited the avuncular writer Garrison Keillor’s woes as evidence of a gender-based feeding frenzy. Whatever about that, his recollections about standing on street corners nursing a kosh and waiting to kill a black man because a friend had just been raped by one are, shall we say, more problematic, and in fact the dreaded phrase ‘career-ending’ is already being used.

To put Neeson’s statement in context, he was talking to London Independent journalist Clemence Michallon about his new film, Cold Pursuit, in which he plays a Rocky Mountain snow plough driver who goes in search of the men who murdered his son. They were discussing the character’s rage, which Liam said he could understand, then added “I’ll tell you a story - this is true.” You can bet the farm he’s now wishing to God he hadn’t.

At time of writing, Neeson had not emerged to either clarify his comments or apologise for them, but he will probably have to. In fairness, during the original interview, he referred back to what he’d said, adding “it was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that. And I’ve never admitted that, and I’m saying it to a journalist. God forbid.”.

God forbid indeed, and that won’t be enough to stem the predictable tsunami of online outrage that has ensued. Liam has become today’s twitter target, an unenviable predicament.

The most remarkable thing about the whole incident is that it could have happened during a film junket, where ad hoc outbursts are practically unheard of. Junkets are minutely controlled events that take place in the upper floors of swish hotels in London, Paris or Los Angeles. Journalists are politely herded into holding areas, and sorted into various flavours - print, online, TV, radio.

Online and TV are usually given five minutes of video time, print get 15 or 20, which means your interview is likely to resemble something like an actual conversation. The gateways to the stars are zealously guarded by studio flunkies who warn you that the actor in question does not want to talk about this, or that, and will walk out altogether if you mention the other. During the interview itself, a PR person or media advisor will often sit in a corner of the hotel room and tut-tut if you stray too early from the film at hand.

The stars themselves, though, don’t usually care much about all these rules, and the bigger they are the more relaxed they are about it all. And that’s the art of film interviews: getting someone to relax, asking them something no one else has, and encouraging them to feel they’re just having a chat. I’ve done it lots of times, and often the people you’ve been warned are the most difficult turn out to be the most interesting. The trick is not to ask stupid questions: imagine how bored Russell Crowe gets by being asked about Gladiator, and drinking.

You want something interesting, a quote that will entice the reader, and maybe cast the actor in a new light. Not this new though. Interviews happen in a blur, and it’s only when you transcribe the conversation that you find out whether it went well, and if you have something.

If I heard something back like Liam’s ‘black b******’ comment, I would have a crisis of conscience about whether or not something as potentially damaging to the subject should be used. After all, haven’t we all said things in casual conversation that we wouldn’t like broadcast to the world?

The difference is this wasn’t just a conversation, however much we journalists like to pretend they are, and my suspicion is that interviewing A-list actors is about to become that bit harder. Oh and for the record, I probably would have ended up using the quote as well.

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