Interview: Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson in Non-Stop
Liam Neeson in Non-Stop
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All eyes are on Liam Neeson in the sky-high thriller Non-Stop, the latest actioner to feature the sexagenarian tough guy. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw spoke to him.

Liam Neeson seems to have been a consistent late starter. He became an actor after swapping careers at 24, got his first break aged 30, landed his so-far only Oscar nomination at 42 and now, at an age when most actors of his age are reaching for the pipe and slippers, he’s a bona fide action star.

Ladies and gentlemen, Liam Neeson is 61 years old.

“I’m getting a bit old for this,” he says as his face crinkles into that lop-sided smile.

Neeson’s partner in crime on Non-Stop, his latest venture into teeth-rattling, blink-of-the-eye action and gunplay is Spaniard Jaume Collet-Serra, the 39-year-old former commercials director for whom Neeson is the star of choice.

First came 2011’s Unknown, with the rangy 6ft 4ins Irishman as a doctor who suffers memory loss and fights to regain his life and wife.

There followed Non-Stop, starring Neeson as reluctant air marshall Bill Marks. Next up is Run All Night in which Neeson is an ageing hitman squaring up against his ex-boss.

This unexpected segue into karate-choppin’, eye-gougin’, neck-snappin’, pistol-packin’ violence began with 2008’s Taken, in which Neeson’s ex-FBI operative heads to Paris to locate and save his kidnapped teenage daughter from sex slavery.

Yet prior to that Neeson had propped up the cast lists of everything from Love Actually to Gangs of New York to various entries in the Star Wars and Batman sagas.

Not to mention early classics such as Excalibur and his Oscar-nominated turn as the Nazi armaments magnate turned saviour in Schindler’s List. It’s been a hell of a career.

Still, all stars endure a fallow period.

It’s been a decade since Neeson made Kinsey, his last really “serious” picture.

In the years since he’s starred as Zeus in the Titans movies, as Hannibal Smith in The A-Team and as Aslan (“he’s really God” said Neeson’s son) in the films based on CS Lewis’ Narnia books.

So he’s kept busy.

Ask Neeson about his work and he quotes James Cagney: “Walk into the room. Plant your feet. Speak the truth.”

It’s testament to him that we believe him as Greek god, leonine deity or pteromerhanophobe. (That, between you and me, is someone with a fear of flying.)

Collet-Serra cast Neeson for his common man qualities. “When you meet his character at the beginning of the movie he has a lot of doubt,” he says.

“To play a character like that, who could potentially go dark very quickly, you need someone like Liam who brings a lot of humanity to the character. Liam is the complete package.”

When we first meet Bill Marks he’s trying to come to terms with the death of his child and he has hit the bottle pretty hard.

A former NYPD cop, he sees his new job as air marshall as something of a demotion. It’s also a last chance to prove himself as a lawman.

“Strangely, given his job, he’s a bit of an air-phobic,” says Neeson.

“And, on top of that, he picks the flight from hell. I don’t want to give too much away but there’s somebody on the flight who’s out to prove something and everyone on board becomes a suspect.

“My character keeps getting texts on his special telephone saying that unless a vast sum of money is paid into an unnamed account someone on board is going to die every 20 minutes, which sure enough they do.”

Neeson is entirely on-message with his support of the film. He calls it “a total non-stop ride [that] held me in its grip from start to finish”.

One has to admire his loyalty for Collet-Serra and for the format of the movie, which, he says, is a nerve-shredder. “Ninety-nine per cent of the movie is on board the plane.”

Like his Star Wars stablemate Samuel L Jackson, Neeson exudes a form of vintage cool. But whilst Jackson at 65 has given up much of the physical stuff Neeson can still be found thrashing around a movie set. Mangling bad guys has become a late career high point.

On Taken and its sequel he single-handedly demolished an army of human traffickers. In Non-Stop the action is staggered but no less intense – such as his full-on scrap in an aircraft toilet. It can’t have been easy for the big man from Ballymena.

“No, it wasn’t and to add to the problem the other guy was quite big too!” he laughs.

“It was quite intense. They had me bash up against a fake mirror that shatters during the bathroom fight.

“You’re not aware of being hurt at the time, because the adrenaline kicks in, but you do see a bruise of two later and think, ‘How did I get that?’

“But it’s all good fun and there are great stunt guys for all the really difficult stuff. I’ve got a great stunt guy.

“We also did a great fight scene with some of the passengers who attacked me in the movie because they think I’m the hijacker.”

In Non-Stop Neeson is partnered by Julianne Moore and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery.

He last worked with Moore in Atom Egoyan’s 2009 sex drama Chloe. In at least some people’s minds that’s the kind of work he should be doing.

But Taken, Unknown, Non-Stop and their ilk have given Neeson a new lease of professional life and an entirely new audience. And there’s a lot to be said for that.

• Non-Stop (15) is on saturation release.