Liam Neeson: Puttin’ on the Ritz
When you think of Liam Neeson today, it’s probably in one of his mentor roles like Qui-Gon Jinn or maybe his late-career action roles like Taken. But twenty-five years ago, Neeson was known for something else. He’d been acting for a long time and had even been working in Hollywood for a while. But he hadn’t yet broken out as a movie star. Schindler’s List was still a year away in 1992. And Neeson’s marriage to actress Natasha Richardson was still a couple years off. So when a female reporter from Movieline interviewed Neeson in his suite at The Ritz-Carlton, she quickly discovered why the Irish actor was known as a lady’s man.
I’m running late, stuck downtown in a heat wave, and it’s a 20-minute cab ride to Central Park South. I call The Ritz-Carlton hotel and ask Liam Neeson if it’s okay if I’m a half hour late to our scheduled 2 p.m. interview. Brisk and businesslike but pleasant over the phone, Neeson lets me know that no matter when we start, he can’t talk past 5 p.m., the arranged end time. Okay. So I hustle even faster. I get to the hotel earlier than I thought I would. Fifteen minutes flat. Then a strange thing happens. I call Neeson’s room and he tells me to wait 10 minutes.
But he’s gracious about this. “What can I get you, dear. A soda? A beer?” he asks. I wait 15 minutes and go up to the 21st floor. I knock on the door. No answer, no sound. I knock again. Then a third time. I return to the lobby and call the hotel operator to check his room number. Yes, Room 2103 is correct. I’m confused. I go back to the room and knock again, and wait. After several minutes, the door opens and it’s Liam Neeson.
The first thing I notice when I walk into the suite is that Neeson is very tall and calls me “dear” and “darlin” ‘ a lot. The second thing I notice is that there’s a woman in the room. I’ve heard he’s seeing Barbra Streisand, so for a split second I think it might be her. It isn’t. Neeson explains that the woman is a photographer. They’ve been taking some pictures for an article on him. Sounds reasonable. I notice the back of his hair is wet even though the air conditioning is on. Instead of leaving, the woman slips into the bedroom for 10 minutes. When she comes out, he kisses her on both cheeks and she leaves. Odd that she carries no cameras.
By this time I have settled into the deep pile sofa and caught my breath. Waiting for Neeson to get focused, I’ve been thinking about phrases like “lilting brogue” and “rumpled Irish charm,” which are used so often to describe this handsome import. The same goes for the words “swoon” and “melt,” verbs universally favored by the (mostly) women who interview him (many of whom sound as if they’re aging high-school cheerleaders who haven’t had a date in several years). I ask Neeson why he specifically requests female journalists. “I gravitate toward women,” he says.
“Do you ask for them so you can charm them?” I inquire.
“My antennae are operating most strongly with women,” he answers.
Here in a suite at The Ritz-Carlton, I’m not privy to the waitresses and other peripheral figures who reportedly swoon and melt on a regular basis whenever Neeson is out in public. Neeson, in any case, denies this happens: “I don’t know about that,” he murmurs uncomfortably. “Who says that?” He has apparently not read his own press packet, which is crammed with such stories.
This reminds me of one of the stranger curiosities of this Irish actor’s film career. He’s so obviously–I mean, these swooning waitresses aren’t fools–a romantic leading man. He radiates a grown-up, passionate sensuality on screen when he’s given the chance. But he’s so rarely been given that chance. One of the first times American audiences saw him was in The Bounty, when he played the none-too-bright-every man-sailor Churchill. Later, his charm was camouflaged in Suspect, when he played the grimy homeless deaf-mute Cher defends. More recently he spent most of Darkman under a mask of gauze. He did play a leading romantic part opposite Justine Bateman in Satisfaction (1988), and that no-win situation might have been where the trouble started. In a movie that awful, Mel Gibson himself wouldn’t come across. Still, anybody who saw The Good Mother should have realized Neeson’s onscreen power as a gentle, humanized stretch of male sexuality. But Hollywood’s a tough place when it comes to grabbing the romantic leads Neeson needs to break into full-fledged stardom. And he’s a foreigner looking to play American. (Neeson says he has a great love for Ireland but has no interest in becoming a “professional Irishman like Peter O’Toole.”)
