Liam Neeson has been ‘Taken’ by faith. For many people he has long been associated with playing saviors—whether it’s Oskar Schindler from Schindler’s List or as the avenging dad savior in the Taken series.
But in his two new movies, he plays one character who has a crisis of faith and another character who is the expression of a young boy’s crisis of faith.
In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, he plays 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit Father Cristóvão Ferreira, who has to confront a crisis of faith. Neeson tells me, “I certainly had to [deal with that] in Silence. This guy I play, Ferreira, who actually existed, was a very important Jesuit in the 1600s [he came to Japan to lead the conversion of Japanese to Catholicism]. Word got back that he had apostatized, taken a wife, and was subsequently excommunicated. It was up to me, Martin and [co-screenwriter] Jay Cocks to try and find a reason why this guy did this.”
The film, which also stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, stirred Neeson up. He read books questioning faith when he returned from the shoot. “I don’t believe you can really have deep faith without deep doubt,” he said. “It goes hand in glove. I’m convinced of that now, and that certainly affected me when I came back from shooting the film. I was delving into Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. [I read] science journals about inroads they’re making with the brain, the discovery of neurotransmitters and natural opioids in the brain that can perhaps explain faith and religion. That’s all really interesting to me now. But I still believe in a God.”
In his other December release A Monster Calls, Neeson voices a gnarled tree monster conjured up by heartbroken 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) following a crisis of faith to help him cope with the impending loss of his cancer-ridden mother (Felicity Jones). Writer Patrick Ness adapted his screenplay from his 2011 children’s book that was itself based on author Siobhan Dowd’s outline which was uncompleted because she died of cancer.
In A Monster Calls, Neeson make his presence felt only through his haunting voice which animates the creature that takes its form from an enormous yew tree thanks to the miracle of motion-capture technology. Yet he manages to forge some essence of a presence from that.
Quite the shape shifter, Neeson has again altered his huge form to fit two very distinct yet oddly connected roles. For both features, the 6’4” actor plays characters who undergo profound transformation.
In Silence he transforms his body and in A Monster Calls, he’s transformed through motion-capture and animation. Neeson said of the physical overhauls: “For Silence, Martin wanted all of us to drop some weight. I thought, “Okay, a good start is to give up the carbs. And some of the boys, Adam [Driver] dropped 51 pounds or so he told me. I managed [to drop] 16 or 17. That helped to physically prepare us. Denying yourself which was very appropriate for this Jesuit film. Denial’s very important.”
Neeson tells me he took on the unusual role of voicing a tree in A Monster Calls because the ‘script just kept haunting me when I finished it…I thought there would be something more to this. I knew it was motion-capture, which I’d never done before, and I’d only seen the extraordinary Andy Serkis stuff—my God, Gollum! King Kong!”
Neeson wound up enjoying the process after a disconcerting beginning: “It was great because I was working with [co-star] Lewis, the director [J.A. Bayona] and five computer nerds in a space they called The Volume, with 70 cameras going around and up there. You’re in the middle doing your thing dressed in a onesie, with ping pong balls… it’s totally ridiculous.
“They’re all connected to sensors and the computer nerds are giving you digital makeup and there’s a camera here [pointing to his face]. Lewis was off-camera, so I’d be acting to a little puppet the size of a little doll, and a house about that size, just to get the perspective right. And I’m thinking, ‘What the f*** am I doing?’ But after the first day, I gradually got into it.
“I was supposed to be 40 feet tall. It was a new experience for me.” As if that weren’t strange enough, Neeson had to compete with a child actor firing on all cylinders: “Lewis was emoting all the time. This kid was giving a range of emotion that Shakespeare doesn’t even demand from Hamlet.”
Acclaimed for a plethora of films, the Northern Ireland native won an Oscar nom for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and then morphed into an action hero through his trio of Taken thrillers among others.
Along the way Neeson did Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins biopic, Breakfast On Pluto and Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, all the time playing characters with either Catholic or Celtic roots, as warriors or priests or both.
So with both new films, especially A Monster Calls, he fell into step. Its writer Ness had spoken about the tree from which Neeson’s character springs and that it had a mythic Celtic quality about it. He says: “Well, I’m a big [on] legends, and a mythological fan—the yew tree is certainly in Irish culture is and British culture too; it’s a very, very powerful tree,” he says. “Mischievous, but it has incredible healing qualities. There’s one, I think, in Wales that’s supposed to be six thousand years old. It’s still alive somewhere in South Wales. They’re really very special trees.”
He likes watching over children. As well as A Monster Calls he’s saved kids in the Taken trilogy as well as The Chronicles of Narnia series where he voiced the lion Aslan. Does he draw upon his own experience as a father of two children (his wife Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident in 2009]?
His voice softens as he replies:“Well you just do but not consciously. Since I’m a dad of two boys I realized when my first son was born that everything I did afterwards, even tying my shoelaces, is informed by the fact that you’re a Dad. You don’t act it in a different way, but though you do everything exactly the same, [somehow] you are different.”
Of course given the timing, there was another special connection between Liam and the film’s mom, Felicity Jones (though they didn’t work together in any scenes in A Monster Calls. They’re both connected to the Star Wars franchise (Jones stars in Rogue One that also came out this month).
Yet when the discussion turns to Star Wars, he’s initially not keen to elaborate on the awakening of the force. “Done it, been there, have that T-shirt,” he says laughing. But did Neeson, who starred in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode One—The Phantom Menace, give Jones any advice about what it’s like to step into that world? “No, none at all,” he replies. “We didn’t [speak about it]. But I’m trying to think, did we…?”
He asks that as if speaking to only himself before then opting to talk about Star Wars after all: “[If we had discussed Star Wars] I would have said to her if she were here now: ‘Listen, all this junket stuff you have to do, well, it’s what we have to do.’ It’s fine, great, because you want people to see your movie, but just try and keep a bit of mystery. I’m so sick of seeing or reading about actors or actresses, [where] you’re saying, ‘Oh I wish I hadn’t read that.’
Neeson adds: “Just keep a bit of the mystery. I think audiences [want that] too. Deep down, they don’t want to know all the answers—what you had for breakfast and all the rest of it.”
He’s certainly doing his bit to not let us see the wood from the monster trees.