THE SIXTY FIVE YEAR OLD BOXER TURNED OSCAR NOMINEE DISCUSSES HIS LATEST ACTION FILM IN WHICH HE FIGHTS FOR HIS LIFE ON A HUDSON RIVER TRACING COMMUTER TRAIN
BY MATT SCANLON, WITH REPORTING FROM SUSAN HORNIK
Among many of the finest Irish character actors of our era, there is a quality of unexpectedness that accompanies entry into the profession of finding their way onto stage and screen through unexpected and unplanned courses of events. From Gabriel Byrne’s pivot to the stage after teaching Spanish and history (and later training to be a priest) to Cillian Murphy’s early and aborted attempt at studying law, from Pierce Brosnan’s youthful devotion to painting and commercial illustration to Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s employment (in and out of trouble) in local pool halls, acting seems to come to many of the best of them after extended and often difficult periods of self discovery.
A glance at Liam Neeson’s formative years wouldn’t offer the faintest hint of an eventual Officer of the Order of British Empire designation for “services to drama.” Born in Ballymena, County Antrim in Northern Ireland, the third of four siblings and named after the local priest, Neeson’s early fascination was athletics; at 9 years old, he was taking boxing lessons at the All Saints Youth Club and would go on to become Ulster’s amateur senior boxing champion. The need to self defend may not have been incidental; being raised Catholic in a predominantly Protestant region produced feelings of inferiority and second class citizenry in the young man, and he’s made ample mention over the years of how violent conflicts among members of the two faiths in Northern Ireland were foundational for him. At 19, Neeson became a student at Queens University Belfast, where he studied physics and computer science, but left higher education to work for the Guinness brewery. Another attempt at academics involved training to become a teacher, but those ambitions didn’t pan out, either.
Destiny’s golden thread was picked up in 1976, when the 24 year old joined Belfast’s Lyric Players’ Theatre. The next year saw his first film role, playing Jesus Christ in Pilgrim’s Progress. He took a number of other parts in films produced by Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, but it was director John Boorman seeing him on stage playing Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men that became the conduit to Hollywood; Boorman offered him the role of Sir Gawain in his 1981 Arthurian fantasy movie, Excalibur. After a move to London, the period between 1982 and 1987 visited increasingly significant roles upon the actor, in movies like The Bounty (1984, alongside Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson), The Mission (1986, costarring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro), and the lead in the 1990 Sam Raimi directed Darkman.
After a brief lull, Steven Spielberg offered the then 30 year old the role of a lifetime that of Oskar Schindler in 1993’s Schindler’s List. The high wire performance in which Neeson inhabited a historical figure who was part Nazi collaborator and profiteer, part soldier of conscience earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, along with BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations in the same category. Neeson has occupied a place in the profession’s top rank ever since, and went on to appear in dramas such as Rob Roy (1995), Michael Collins (1996), Les Miserables, and The Haunting (both in 1999), though the first years of the new century have largely been an adventure in action films. From 2002’s Gangs of New York to Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and 2005’s Batman Begins, a lifetime devotion to physical fitness had made the 50 something a bankable action star a status that culminated in one of the most financially successful franchises in recent memory, beginning in 2008 with the French produced film Taken (earning $226.8 million worldwide against a budget of $25 million), extending to sequels Taken 2 and Taken 3 the last two raking in more than $500 million in total revenue, despite middling reviews.
More mile a minute roles were offered in The Grey (2011), Battleship (2012), A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014), and Run All Night (2015), along with more subdued parts in dramas like 2016’s Silence but it was Neeson’s dependability as a gun toting agent of vendetta that fueled his latest part, that of an insurance salesman whose daily train trip home quickly becomes anything but routine, in the January 12 released The Commuter.
In the Lionsgate production, with a screenplay by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle, Neeson’s character, Michael MacCauley, a former cop turned mid level manager, meets a mysterious stranger (Vera Farmiga) who blackmails him into discovering the identity of a passenger on the train before the last stop. As he works against the clock, MacCauley becomes caught up in a criminal conspiracy that carries life and death stakes for himself and his fellow travelers.
“The Commuter asks the audience: if someone asked you to do something that seems insignificant but you’re not sure of the outcome in exchange for a considerable financial reward, would you do it?” said director Jaume Collet Serra (The Shallows). “That’s the philosophical choice this man of 60 who’s just been fired, has no savings and a mortgage he cannot afford is faced with. Is he thinking just about himself or is he going to take into consideration the possible moral consequences of what he’s asked to do?”
“The story almost plays in real time,” Neeson explained in a Lionsgate interview. “The main character realizes what he’s set in motion, and sets out to identify the person that holds the key to a conspiracy. The tension cranks up at every stop, as new passengers get on and another clue is left for him. The danger gradually gets greater and greater and the film becomes this fast paced psychological thriller, along the lines of a Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Trainor North by Northwest.”
The film is set almost entirely on a train that courses from Grand Central Station through the Bronx and up the Hudson River, and so Collet Serra was presented with the task of how to tell an emotionally and physically dynamic tale in a confined space.
“Trains can be very boring on film, but the Hudson North is an older type and is a little more aesthetically interesting,” said the director. “It makes a lot of noise and has an archaic ticketing system in which passengers punch tickets into a machine as they get on, and I found that fascinating. What was also a help was that the route, starting with the underground tunnels an platforms of Grand Central, offers different types of light and backgrounds that we could take advantage of visually.” Fight sequences are also a part of the screenplay, and so the 65 year old Neeson, despite his background in boxing, required considerable training by stunt and fight coordinator Mark Vanselow, who has worked with the actor a number of times, including serving as stunt coordinator and occasional stunt double for Neeson in The Grey, Taken 2, and Taken 3. “You have to [train], otherwise you get hurt, and it was great fun,” said Neeson. “[The role] demanded a level of fitness, so I was in the gym for 45 minutes every morning before going on set.” This is the fourth film for which Collet Serra and Neeson have been paired, and the actor described their relationship as a “dance.”
“I met him six or seven years ago,” said Neeson, “and he and I just clicked. We don’t analyze scripts too much or too heavily or too deeply we just have a really good partnership. We’ve done four films now and each time I work with him that little dance routine gets more and more intimate.”
Asked to describe co star Farmiga’s performance, Neeson explained first that her character, Joanna, needed to be at once alluring and inscrutable, threatening yet fascinating.
“This mysterious, attractive lady…is she a cop? FBI? Is she a baddie? Vera plays it very close to the chest; she’s such a wonderful actress. The choice she presents [is] would you do this small thing for large sum of money. Okay, I have to think about it seriously, but I’m such a coward [laughs]. I probably would actually just say, “Oh no…oh no.”
Neeson became a U.S. citizen in 2009 and is father to sons Micheál Richard Antonio and Daniel Jack (with the late actress Natasha Richardson). Fans of his fight skills will be relieved that he seems to have reversed course from September’s Toronto International Film Festival declaration that he was retiring from action roles (“Guys, I’m sixty fucking five,” he quipped at the event. “Audiences are eventually going to go, ‘Come on!’”), as one of his projects scheduled for release later this year is the revenge thriller Hard Powder, co starring Emmy Rossum and Laura Dern. He will also star in the Steve McQueen directed Widows, alongside Colin Farrell and Viola Davis.