Liam Neeson interview: Unknown, Taken 2, Krull, Star Wars, Darkman and more

With action thriller Unknown out in cinemas this week, we chat to actor Liam Neeson about his greatest geek films and the possibility of a Taken sequel…

I’m actually at a slight loss as to how to introduce Liam Neeson. He’s a magnificent actor, who’s been in my life for decades, always defying expectations and as adept at portraying heartbreak in the likes of Love Actually as he is at breaking bones in Taken.

His geek credentials run far and deep, from John Boorman’s Excalibur back in 1981, as one of the heroic thieves in the mighty Krull, playing the redneck brother to Patrick Swayze and Bill Paxton in Next Of Kin, as the tormented Peyton Westlake in Darkman, before a tremendous dramatic run including Schindler’s List, Nell, Rob Roy and Michael Collins led him to become a Jedi Knight in The Phantom Menace.

The list of Neeson’s towering performances is incredible, and I haven’t even mentioned Kingdom Of Heaven, Batman Begins, Seraphim Falls or The A-Team. Well, until now.

The films named above are just a few of my favourites, but he’s another actor with genuinely universal appeal. We had the good fortune to talk with him over the phone, where he proved to be every bit as courteous, softly spoken and thoughtful as you would hope, with his emphasis very much on the positive as he discussed working with close friends, and some early memories being a particular thrill.

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With Unknown out this Friday, Liam Neeson has added another great character to his long list of performances. So, it gives me great pleasure to share our time with him.

Congratulations on Unknown and on the success of it going to number one at the box office. It must still be a tremendous thrill when that happens.

Yep, it’s number one, which is terrific. Really terrific and I’m so chuffed.

What was it that drew you to the project to begin with?

Well, I guess it was after the success of Taken, Joel Silver approached me and just said, “I’d like you to read this.” I did and I thought, “Wow, this is really. Really good. A really good psychological thriller and I get to do some physical stuff again, which I love doing.” So, he set it up pretty quickly. This time last year we shot it and in a very, very cold Berlin. In fact, it was the coldest in twenty years, apparently.

I really liked Jaume Collet-Serra who’d done that film, Orphan, and it scared the living bejesus out of me. I remember Joel screened it for me and I had no idea what I was going to see, which is rare these days. And I was the only one in the movie theatre and it really scared me. [laughs] I thought it was fantastic!

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It’s always worse when you’re watching a horror film by yourself in the cinema as well!

Oh, my gosh, I know! I just was very impressed with his detail and by how he unravelled the story.

And when you met with him, was his passion for the project evident and did that help to get you involved?

Yes, it was. He’s a quiet thoughtful guy, Jaume. But his passion for cinema was really, really evident, and for the story too.

You mentioned the physical aspect of the role. I thought one of the strengths of Unknown was that your character got to be involved with the drama, the thrills and the physical action. Do you have a preference? Or is it just nice to have all of those elements in one film?

Well, all the elements are great and I just pushed with all the fighting stuff, and I feel a lot like a kid in a candy store, especially when I had my little team around me. Olivier Schneider, who choreographed all the fights in Taken, he’s a wonderful Parisian and a very dear friend. So, I got him on board to choreograph the fights. One of my dear friends, Mark Vanselow, who’s also my stunt double, whose been in my life for over thirteen years, I got him involved too. So, it was great to have your guys, your team, you know?

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And also you had your former brother in arms from Michael Collins, Aidan Quinn.

Yeah, Aidan, yeah.

Was that a coincidence, or did you get asked for a suggestion?

Well, it was actually Joel Silvers’ idea originally, and unbeknownst to be, I didn’t know that Joel had thought of Aidan Quinn. And we were actually doing the read through of the script in Berlin and we hadn’t cast that part yet. I said, “Well, who have you got in mind?” and they mentioned various actors and I said, “Well what about Aidan Quinn? He’d be perfect.” And Joel Silver started roaring at one of his staff, saying, “What did I say! [growls] WHAT DID I SAY! I said Aidan Quinn, get the script to him right now!” So, it worked out really, really well and Aidan was on the next flight in.

And I was thrilled, because, again, he’s a very dear friend.

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And it must’ve been quite fun to have that dynamic in the film and be facing off against each other again?

I know. It was. And then you’re lying on the ground, lying in the dust and you catch each other’ eye and burst out laughing. Sometimes the ridiculousness of filmmaking kind of gets to you. The brilliance of it too, but sometimes you find yourself in ridiculous situations.

After the success of Taken, did you get offered a lot of Hollywood thrillers, as opposed to Unknown, which feels very much like a euro-thriller?

Well, a thriller’s a thriller. There were a few I was offered, but they were a little bit predictable, stuff we had seen before and that is just the beauty of this script for Unknown. I thought it was very intelligent, a real psychological thriller that just had a feel of the gritty European thrillers from the forties and fifties and of Hitchcock too. There’s a Hitchcockian element in there as well, I think.

Absolutely, and you had the James Stewart kind of character.

Right, right, and you know there’s the classic blonde iceberg of a woman that January Jones plays.

