Liam Neeson interview: Taken 2, The Dark Knight Rises, comedy and biscuits

With Taken 2 on the horizon, we met with Liam Neeson for a round-table interview about his movies, comedy and HobNob biscuits…

Carrying with him an extraordinary reservoir of charisma, actor Liam Neeson sweeps into a London hotel room. My fellow writers and I – ten or 11 in all – are crowded around a table and waiting with hushed expectancy, and when Neeson appears, it’s difficult not to be impressed by his gravitas, height and hair.

In recent years, Neeson has often appeared in films as a mythical being – Zeus, Aslan – or towering men of action – in Taken, The Grey or Unknown – and it’s easy to see why when you meet him. When he takes a seat, he greets us with a gentle, soothing yet expansive voice. Today, Neeson’s in an Aslan kind of mood.

With the actor reprising his role as wrist-cracking ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills in Taken 2, Neeson patiently answered questions on topics ranging from the surprise success of the original Taken, stunts, his appearance in Ricky Gervais’ Life’s Too Short, and his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises. 

Taking his time over the responses, before replying in his inimitable tones, Neeson was disarmingly funny, particularly when questioned about a certain brand of biscuits. And his impression of Christopher Nolan is truly priceless. 

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Do you have large fanbase in Albania, then?

It’s funny, I was suggesting to the producers that we do a premiere in Albania [laughs] just to see what would happen. I’d be game for it.

When was the idea for this sequel first mooted?

Probably a year and a half ago, maybe. They proposed a few ideas a few years ago which I thought were… silly. And then Luc [Besson] and his writing partner Robert Mark Kamen came up with this new scenario in Istanbul, and I thought, yeah, this could work. And it drew Famke Janssen’s character and Maggie [Grace’s] in much more, you know? I thought it was good.

Was it harder or easier to film in Istanbul than Paris?

There were different challenges. It was an extraordinary city. I loved the streets we shot in, which were thousands of years old. They were as wide as this room, with shops either side and merchants selling their wares. You’re doing a car chase at 50 or 60 miles an hour, and people are saying, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m not closing my shop. You do your movie. I sell my wares.” So there were pedestrians crossing the road all the time. [Laughs] 

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Were any pedestrians hurt during the course of this film?

Nobody was hurt. Nobody at all, no. But it added an exoticism to the film, you know? The extras weren’t from central casting. They’re all normal people going about their daily lives.

Speaking of getting hurt, you’re very active in this movie. Does a movie like this require extra work?

There’s always extra work in a movie like this. I keep pretty fit in life, as a rule. You have to these days, right? But sure, there are a few more push-ups and sit-ups you have to do in the morning, and there’s a considerable amount of fight choreography training, and rehearsing. So every day after we wrapped, we had this hotel room we trained in. Actually, it was about this size. We worked on these fights.

Do you bounce off a fist like you used to? 

No, no. It’s starts to hurt. The knees creak a little more, you know? But it’s good to use that – particularly in the last encounter we have in the film. You have to show two people getting tired. It’s not super[hero] stuff, it’s ugly and tiring and violent.

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But you also leave the door open for Taken 3…

Do you think so? I don’t. I don’t think so. No, I think we’re finished, that’s it. Mind you, I thought we were finished with the first one. [Laughs]

Were you surprised at how successful the first Taken was, and how much people wanted a second one?

We were all pleasantly surprised, because the film came out in France first, and it was reasonably successful. And then the next territory we opened in was South Korea, and it was phenomenally successful. And then you could download it on your computer.

I know that because my nephews in Ireland and England were calling me up and saying, [adopts dopey ‘teen’ voice] “Yeah, we saw your movie.” [Laughs]

I said, “Which one?” and they said, “Taken”. I said, “You couldn’t have done. It hasn’t opened yet.” “Uh, we saw it on the computer.”

