The career of Liam Neeson has taken an unmistakable shift in recent years. After a long stretch highlighted by acclaimed performances in epic-tinged material like “Schindler’s List,” “Rob Roy” and “Michael Collins,” Neeson took an unlikely turn in Pierre Morel’s 2008 actioner “Taken,” where he portrayed tough guy retired CIA agent Bryan Mills, kicking ass and taking names rather than delivering eloquent monologues.
“Certainly ‘Taken’ gave me a new lease in life in a certain genre,” Neeson said recently to press during rounds for his man vs. nature flick “The Grey” directed by Joe Carnahan. “They’re fun. They appeal to the little boy in me.”
In “The Grey,” Neeson portrays the singularly named Ottway, an oil worker whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Amongst the small group of survivors, Ottway finds himself placed in the de facto role of leader as the men struggle for survival against the harsh conditions and a hungry pack of wolves that quietly stalk the men at every turn.
Neeson was in high spirits as he sat down with press at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. When one member of press mentioned that the movie was pretty “heavy,” Neeson smiled and responded, “It’s not a chick flick. It’s not a rom-com.” Here are five highlights from our discussion.
Trading up with “A-Team” co-star Bradley Cooper
During the publicity tour for “The A-Team,” Joe Carnahan was also prepping his next film, “The Grey.” Bradley Cooper was attached to star at the time, but scheduling conflicts soon forced him to step aside. His cast mate, Neeson, had overheard discussions of the project and expressed interest to Carnahan, asking him early on if there might be a part for him in it. “It read like a 19th century epic poem, like ‘The [Rime Of The] Ancient Mariner’ or something,” Neeson said. “There was spirituality and Greek mythology and I thought, ‘Man, this is right up my street.’ And there’s no cars, no computers, no iPhones in it. Just sparse, man vs. nature and man vs. himself.”
Adding 20-plus years to the age of the central character resulted in some alterations to the script, but Carnahan now says it’s very hard to imagine the story with the younger lead. Asked whether his age aids the story arc of his conflicted character, Neeson responds, “I turn 60 this year, so maybe years give it an extra gravitas. Perhaps.”
Preparing for the cold
Gravitating to increasingly physical parts in recent years, Neeson has upped his own personal fitness regimen to keep stride. But the harsh cold of the film’s production in British Columbia led Neeson to a different kind of prep work. “I remember seeing this documentary of this crazy Brit, one of these guys who swims in the Antarctic from iceberg to iceberg. He started his training by standing under freezing cold showers for ten minutes every morning. So I thought, ‘I’ll do that.’ I got up to seven minutes, to immunize your body for the extreme cold. And it worked. It was minus forty on our first week. I didn’t tell the other cast members. [Laughs]”
Before production, Neeson also spent time with some real life oil workers to get a feel for the character he would portray. “I met a couple of guys who did a similar job to my character. I thought they’d be really tough motherfuckers and they were the most sensitive people,” he said. “They hated having to occasionally take down a polar bear or a wild animal that was about to attack the workers.”
The actor admits the rough conditions were necessary to elicit the required emotions for audiences to buy what these men were going through. Carnahan’s choice to limit use of CGI for the wolves or the weather further enhanced the experience. “When something’s real, you know it and you experience it as real,” says Neeson. “There’s no CGI for all that weather. There’s a little bit for the wolves, but all the weather, all those storms and the rest of it was absolutely the real deal and you can’t fake that. It was really challenging. All you want to do is stay warm. The wolves were animatronic, the ones I was working with. I think they shot some real wolves for a running sequence. There’s very, very little CGI.”
Rising to the occasion emotionally
Between the weather and the wolves, the characters of “The Grey” must soon come to terms with their own mortality. Neeson discusses preparing for these scenes: “In terms of the emotional aspect of the film, I knew I could access something to convey the character’s feelings,” Neeson explained. “I didn’t consciously channel anything. I knew what had to be done. I think the more you kind of try and intellectualize those scenes, the more you build up a wall accessing your emotions. I knew I was capable of doing the scene without thinking about it.”
Career and life advice
During a scene early in “The Grey,” Ottway flashes back to his childhood, sitting on his father’s lap and looking to a poem framed on the wall that says: “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know, live and die on this day, live and die on this day.” His character returns to these words throughout the story, their meaning becoming clearer as each day progresses. Discussing the scene, Neeson spoke of his own father’s words of wisdom. “I remember the first time coming back with a hangover,” he chuckles. “I was 21 or 22. I was in the kitchen making a cup of tea and he leaned over me and asked, ‘Do you drink spirits?’ I said, ‘No Dad.’ And he said, ‘Good, don’t.’ And that was it. Stayed with me all my life. I don’t drink spirits at all. I don’t know why, but it was so profound because my father was a man of very few words. When he did speak, it was emphatic.”
But in terms of career advice and making the decision to follow his dreams of becoming an actor, Neeson found encouragement from an unlikely source. “I was a forklift truck driver in a Guinness factory in my hometown,” says the actor. “This guy, he could make a forklift speak, he was so brilliant with what he did. I was the apprentice and we were waiting on these pallets of Guinness coming down. He said, ‘Liam, how long are you going to stay here?’ I had long hair. So fucking hot. 20 years of age or something. And I said, ‘I don’t know Roy.’ He said, ‘What do you want to do in life?’ and I said, ‘Well I want to be an actor.’ And he said, ‘Well you could be another Roy Rogers. Get out. Don’t stay here too long.’ So that stayed with me.”
“Taken 2” and more action flicks
Neeson recently wrapped production on “Taken 2,” which is currently planned for release on October 5th. “We just finished in Istanbul. We were there for two months. Beautiful city. Unbelievable place. The call to prayer happens five times a day and for the first week it drives you crazy. And then it just gets into your spirit. It’s the most beautiful thing. There are 4,000 mosques in the city. Really beautiful. It really makes me think about becoming a Muslim. (Laughs)”
Up next, Neeson plans to team with producer Joel Silver for a few action projects currently in development. “At the moment, there’s a few of these assassin roles,” Neeson says with a grin. “Joel Silver and I are probably going to do a couple of things over the next few years. ‘Die Hard‘-type movies. So I think my knees are going to last for just a couple. After that it would just be silly.”
“The Grey” opens nationwide this Friday, January 27th.