He stands 6’4″, but once you get past that imposing frame (not easy), the thing that strikes you most about Liam Neeson is his eyes. Soulful Irish eyes. Eyes made for close-ups—which is another way of saying they were made for the movies.
Even in repose, as he was whenever he deferred to Joe Carnahan, director of his new movie The Grey, during an interview at NYC’s Parker Meridien hotel, those expressive eyes remained attentive. And whenever he spoke, the conversation took on a different tenor—an Irish tenor—from Carnahan’s lively encomiums about cast and crew.
At one point, Carnahan enthusiastically described the difficulties of filming on location in British Columbia when temperatures hit 37 below. True to his Irish heritage, Neeson expanded on Carnahan’s thoughts by telling a story. “There was one defining moment for me,” he began deliberately. “And I think I speak for the rest of the cast. The wind was blowing like hell. Joe had set up this crane shot. And the crane was being challenged by the weather. We’re stuck there. We’re like penguins, and we’re huddling closer and closer together. And then one of the actors started reciting this speech from Othello. It gave all of us this motivation to continue. It was remarkable, and above the wind I heard Joe asking, ‘What’s he saying, what’s he saying?’ He wanted to know because normally it’s his job to provide the motivation.”
Neeson relates this anecdote in an emphatic yet laid-back style. “It takes a lot to rile me,” he admits.
Laid-back or no, filming The Grey presented unique challenges. “I’ve done fifty-five films, and this is the first time where they made me do a stress test. We walked and ran through snow that was up past our knees.”
“A resplendent masculine force” is how one movie critic described him, and few actors radiate presence the way Neeson does. It helps, certainly, that at his burliest Neeson stands as tall and wide as some football players (the John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods of the industry are few and far between). And if Neeson is not in the same super-nova acting category of Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep, it’s partly by choice. Instead of appearing in prestige films, lately his specialty has been action barnstormers like the surprise hit Taken. His supporting roles are no less thrilling: The stand-out sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is the thunderous opening in which Neeson, appearing for all of five minutes, tangles with Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher as their two rival gangs clash in an adrenalin-soaked orgy of fists, clubs, and knives.
In The Grey, the antagonists aren’t hardened gangsters, but wolves. The man-vs.-nature theme is not new to films: As far back as 1954, Charlton Heston was battling soldier ants in the Naked Jungle. There was Jaws, of course. More recently Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin fought a killer Kodiak bear in The Edge. Carnahan and Neeson, however, are striving for something more primal than exciting scenes of men warding off animal attacks.
“I read a lot of Jack London and Melville’s Moby Dick,” Neeson says. “Those are more than just man vs. animal stories. In them you feel the force of nature. Honestly, sometimes no inspiration was required. When the wind was howling, that redness you see in my face is real, like capillaries exploding. Or imagine running in snow as fast as you can for thirty meters. It’s just exhausting. In those situations, you’re not so much an actor as you are a reactor.”
Carnahan smiles and recalls the moment when he was told he couldn’t film Neeson in an icy river. “I wonder what they were worried about,” Carnahan asks, patting Neeson on the shoulder. With a laugh Neeson answers quickly, “I turn 60 this year!”
Carnahan mentions the “great nobility and grace Liam has”—qualities, he says, allow him to command the screen as few actors can. In Rob Roy, there’s the sequence in which a carouser in a dingy pub bad-mouths Neeson’s titular hero and discovers, to his eternal regret, that the Scottish highlander has heard every word. The hooting crowd quiets and then parts to reveal Rob Roy MacGregor glowering in disdain. Even here, in medium shot, director Michael Caton-Jones emphasizes Neeson’s bigness: MacGregor, a lowborn man of high ideals, is a genuine force to be reckoned with.
His Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is a marvel of nuance counterbalanced with a ready-to-pounce physicality. In one scene, speaking in smooth dulcet tones, Schindler inveigles Ralph Fiennes’ Nazi commandant to spare the Jews who work in Schindler’s munitions factory. The commandant wonders why he cares about a few Jews. “They’re mine!” Schindler thunders. Like a big cat defending its territory, Neeson puts the full force of his presence behind the exchange. It’s a moment as potent as any of the movie’s Holocaust scenes.
Reflecting on the historical figures he’s played, Neeson stresses, “I’ve made many films and only a few times I’ve played real people. Before Schindler’s List, I wouldn’t have believed movies had a lot of power for social change.” That power also was evident in Michael Collins, Ireland’s second-highest grossing film of all time, in which Neeson portrayed the eponymous IRA revolutionary.
Unlike these films, historical accuracy was not an issue in The Grey, authenticity was. Everyone thought it was important to use real wolves; Carnahan dismisses the idea of filming his actors “wrestling a tennis ball” and then inserting CGI wolves later.
“It’s best to keep acting real,” Neeson agrees. Thinking back on a summer season filled with movies that underperformed at the box office, Neeson thinks audiences “are tired of films that are mostly special effects. I hope people coming into this film expecting one thing will get something else, too. The way we saw the film is these wolves are a facet of nature. For all of nature’s wonder and beauty, it is also hostile and unpredictable.”