Liam Neeson’s latest movie is called The Ice Road, from the writer of Armageddon. Like Armageddon, The Ice Road‘s heroes are unlikely blue collar workers — Liam Neeson plays an ice road trucker — who save the day in the end (not from a meteor this time, but from corrupt industrialists). It’s a bit of a twist for Neeson, who has spent much of his last 15 years onscreen punching out terrorists and kidnappers and generally utilizing “a particular set of skills.”
While he may not play an ex-spy or retired hitman this time around, Neeson’s character still has to beat up a few people and survive multiple assassination attempts before the end credits roll. That’s just the logic of the mass-market thriller, especially one that feels so torn from basic cable programming.
It’s nonetheless of a piece with Neeson’s later-career iteration as a salt-of-the-Earth tough guy, a niche that seems to have taken Neeson himself by surprise. When he did Taken in 2008, Neeson explains, “I thought it was going straight to video.”
Instead, the actor, who as a young man aspired to Shakespeare and was heretofore known for playing a wider variety roles, from Oskar Schindler to Alfred Kinsey, quickly became not only the go-to guy for reluctant badasses, but virtually synonymous with them. (See: Key And Peele‘s series of sketches about valets who love “Liam Neesons” for evidence of this). It wasn’t so much that Liam Neeson had changed — he’d always done the occasional action movie — it was the movie industry, or the public’s appetite that had. It’s worth wondering, then, what particular set of qualities we saw in Liam Neeson that made us immediately adopt him as our collective avatar of never starting a fight but always finishing one.
Maybe it’s that the actor, born and raised in the north of Ireland, even after decades in show business still maintains the air of a humble upbringing. He boxed, he played football (in the British sense), he even worked at the Guinness factory. He’s candid, but not quite ebullient, or over-familiar in that false way that people who do a lot of interviews can be.
When he speaks, it’s in that unnaturally pleasant-sounding north Irish accent, using phrases like “never in a month of Sundays” that make you feel like you’re in a pastoral novel, or a whiskey commercial. Even when he’s answering your questions as honestly as a person could, you get the sense that he’s holding back as much as he’s giving. Just mentioning the name of his wife, Natasha Richardson, who died in a skiing accident in 2009, is all that’s necessary to signal that his life hasn’t been quite as charmed as your average fabulously rich movie star.
Maybe that’s why moviegoers are so willing to watch Liam Neeson play the reluctant badass: his natural reluctance. That, combined with the plainspoken gravitas, make it easy to believe in a set of abilities he’s holding in reserve.
What’s it like becoming synonymous with being a badass? Has the shift in the kinds of roles you play changed how you interact with the public at all?
(Pause) No, I don’t see myself as a badass. I was very lucky to fall into the action genre. When was it? 13, 14 years ago, we shot the first Taken movie in Paris and to be honest with you, I thought it was going straight to video. Not because it was shot badly or written badly, it’s just it was this simple little story and a fast-paced little thriller and then Fox took it here in America and really sold it. I was really surprised by it. And then Hollywood started seeing me in a different light, I guess. They started sending me more action-oriented scripts, which I was thrilled about it because I love doing my own fights and stuff in these movies. Not my own stunts. I don’t do the stunts, but the fighting I do. I like doing that. And I work very closely with Mark Vanselow, who is my stunt double’s fight choreographer, who is now working with Jordan Peele on his third movie. Mark and I have done 25 films together now.
So it surprised you that they saw action hero in you. Had you seen that in yourself before?
No, not really. My ambitions when I turned professional in 1976 was to maybe end up at the National Theater of Great Britain or the Royal Shakespeare Company, never in a month of Sundays would I have dreamt of the silver screen and being on it. And then John Boorman gave me that chance in 1980, when we did Excalibur. And I just fell in love with the movie camera and that whole different way of acting. John was a fantastic mentor and teacher for both Gabriel Byrne, who’s a pal, and myself. I’ve just been lucky.
That being said, I’ve created my own luck too, in that when work was drying up in London, I thought, “I have to go to LA.” That’s the center of the English-speaking motion picture industry. And I went, and eventually I started getting bits of work and one thing led to another. And then I thought, you know, I’ve had enough of this, I want to go back to see theater, and Natasha Richardson, who became my wife, she, out of the blue, she offered me this role, a Eugene O’Neill play called Anna Christie that the Roundabout Theater in New York were doing. I read it and I thought, yeah, it’s time, it’s time to get back on stage. Then out of that, I was offered Schindler’s List and things just started happening.
Your character in this movie gets fired for punching out his boss. What’s the most satisfying thing you’ve ever said or done to a boss that you didn’t like?
To a boss? That’s a good question. I’m trying to think of an example. Nowadays I like saying if it’s a spunky, young director who’s asking me to do something on camera that I disagree with, I like to be able to say, “how many movies have you made?” If he says “Two and a bunch of commercials.” Then I’ll say that’s interesting like, “I’ve made over 90 and I’m not doing it this way because of A, B and C, but I will do it this way because that is the way to do it.” Now that hasn’t happened very often because I respect my directors, but this has happened a couple of times.
You mentioned that you enjoy doing the fighting part of shooting. I know you used to box a bit.
As a kid, yeah.
Are you ever watching action movies and you get annoyed by the way that they’re doing fights or you see things that you think can be done better?
Occasionally I might think… I might say, “Oh no, look that guy threw that left jab wrong, he’s never done that before,” but they’re little fleeting moments. And for all the times I’ve thought that there’s been hundreds of times I’ve seen fight scenes that I think, “Wow, how did they do that? That was really impressive.”
Are there any action movies that you’ve seen in the last few years that you were particularly excited about or that you thought did it well?
I liked the action scenes in the Bourne Identity movies that Matt Damon played. They were very inventive fight scenes with like rolled up magazines, improvised weapons and stuff, which actually happens. You use whatever’s there in these fights. I felt they were good. And I have to say too, going back, because I’ve done some myself, sword-and-sorcery films, with suits of armor and swords and that stuff, the fight scenes in Game of Thrones were really outstanding, I thought. Outstanding.
In this movie you play a truck driver. Did you have to learn how to drive a truck or did you know anything about that going in?
I knew nothing about them. I had seen them on the road and… the Kenworth Trucking — I think they’re made in Ohio. They supplied these trucks, which were — I mean, they are the star of the movie I think. They couldn’t have done enough to help us. I was in awe of the size of them and I was also in awe of the sensitivity of them, the gear changing, and the brake pressure, and how gently you have to apply that brake. I went out with a professional who took me around the streets of Winnipeg and allowed me then when they came back to base camp, to drive around the parking lot and just get used to it. But they’re special, special machines. I’ve been describing them as, when you’re inside, they’re like small New York apartments. We had a crew of, when myself and Marcus Thomas, who plays my brother Gurty in the film, were sitting in the driving seat, he’s in the passenger seat, and we had a crew in the back of six guys with a camera and sound equipment and stuff shooting over our shoulders at the panorama of the ice and snow and stuff. I enjoyed those scenes a lot. It all happened inside the truck.
What was your first car?
My first car, I’ll tell you, I didn’t get my driving license until I was 28, maybe 29. It was a Citroen 2CV6. They don’t make them anymore. Little French cars. They’re kind of collector’s items now and they have incredible suspension and you forget when you filled it up with gasoline because they just seemed to go forever. Gabriel Byrne, who is a pal of mine, when he first saw, he said “That’s a converted sewing machine”…And the steering wheel was on the left-hand side instead of the right in Britain. This was when I was living in London, but it was a cool little car. I loved that car.