Anyway, with only minutes passed since the departure of the photographer woman with no cameras who was not Barbra Streisand, I decide to leave both onscreen and offscreen romance out of our conversation for the time being. I sit on the couch and Neeson sits across the coffee table in a chair that barely holds his long torso and Carl Lewis legs. He’s wearing jeans, a white T-shirt and running shoes. His glasses give him a scholarly look, but his broken nose hints at his macho past– he was a boxer as a kid in Northern Ireland. He slides the huge vase of flowers over to the side so we can see each other. Room service has arrived with champagne and taken away the old tray with empty bottles. “Have some,” Neeson urges. In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you I did. I don’t drink champagne when I’m talking to Mayor David Dinkins, really. But this is a Celebrity Interview. If you’ve never done one, especially one involving a man and a woman, it’s hard to explain. It’s like having a blind date on the job.
Neeson will answer most questions, as long as I don’t probe too much into the personal. “I want to talk,” he says, crossing one long leg over the other. “I really do. It’s just that sometimes it doesn’t come off the way I said it.” (After one recent article was printed, Neeson says, he was so upset that he called up the editor to complain.) Actually, he seems to like the interview process. He goes into a lengthy discourse on the evolution of the storyteller in world history. He tells me of the invitation he got from Ed McMahon to ride at the head of the Hollywood Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, which he turned down. You figure you can guess what a classical trained, up-and-coming film star might make of the prospect of careening down Hollywood Boulevard with Johnny’s foil, but Neeson is utterly without sarcasm. “I was very flattered,” he says, gazing at me sincerely. And all the time, I’m wondering: Who is this guy? And for that matter, why was his hair wet? And who was the woman with no cameras?
If you let him, Neeson describes a life story that is more colorful and seemingly heroic than most Hollywood movies. The road that led him to his current home in Laurel Canyon and champagne in a hotel overlooking Central Park began in a working-class, council house in Ballymena, Northern Ireland. He’s been a working actor for 16 years, the bulk of it spent in sturdy, time-honored theater in Ireland and England. This is not Tony Danza. Or, as Neeson puts it, “If this business fell apart tomorrow, I know I could always go back to Ireland. I can always act. I feel sorry for these kids in Hollywood. All they want is to be on The Arsenio Hall Show.”
Neeson grew up the only boy among three girls in a strict Catholic, working-class family. His father was a school custodian. Most of Neeson’s childhood memories are pleasant. Take his recollections of the six years during which he was an altar boy, for example. “You’re celebrating an act that’s 2,000 years old,” he tells me. “There’s something very holy about it.” Even his studies were a cause for celebration. “I loved school,” he recalls. “I loved pleasing the elders. I really got off on pleasing teachers.”
But Neeson’s story of life as an Irish Pollyanna is saved–or considerably tempered–when he talks about his long foray into boxing. He began boxing at the age of nine, encouraged by a local Catholic priest who organized a group of boys his age. It was Neeson’s first exposure to performance, exhibitionism and competition– and he rose to the occasion, eventually winning a championship in his teens. “It terrified me, climbing into the ring,” he says. “You’re totally exposed. There’s nothing to hide behind. In life, to a certain extent, you’re always hiding behind a false beard. This was so primal. You live and fall based on your ability.”
Neeson’s boxing background served him well in last fall’s Crossing the Line, a film about the violent, underworld sport of bareknuckle fighting. The movie’s fight scenes were so well choreographed, he says, that he didn’t suffer a scratch. With sudden verve, Neeson gets up from his chair to demonstrate. The champagne has loosened both of us up. He pushes the coffee table aside and leans over me on the sofa.First he shows how he can convincingly hit the side of my face without hurting me, stopping the force of the blow the instant he touches flesh. Then he tells me to punch him. My fist slams out in the direction of his left cheek. He expertly turns his face to the right at the last minute; my hand falls down through the air. So much for the power of the press.
Just when you wonder if Neeson has some great stories to tell about decking a bunch of rowdy locals in some bar in San Pedro–or even Dublin–the altar boy makes a return appearance. “I’ve never been in a street fight,” he says solemnly. “If something bad started to happen, I think I’d use the acting to get out of it somehow. It’s wrong, it’s violent.”
Neeson was leaning toward a career in teaching or architecture when the key plot point of his life occurred. It was several years after what he still calls “one of the best jobs I’ve ever had”–being a forklift operator. (“It was incredible. This great sense of power.”) In January 1976, he called the Lyric Player’s Theatre, a respected Belfast repertory company, on a whim. It turned out the theater needed someone of his age and height at that very moment. Two hours later, he was signed to a contract with the company.
