By Kate Ward
February 17, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

Image Credit: Michael Caulfield/Getty ImagesLiam Neeson, action star? Certainly, 15 years ago, no one could have predicted that the understated Irish actor who starred in Schindler’s List would become a big-screen badass — especially after he turned a half-century old. But in 2008’s Taken, Neeson surprised audiences by delivering a performance that quite literally packed some punches. After helping turn the thriller into a bona fide hit — Taken took in $227 million in global box office — the actor picked up a role in this year’s Unknown, an action film about a man (Neeson) who discovers that another man assumed his identity after a car accident. “It is fun to explore these kick-butt characters,” Neeson told EW at the Feb. 16 premiere of Unknown, held at Village Theater in Los Angeles. “When I was in Hollywood in the ’80s, I was not that guy. I was never even considered for those types of roles. At that time, they had all these huge action stars like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone. But it was always a genre I wanted to do but I never actively pursued it because I was nothing like those established guys…. I started doing a few sword and sorcery movies so I could use a sword and a light saber. And it went from there really.”

The Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace star, however, isn’t the only actor of a certain age enjoying success in the genre. RED — the retired CIA flick starring Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, and John Malkovich — picked up $185 million in global box office last year, and X Men: First Class‘s Matthew Vaughn is reportedly planning a project about a group of superheroes in a retirement home. “Maybe the industry is changing,” Neeson said. “There seems to be more opportunities for old guys like me to do a little fighting and running because the lead characters also require a bit of depth and maturity and gravitas that one is likely to acquire doing drama all those years.”

And he has plenty more opportunities on his plate: After Unknown, Neeson is slated to appear in The Hangover 2, Wrath of the Titans, and Battleship. He says it’s his ubiquitous presence in Hollywood that’s helping him cope with wife Natasha Richardson’s tragic 2009 death. “Our business is feast or famine, and I’m choosing to make hay when the sun shines,” he said. “I like working, and I relied on work a lot in the last few years to get through a rough personal time. So I needed it.” (Reporting by Carrie Bell)

Read more:

Liam Neeson on Natasha Richardson’s death: ‘It hits you in the middle of the night’

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