He is Lincolnian. The large head with that boxer's nose. The heavy brow. In fact, Steven Spielberg cast Neeson to play the part before it wound up in Daniel Day-Lewis's hands. But that's a story for later.
I meet him at his Manhattan office. Really a pied-à-terre. He lives north of the city. A big house near a small town in the country, where he is raising his sons. He's a single father now, ever since his wife, Natasha Richardson, died after a ski accident in 2009. But he keeps this place for meetings with people like me, or to, as he says, "sit and read and think."
Neeson has been acting since he was 11, when he took a part in a school play to impress a girl. That was in Northern Ireland. His first movie role was in 1977, when he played Christ in a movie produced by an American evangelist. The past thirty or so years, you probably know. Solid leading man, everything from The Phantom Menace to Gangs of New York. And of course Schindler's List. It was an Actor's Life. Then something strange happened. Neeson did a smallish film called Taken, now a franchise that has earned more than $600 million. At 61, he has become an action star.
In person, Neeson speaks with a bit of a brogue. He has small tics, like knocking wood after any hopeful comment. He will interject your name into an answer, like a good bartender. He also carries a supply of toothpicks, a habit since he quit smoking. After offering me wine, he takes a mug of tea and sits down on the couch. He places the toothpick box on the coffee table before us.
"All right, then," he says. "Let's have at it."
GQ: How did you come to the decision to do Taken?
LN: I wanted to do more physical stuff. I really thought it would be kind of a little side road from my so-called career. Really thought it would go straight to video. But it just got great word of mouth. I was stunned.
And how did you prep for your new film, Non-Stop?
I train a lot. I don't try and do all this washboard-abs stuff. That's not real. I take bits and bobs from everywhere to train. Kettlebells. Power walks. Heavy bag. It's about stamina.
Is there anyone you want to work with that you haven't?
I'd love to work with Denzel. I have such admiration for him as an actor. I see an incredible nuance of someone who's so comfortable in front of a camera. There's an intelligence there; there's an absolute truth. I've never seen that man portray anything less than the truth. It's pure. I don't see any little acting signs, any kind of what we would call "chewing the scenery." Never, never, never.
What was it like working with Woody Allen on Husbands and Wives?
It was a good experience. Like Mr. Eastwood, he was great, just this... There was a lull; a quiet came over the set when he came on, and he would start: "Okay, I see the camera here. Liam, I think you're coming down the stairs. I'm going to follow you. You see Judy [Davis], and..." "Okay." "Okay, and let's do it."
Not a lot of takes, right?
Oh no, no, no.
Because he wants to be done by six o'clock every day.
Oh, we were out at four in the afternoon. It was fucking great. However, there was one incident—people think I've made this up, but no. There's a scene where I'm going down on Judy Davis, right. Judy and I are in bed—obviously covered up—and as I'm going down, Judy's having this monologue in her head. And the crew are all ready, and we're waiting for Woody. No-show. It's starting to get a bit uncomfortable—it's a bed scene. Anyway, he came out after about twenty minutes and said, "Okay. Camera starts on Judy. Liam, I want to just see the top of your head. Okay, we know where you're going...." So there was no apology; nothing. What happened: His lawyer had gotten in touch with him to say Ms. Farrow has found naked photographs of her adopted daughter [Soon-Yi].
Yep. That all started on Husbands and Wives. In fact, we did a couple of reshoots with Mia, and then Mia—a few months later, Mia was doing a film with Natasha in Ireland. And Mia, Natasha, and myself became very good friends. She's lovely. We had a couple of Guinnesses one night, and I told her I was going to marry this woman, and Mia gives this talk about pillars of wisdom: There are certain pillars of wisdom she'd stick to and never veer from. It was quite a beautiful thing about what it is to love someone, respect them, be with them through thick and thin. It was fantastic.
You've done plenty of theater. Did you ever meet Beckett?
No, no. I was going to get a tattoo done, because my elder boy wanted a tattoo. I thought I'd do one—like one of those father-son bonding things. Then you have to think, "Well, what the fuck would I get tattooed?" This quote that my wife has, I wish I had it here. It's Beckett, and anytime we were onstage [they met on Broadway, when they were in Anna Christie together], we'd put it in our dressing room as inspiration, and it says, "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
Would that be your motto?
I think it's a pretty damn good one. There's some pessimism there, but there's also the hope. It's part of a longer quote. I think it's: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
Who is your best friend?
There's one friend I've known since I was 8 or 9. He's a retired schoolteacher.
What's the quality that you respect most in him?
Loyalty, steadfastness. We talk about everything. We always did. At the age of 8—it's like, you meet someone and it's like falling in love. You think, "Wow, this person's going to be in my life forever."
Do you have a treasured memory from those early years of friendship with him?
Playing Rob Roy MacGregor. Borrowing one of his sister's skirts. It was plaid, and the pair of us were sword fighting. I don't know where we got Rob Roy from; I must've seen it. It was an early Disney film, I think.
