Liam Neeson Ventures Into ‘The Grey’

Liam Neeson stars in "THE GREY.." ©Kimberley French/Open Road Films. (Click on photo for hi-res version)

By ANGELA DAWSON

Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Liam Neeson has been on a bit of a tear since the 2008 sleeper hit “Taken” turned him into a bona fide action star. He subsequently kicked butt in “The A-Team,” “Clash of the Titans” and “Unknown.” He’s finished work on a “Titans” sequel, due out in March, in which he reprises his role as the mythological Greek god Zeus, and he is set to reprise his hero-dad role with action filmmaker Luc Besson for “Taken 2.”

No one seems more surprised about Neeson’s Hollywood resurgence than the veteran actor, who turns 60 this year, himself.

“They’re just offering me stuff, which I find unbelievably flattering,” he says in his rumbling Irish accent. “Since this silly ‘Taken’ movie came out, they’re throwing these thriller-assassin movies at me. Some are good and some aren’t so good. But I love it, and as long as my knees don’t give out, I’ll keep doing it.”

Neeson now stars in the testosterone-fueled “The Grey,” in which he plays a pest controller of sorts for an oil drilling operation in a remote part of Alaska. His job is to shoot and kill grey wolves that get too close to the oil workers. He and a handful of other men become stranded in the Alaska wilderness when their plane crash-lands in the middle of nowhere. With no operable communication equipment and no weapons, it’s up to the survivors to try and find their way back to civilization, without getting attacked by hungry wolves. It’s more than just a story of survival, though. “The Grey,” based on Ian Mackenzie Jeffers’ short story, is about a man who loses faith and hope, and finds redemption and an overwhelming desire to live in the harshest of circumstances.

Neeson recalls he immediately was taken Jeffers’ story, which the author adapted into a screenplay with director Joe Carnahan.

“It read to me like a 19th century epic poem, like ‘The Ancient Mariner,’” says the actor. “I could see this was going to be a movie that was going to be a throwback to those old movies that they use to make where it was man versus nature, a Jeremiah Johnson-type thing.”

Neeson adopted an unusual regimen to get ready for the physically demanding role. The film was shot last year in the wilds of British Columbia, in below-freezing temperatures, far from the comforts of home.

“I saw this documentary about this guy who swims in the Antarctic Ocean and near icebergs and stuff, and I saw how he prepared by standing under freezing cold showers for, like, 10 minutes every morning,” recalls the actor.

So Neeson started taking ice cold showers every day, working his way up to seven minutes at a time.

“It really worked,” he marvels. “It immunizes your body.”

Neeson enjoyed working with the nearly all-male cast, including Dermot Mulroney and Frank Grillo, who play fellow survivors. Their characters don’t exactly all get along at first, but have to learn to cooperate in order to try and survive.

I knew Dermot from his work a little bit, but we’d never met,” he recalls.

Working in the harsh cold and snowy conditions in the middle of nowhere brought the cast and crew together. There were “no egos, no star crap,” as Neeson puts it.

Carnahan, with whom he previously worked on “A-Team,” was the alpha wolf, he insists.

“We were all there to help each other,” he says. “We became a band of brothers.”

One of the ways the cast bonded was over a meal of wolf stew as their characters similarly do in the film during one cold night after defeating an attacking wolf. Neeson had never eaten wolf meat before but sportingly tried it.

“It was gamey,” he recalls. “They put in a lot of carrots and onions and it was OK. A few guys got sick, but I didn’t.”

Neeson says it was tough being away from his sons as it always is when he is working on location, but he would try and visit them every couple of weeks.  He lost his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, in a skiing accident a few years ago, and is raising their two teenage sons as a single father.

“I’m a total sap,” he says about his parenting skills. “I’ll try and be a hardball sometimes and my kids see right though it.”

He has shown them some of his movies, but doesn’t pressure them to watch. He says he would like to show “Michael Collins,” in which he played the historic Irish independence leader, to his younger son, Danny, 16.

“It’s my favorite of my 55 films and it also explains something of the formation of the present state of Ireland,” he says.

Neeson hasn’t watched “Schindler’s List” in a while, though he showed it to her older son, Michael, a few years ago. He recalls bonding with Ralph Fiennes, who played his onscreen nemesis in that movie, over books. Actually, it was one book in particular that brought the two men together: Cormac McCarthy’s Western “Blood Meridian.”

“Ralph was reading it at the exact time I was and that’s how we became friends,” he says, smiling.

Neeson turns 60 on June 7, but he’s hoping to keep it a low-key celebration.

“I really don’t want to have a big party,” he says, adding that he is worried his sons may try and surprise him.

Meantime, in addition to the upcoming “Wrath of the Titans,” in which he reprises his role as Zeus alongside Sam Worthington, who returns as Perseus, and Fiennes, who plays Hades, Neeson also is slated to appear in the big budget sci-fi thriller “Battleship,” and is rumored to make an appearance in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” as Batman’s enemy Ra al Ghul.

Eventually, Neeson says he would like to get back to doing some theater, where he started out some 40 years ago.

“I feel the need to go back to the theater and challenge myself,” he says. “The problem is finding a new writer. I’d like to do a new modern play. I’m on the lookout for that.”