Liam Neeson on Big Rigs, Driving The Ice Road, and Star Wars

We spoke with Liam Neeson about his new movie The Ice Road and got a thought or two on Star Wars as well.

Liam Neeson in The Ice Road
Photo: Netflix

Liam Neeson has a simple test he does to see if a script is working for him when he first reads it. “It’s a cup of tea test I do,” says the 69-year-old Irish actor. “If I get to page five and I think, oh, I must put the kettle on for a cup of tea, that’s not a good sign. But occasionally I’ll get a script, like The Ice Road, where I was able to finish it. It felt that good.”

The Ice Road is Neeson’s latest film, arriving this week on Netflix, and it continues his career’s somewhat improbable second act as an action hero. Neeson stars here as Mike McCann, a trucker who is one of several drivers recruited to transport three large, heavy drills to a remote northern Canada mine in order to free miners trapped in a collapse.

To get there on time, McCann and the others must drive their 18-wheelers over the region’s treacherous ice roads — highways literally made of ice that has frozen over the surface of vast lakes, with anything from a particularly strong sun to a slightly sharp turn likely to make the ice crack and plunge the big rigs into the deadly cold water beneath.

Mike is accompanied in his truck by his brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), an Iraq veteran who’s a genius with engines but who suffers from aphasia, while team leader Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) drives the second rig. Behind the wheel of the third is Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), whose brother is trapped in the mine, accompanied by insurance agent Varnay (Benjamin Walker). The crew soon discovers that not all the obstacles stacked against them are coming from the ice below.

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The Ice Road was written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, who directed the 2004 version of The Punisher but is more widely known for screenplays like Armageddon, Die Hard with a Vengeance and the original Jumanji.

“I do love writers, I always did,” says Neeson. “I knew Jonathan Hensleigh as a writer, he’s also a good director, and I thought, okay, we’ve got Laurence Fishburne, we’ve got a lovely actress called Amber Midthunder that I was in a little scene with in The Marksman, so I knew Amber a little bit. So this was like, ‘Yeah, I want to be involved in this, big time.’”

Although the culture of ice drivers is not necessarily something a lot of people would know about, Neeson says that he stuck primarily to what was in the script and didn’t do a lot of outside research on his own to play the part.

“The script is the foundation for me,” he affirms. “I know there was, or there is a reality TV show about ice truckers. I watched a couple of those, but [it was mostly] just being there with these amazing 18-wheeler trucks that the Kenworth organization were extraordinary in renting to us and were of enormous help.”

Long before he was an actor of any note, Neeson actually had a job as a truck driver — but the vehicle he drove back then was nothing like the rigs you see in The Ice Road.

“I was a forklift truck driver in the Guinness bottling plant,” he recalls. “Great job, actually, I loved it. But they were small — Lansing Bagnall, I think, was the company that made these forklift trucks. These 18-wheeler Kenworths, they’re monsters — very sensitive, but beautiful monsters. They are big, man. They’re the other major important characters in the film.”

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The massive Kenworths, which are decked out with cabins that Neeson says are “the size of small New York apartments” are indeed three additional members of the cast. Neeson was given instruction by experts from the Kenworth company in the art of handling the massive rigs, which were driven on real ice roads during the movie’s production. “Actually being on the ice, which then was about 30 to 40 inches thick — so it was fairly safe, but still scary — and driving these things was an amazing experience.”

Neeson says he went out on the ice in the rig “two or three times” with a Kenworth driver. “Listen, I’m not an expert,” the actor explains, “but I roughly knew what to do, and could change the gears, and when to change the gears.”

One of the dangers of driving on the ice roads are pressure waves, which is the basis of one especially harrowing sequence in the film.

“If these trucks go too fast, it creates these pressure waves underneath the ice that when they hit the opposite shore, they bounce back and buckle the ice,” Neeson says. “The drivers, if they’re going too fast, hit this ice, and they go down, and they die. That happens quite regularly on these ice roads. So we had to drive at a particular speed and stay within that speed limit.”

Much of the driving during the scenes in the movie was handled by stunt drivers hidden in a compartment below the cab, freeing the actors up to pretend to drive in the cabins, which were also the setting for some brutal fight scenes.

Because of the space afforded long-haul drivers in the Kenworth cabs, Neeson says that filming close-contact fight scenes in the trucks was not as difficult as one might expect. “The space could hold a minimum crew, including the director of photography, the camera operator, the focus puller, the director, and two actors, and we weren’t cramped,” he says. “We were able to get incredible shots over our shoulders, so that we could see this expansive ice. There was no CGI there at all, it was real.”

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The driving sequences for The Ice Road were in fact filmed on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, on real ice roads and in freezing temperatures, and Neeson recalls shooting one sequence in which his character is forced to jump into a hole that has emerged in the ice, plunging into the frigid waters below.

“At one point something happens, and I have to dive into this icy water where the ice has been broken to try and save someone,” says Neeson. “We had dry suits on underneath our costumes, but no gloves, and we had to be under the surface of the water for a good 10 to 12 seconds, so that the level of the surface of the water was still, and then we break through it.”

Neeson continues, “I was holding my fellow actor underneath [the water], but all I could think about were the victims of the Titanic, how quick their deaths must have been. Because we were told by the experts before we did our scene that even though we have dry suits on, you have to control your breath. You have maybe 45 seconds to 60 seconds, and if you don’t control your breath, death is imminent.”

Still, while Neeson says that acting in real and even dangerous conditions is much different from working in a mostly digital environment — like, say, a Star Wars movie — he also concedes that every effort is made to minimize the risk and discomfort for him and the other cast members.

“Listen, we’re actors,” he says. “One hundred yards away they built a hut. They had a huge hot tub. Once we completed the scene, we dashed over there and just dove into this hot water, costumes, everything on, the rest, and sat for 20 minutes.”

Even with that tiny peek behind the curtain of just how a movie like The Ice Road is made, the effort to make the movie seem as realistic as possible — from the location shooting to the giant trucks, to Neeson jumping into frigid water — is a far cry from the digitally created spectacles we’ve been watching for a quarter century now.

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And speaking of digitally created spectacles, we’d be remiss if we didn’t spend our last moment or two with Neeson asking him about Star Wars. It’s been 22 years since he appeared as Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace alongside Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi. And even though the latter is returning as Obi-Wan in a highly anticipated show of his own, Neeson insists he doesn’t know of any plans to bring back Qui-Gon, as a Force ghost or otherwise.

Neeson says that even in the Episode I days, George Lucas never broached the subject of doing something more with Qui-Gon. “In a word, no, absolutely not,” he says. “I haven’t seen George for years. God love him, he sends me a Christmas card every year since we did the first one. But no, I heard Ewan was doing the spinoff series, but I haven’t been approached.”

The Ice Road premieres on Netflix this Friday, June 25.