There was an old castle that burnt down in our town. But what was left—the gatepost was this sword-shaped piece of metal. Exactly like Excalibur, and I remember us playing Excalibur and discovering this thing: "Fuck! There it is! The sword in the stone!" And I believed it for years, that just a ten-minute canter from my house was the real sword in the stone. So the childhood was very much idyllic. We were poor, working-class; we didn't know that. Friends to play with...
Were you close to your grandparents?
My grandfather Jackie was a steam-engine driver. When he retired, he'd always get the newspaper and see who had died. "O'Rafferty? There was an O'Rafferty who was a coal tender for me in 1950." And he'd walk out to the funeral and be the only one there. I was 6 or 7 and often was taken to those, walking for fucking miles. Just my grandfather, the priest and the altar boy, and me.
What did that teach you?
Everybody matters. Everybody.
Your mother—what qualities of hers do you have?
Definitely stamina, definitely stick at something. She's 88 now. She was an assistant cook at a girls' convent school for thirty-four years, and she's still alive because she walked to work a mile—there and back, all weathers. And coming back, she'd be carrying leftover food that we'd be fed—stuff that would be going to waste, you know? So that's sort of a lesson: You don't stick at the job because you loved it; you have to. My father wasn't bringing enough in. Yeah, they're a different generation. [pauses] I don't know what's going to happen. Our kids now—every generation worries about their kids.
How old are your boys now?
Seventeen and 18.
What are you most proud of, as a father, that you've taught them?
I think they do know that I'll always be there, no matter what happens. But the thing Tasha and I really wanted to instill in them was manners. That may sound like such a basic thing, but I've heard so many adults say, "Oh, my God, your sons—they look you straight in the eye. They're very polite and mannered." It makes me proud. And it can get you through a lot, in a way. Just showing respect for your fellow man.
What's the hardest part about being a single father?
Um, I can't answer that. It's just still a day-to-day thing, you know? My boys are teenagers. They're experimenting. They're flexing muscles and sometimes dangerous avenues, and you think, "Fuck. If Tasha was here, someone could share this." But yeah, we're doing all right, you know?
You just—there's a worry nowadays, with every parent I've spoken to. It's fucking drugs. It's a virus. A teenager can take it and suddenly they can be hooked, and it changes their life and their family's forever. That's my constant worry. And I trust them, and they're sensible boys, but it can be just that chemistry that doesn't work.
And now there's talk of legalizing it.... It's like, fuck.... I was never into drugs, but I had a bad motorbike accident in 2000 and broke my pelvis, my heel. I wasn't supposed to last the night. And when they took me to the hospital and gave me morphine, ugh, I thought, "This is how I want to go, with a big fuckin' jar of this stuff." And then when they give you that drip that you give yourself every six minutes...I knew I was hooked, because I was counting those fucking drips, the seconds until I could push that button, and it was instantaneous, that high was.
[He gestures at my wineglass.]
Are you happy with that, Michael?
I'm very happy.
I'm glad you like that wine. It's a very light Pinot Noir. But I gave up drinking about a year ago.
What made you decide to do that?
Well, I was just—I was drinking too much. It started since my wife died. It was like, so easy to just... Never at work, never would do it like that, but this time of night? Sitting with you, I'd easily have—I'd be on my second bottle. Before we finished, I would have been halfway down a third—and be totally fine! Pinot Noir: That's all I drink. I was never into spirits or liquor, hard liquor. And I gave up the Guinness years ago, because it just—past an age, it sticks to you, you know? So last year, I just thought—they've been throwing these action movies at me, and I thought, "Okay, let's just change it a little bit." And it's been great. I love it. [knocks on wood]
Will you date again? Are you dating?
I'm keeping myself to myself. And I like it that way. I'm not hunting. I'm the opposite of a—what would a male cougar be? Is there such a thing? Whatever it is, I'm not that.
You were raised Catholic, were an altar boy—what residue has that left in you?
Um, there was the classic sort of sense of theater, the celebration of the Mass and the Benediction: lighting the candles, putting on the costume. One of my jobs was to light the charcoal in the thurible.
I love that you know the name of that.
Yeah, and the monstrance, where the Host is kept. In those days, we were saying Mass in Latin, which I had learned phonetically from a priest who was training us for the altar. It was beautiful. Mea culpa, mea culpa: my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. Beautiful language, you know? But yeah, the ceremony of it all was fantastic. Every so often, little droplets of the power of this ceremony would filter down through to you.
And then we'd have these missionaries who would arrive from Gabon and fuckin' Congo, and they were weird guys. They'd have rosary beads wrapped around their waist with a huge cross. I remember going to confession once, and I had to learn the word masturbation in order to confess it. I wound up confessing it to one of these missionaries, and he fucking just lit into me. "YOU DID WHAT? YOU HAVE TO STOP THIS EVIL PRACTICE." Then I remember opening the door, and I could see all these old ladies waiting, and... Fuck's sake.
