Interview - Liam Neeson: Voice that puts roar emotion into world of fantasy

Every actor wants to play God. Liam Neeson did so via Aslan in the timeless Narnia adventures. He spoke to Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.

It's a weary and somewhat sombre Liam Neeson who sits down to talk about his on-going journey to Narnia.

It's only 21 months since the 58-year-old Irishman bade a sad farewell to his actress wife Natasha Richardson following her involvement in a freak skiing accident. He makes fleeting reference to her once, talks about his children frequently and reveals that it was his son who first pointed him in the direction of CS Lewis.

I ask if he was seeking to be part of a franchise, and that Lewis's Narnia series offered him the opportunity. Neeson smiles.

"I hoped it would. Not for financial reasons, but for fun. I love the books. I was introduced to them by my eldest boy who's now 15. At this time he was nine years of age. He said 'Dad, uh, whaddaya doin' today?' and I said 'I have to go and meet this guy, Andrew Adamson, for this job. It's just a voice-over. They've offered me the voice of this character called Aslan.'

"He said 'Uh, Aslan? The lion?' and I said 'Yeah.' 'Dad, he's God!' I said 'Oh, really? You read the books?' So he told me where his book was and I read through it very fast and furiously. Isn't that sweet? I owe it all to him."

After 30 years in the movies, Neeson has acquired some of the same kind of gravitas as Morgan Freeman. His charisma was evident as far back as 1981's Excalibur – his breakthrough – and The Bounty three years later, where he stood out in a mouth-watering cast of future Oscar-winners that included Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson and Daniel Day-Lewis.

He was likable and captivating, mysterious and intriguing – perfect as a supporting player to a range of top-line stars. But he was wasted as the Jedi master in the vapid Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace – stolid, dull and disguised by a wispy goatee and a bad hippy wig. In Les Miserables he was Valjean – the hero – but was blown off the screen by the malevolent majesty of Geoffrey Rush as the nemesis, Javert.

He seems most comfortable as part of an ensemble, as in Love Actually. Strangely that was the case in Schindler's List where the repertory included an unforgettable Ralph Fiennes as the monstrous Nazi Amon Goeth. Fiennes, like Neeson, was nominated for an Academy Award. Both men lost, but it was Fiennes who everyone talked about.

He's part of the ensemble in the Narnia films. It began with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, continued with Prince Caspian and goes on with the third outing The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Yet there was frustration for the genial 6ft 3in giant from Ballymena. As a voice artiste he never got to meet his juvenile co-stars. Nonetheless he stepped up to provide the necessary gravitas for Aslan.

"Here's what I did without going into Daniel Day-Lewis mode... I did actually go to Africa to study lions in the wild because I wanted to see how CS Lewis picked a lion – instead of an elephant or a tiger ," he recalls. "I saw these extraordinary animals with my two boys and my wife at the time. There was something in their eyes that was thousands of years old and very mysterious."

Neeson appears to have something of an affinity for the fantastical. He's dabbled in Arthurian myth, wielded a lightsabre in the Star Wars universe and given voice to Aslan. It's all fantasy aided and abetted by the marvel of CGI. Neeson smiles again.

"CGI is when essentially you're acting against nothing," he says. "You're acting against either a green screen or a blue screen with little red dots saying 'Okay. Here's the ship. Here's the mouse. Here's Aslan.

"I've done it many times, acting against a tennis ball – especially in the Star Wars prequel. It's frigging difficult to try and convey emotion to a tennis ball!"

So is it hard to deliver a real performance – something his young son would be proud of? Neeson shrugs.

"I don't know about performance. My standard of what's good acting – and I'm asked it often – is when I see the actor or actress speaking their lines and I believe that what is coming out of their mouth to be the truth. Jimmy Cagney said: 'Walk into the room, plant your feet, speak the truth.'

"CS Lewis... all his books are classics. I call them the refrigerator classics. You read the book and then go to the refrigerator for your milk. Then you go 'Wait a moment...' and go back to the book. 'Yeah, now I get that.'

"There's something else happening there, you know...?"

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is on nationwide release.


Liam Neeson was born on June 7, 1952, in Ballymena, County Antrim.

Before securing his big acting break, he worked as a forklift truck driver.

In 1980, filmmaker John Boorman cast him in Excalibur after seeing him in a stage version of Of Mice and Men.

Seven years later he had moved to America where he received critical acclaim for Schindler's List. His performance earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, but he lost out to Tom Hanks for his role in the film Philadelphia.

He now lives in New York with his two sons, Michael and Daniel.