By Karen Butler
Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson admits he is enjoying the new-found status of action hero he has acquired in his late 50s.
In his current film, “Unknown,” Neeson plays Martin Harris, a doctor who awakens from a coma after a car crash in Berlin to discover that his wife, played by January Jones, doesn’t recognize him and that another man, played by Aidan Quinn, has assumed his identity.
“I’m driven by script all the time. Drama is based on the spoken word and it’s writing, writing, writing all the time. That’s my criteria,” Neeson told reporters at a press conference in Los Angeles recently about what initially drew him to the project.
“I seem to have gotten a new lease on life since this ‘Taken’ movie was successful. So, at the age of 58 . . . I’m sorry, did I say 58? At the age of 37, it’s great to become kind of an action hero,” the Ballymena native said, acknowledging “Unknown” seems to fit with the types of roles he has been offered lately.
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The widowed father of two teen sons and star of “Michael Collins,” “Schindler’s List,” “Love Actually,” “Gangs of New York,” “Kinsey” and “Clash of the Titans” said he underwent lots of physical preparation to convince audiences he can really drive a speeding car, escape from a sinking vehicle and fight the bad guys in “Unknown,” which was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
“There was lots of training when you know the fights are coming up,” Neeson said, adding the only injuries he sustained during production were “little ones, nothing serious.”
Shooting the scene in which his car is submerged in water was probably the most difficult for him, he confessed.
“It was very, very scary for me and I worked with Mark (Vanselow) in a tank and a swimming pool to get used to it,” Neeson recalled. “I’m not a very strong swimmer. I came to water late. In fact, I learned to swim at the age of 20, but Mark’s this amazing friend and amazing stuntman, so there were lots of days we would meet in the swimming pool and I would put my head six inches under, two inches under and when we shot the scene it was half of a cab.
“Jaume wanted it to gradually sink into the heated tank, which was great, and I’m sitting in the back and I felt comfortable enough, Mark was literally there with the [oxygen] mask, as I knew he would be, and I banged the window, I’m unconscious and just feeling the water coming up, knowing everybody was there and once it got to there, I just panicked. Panicked. So we got out, which was easy enough. I wasn’t in control, that’s what it was about. So, anyway, Mark talked me through. I basically took deep breaths and lowered myself into the seat and that was much, much easier to do.”
Although it has been decades since he trained as an amateur boxer, the Oscar-nominated actor says that the lessons he learned in the ring have helped him out during his film career.
“I was a kid when I boxed. I started when I was 9 and finished when I was 17 or so competitively. There’s just something about the discipline of going to the gym and hitting the bag,” he explained. “It just gives you respect for hard work is probably the bottom line of it, as well as keeping you reasonably fit. It’s a discipline and you have to apply that if you’re lucky enough to get films. That certainly applies.”
A high point of making the “Unknown” was the opportunity to collaborate again with Aidan Quinn, his co-star in “The Mission” and “Michael Collins,” Neeson said.
Asked if he and Quinn share a short-hand because of their real-life relationship, Neeson replied: “Very much so . . . He is a very dear friend.”
Quinn reportedly spent a lot of time with Neeson and his family after the 2009 death of Neeson’s wife, actress Natasha Richardson, from a head injury.
Neeson did not discuss at the Los Angeles press conference the loss of his young, beautiful wife following a freak skiing accident in Canada. However, he did open up about the ordeal to Esquire magazine.
“I walked into the emergency — it’s like 70, 80 people, broken arms, black eyes, all that — and for the first time in years, nobody recognizes me,” Neeson told the magazine.
“Not the nurses. The patients. No one. And I’ve come all this way, and they won’t let me see her. And I’m looking past them, starting to push — I’m like, ‘(Expletive,) I know my wife’s back there someplace …’ So I went outside. It’s freezing cold, and I thought, What am I gonna do? How am I going to get past the security? And I see two nurses, ladies, having a cigarette. I walk up, and luckily one of them recognizes me. And I’ll tell you, I was so (expletive) grateful — for the first time in I don’t know how long — to be recognized. And this one, she says, ‘Go in that back door there.’ She points me to it. ‘Make a left. She’s in a room there.’ So I get there, just in time. And all these young doctors, who look all of 18 years of age, they tell me the worst. The worst.”
He said when he returned to shooting the film “Chloe” shortly after Richardson’s funeral he “was still in a bit of shock.”
“But it’s kind of a no-brainer to go back to that work. It’s a wee bit of a blur, but I know the tragedy hadn’t just really smacked me yet,” the actor explained to Esquire. “I think I survived by running away some. Running away to work.”
Looking ahead, Neeson said at the Los Angeles press conference he would like to go back home to Ireland to work, possibly on-stage at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin
“They asked me to do something this year. It’s not going to work out, you know, but I do feel the need to go back to the theater. It’s a muscle you have to exercise every now and again. The last time was two years ago at Lincoln Center, so I’m due to go back. I don’t know in what, but I’m on the lookout for something,” Neeson said.
So, would it be significant to return to Ireland to work?
“It would be at this stage because I haven’t really worked there in theater since 1980,” Neeson said. “So it would be nice to do something.”
“Unknown” opens nationwide Friday.