Irish Catholic actor Liam Neeson tells Cindy Pearlman about life after the death of his wife
‘I love that expression, ‘How do you make God laugh?’,” Liam Neeson says.
”The answer: ‘You just tell him your plans and then watch as fate takes you in a different direction.’ You think your life is going one way, then suddenly you’re on another track.”
No one knows this better than Neeson, who, in March 2009, lost his wife of 15 years, actress Natasha Richardson, who suffered a freak head injury in a fall during a skiing lesson and died shortly thereafter.
The ensuing period was devastating for Neeson, who was left on his own to raise their sons, Daniel and Michael, now 15 and 16 respectively.
Time has brought some healing, however, and today the 59-year-old Neeson seems at peace with himself and the world.
Tall and gravel-voiced, the Irish actor is warm and humorous, responding to a mention of his approaching 60th birthday with a rude gesture — and a smile.
When, in the course of an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel, Richardson’s name comes up, Neeson’s eyes light up. After two years of not talking about the woman he called ”Tash”, he seems almost eager to talk about her.
”It’s funny, but you get to a time in your life when you think you have all the friends you will ever have,” Neeson says.
”Then I think of how Tash would meet someone at a party and suddenly they would become a dear friend.
”I never thought, at this stage in my life, that I’d be able to meet some of my best friends,” Neeson continues.
”I can say that the men on my new movie, The Grey, have become fantastic friends to me, even now that we’ve stopped filming.
”We call each other all the time and talk about regular stuff like how it’s (garbage) to get older or how our kids know that we’re full of crap when we discipline them.
”Tash would be pleased,” he says. ”She always told me that you should never close doors in your life.”
In The Grey, directed by Joe Carnahan and set to open early this year, Neeson plays Ottway, a man struggling for some meaning to life after losing his wife to a fatal disease.
He joins an oil-drilling team, but their plane crashes in a remote, barren area of Alaska and Ottway finds himself leading a handful of survivors and trying to fend off a pack of more than 100 ravenous wolves.
The cast also includes Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney.
It wasn’t hard finding the right tone to play a man who recently lost his wife, Neeson says.
”Let’s just say that I had to do very little research,” he says in a soft voice.
”I knew the emotions that had to be accessed. On the set, we never discussed how real life played into it for me. We just played the scenes of a man whose heart is broken.”
Neeson embraced the idea of playing a character who, while not afraid to die, still fights to survive.
”This movie’s script read to me like a 19th-Century epic poem,” the actor says.
”I just thought it was so beautiful. This was a throwback to the old movies they used to make where it was man vs. nature and not just people pushing each other’s buttons.
”It reminded me of Jeremiah Johnson (1972),” Neeson adds. ”There was just something so pure about this idea that you might not survive because nature is bigger than you.”
The film was shot on location in British Columbia, where the temperature dropped as low as 20 degrees below zero.
”I saw a documentary about this British man, a few years ago, who liked to swim through icebergs in Antarctica,” Neeson says.
”He started preparing by taking freezing-cold showers for 10 minutes every morning. I did the same thing to prepare for this movie, but I only got up to seven minutes.
”It actually immunises your body, because your system gets used to the cold.
”I never told the cast,” he adds with laugh. ”It was my little secret.”
And no, he didn’t actually fend off wolves.
”We had real wolves on the set in a pen,” Neeson says, ”but I didn’t even want to look at them. I just worked with the puppet.
”When I was told that wolves were attacking me and it was time to run, I just ran for my life.”
The hardest part of the shoot, he says, was the plane crash scene.
”To be honest, I’m scared to death of roller-coaster rides,” Neeson says.
”I just can’t do it. My kids beg me to get on the roller coasters with them, and my response is always the same. I’ll say, ‘Sons, I love you to death, but I will never get on that damn thing’.
”The plane-crash scene was like a roller-coaster ride for me,” he says.
”I was in part of a plane attached to a mechanical arm that really jolted me around. I was terrified. I just couldn’t tell anyone I was afraid, because I’m supposed to be setting an example for the younger guys.”
A veteran A-lister whose credits include such landmark films as Schindler’s List (1993), Rob Roy (1995), Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), Gangs of New York (2002), Love Actually (2003), Kinsey (2004) and Batman Begins (2005), Neeson is on a career high at an age when most leading men are easing into character work.
”They are offering me stuff, which is why I work a lot,” he says. ”I find these offers unbelievably flattering. Since this Taken (2008) movie came out, they keep throwing assassin movies at me. Some are good; some are not.”
Neeson played Zeus in Clash of the Titans (2010), and will recreate his role in Wrath of the Titans, due in the spring.
”It’s a different movie than the first one,” he says. ”There’s a lot more interaction between Zeus and Hades (Ralph Fiennes). I know Sam Worthington has seen it, and he has been very pleased with it.
”I can say that my costume is less painful than the first one,” Neeson adds, ”which is a big plus.”
He has another sequel due in 2013.
”Luc Besson and his writing partner came to me and said, ‘We want to do Taken 2,” Neeson says disbelievingly.
”I said, ‘You’ve got to be crazy! What will it be: She’s taken again?’ I said, ‘What will we call it? ‘Taken for a Ride?”’
”Even though I said, ‘Come on’, they came up with an interesting story line that I really liked.”
He’d also like to return to the stage.
”I haven’t been on stage in three years,” the actor says, ”and I feel that need to go back to the theatre and challenge myself. The problem is finding a new writer.
”I’d love to do something that’s a new, modern play. There are so many revivals of plays that feel a bit jaded. I’d love to find a new voice.”
Offscreen, Neeson’s major project is his family.
”I make sure there are gaps between my working,” he says, ”because I’m a single parent. I can’t be away for long periods of time. It’s just not my life now.”
He may be a former boxer and a screen tough guy who can take care of an opponent with fists, guns or light sabers as the situation dictates, but there’s one venue in which Neeson is a pushover: his own home.
”I’m a total sap,” he says. ”I try to play hardball with my kids, but they see right through it. I’ll say, ‘OK, you be back at 11! When I say 11, it doesn’t mean 11:15! Do you hear me?’
”They will say, ‘Yeah, dad. Whatever you say, dad,”’ Neeson continues, laughing.
”Of course, they come back at midnight and I’m like, ‘Oh, (forget) it.’
”Parents should know that kids see right through us.”
Cindy Pearlman is a Chicago-based freelance writer. This article first appeared in The New York Times. Reproduced with permission.