Neeson spent two years with the Lyric Theatre and then moved on to the prestigious Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He still relishes his very early days as a stage actor. “There’d be these little drama festivals all over. We toured Ireland, we really barnstormed the place. One little town after another and you wondered where all the people came from.”
In 1980, John Boorman saw Neeson in a production of Of Mice and Men and cast him as Sir Gawain in Excalibur. From then on, the journeyman stage actor began a parallel career in TV miniseries and feature films like the aforementioned Satisfaction, The Bounty, Suspect, The Good Mother and Darkman, as well as The Mission and High Spirits, slowly evolving to near movie star status in America.
It’s a good hour before Neeson even brings up the subject of sex. By this time, he has gotten up at least twice to fill our glasses. Up until now, our conversation has been a little bit like a cross between a seminar and a nostalgia binge. But his first mention of sex has nothing to do with women. No, when Neeson first talks about sex, he’s thinking about his on-again, off-again love affair with something really hot. Cigarettes. What? “The first time I lit one,” he sighs, looking out past the balcony to the panorama of Central Park, “I had an erection.”
Now that we are talking about sex, sort of, I ask Neeson if the rumors about him and Barbra Streisand are true. He grows suddenly coy. “She’s a friend,” he says, squirming in his seat for the first time. “That’s all I’m gonna say. She’s a friend.”
Neeson is pretty clearly not the kind of guy to dish anyone, not the women he’s dated, not the women he’s worked with. He has virtually nothing to say about interactions with Cher on Suspect, or Diane Keaton on The Good Mother, or Joanne Whalley-Kilmer on Crossing the Line, or Melanie Griffith on his newest film, Shining Through, or Laura San Giacomo on his other newest film, Under Suspicion. Nor does he say anything about Andie MacDowell, with whom he’s just finished shooting Ruby Cairo, though he does mention how much he likes her kids.
But as the clock ticks ominously toward 5 p.m., Neeson suddenly grows more animated and seems eager to talk more about women–at least in the abstract. He says he’s been in love three or four times and close to marriage once or twice. “I got near it a couple of times. But then it was always the work. I felt as if I were off racing around the globe. Just try and keep romance going on the phone.”
Frequently, Neeson says, he’d return from location to find he’d outgrown the relationship. “You find you’ve moved on. You’ve outgrown some aspect of life that the other person hasn’t. In my heart, I’m usually the one who’s left.”
Neeson was not reportedly the one who left when his two-year, live-in relationship with Julia Roberts broke up. But whatever the circumstances, Neeson has nothing but good to say about Roberts. It is the one time during the interview when his measured articulation is overshadowed by emotion. “I’m proud of the fact that I loved Julia and Julia loved me.” His interest in her now seems a bit paternal as well. “I was glad she didn’t get married to Kiefer,” Neeson says. “She’s too young.”
Neeson met Roberts on Satisfaction when she wasn’t a star yet and Justine Bateman still was. He says he recognized Roberts’s star potential right away. “I knew she had something then,” he says of Roberts. “We all did. The camera loves her.” Star quality appeals to him. “I love physical beauty and talent,” he says. “I don’t care if they’re a concert pianist.”
Roberts has moved on several times since Neeson, but don’t expect any Joan Collins-style kiss and tell from him. More like William Butler Yeats. “As Yeats said,” Neeson intones. “We live as we dream–alone.” (Actually, it was Joseph Conrad who said that.)
Neeson’s in New York for a meeting with Woody Allen. He was summoned last week and flew in from Los Angeles last night just to see Allen about a part in his next movie. The meeting took a little over five minutes, a fairly lengthy session for Allen and one of the classy actors he calls in to see. “I was glad for him that it didn’t last long,” Neeson says. “He seemed so shy.”
A few minutes later, Neeson checks the time. It’s a little past 5 p.m. He’s told me that tonight he plans to hang out at De Niro’s Tribeca Grill downtown. It’s not clear whether the woman with invisible cameras will accompany him. At any rate, he indicates the interview should wind down. Sort of. As my notebook is put away, he switches into another gear.
“So,” he says suddenly, leaning forward slightly with a smile I haven’t seen before. “Tell me about yourself.”