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And I thought, that’s the end of that. It’s finished, you know? But Fox Studios in America took it in January 2009 and did this phenomenal PR job, where they showed little 30-second teaser trailers at these big sporting events – Super Bowl and big basketball events, and baseball events – and it came out, and it had this extraordinary success. So it was due to Fox. They really hyped it. 

Bryan, your character in the film, he’s quite a brutal guy. Do you think, if you met him, would you go for a drink with him down the pub?

Absolutely. He’s a very sensitive, caring and intelligent guy [laughs]. There was a guy who was my mentor, who trained me on a film a few years ago, in weapons, and he’s a special operatives soldier actively going into Afghanistan at various times. Actively going into Pakistan. And he can never talk about what he does, but he goes in, and comes out four days later, and he’ll call me and say, “Hi, fancy a drink?”

He’s bandaged here or he’s bandaged there, but he can’t talk about what he’s done, other than give you a broad, broad outline. He’s a guy who could walk down the street and you wouldn’t pick him out in the crowd, you know? The stuff he gets up to is breathtaking.

Now you’re getting a bit older, and films like The Expendables have been a success, and Taken was really successful, do you think men are peaking at an older age now? Is 60 the new 20?

Well, 60’s the new 40. [Laughs] That’s for sure. You explain to me – what is the success of The Expendables, for example? What is it?

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Nostalgia, isn’t it, partially? Because I think Taken harks back to those 80s proper action movies. Merciless good guy, righteousness, that kind of thing.

Yeah, yeah. I have a theory, too, certainly with the first Taken, when it came out in 2009, the world was turned upside down financially – we were in a crisis. Our elected leaders, the so-called pillars of society, the bankers and managers, were fucking shafting us. And everyone felt vulnerable and scared and nervous.

And when you feel that, you seek entertainment, and I think when you see films like The Expendables – which didn’t come out then, but there was Taken and I’m sure a couple of others – it’s about someone who’s not going to call on a figure of authority when he’s in trouble. He’s going to do something about it himself. I think that gave people a real guilty pleasure. Saying, “Yes, I wish I could do that.” 

Do you think that’s why your character in Taken, and in Taken 2 to a certain extent, is shown as almost invulnerable? I mean, he towers physically over everyone else in the film?

Yeah, but I think he’s vulnerable, too. He’s an over-protective dad. He’s not some superhero, I think joking aside, he is very sensitive. He’s led a very strange, covert life, he’s missed out on his daughter’s upbringing, and trying to make it up to her – and failing, the way most fathers feel, I think.

It’s good that you get to spend more time with Maggie Grace this time round. Did you teach her the action ropes? 

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Well, Maggie’s very fit, so I didn’t have to teach her anything. She just took it all on board. If there is a sequel, it should be based on her.

What was it about the first Taken that made you want to do it?

It was because I’ve always liked Luc Besson, and I’ve liked his movies. And there’s something about the story that’s dead simple, and it has lots of physical stuff, which I love doing. And it was three months in Paris, which isn’t too shabby. And I thought, it might make its money back, and then it’ll disappear into DVD land, you know? And that was okay with me – three months in Paris, I get to work with the French crew.

Do you have a favourite scene in the sequel?

Um… favourite scene. I think the fighting stuff. All that gun stuff. It was like being a kid in the candy store.

Which was the most difficult to do?

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Actually, those driving scenes in those narrow streets were difficult. You never knew who was going to pop out of a shop. We had a police presence, but they could only do so much, you know?

Were the little cars that got smashed to pieces the real ones?

Yeah. We smashed up a few Mercedes too, by the way. They got chewed up big time. 

A colleague of mine once described Bryan as doing what any father would do, albeit one with a very specific skill set, as it’s said. Are you an over-protective father? How far would you go to protect your own children?

Well, how many of us are parents in this room? Nobody? [One hand goes up after a considerable delay] Only two of us?

In this cutthroat world of film journalism, we have to be selfish…

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Right. And I thought actors were selfish!  But you know the stories of mothers who can lift a car to save their child. You’d do anything for your kid. Though I’d draw the line at shooting people.

