Robbie Collin: 'Liam Neeson's confession points to a dark part of our nature that few of us admit'
If the Oscars are looking for a sure-fire way to boost their viewing figures this year, perhaps they should think about getting Liam Neeson on stage for a live Q&A. If the 66-year-old star will confess to having once contemplated racist murder in the dreary environs of a press junket, then who knows what might come out in the febrile atmosphere of Hollywood's Dolby Theatre?
Neeson made the extraordinary admission in an interview published earlier this week, in the context of discussing the "primal" human thirst for revenge. (His latest film, Cold Pursuit, is about a snowplough driver exacting vigilante justice.)
Around 40 years ago, after learning that a female friend had been raped by an unidentified "black person," the actor said he spent a week or so walking around predominantly black areas while carrying a cosh, in the hope that "some black bastard would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him".
Fortunately, nothing came of it, and Neeson now regards the incident as what is sometimes described as a teachable moment. "But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, 'What the f*** are you doing,' you know?" he added. His PR team may be currently asking themselves the same question.
From almost any other actor, this might have sounded like a tall tale, but with Neeson, it has the grim ring of truth. For years, he has appeared in a series of violent action thrillers in which he typically plays a husband or father beating back an (often racially coded) underworld horde, which has risen up to snap at the sanctity of his family unit.
The trend began with 2008's Taken, which at the time was something new for Neeson: a European action thriller, with a Death Wish vibe, about a former CIA operative who travels to Paris and obliterates an Albanian sex-trafficking ring after they abduct his teenage daughter.
He has often said since that he expected the film to go straight to DVD. Instead, it spawned two sequels, became a billion-dollar franchise, and established its star - then in his mid-50s - as Hollywood's hottest new action dad.
Why? A whole host of middle-aged male actors, from Sean Penn to Kevin Costner, have since attempted to Neesonise their careers, without success: Neeson has proven almost uniquely plausible in such silver-haired lone-wolf roles. Taken's director, Pierre Morel, said at the time of the film's release that he had been drawn to the actor's "background and baggage": not just his two decades of Hollywood gravitas, culminating in an Oscar nomination for his work in Schindler's List, but also his upbringing in a working-class Catholic family in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.
He was a teenager during the Troubles, when violent division was an integral part of everyday life. Before acting, he found purpose in amateur boxing, having trained as a child under his parish priest, and was a three-time juvenile champion of Northern Ireland by the age of 17.
Acting took him first to Dublin and then London, after he was cast by John Boorman in the 1980 Arthurian epic Excalibur. But it was only when he moved to Los Angeles in 1986 that he says he stopped seeing his Irish roots as an encumbrance.
It's telling that the only other actor to have successfully carved out a career in action-revenge films is Keanu Reeves - whose John Wick trilogy ties itself up this year, and whose personal life, like Neeson's, has been scarred by an unthinkable, high-profile loss. Reeves (54) lost his ex-partner Jennifer Syme in a car crash in 2001; Neeson, his wife, the actress Natasha Richardson, as a result of head injuries sustained in a skiing lesson in 2009.
Some have attempted to psychoanalyse Neeson's mid-career swerve as a response to Richardson's death, though he has certainly never characterised it as such - and besides, it all feels a little neat. Real life is far messier and less cohesive than a Taken screenplay, even Taken 3's.
As someone who has carried out more than my fair share of stop-watched hotel-room tête-à-têtes, I can confirm candour on the level of "I once wanted to kill an innocent black man" is rare to say the least. But while that desire (as if it even needs to be said) is staggeringly racist, being outraged about his decision to discuss it seems wrong-headed - and not just because actors don't speak freely enough in interviews as it is. Neeson's confession acknowledges a dark part of our nature that few of us, film stars or otherwise, would like to publicly admit.
While most of us would stop short of prowling the streets after having tooled up for a guerrilla race war, we have all felt irrational stabs of ill will towards whole subsets of people based on one-off incidents. That actors like Neeson use their pasts to equip themselves for roles shouldn't startle us: transporting themselves into places and mindsets most of us would understandably shrink from is part of the job.
Just as long as they don't, you know, actually go there.
© The Telegraph