Liam Neeson isn't slowing down: 'There's a couple of fights left in me'
For his latest film Made in Italy, Liam Neeson found himself in foreign territory. Yes, like Taken, the 68-year-old action star was traveling Europe to save his child — but there was one big thing missing.
"I was joking with [director] James D’Arcy, like, 'C’mon, James, surely there’s one Albanian that I have to take out,'" he says with a laugh. "'Please, just give me one little fight scene!'”
Jokes and bad guys aside, after stumbling into a decade as the face of action films, Neeson decided to go back to his dramatic roots with last year's romantic tragedy Ordinary Love and now the dramedy Made in Italy. In D'Arcy's directorial debut, Neeson and his son Micheál Richardson star as an estranged father and son confronting their tragic past while working to sell their run-down Tuscan villa.
Ahead of Made in Italy's release, EW caught up with Neeson to discuss working with his son, wanting to keep making action films as long as he can, and finding more modes of transportations to fight bad guys on.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you doing?
LIAM NEESON: I can’t complain too much. Well, I could, but let’s not talk about politics.
Deal. The last time we chatted was for the black comedy action thriller Cold Pursuit, and Made in Italy is very different than that, as was your other recent film Ordinary Love. Has this been a conscious decision to mix it up after you became so synonymous with action?
I guess so. They came about not through an agent shoehorning you into doing a script because it will show another facet of your career. Ordinary Love, Bono is a friend of mine and he got in touch with me and was like, “I’d like to send you a script from a producer friend of mine and I think you should take a look at it." It was a total page turner; I loved it and I got the chance to work with Lesley Manville, who is one of England’s great actresses, and it was such a joy to be back home in Belfast. And the same for this with Made in Italy. James D’Arcy got in touch with me through my English agent Sue Latimer and she said, “Listen, you should read this, there’s something to it.” I did and I sort of fell in love with it, and Sue said, “Maybe this is something good for you and Micheál, your son.” And so it was kind of fate, I just felt like I had to do it. It was fantastic to work with my son.
What was that like? Micheál also played your son in Cold Pursuit, but he had a much smaller role there.
Yeah, we did it a little bit with Cold Pursuit, but I said to him before we started shooting, “Look, Micheál, James is the writer and our director — I’m going to keep away. If you ever want to talk about the scenes, by all means, but I’m not going to give you my notes or try and direct you. There’s room for one director and that’s it.” And that’s what we did. He was another actor who happened to be playing my son. But, because he is my son, we didn’t have to suss each other out and have dinners to get to know each other.
Between being with your son every day and filming in this incredible locale, this had to be like a dream gig.
I know. Then, of course, the movie gods were totally against us, because Tuscany had their worst weather in 50 years. We shot in London for a week and Tuscany for four weeks, that was it, a five-week shoot. The first three weeks in Tuscany it was just raining all the time. If it wasn’t raining, it was drizzle. We needed some Tuscan sunsets and sunrises, so by the end of the third week I almost saw two producers crying. [Laughs] The last week we managed to get maybe four good days where we got that classic Tuscan sunset and a couple sunrises. We just about scrapped through, so the movie gods came back and helped us in the last week.
This is something we talked about with Cold Pursuit, but you weren’t always the action guy. Like before Taken, you were much more known for your dramatic work. What’s that evolution been like?
It’s been great. Look, we did the first Taken movie 13 years ago this year and I had just turned 55 when we wrapped. My dear departed wife [Natasha Richardson] and I were at a film festival in Shanghai, she had a film there, and [Taken producer] Luc Besson was on the jury. I had read this Taken script and I approached him there and said, “Look, I’m sure I’m nowhere near your list of actors for this, but I used to be a boxer, I love doing fight scenes, I’ve done quite a few sorcery movies with swords and s---. Please think of me for this.” Push came to shove and he offered it to me. And I obviously was a kid in a toy shop doing it, hanging with these stunt guys and working on these fight scenes and arms training — I loved it.
Despite how much fun it was, you still had no expectations for it, right?
I’ve said this before, and no offense to Robert Kamen, our wonderful writer and my pal, but I thought, “Well, this is going to go straight-to-video. A short little European thriller, it might play okay for a couple weeks in France and then it will go straight-to-video.” But it did well in France and then it went straight to South Korea, and it did very well there. And then I was getting calls from my nephews in Ireland, saying, “[Stoner voice] Um, Uncle Liam, we saw your movie.” I said, “Which one?” They said, “Um, Taken.” I said, “What do you mean? You couldn’t have seen it.” They said, “Well, we downloaded it from South Korea.” I said, “You can’t do that! What are you talking about?!” So I thought, "My nephews are breaking the law,” which really pissed me off, and also I thought, “Well, that’s it. If you can download it, it’s gone into the ether.” But Fox took it and they very cleverly did a good trailer and put it during various sporting events around the country and they made it a real success. I remember the first weekend it came in at No. 3, and then it came up to No. 2 and then No. 1, and then it went down to No. 4, and it came up to No. 3 again. It just had this extraordinary cycle. That’s where it started, and then there were plans to do a second one and a third one, of course. So it was luck, and you need some luck in this business.
