It’s his first interview with the Irish Examiner in more than two years. Since our last encounter, he has suffered the sudden and brutal loss of his wife Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident, and there is still a palpable air of melancholy to him. Dressed in a black Armani suit and lilac tee shirt, he looks pale and seems very thin and tired.
“I’m just taking it all one day at a time. The boys are fine, that’s the main thing,” he tells me after a long pause, when I enquire how the family has been since burying his wife and their mother. “They’re teenagers and their main dynamic at the moment, apart from with me, is with their peers, and I try not to interfere with that too much.”
On March 16, 2009, Richardson sustained a head injury when she fell during a skiing lesson in Quebec. Initially, she seemed fine — paramedics and an ambulance were told they were not needed. The actress returned to her hotel room. Three hours later she was taken to a local hospital with a headache.
Later she was transferred by ambulance to Hôpital du Sacré-Cœur, Montreal, in a critical condition. The following day she was flown to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York city, where she died on March 18.
In two days, Neeson’s life changed from being a loving husband and Dad to becoming a widowed father of Michael Richard (15) and Daniel Jack (14).
In the two years since, it seems as though Neeson has been in near perpetual motion, working on one new movie after another, segueing from one big project to the next, with almost no time off in between. Last year alone, he starred in four blockbusters — Clash of the Titans, The A Team, Chloe and Chronicles of Narnia — and narrated a fifth, The Wildest Dream. He also starred in the low-budget Northern Ireland movie Five Minutes of Heaven.
This year and next look just as busy, as at 58, he has diverted spectacularly from playing elder statesmen like Michael Collins, Alfred Kinsey and Oskar Schindler, to taking on noisy, big budget action movies, where he actually seems very plausibly at home. For years his name had been attached to play American president Abraham Lincoln, but just before Christmas, the announcement came that this role will now be taken by Daniel Day Lewis.
Future projects he’s attached to have titles which say it all, Wrath of the Titans, Battleship and a cameo as ‘Tattoo Man’ in The Hangover Part II. Is this a deliberate change in career direction? Might there be some midlife force at play with these choices? Neeson is adamant that’s not what’s motivating him.
“I do get a kick out of the fact that I’m now 58 and I’m doing action movies, but having said that, I honestly just respond to good scripts. It’s a simple as that. That’s the only criteria for me. I get sent a lot of scripts and I read a lot, so when the script for Unknown reached me I knew it would be good because its producer is Joel Silver,” he says.
“Career wise, these scripts like Taken and Unknown have chosen me. I have a litmus test with scripts, where I’ll read five pages, then get up and make a pot of tea, then I’ll read the middle ten pages and then I’ll read the last five. I knew I wasn’t up against five or six actors when Joel sent me this and I responded to the part straightaway.”
Does he feel any pangs at all about not now playing the role of Abraham Lincoln, which is to be helmed by Steven Spielberg, who also directed his multi award nominated part as Oskar Schindler?
“Daniel is one of the greats of this profession and who better to play Lincoln?” is all he wants to say on the subject.
Prior to breaking through in Hollywood at the not-so-tender age of 35, Neeson had paid his dues in the theatre, first of all in Belfast in 1976, with the Lyric Players, where he played Big Jim Larkin in a production of The Risen People. This led to an invitation to join the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where he was spotted in a production of Of Mice and Men by John Boorman, who went on to cast him in Excalibur. A short time after this, he moved to New York, where he appeared in several TV series, including Miami Vice. It was in New York during a production of Broadway play Anna Christie 18 years ago, that he first met and worked with the future Mrs Neeson. The chemistry between him and Natasha Richardson — a daughter of British actress Vanessa Redgrave — was reportedly both instant and electric and they quickly became a couple.
Neeson not only got the girl, but also won a Tony for the role, his first Broadway performance. Although he hasn’t done much theatre since, like most stage-trained actors, he still retains a nostalgia for the ritual of the nightly performance.