I know that a lot is being made of your current action roles. Is it strange that people are reacting to them as a new part of your career? Especially when I grew up with films like Krull and Next Of Kin, but then you continued having physical characters such as Rob Roy and Michael Collins.

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It feels a bit weird, yeah, with people saying it’s new. But I guess to really pigeonhole it, I hadn’t really done this genre of action film before Taken. And people are thinking, “Oh, it’s a new discovery at the age of fifty-eight.” I’m a new action hero. I mean, I don’t see myself as that. They’re just really good stories and they happen to be in that action genre. So, I’ve maybe two or three left in me before my knees give way! [laughs]

I know you’ve spoken already about Taken 2, but I thought, particularly with Unknown and its conspiratorial elements, that there could be more to that story. Is that likely?

I guess, if they can come up with a good story. But one thing I’m sure is that I can’t go into an amnesia story again. That couldn’t be repeated. But yeah, if the script’s good enough, I’d be totally comfortable with that, absolutely.

I mean we’re working on Taken 2 at the moment and crossing Ts and dotting Is on that, but we think we’ve got it cracked, what the theme of the story might be for Taken 2, and hopefully we’ll get to shoot it the fall of this year, maybe early next year.

You’ve seemingly got a lot of projects on the go. I think you’ve just finished on Battleship and you’re currently filming The Grey, aren’t you?

We’re currently filming The Grey, which is about a bunch of guys surviving a plane crash coming from an oil refinery in Alaska. I’m leading them out and we’re walking through the tundra trying to head south, and all the time we’re being pursued by a very strange breed of wolves, who’re picking us off one at a time. So, I’ve got a weeks’ filming of that still to do in Vancouver, here in Canada.

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Then I’ve two days off to see my sons in New York and then I go straight on to Clash Of The Titans 2 in London. And before that I’ve got – oh no, no. No, I’ve also got two more days to do on Battleship, somewhere in the Pacific on board an aircraft carrier. So, we’ll have to squeeze that in somewhere first!

So, there’s an awful lot to come!

I guess. I’m on a bit of a roll. But I’m a big believer in making hay while the sun shines.

I thought that it was a great thing for you to return to Star Wars, to do a couple of voiceover pieces, because I grew up with the original movies. But my nephews have grown up with the new films and it’s of equal importance to them. Was it strange to go back to Qui-Gon Jinn after several years?

It was kind of a nice. It was a little bit strange, and yet it wasn’t strange at the same time, you know? I think it was Sam Jackson, Samuel, when he heard that they were doing the animated series, he didn’t like the thought of any other actor playing him. So, he lent his voice, and I thought, “Well, that’s very fair. I don’t want anybody else playing Qui-Gon Jinn.”

And I was only in the studio for a couple of hours, if that, but it’s nice to have ownership of something, even if it’s in a cartoon form.

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Definitely, and I think that your character in The Phantom Menace was the heart and soul of that piece.

Thank you.

I know I keep asking about future movies, but The A-Team I thoroughly enjoyed as well.

Oh, good, good. Yeah, I thought it was a really good movie, you know? And thought it would’ve done much, much better at the box office in America, but the studio released it the day after the World Cup started and I think that probably affected the overall performance of the film.

From what I could gather, there seemed to be quite a bond between you and the main cast and I thought that casting worked because you all seemed very connected.

We were very, very connected, yeah. And we all were very fond of each other.

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And do you think there will be a chance to make another one?

Well, there’s nothing planned at the minute, but the studios certainly aren’t saying no. I personally would love to get on the horse again, you know? With Bradley and Sharlto and Rampage – we all would. But with the studios and the studio system, it’s a question of dollars and cents.

If I could ask one question about your early career, I wanted to know if you had a favourite from that period, as the key role from back then that put you on my radar was Darkman.

Oh yeah, yeah. [chuckles] Sam Raimi!

Do you have fond memories of filming that, or do have any other favourites from your early career?

Um, well, let me think. Yeah, there was two or three. I mean, I’m still very proud of being in Excalibur, the John Boorman piece, and Krull, I had a lot of fun with Peter Yates, God rest him. Peter passed away in January. He cast me then, Peter cast me, when I was in America in a film called Suspect with Cher and [said in unison] Dennis Quaid, which was a good little thriller actually. Anyway, I was fond of Peter and I was really, really sad to hear of his passing away.

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Let me think, I guess, yeah, Darkman was a lot of fun. Very, very hard work because of wearing the prosthetic pieces every day, which took three, or four hours to put on.

And trying to push a performance through that I imagine was tough?

Yeah, trying to push a performance through, but it was a real kick ass ride and I think, and I’m not saying this in a boastful way, but I think Darkman kicked off all those series of action heroes again, fantasy action heroes.

Darkman was kind of the instigator of this current crop of films, with Spider-Man and all that sort of thing. The originator is actually Darkman [laughs] and it was made for, I mean nothing nowadays, but forty million dollars and it was successful.

Thank you, Liam Neeson, for taking the time out to talk to us!

Unknown is out this Friday, March 4th.

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