Considering you’ve made so many of these action films since then, does it now feel weird when you’re on like a Made in Italy set and not throwing bad guys out of windows or into snowplows?
No, it’s nice. But I was joking with James D’Arcy, like, “C’mon, James, surely there’s one Albanian that I have to take out! Please, just give me one little fight scene.” [Laughs] And they’re still offering me these. Hopefully towards the end of the year, if we're able to get back to work, there's a few more that I'm going to. I keep very fit and I love doing that stuff. And look, I just turned 68, it’s crazy, but there’s a couple of fights left in me.
So you're just going to keep doing them until you can't anymore?
Yep, keep doing them until they pass me the walker.
It wasn't part of the plan, but how does it feel to be viewed now as this iconic action hero? What does that mean to you?
Well, as I said, I like the genre and I like doing it. I feel honored. I’ve had a very blissful career. Starting in the theater, my first movie was Excalibur for John Boorman, and then going on to doing stuff like Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, an Irish Republican hero, so I’ve just been very blessed. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in this extraordinary industry. I love being with my fellow actors but I’m just in heaven when I’m with a movie crew — irrespective of what the genre of the film is. I don't set out to plan a career, I really don’t. There’s a part of me that wants to get back to the theater again. It’s been 11, 12 years since I’ve done a play, and I’ve been offered a few revivals but I’d love to find a new piece of theater writing. If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, I don’t worry.
You're looked at as an action hero, but who is your hero?
I am so blessed that I grew up with Muhammad Ali. I idolized that man. And I had the great joy to meet him twice. Once when he was very, very fit in 1981 in London. I was able to look him in the face and tell him, “Muhammad, I love you.” I was nearly in tears. I asked him if he'd sign his name for my father, and he turned me around and I gave him a little piece of paper and a pen. He said, “What’s your father’s name,” and I said “Barney,” and he wrote, “To Barney, Muhammad Ali.” And I remember going back home a few months after that, and my father was a quiet man, and he was sitting reading a newspaper and I just dropped the tiny little piece of paper down into his lap. He readjusted his glasses, looked at it, looked up at me, and the pair of us just started crying. Because Muhammad was his hero, too. We saw all his fights on TV and I just adored that guy. He was a hero, and not just as a fighter and boxer but as a champion for Black causes, as a champion for humanity.
Then I saw him about six years ago, he was at an Irish-American function in Lincoln Square and his Parkinson’s had advanced. He was there with the Irish Prime Minister and a few other dignitaries, and I went over to him and there was no expression on his face. I sat down and his hands were folded on the table, and I put my hands on his hands and, again, said to him, “Muhammad, I love you." Muhammad didn’t bat an eyelid and his wife said, “He knows who you are.” I was so chuffed; I met my hero twice! He was just the greatest — and he was the first to say it himself. [Laughs]
Inspired by Cold Pursuit, I previously pitched you a few new modes of transportation that you could fight bad guys on next. I’m going to read you what you said after I gave you some options: “You’ve got me thinking. Okay, a family station wagon that I use for Uber to make extra money, and then something happens. And the sequel is getting away from all that. I need a break and I’m having a nervous breakdown, so somebody pays for me to have a cruise. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is bliss,’ and then it isn’t.” What’s the update on this? We don't get any vehicular tussles in Made in Italy, but have you done any further thinking? Sadly, I think the current pandemic might have exposed a problem with the cruise ship idea.
It could be a small cruise ship! Not one of those huge big things you see sailing down the canals that dwarf all the buildings. Back in March, I just wrapped a film called The Ice Road, and it’s inspired by the French film, Wages of Fear, which is this classic French black-and-white movie. Our film is set on frozen Lake Winnipeg, where there’s been a collapse up in the mine in Northern Canada and there’s miners trapped. Because of the weather, the only way they can transport the pieces used to extract the miners is by road and these big trucks across Lake Winnipeg. The only thing is it’s the dead of winter, and the ice is usually eight to ten feet thick, but in ours the thaw is happening so the ice is only three feet thick — and so s--- happens. [Laughs] So that’s a lorry, right? But I think the cruise ship might work.
Made in Italy opens Friday in select theaters, drive-ins, and video on demand.