By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—When addressing Oscar-nominated Liam Neeson, it’s best not to call him “mister.”
“It makes me feel like a 62-year-old,” the tall, Irish actor quips with a brogue accent.
Regardless of his biological age, the veteran performer, who had a 1993 breakthrough performance in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List,” and earned an Oscar nomination for his depiction of the selfless titular character, is enjoying a career Renaissance as an action star, thanks to his starring role in the highly successful “Taken” films.
Subsequent to that 2008 sleeper hit in which he played a devoted father who stopped at nothing to rescue his kidnapped daughter, Neeson has since played other heroic characters, many of them also Everyman figures who stand up to the bad guys.
He now takes on yet another everyday hero in the Universal Pictures crime drama, “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” He plays an ex-New York cop turned private eye, who is hired by a drug kingpin to find the kidnapper who brutally murdered his wife. As Matt Scudder, he delves into the case, and discovers that he is not dealing with ordinary criminals, but twisted vigilantes who know their targets won’t turn to the law for help. The film also stars Dan Stevens, best known for his role as the doomed heir on the TV series “Downton Abbey.” The British actor easily slips into the drug kingpin role with an American accent.
The crime drama is directed by Scott Frank, and is based on one of Lawrence Block’s bestselling novels about a fictional ex-alcoholic P.I. antihero.
Neeson, who is 62, but looks a decade younger, says he has considered the possibility of “Tombstones” becoming his next action franchise if this film is a hit. He already has completed work on “Taken 3,” which reunites him with Maggie Grace (who plays his daughter).
A widower since the unfortunate 2009 skiing accident of his actress wife Natasha Richardson, Neeson recently spoke about his midlife rebirth as an action hero, what he liked about playing the flawed Block character and what’s ahead.
Q: What appeals to you about playing these action heroes?
Neeson: Since I was a kid in Ireland, whether it was watching Robert Mitchum on TV, or Steve McQueen, or Charles Bronson, to a certain extent, I’ve always liked these guys. There’s just something very noble and damaged about those sort of American cinematic heroes. I just find them very appealing. This is very much one of those sort of characters—not good in the relationship world, and tortured. In Matt Scudder’s case, he’s a recovering alcoholic. He has to think of a reason to get up in the morning. Once they’re up, they have to some way to not have a drink. All these little heroic battles they fight with and against every day of their lives. I think that Scott (Frank, the director) brought that out really beautifully in the film. He’s not larger than life, he’s just one of us, really, but his career was with the police force, and these guys see a part of humanity that we don’t want to deal with on a daily basis.
Q: Scott mentioned that some characters like yours have to find the worst in themselves, before they can find the best. Could you comment on that as part of your role?
Neeson: Did Scott say that? He probably would. He’s a writer. Yes, he had mentioned that to me when we’d met. I wanted to find some kind of research I could do, other than reading Larry’s books. I know some policemen, and one of them I know very, very well. I was able to get access to documents on serial killers, and not just the crimes, but also the police work that went into tracking them down, which was very, very fascinating. Scudder is a good, righteous old-fashioned kind of man. I think he has certain pillars of ethics that never change, even though he’s kind of ****** up in a lot of ways. But he’s essentially a good man.
Q: There’s flashback scene in “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” where you’re an undercover cop, and you have long hair…
Neeson: (joking) It’s all my own, too.
Q: It establishes why your character is the way he is later in the movie. Can you talk a little bit about doing this scene, because it’s kind of an extended scene, and it keeps coming up throughout the film?
Neeson: We shot it over two or three days. We had access to an area North of Manhattan. We had that whole set of steps, where the bad guy falls down and stuff. It was on a Saturday, and we shot that bar scene during that week. So it was really only two or three days of the wig. I wanted to avoid that classic drunk stuff. That’s really hard to do—to act drunk. My character is a functioning drunk. That’s a different thing. I tried to do a little thing where when I follow the bad guy, when I come out of the bar, and I have at least four whiskeys in me, and then that leads to the carelessness, and this horrible death. There’s this Action Jackson stuff, but it was very, very carefully choreographed. Scott was very, very careful about that stuff. Even if I ran, just how I would run? Would I run a straight line, or would I be a bit zigzag, after I’ve had these few drinks? And I thought, “No, he’s done this for years.” He’d run absolutely in a straight line, but in his head it might be a bit squiggly.
Q: Is there a reason why you choose these characters? Or is it just because you’re so good at it?
Neeson: I appreciate the compliment, I really do. Listen, I was in my 50s, when this “Taken” movie came out. I was sure it was just a straight-to-video, good little European thriller, well made. And Fox Studios took it and did this amazing sell job. They showed the trailer at big sporting events and the film became a hit. I started to get sent these action scripts, in my 50s! It was very flattering, and I felt like a kid in a toy shop, so why not do them? I didn’t pretend like I was a 27-year-old. I try in these fight scenes to fight as a 50-year-old—even though I’m 62. I’m not playing a superhero.
Q: A lot of these characters you play are loners. Do you consider yourself a loner in real life?
Neeson: I’d like to think I am. No man’s an island, as they say. I’ve tried it. I’ve gone on various retreats in my life, for three or four days, and I get desperate to get out of there and talk to somebody. I fly fish a lot. I can do that really only by myself. I’m never lonesome when I’m on the river, far from it, but it’s a lonely practice.
Q: You’ve got a packed schedule and you’re raising two sons by yourself. How do you balance all the work you’re doing with spending quality time with your kids? Is it something you have to work at?
Neeson: Oh yeah, I’ve got to. “Mental note: must call.” Listen, I have a great support team, I really do. Fantastic family. If I’m away on a project, my mother-in-law (the British actress Vanessa Redgrave) moves in. We’re sort of like chess pieces. (He chuckles.) But yes, it’s always a balance. I’m very fortunate to get to play these characters at this stage in my life. I love doing it, and I’ll keep doing it as long as they keep sending me scripts. My kids are used to it, from the time they were born. One of them was born on location. So they’re used to dad being away for certain periods of time. So far, it’s worked out okay; they’re not damaged.
Q: Do you like doing the action scenes, and is there a way that you keep yourself safe, from little bumps and bruises?
Neeson: Well, I love doing them, and I have a great fight coordinator, who’s my stunt double too, called Mark Vanselow. We’ve done 16 films now. We work very, very closely with each other. I don’t do my own stunts, but I do my own fighting and stuff. I love doing that stuff, yeah, that’s always fun to do. In this film, it’s important to kind of make it real; it’s not that cinema fight stuff. We wanted to make it very dark and gruesome and ugly. You don’t know where punches were coming from—the way it would be in real life.
Q: Have you ever gotten hurt doing your own fight scenes?
Neeson: No, I haven’t. Occasionally, you get a few knocks, but then you slap on the Arnica (bruise cream) and it’s gone. (He laughs.)
Q: I spoke with your “Taken” co-star, Maggie Grace, a few weeks ago, and asked to sum you up in one word, and she said, “goofy.” How would you sum yourself up in one word?
Neeson: “Goofy”’s not bad. (mock anger) My daughter said that? Next time, I’m going to give her away. We’ll call it “Given!”