Do you think it’s different if you’ve got daughters rather than sons? Do fathers tend to be more protective towards daughters?

Yep. Because girls need protecting in the old-fashioned sense, I think. [Laughs]

Do you find the “I’ve got a very particular set of skills…” line quoted back to you often?

Occasionally, I hear it. My son’s friends. [Adopts teen voice] “Oh, hello Mr Neeson. Would you leave a message on my iPhone?”  [Laughs]

Sometimes I get people shouting, “Hey! Release the Kraken!” [Laughs] That’s the one I most get.

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“I will find you, and I will kill you” is a legendary line now. Would you recommend using that in everyday life – against cold-callers, for example?

Uh, you do feel like saying things like that sometimes, don’t you?

Did you get to have more fun this time round, without the sinister undertones of the first film?

That’s a good question. But there’s still sex traffickers, you know? It’s a huge business.

Is playing a character like Bryan more difficult or less difficult than playing yourself in something like Life’s Too Short? Did Ricky Gervais script that scene?

That was all scripted. Every comma, semi-colon and full stop. It was all scripted. He and Stephen [Merchant], his writing partner. It was a brilliant little skit.

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Did you recognise anything of yourself in it?

Well, it’s supposed to be Liam Neeson, and I’m known for serious roles. So I thought, the more serious I am, the funnier it’s going to be. And Ricky said, “Be really serious.” He gave me a few timing notes, too. “When I say this, don’t answer immediately. Wait a couple of beats.” That was interesting, from a comedian. So I learned very much from the two of them.

Did you have anything you didn’t want to say, or did you take it as written?

Oh, I took it as written, yeah. I added a couple of things. When Warwick Davies says, “You’re a greengrocer,” I say, “I played Schindler”. They had a couple of credits I didn’t want to mention – not for any particular reason. But I said, “I was Michael Collins. I was Oskar Schindler. I was a Jedi. I was Zeus, for God’s sake. How can I be a greengrocer?” [Laughs]

Now you’ve played so many big action heroes, are there any roles like that left you’d like to play?

No, for ten seconds I was going to be Noah in Noah’s Ark. But Russell [Crowe] is up for that one, I think. Then they wanted me to be his nemesis, but I was like, bah. If you’re not Noah, what’s the point, you know? [Laughs]

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Do you get offered that many villain roles?

Sometimes, they’ll come in. Batman Begins was interesting. But he doesn’t see himself as a villain – he sees himself as the saviour of the planet, with that organisation of his. 

What was it like to play that character again in The Dark Knight Rises? To give the films that sense of closure? 

It was good. I haven’t seen the movie yet to be honest with you. I was on set for two hours, I think. And then Chris [Nolan] said [adopts very posh, slightly grave English voice], “Don’t tell anybody you were here.” [Laughs]

And there’s a crew of 300, you know? I said, “I’m not going to say anything, but these 300 guys might!” [Laughs] 

Doing junkets, people say, “You’re in Batman!” and I’d say, “I’m not in Batman, I’m really not!” 

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It was only 15 seconds, right? 

It seems like longer than that. It makes a big impression. 

I haven’t seen it yet, I just haven’t had a chance.

After the Ricky Gervais role, would you like to explore more of the comedy side?

Nothing’s come in yet, and I keep thinking, “Come on, bring it on!” [Laughs]

If it was right, yeah. And if I could do something, rather than be funny.

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To end on a slightly humorous note, someone in the office has stolen our HobNobs. How do you think Bryan would recommend we get them back?

What are HobNobs?

They’re biscuits.

Oh, they’re biscuits?

Yes. How do you think Bryan would get them back for us, since they’ve been taken?

See, you just said that word ‘taken’, and I’m immediately [snaps fingers]. [Laughs]

I’d find them… And I would kill them.

[In mock anger] “Where’s my HobNobs?!”

Liam Neeson, thank you very much.

Taken 2 is out in the UK on the 4th October. Our review’s here.

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