How it happened is a mystery he doesn’t claim to understand, but at 58, Liam Neeson — for more than two decades one of Hollywood’s most dependable character actors — has morphed into a hard-as-steel action hero.
Two winters ago Neeson emerged as a box-office heavyweight with the enormously successful “Taken,” in which he played a father furiously avenging his daughter’s abduction. Now, after resurrecting Colonel Hannibal Smith in last June’s “The A-Team,” he returns as a two-fisted botanist who loses his identity abroad in the Hitchcockian thriller “Unknown,” based on the novel by Didier van Cauwelaert and opening Friday.
“I seem to have enjoyed a new lease on life since ‘Taken.’” says the soft-spoken Neeson. “I feel very lucky, at 58 — sorry, 37 — to have suddenly become an action star. It’s not something I expected.”
Neeson tries to keep fit, but doesn’t have a strict workout regimen. (“It’s mostly private stuff,” he explains. “Lots of sex.”)
He doesn’t perform his own stunts. But, as a former amateur boxer in his native Northern Ireland, he’s been on the giving and receiving ends of more than a few knockouts. He put that experience to work in “Unknown.”
“I do my own fighting, which I don’t regard as a stunt,” he says. “It’s more like a wonderful ballet. You get injured from time to time, mostly little things. But with my choreographer, we’ve worked very intensely beforehand. That induces an absolute confidence, and when you’re confident you can breathe normally, and you don’t get as injured as you might if you’re stiff and scared.
“When I was boxing, I got my bell rung a few times. It’s always stayed with me, that memory of not having a memory. It was an interesting experience to draw on for this role.”
For director Jaume Collet-Serra and producer Joel Silver, finding the right actor to play an amnesiac struggling to reclaim his identity — and win over audiences unsure of who this mystery man really is — meant casting someone with both the right physique and a formidable presence.
“Liam has great charisma and is also totally accessible, and those are the traits we needed,” says Silver. “Some of his lines in the movie sound like Schwarzenegger, but they also sound like John Wayne.
“Look at Clint Eastwood. He played action heroes well into his 60s. It’s all about finding someone people are willing to believe in, and root for. And people want to root for Liam. Even if he’s a little out of sorts, they’re willing to trust him, and they want to see him win his life back.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella
Written by Oliver Butcher, Steve Cornwell
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes