From Belfast to Hollywood

From Belfast to Hollywood

By PREETI SINGH | | 11 February, 2017
Irish actor Liam Neeson.
Irish actor Liam Neeson, known for his memorable performances in big-time Hollywood blockbusters such as Schindler’s List, Star Wars and Taken, speaks to Preeti Singh about his upcoming film Silence, his association with Martin Scorsese, and his love for the theatre.

Q. You are playing the character of Father Ferreira in your upcoming film Silence. How did you prepare for this role? 

A. In New York, before production began, as you know, Andrew [Garfield, co-actor] and I worked with Father Martin, a Jesuit consultant on the film, discussing theology, practicing church rituals, going over the spiritual exercises involved in the Jesuit order. I love the church. I call myself a practicing lapsed Catholic. I love going into a church, saying prayers, having a conversation with God. I’ve been intrigued by the Jesuits for 30 years, ever since I did research for another movie in the 1980s, The Mission. I was hooked by the script as soon as I read it. It’s spare. Jay Cocks and Marty [Martin Scorsese] never write a paragraph when a sentence will do. And that sentence will have texture and subtext. When I returned from shooting Silence I began reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, as well as science journals which tried to explain the concept of faith through neurology.

Q. Also, the film is shot in Taiwan. How was it shooting there?  

A. I was away from all the people and things I love in Taiwan. I didn’t really socialise and I isolated myself as much as possible. It gave me so much clarity about what and who was important to me in my life. The production started off on a terrifying note when Taipei was hit by a 6.1 earthquake and I was on the 15th floor. I walked all the way to the ground floor and realised that the frequent temblors in the region barely affect the residents.

Q. Could you share your experience of working with a legend like Martin Scorsese?

A. Working with Marty is a joy and an education in creative filmmaking.  He gives 200% and he expects only 100% in return. Martin Scorsese commands such respect. When I first worked with him on Gangs of New York, I was intimidated by his reputation and had to work through that. This film is something Marty has meditated on for many years. I admit: I was nervous. “Am I enough for the role?” I thought. Marty does this wonderful thing on set. He demands absolute silence when he is talking to his actors. Not that actors are the most important people on set. They’re not. But Marty asks people to pay attention at all times to what’s happening when he works and shoots, and when the attention of the entire crew is focused on a specific piece of the process of the film being made, that’s inspiring.

Q. You have also played the character of an anthropomorphic tree, which is the “monster” in your recent film A Monster Calls. How was this character different from all your previous roles? 

A. I was supposed to be 40-feet tall. It was a new experience for me. You act in what the computer people call a volume, although I have no idea why they call it that. There were 70 cameras in a circle around me. I was acting my scenes in the middle. It was a different experience for me as an actor, because the crew didn’t have to keep setting up the cameras to show my co-stars’ points-of-view. Everything was covered when I was filming. First motion capture, so, yeah. Very interesting process and very difficult for the first day because you’re in a onesie with ping-pong balls attached to you. But the process itself, it didn’t interfere with our acting and interaction with Bayona [J.A. Bayona, the director] which was very intense and very intimate. We shot in this special little “mo-cap”, as it’s called — a studio outside of London — for the first two weeks before principal photography started. It was Lewis [MacDougall, co-actor], Bayona, and myself in this space with these wonderful computer guys and we acted our scenes and were directed very, very closely by Bayona, and the computer guys added all this digital makeup to me, to the monster. I was acting to a doll this size on a house this size to get the perspective right. For the most part, Lewis was off-camera giving me this extraordinary acting performance. For Bayona it’s always about the human heart, the emotions going on between the children and adults. That’s his core. Everything else is after that. Some directors go crazy with CGI and they’re like a kid in a toy shop, but Bayona is always specifically about the emotions that are happening in the story.

Q. Could you talk about your onscreen chemistry with the child actor Lewis MacDougall?  

A.  I’ve made a few movies with kids over the years, but Lewis is very special. I wasn’t aware of him acting at all. It was quite a revelation. I’ve never experienced that type of acting before from another actor or actress, and especially from a child. Lewis was 12 at the time we filmed the movie two years ago, and some days I would walk away thinking, this kid’s amazing. It was like he was going through Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the emotional things he had to do for this film. He was phenomenal.

“Cinema is an international language, an international art, but, above all, it is a source of enlightenment. There are wonderful, remarkable films, past and present, from Mexico, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Central Asia that deserve to be known and seen. Movie houses are not the only place where you can influence people. A wave of new cinema is tackling world issues and giving powerful political messages and earning a lot of acclaim at the box office.”

Q. Would you categorise the script of A Monster Calls as something out of a children’s story?

A.  I don’t want to say it’s a children’s story. It kind of has the feel of Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s quite scary and ominous. That is part of its power; it kept haunting me. It is much more. Lewis was emoting all the time. This kid was giving a range of emotion that Shakespeare doesn’t even demand from Hamlet. This is a story that was written for kids to help in dealing with complicated emotions and ideas, so I think this is definitely a film for elder kids — 10, 11, or 12 is a perfect age to watch this film. There are a lot of movies narrated through the eyes of children. Movies that, sometimes, are not for kids, but, the fact that they were told through the eyes of kids makes them feel very close. And I love those movies.

Q. A Monster Calls is also based on a novel. Would you call the film a faithful adaptation of the original book? How tough was to it make this a successful adaptation? 

A. I think it was just finding the way to tell the story because it’s not an easy story to tell. It’s based on a book, and when you read a book it’s such a different experience to watching a film, so Bayona had to find the right architecture for the film to tell the story. We’re dealing with so many different subject matters, like the delicate subject of cancer. It operates on a level of fantasy and reality, so finding the right tone for the film was challenging, and it took Bayona time in the editing to find a way to tell the time so it would connect in the way it would for audiences. I received the book in the usual way — Bayona’s team sent it to my team. They wanted me, so my agent called me and said, “I’m sending you this book. They’re making a movie version. I had seen Bayona’s film The Orphanage, and I thought he was quite special. I also knew he works with the Pan’s Labyrinth crew, so I thought this would be a pretty special film. I knew it would be very multi-textural and visual. I rate Patrick’s book along with the best of Oscar Wilde. His parables and fairy tales are also like The Brothers Grimm — it’s amazing. I was captivated by the story. There wasn’t a frame I would have changed in that film. I’m a big fan of myths and legends.

Q. You are also known for your action-thriller films. Have you, throughout your career, had a soft spot for action films? 

A. I’m in a very great place career-wise. The success of the Taken franchise has earned me a different spot in Hollywood.  I’m fitter than I’ve ever been in my life so that has to count for something. I want to stay on this planet for a long time to come. I love doing all that fighting stuff, and it’s great fun to train for that. However, I don’t do my own stunts; people think I do but I leave it to the professionals. I was 50 when I did Taken and I’m surprised that I still get a lot of action films coming my way. But there is a limit, of course. I just tell my agent in another two years, audiences wouldn’t want to see me doing this on screen. I got offered Taken late in life and because it became very successful, I unexpectedly became a bit of an action hero. It’s just a toss of the dice. I haven’t set out to plan really and mapped a career of these sorts — it’s just the way it has happened.

Q. Could you share with us your views on world cinema? What, according to you, is cinema’s role in society?

A. Cinema is an international language, an international art, but, above all, it is a source of enlightenment. There are wonderful, remarkable films, past and present, from Mexico, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Central Asia that deserve to be known and seen. Movie houses are not the only place where you can influence people. A wave of new cinema is tackling world issues and giving powerful political messages and earning a lot of acclaim at the box office.

Silence will release in India on 16 February 2017.

Q. You started your career with theatre. Could you tell us more about the local theatre scene in your native Ireland? 

A. There’s an old expression that says, you can take the Irishman out of the bog but you can’t take the bog out of the Irishman. I’m very much from that school and although America’s my home and where I’m raising my kids, Ireland is still a spiritual home. I’d wanted to be an actor from the age of 18 or so, but I’d never quite known how to go about it. My dream would have been to make it to the National Theatre, maybe the Royal Shakespeare Company. That was my most fervent ambition. When I started at the Lyric, it was a very scary time for Northern Ireland and yet the theatre never shut down. This theatre has been a beacon of light throughout Northern Ireland’s darkest days, and is a symbol of Belfast’s cultural, economic and social regeneration. I love being where I am at the moment and I feel very blessed. But I’m very proud of my theatre roots, because I think they gave me a physical discipline and the training for repetition. Some directors like to do numerous takes, which I am not a fan of, but if it comes to it I can do it because that’s what you do in the theatre, eight times a week. And I miss it. I would like to get back on stage again.

Q. You have been part of Hollywood for over two decades now. What keeps you going?

A. What I learned growing up was a work ethic that’s a real characteristic in the North, and my parents drilled it into my sisters and myself. Get a job, no matter what your profession is going to be. Get a job and provide for yourself and provide for your family.

 

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