I was raised Catholic, too. Do you ever find that when you tell someone, their response is like, "So, what happened?"
"What's your story?"
I say, "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I had the best priests in the world."
Me, too. And they won't believe it: "Oh, come on. They must have fiddled your willy." No, there were a lot of good men—and women, too. We had one nun, Sister Attracta—I think Mary Caulfield was her name before marriage to Christ. Oh, she was a terror—but she taught me the Irish language for this play that we were doing. Years later, I was doing a play in Dublin, and I get a knock on my dressing-room door, and it was Sister Attracta. She was just beaming with delight. I've never forgot it.
That first movie you made, Pilgrim's Progress, where you played Jesus—tell me how that came to be.
I was in a theater in Belfast; this evangelical-outreach organization came. They were holding auditions for the local actors to make a film. They saw all the local actors, saw me, and I was the evangelist who's the Christ figure. We shot it in Cavehill, which is just overlooking Belfast. I don't know what I got paid. Peanuts, but it was a lot, it seemed. There was quite a bit of praying going on, too, which is very lovely, but I couldn't wait to get back to the theater and go into the pub. There were some born-again, my first experience with them. Lovely people. Yeah, that was my first experience in front of a camera.
What do you remember about it?
Just how time-consuming it was, you know? You're ready to do your thing, and then, "You have to wait ten minutes. That cloud has to pass." Henry Fonda's definition of screen acting is learning how to wait. Absolutely right.
Most people don't know that you'd been originally cast to play Lincoln. Was it hard to let go of that?
No. I had a real thunderbolt moment with that. Steven had approached me to play it—fuck, it must be ten years ago. Sent me a script, and I was like, "God." And he told me roughly when he might want to shoot it, so I started researching. I maybe did four years' worth of research. Anyway, so then Doris Kearns Goodwin's book came out, [Team of] Rivals. Then we get a new screenwriter—ugh, his name just slipped.
Tony. Tony was on board, and I was sent the script. I had—it was different to what had been before. Before it had been, I thought, a wonderful kind of old-fashioned biography of Lincoln, you know, from his inauguration to his death. And Tony's was very—it was that period between passing the Proclamation and... Anyway, Natasha died in March, and then—I want to think it was toward the end of April, Steven got together a reading, and we all sat: Sally Field, John Lithgow. Oh, just great actors. And Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Steven, of course. We started reading this, and there was an intro, and then I see "Lincoln:" where I have to start speaking, and I just—a thunderbolt moment. I thought, "I'm not supposed to be here. This is gone. I've passed my sell-by date. I don't want to play this Lincoln. I can't be him."
So the next two and a half, three hours of reading through it... This extraordinary piece of writing, but it had no connection with me whatsoever. It was a very strange feeling, and it was partly grief. I read very, very poorly by any standards, but then some people come up afterward and say, "Oh, you're made to play Lincoln." I just was cringing with embarrassment. Afterward, Steven came over, and I said, "Steven, you have to recast this now." And he said, "What are you talking about?" And I said, "I'm serious. You have to recast it." So I went back home, and that night I called Doris, and I had a wee chat with her. And then I called Steven, and I said, "Steven, this is not for me. I can't explain it. It's gone. It's not..." And he got it. He said, "Okay." And that was it.
Daniel is—Daniel Day's an old pal, and I think Daniel maybe had been approached first; I don't know the history of that, but I was thrilled that Daniel played him, and when I saw the film, I was like, "He's fuckin' Abraham Lincoln. This is perfect." Perfect.
However, it's inspired me: I'd still like to do Lincoln's story. As much as I admired the film, there's all of America and all of the rest of the world who haven't a fucking clue who Lincoln is, who he was. I think the film shows him, yes, but I think I'd still like to do an old-fashioned biography of Lincoln.
Did your grief cloud you in that moment? I mean, as you mentioned...
Sure, it certainly—it was in there somewhere.
Do you have a favorite parable from the Bible?
What my wife has on her tombstone, I guess that's my favorite now: "Cast your bread upon the water, and it will be returned tenfold." That's not the direct quote, but that's what I put on her gravestone. She was always saying that to me, you know? Where I'd be going, "Eh, I'm not sure." She'd say the opposite. I would always say the glass is half empty, and she would always say half full. Always. But I'm changing, I think.
Do you still have faith?
I think I do. I mean, I don't practice. But it's not far from me. And I have faith in the power of theater, which is quite similar—a body of people seeing something being enacted. It's at least 4,000 years old; I see how that can move people and change attitudes, the power. I believe in that faith. Since my wife passed away, do I believe in an afterlife? I don't know.
What's your epitaph?
I don't know. Tasha, she's buried up near our house. Old cemetery. Her grandmother, too. I go see Tasha once or twice a week. Just to talk. I like it.... There's a Civil War soldier near her. I look at his headstone a lot. All it says is GRIT AND GRACE.