Even in his 50s, actor Liam Neeson still is an action hero

By Rick Bentley
McClatchy Newspapers

LOS ANGELES – The film “Taken” changed Liam Neeson’s acting life. When the action film was released in 2008, the Irish actor was 56 – an age when most actors start looking for parts as grandfathers or crusty old neighbors.

There’ll be none of that for Neeson. Since “Taken,” he’s played Zeus in “Clash of the Titans” and Colonel Hannibal Smith in “The A-Team.” Now he’s the central figure in the action thriller “Unknown.”

“I seem to have gotten a new lease on life since this ‘Taken’ movie was so successful. 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,” Neeson says.

Neeson’s character in “Unknown” starts out rather passive. He and his wife are in Berlin for a technology summit. The action comes when he awakens from a taxi accident in a freezing river and discovers someone else has taken over his life.

Shooting the crash scene reminded Neeson that while he might be getting action roles, he doesn’t have the bravado he did 30 years ago.

For starters, it was the coldest winter in Berlin in 20 years with freezing rain, frost and ice. Neeson says it takes talent “just to execute the film in those sorts of conditions.”

To shoot the crash, Neeson had to appear to be unconscious while the taxi filled with water.

“It was very, very scary for me. I’m not a very strong swimmer. I came to water late. In fact, I learned to swim at the age of 20,” Neeson says.

He worked with the stunt coordinator in a swimming pool to practice being underwater. The day of the shoot, the cab was lowered into a tank as the cameras rolled.

“I banged the window. I’m unconscious, feeling the water coming up knowing everyone is there. And the water got to there (Neeson puts his hand just above his nose) and I panicked,” Neeson says. “We got out. The problem was I wasn’t in control.

“I took deep breaths and lowered myself into the seat which was easier to do.”

Along with that watery stunt, the film required Neeson to be part of a long car chase scene and in several fights while handling all of the mysteries and twists of the plot.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra cast Neeson because he had the physical and emotional intensity to make both parts of the film work. His evaluation was based mainly on Neeson’s pre-”Taken” work, which ranged from action films like “Batman Begins” and “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” to more subtle work in “Love Actually” and “Schindler’s List.”

His ability to handle both the physical and mental demands go back to his youth, when he was an amateur boxer.

“The discipline of going to a gym and hitting a heavy bag gives you a respect for hard work as well as keeping you reasonably fit. It’s a discipline you have to apply if you’re lucky enough to get films. There’s a discipline to getting up at 6, working 17 hours and coming home to work out or rest,” Neeson says. “The training I did as a child has stood me in good stead in the motion picture business.”

Neeson is enjoying his action-hero status but would be willing to take a break if the right theater production came around. It’s been two years since he was on stage and he’s feeling some withdrawal symptoms.

“Its kind of like a drug,” he says. “A muscle you have to exercise every now and then.”