Over the decades, many actors have secured themselves as cinematic icons. To transcend the film screen and move into audiences’ hearts is no small feat. The hugely diverse Liam Neeson is one such actor and from Schindler’s List to Michael Collins to Star Wars to Taken, this is a man who is no stranger to diversity in terms of picking roles. His latest film is no exception and in A Monster Calls, Neeson takes on the role of a gigantic tree monster (in motion capture), only to help guide a young boy through a very difficult time. Neeson was kind enough to sit down with me and other members of the media in a very special roundtable interview. Here’s how that interview went:
What was it like working in motion capture?
I find it strange, certainly, for the first day. You know, it’s – you act in a, they call it a volume. Why they call it a volume, I have no idea, these computer people. It’s a space. I don’t know if you know the process, but seventy cameras in a circle, and then above you, there’s seventy cameras, and you’re in the middle. You’re acting your scenes, and the good thing is you don’t have to, you know, reset up for his point of view or her point of view, whatever. Everything is covered, you know? And Lewis [MacDougall] was there, and he was off to the side because I was acting to a puppet that size, just to get perspective, but Lewis, he was giving the full one hundred percent every time, and we weren’t able to look at each other obviously.
And yet you still had a great relationship on camera.
You know, that’s always…bit of that, let’s face it. But I’ve done a few movies with kids over the years, and he is very, very special because there was no – I wasn’t aware of him acting at all, and it was quite a revelation, you know. I’ve never experienced that before, actually, ever, from an actor, an actress, or a child.
And at fourteen.
Well, then he was twelve or thirteen. It was over two years ago. I did come away some days thinking, “I’m giving this up. This kid.” But seriously, he was going through like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the stuff he has to do, emotion-wise, you know? Phenomenal. Really phenomenal.
Was there a sense at any point, being a dad yourself, that you were wanting to protect him? Because he’s going through all of these really difficult, strong, hard emotions.
Yeah, I mean, that’s – I don’t know if you’re a father, but I remember my first one was born and somebody asked, “Has it changed you?” I don’t think – I’ve changed, but I know every time I put on a shirt, I boil a kettle, whatever I do is informed by the fact that I’m a father. So hopefully my acting is informed by the fact that I’m a father of two boys. I don’t do anything deliberately to be a dad with Lewis, for example, acting, but something obviously comes out, you know, in empathy, and it’s very easy to empathize with Lewis and this extraordinary story of this kid. He can’t talk to anybody. At the start of the film, you see him washing dishes and getting the laundry, and you think, this is a kid who’s having to manage by himself and nobody to talk to, really. It’s very sad, especially his mum is dying, and no one is confronting it.
Such a dark film in all the themes that are presented, but you play a tree. What was it like preparing? Was there any preparation for that?
Do you want the bullshit answer?
If we were in Los Angeles, I would say, “Well, I hung out with trees. There’s a famous forest in Ireland, and I laid naked every night.” But no, it was – I’m a big myths and legends fan, and the yew tree is always featured, certainly in Irish literature, fairy tales, and stuff. An ancient tree that is a healing tree, and J.A. Bayona showed me the sculpture bust of what he wanted this creature’s presence to look like. It’s nose was kind of broken in some way, and I thought, oh, that will inform the voice to a certain extent, how it breaths and stuff, if it’s got a busted nose. And Patrick’s book is just, you know, I rate it with the best of Oscar Wilde, his parables, his fairy tales, and certainly the Brothers Grimm. It’s amazing.
How did the novel come to you? Was it your manager?
The usual process. I think it was Bayona’s team wanted me, and my agent calls and says, “I’m sending you this book because they’re doing a movie version,” and I had seen The Orphanage, and I thought he’s quite special, and he works with the Pan’s Labyrinth people, and it’s like, wow, that’s a pretty special film. Multi-textured, you know?
When I heard that you were playing the monster – because my son really enjoyed the book – I thought, of course Liam Neeson would play the monster, because you are a big man, but you are – in every role, you show physical strength, but you also have a softness to you, and that’s what this monster has. It’s a big, overpowering figure but with a softness to it. Is it something that you just are that way and it comes across in all your roles?
I think it kind of comes across. You know, we all have an aura. Everybody in this room, we all have a different aura, and you know, you can be the best actor or actress, most chameleon-like, but that aura still comes across, I think, that you can never change. Well, I tell a lie. Some people can. Meryl can, for example, but it’s just, I think I have those qualities, and maybe they’re not qualities in some roles, but there’s nothing I can do about it, you know what I mean? And for this, I think it was a nice mix of who I am and my aura with the story, you know?
I’m not a film critic. I write about parenting, and so watching these movies, maybe I reflect on myself and my parenting. But you tell the boy these three tales and are sort of helping him through things. How do you – as a dad, were you more of a father that follow-my-example to teach or how did you teach your boys about life?