“The lovely thing about doing theatre is if the curtain goes up at 8 o’clock and the show finishes at 10.30, you’re in charge for two and a half hours. In film, the director’s in charge, the producer’s in charge; they wheel you out of your trailer and you come and do your 60 seconds of acting, then they wheel you back in. Forty minutes later, they wheel you back out to redo it. But in theatre, once the curtain comes up you’re in charge and no one’s there to say, ‘Cut, stop, start again’. You get to go through the whole play and every night you’re always practising and flexing a different type of muscle.”
Marrying into the Richardson/Redgrave dynasty was no minor undertaking for the man from Ballymena and he is on the record describing his nervousness at first meeting Richardson’s mother, Vanessa.
His closest friend through all of his highs and lows, says Neeson, is fellow actor Aidan Quinn and the two of them star as rivals in Unknown.
“He’s always been there for me in various situations, traumatic and otherwise. We are very, very close. He’s a remarkable man in so many ways and he would be the person I would phone in the middle of the night if I needed help. We know each other very intimately and when it came to working together on this movie, we were both very, very at ease with each other. It was my idea to cast him as my nemesis in this movie and Joel Silver said yes.”
Early in his film career Neeson played several roles which were inspired by the Troubles. In more recent years, he has worked with Neil Jordan on Breakfast on Pluto and starred opposite Pierce Brosnan in Seraphim Falls. He had been due to star in Brendan Gleeson’s adaptation of At Swim Two Birds but because of scheduling conflicts, the part instead went to Michael Fassbender.
After more than 34 years living in the US, Neeson took out American citizenship last year, triggered in part by the huge emotional support he received here following Richardson’s sudden death.
“I’m a recent American citizen and that expression that you can take the Irishman out of the bog, but you can’t take the bog out of the Irishman, well I’m very much from that school. But America’s my home. That’s where I’m rearing my kids. Ireland is still my spiritual home. My sisters live there, but my home is in America.
“The boys love going to Ireland and England and we are regular visitors. We spent a week in Fermanagh just before Christmas, which was just lovely.”
Rumours that Neeson is back on the dating scene appear to be true. Since last October, he has been photographed out with a few different women, including English publicist Freya St John.
He won’t confirm or deny that he’s also been rumoured to be seeing his co-star in Unknown, Dianne Kruger. However, he lights up when asked to talk about her. “Let’s face it, she’s exquisitely beautiful. She was Helen of Troy and that she is. She’s great to be with. We had a lot of giggles. There’s no ego with her — she jumps right into a scene and wants to do her best. There’s no falsity to her. She’s terrific — she’s like one of the guys, if you know what I mean.”
His relationship with the city of New York is a deep and very affectionate one and in spite of all his success in the Hollywood system, he has never really been tempted to make Los Angeles home.
“I didn’t come out to Hollywood until I was 35 and I had a little bit more maturity. I was never on the booze/club culture, which I think contributes to the confusion in some of our young artists, leading to all sorts of unhealthy habits. I live in New York where you’re not surrounded by all that celebrity stuff and where nobody really gives a damn what you do. This suits me just fine and allows me to prioritise. When I have to be an actor and promote movies and such, I do that and when I have to take my kids to school and walk the streets, I’m very, very at ease with that. New York accommodates that.
“When 9/11 happened, I felt violated in a really deep, deep sense. I happened to be in London at the time and my wife and family were in New York and it was particularly worrying. I don’t want to pull rank, but I have to say, growing up in Northern Ireland in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I got very used to it. It’s amazing how the human spirit adapts to atrocity that’s been happening 200 metres up your street. But the scale of what the terrorists are trying to inflict on us now — I say as a new American citizen — is very, very scary and we just have to be vigilant, all of us. We all have to look after each other.”
As the interview draws to a close, the already very quietly spoken Neeson quickly prepares to begin to retreat again, palpably relieved that he doesn’t have to answer any more questions of a private or even a professional nature.
“I’ve got my health. People still want to employ me. My bills get paid. I literally live from week to week, sometimes from day to day and that’s what I still try and do. I guess I’m in a very good space.”
His entourage of publicists, assistants and producers appear and envelop him, escorting him to the elevator in a kind of scrum. He towers above them all at 6’ 4”, a tired and slightly rumpled looking colossus in retreat.