As if the chance to chat with one of the world’s most celebrated actors wasn’t enough to give one the jitters, when I inadvertently manage to seemingly offend him with my very first question, I think to myself, this is it.
Images of a quietly furious Liam Neeson, breathing down the phone; “I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you,” briefly whizz through my exaggeration-prone mind. But, thankfully, the supremely-talented auteur whose classic laid-back vibe coupled with a distinctly gravelly voice made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable action stars, is in a benevolent mood.
A little like his character Alex Lewis from his latest action thriller Memory, which sees him reprising his trigger-happy on-screen persona that has spawned a literal career reinvention (not to forget a money-spinning genre) for an actor whose filmography is otherwise weighed down with heavy-duty projects as Schindler’s List (1993), Michael Collins (1996), Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (1999), The Chronicles of Narnia; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe(2005). And who can forget the ensemble romantic comedy-drama Love Actually (2003)?
We caught up with the Hollywood icon ahead of the release of his latest action thriller Memory that sees him as an ageing assassin confronted with the onset of dementia, but who still goes on a rampage to seek vengeance on those who have dared to break his moral code of conduct.
Directed by Martin Campbell of Casino Royale and GoldenEye fame and co-starring Monica Bellucci, Guy Pearce and Taj Atwal, Memory drops on STARZPLAY on July 29. Excerpts from the interview:
Do action thrillers now play on autopilot for you considering since the success of Taken in 2008 this genre has been your calling card?
But never on autopilot. I would take that as a real insult if you say I’m on autopilot (laughs)! I know you didn’t (upon my clarification that it wasn’t meant to be an affront).
I have made a few of them since 2008. There’s still a couple more I’m hoping to do this year and next year, God willing. And I really do enjoy doing them. I have a great fight coordinator Mark Vanselow - we have done 25-26 films together. I love hanging out with those guys, training for the fights, I love that stuff, you know…
Was part of the larger appeal of playing Alex Lewis in Memory also the fact that, at 70, you get to play an ageing assassin confronted with physical and mental issues?
Yes, it was indeed. I was 69 then. I’m 70 now! It was part of the appeal. They had sent me the original film that I believe was a Belgian-French coproduction; I admired it. I did like the story line about this assassin for hire, who is fighting against the clock because of an early onset of Alzheimer’s. It was pretty interesting to do the research on Alzheimer’s. It’s an appalling infliction for men and women. I have a friend back in Ireland who is at the moment suffering from dementia and it is just tragic to see. It doesn’t matter (who you are) — you could be an astro physicist, or a street sweeper — it cuts across everything. My friend is a highly intellectual guy…
Do you believe post Covid, the movie holds more relevance considering stats show that dementia and mental issues have risen in the aftermath of the virus outbreak?
I didn’t know that, I must look that up. I’d really be interested to find out how it affects dementia and Alzheimer’s. I imagine if you have dementia or Alzheimer’s, your immune system must be challenged in some way and perhaps be prone to the coronavirus. You have really made me think about that.
The scene where you go to meet your brother (suffering from dementia) in Memory is one of the saddest in the film because the disease is equally terrifying for those around as well…
I like that scene too very much. It also reminds the audience about what lies ahead for Alex, the character I play, because he’s gonna end up the same way.
Liam, do you read film reviews? How do you process the success of your movie?
I don’t, to be honest with you. There are a couple of critics that I read with regards to other people’s works. With stuff like how it is doing at the box office, I leave that to my agents. It doesn’t really interest me. I put a lot of effort into each film I do and ideally you want people to see it in the cinema. That has not been the case as we know for the past 2 and a half-three year. But I am looking forward to when people will go back to the cinema again because it is a unique experience. You go into a darkened room with a whole bunch of strangers and the curtains pull across and you experience a story being told. I’d loved that experience since I was a child going to matinee performances mainly of cowboy movies in my hometown when I was 7 or 8 and it was just magical and it is still is a magical experience for me.
You have spoken about how acting was a lifeline for you growing up in the midst of violence in Ireland. Are movies still a form of escapism for you?
I don’t know whether it is escapism (now), it is more my job, it is how I pay the rent, and pay various bills and stuff! But I do love film crews, I love being with a bunch of strangers for 2 -3 months; they are all there to make you look good, and to help tell the story. You do form a very unique little family situation and at the end of that two months you part. I’ve always loved that experience. I’ve finished my 101st film; it’s a very unique profession. I feel very fortunate, very very lucky.
But yes, I did start off in the theatre. I think I have lost the muse for going back on stage again. I’ve been asked to go back a few times and I’ve just lost the muse. Its not fear, I don’t know what it is, and I used to love the theatre and I still go to see my friends perform, but I have no desire to get back on the boards again sadly, I must admit.
Everybody speaks of your unexpected career turn post the success of Taken in 2008. But do you believe you were programmed to be an action star considering you started off as an amateur boxer? Does the training and discipline from those years help you today?
Very much. Specially because you have fight scenes in films and its like learning a dance. Mark (Vanselow) does a rough choreography with his stunt guys, I go and watch it, I may put in a couple of suggestions, and then we rehearse it and we rehearse it and we rehearse it. And when we finish rehearsing it, we rehearse it again.
And then when the camera is turning for the first time, we do it as if we are doing it for the first time. But it is like learning a dance. Mark and I have done 26 movies together and I’m touching wood, we’ve never had one physical injury. I’m very proud of that, you know?
For audiences there is a certain sense of catharsis watching someone like you bash up the bad guys - is that also part of the appeal of action movies for you?
To go after the bad guys you mean? I think so, I love the fact that the audience kind of lives vicariously through that person I’m playing. There is this crazy mass shootings that are occurring in America at the moment and it is just unbelievable. I like to think, ok, a lot of my movies involve gunfire - but when I was a kid and used to watch westerns, it didn’t make me want to go out and buy a gun and kill somebody. I was able to live through the hero or live through the bad guy and just keep it like that. I never had a desire to own a gun or buy a gun, and I hope that is the same effect on the audiences watching my films where there is gunfire. But it is a highly topical subject, at the moment especially in the States. And something has to be done about it, these automatic killing weapons that can fire hundreds of bullets inside in minutes - its just obscene.
You have been part of such a wide range of stories in your career including Schindler’s List, Love Actually, Taken. But what’s the legacy you hope to leave behind?
Legacy? Gosh. There are a few of those 100 films I’ve made that I’m quite proud of. Certainly Michael Collins, Schindler’s List, a couple of the Taken films and Memory too.
I really like Memory - the complexity of the characters, someone who you could say yes, he is bad guy, he kills people for a living but who has remorse because he has a code of ethics or a code of morals that he will not harm children in any way. I’m proud of that film.
But legacy, I don’t know Ambica… There’s a famous British comedian Spike Milligan, who died a number of years ago, who has this on his tombstone. ‘Spike Mulligan. I told You I was ill!’ Maybe I’d do something like that, make a joke!
Memory streams on STARZPLAY from July 29
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