The Irish actor tells us why he took the part in ''Taken,'' why the action flick is such a hit, and when he'll don the stove-pipe hat

By Benjamin Svetkey
February 27, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

He’s been nominated for an Oscar, played a Jedi, and made out with Peter Sarsgaard. But now Liam Neeson is really getting Hollywood’s attention with Taken, the sleeper hit about a retired CIA agent’s search for his kidnapped teen daughter. The film has earned $95 million since its Jan. 30 release ($165 million worldwide) and continues to surprise at the box office. In fact, the domestic grosses went up during its third weekend in theaters (granted, it was a four-day weekend, but still…).

”I’m very, very chuffed,” says Irish-born Neeson, 56. (It means ”pleased.”) ”When I took the part, I was sort of between jobs. I saw it as a no-brainer story with a good emotional arc and a whole bunch of physicality to it. I thought, ‘This will fill things in nicely.”’ Not that Neeson’s résumé needs padding. He’s acted in more than 30 films over three decades, from dramas like Schindler’s List and Kinsey to blockbusters like Batman Begins and Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. But Taken is the first straight-up action movie Neeson has headlined since 1990’s Darkman, and it’s the biggest hit he’s ever carried on his own.

”I have a theory as to why Taken is doing well,” Neeson offers. ”People are angry and disgruntled about the economy. They’re empathizing with a guy who takes matters into his own hands. There’s a catharsis that comes from that.” Maggie Grace, who plays his missing daughter, has a different take: ”People would rather see an action movie with Liam Neeson than some other actor of less substance. Every word that comes out of Liam’s mouth has so much weight — it lifts the genre.”

Whatever’s drawing crowds to Taken, it’s a good time to be Liam Neeson. ”I can see certain doors opening wider,” he says. His new action-hero status suddenly makes Five Minutes of Heaven look a lot more interesting (the indie film about Irish political strife premiered at Sundance) and ups the profile of Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, a family drama Neeson started shooting in Canada this week. And his new clout could be a boon for his long-deferred dream project — playing the guy in the stovepipe hat in Steven Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln biopic. ”I’ve been waiting to put that hat on for three years,” says Neeson. According to Spielberg’s publicist, the film is ”proceeding…and our plans are now to shoot the picture later this year.” — With additional reporting by Christine Spines