It’s an on-going thing, you know? Sometimes, being a parent by the seat of your pants. There’s so many books written about it, but at the end of the day, you have to trust this. We’ve been around – we came down from trees, like 150,000 years. We’re doing something right, and I’ve read all the books, and I’m sure you have too when you know you’re going to be a father for the first time. At the end of the day, you just have to scrap them, you know? So I’m still doing that. Parenting is difficult, especially in today’s age. We’re talking about how the world is changing. We have this buffoon who is going to be the president, and it’s like, what’s happened to America? I’m not trying to divert the conversation. I ended up saying to my publicist, who is about to have her first child, that I’m so glad that I’m not growing up now, you know? My boys are twenty and twenty-one. I’m so glad they’re not three and four. I mean, and Russia interfering with a process they recognize, I mean, what’s happening?
Raising a daughter in this election was not fun.
What age is your daughter?
She is ten, and she was with me when we saw this movie. We had two different reactions.
What did she react to?
Her reaction was, “Well, of course he was always going through all of these things. It’s a part of life.” And for me, I was like crying, sitting next to her, wanting to protect this boy, and here she is, this is a part of life.
So she empathized with what he was going through but realized – as a female too, a mother in years to come hopefully – she recognized that this was kind of okay. I’m sure she reacted emotionally as well, but maybe in front of you, she wanted to be stoic. Lewis’ character Conor does that too, you know? Especially with the monster, he’s like, “I’m not scared of you.” It’s great, it’s a reaction you don’t expect. Kids are always full of surprises.
So Liam, out of all the roles you’ve played over the years, is there a particular favorite?
Michael Collins, I’d have to say. That’s still my favorite. The Grey I’m very proud of too, and Schindler’s List, of course, but Steven made a wonderful film. I wouldn’t have cast me in it, but he made a wonderful film. Michael Collins is still my favorite.
Darkman, yeah, for – listen, every movie has a unique experience, sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but I always carry something positive away. Darkman was terrific, working with Sam Raimi.
A fun ride.
It was a fun ride, yeah, sure. Kind of a strange one. (laughter) Hours in the make-up chair, my gosh.
And Sam Raimi has a reputation for torturing his actors.
Yeah, he did a bit of torture, yeah, but he was like a little kid, you know? Always wore a shirt and tie. Respect for his crew and cast.
What do you hope that audiences take away from this film?
I think it’s a wonderfully entertaining film. It’s unusual, and it’s clichéd to say there are life lessons, but there actually are. There’s no absolute solutions to any of the stuff that the monster presents the kid with, these tales. They are on-going, and he’s basically saying that life is complex and human beings are complex. We’re never just black and white, but I certainly when I read the book for the first time, I put it down and I thought. It just kept haunting me in some way, you know, and the script did too, and hopefully the film will with people too. There’s something, I call them refrigerator questions. You come back from the cinema. You’ve seen the movie, and you’re going to the fridge, and you go, “Wait a minute, I don’t understand…” It’s always at the refrigerator.
So, you kind of just said that there was something that you got from every movie, something unique. What would you say it is for this one, the big thing that you took away from the role that is going to make it stick with you?
Well, the motion capture process was a bit intimidating for the first day, and working with Lewis. I mean, this boy is – the gamut of emotions he went through, I’m not even doing it justice. It’s extraordinary, and it wasn’t showing off. It wasn’t acting – well, of course it was acting – but just taking that experience with him and Bayona. The Impossible and certainly The Orphanage, he brings these performances out of these kids that is like Spielberg. I remember thinking Bayona is like Steven, he can just get these performances from these kids. You think of Drew Barrymore in E.T. and god! It’s extraordinary, that performance.
And some might compare this film to E.T.
I know what you mean. Steven does it, and J.A. does it too. I could see him huddled, and he’s a small little diminutive figure. I could see him huddled when we were doing our motion capture stuff with Lewis. Never once does he talk down to a child. That’s the big mistake. Talk to him as an equal and talking about the emotion he wanted to try and reach, and he would say, “Well, what about – maybe think of this, or what about if you tried it this way or don’t move so much,” or whatever it was, but they were really connected. Directors just don’t – hit the mark, say the line, thank you, go back to your trailer.
I know a lot of actors are very critical, but I read that you weren’t as thrilled with your performance in Schindler’s List as some other people are, with your amazing performance in that movie. Hearing your voice, are you as critical as seeing yourself?
There’s always a level of criticism that’s in tandem with, oh, I didn’t realize the camera was at that angle. I should have, I should have – you know, there’s little acting notes I’ve always given myself. With Schindler’s List, it was a bit more deeper than that because I never felt that I had a handle on – I never felt that there was enough Liam Neeson in that performance. I was doing what Steven wanted, and Steven had an idea that Schindler was Steve Ross, the head of Time-Warner, who I had never met. Steven was trying to help me, sending me tapes of Steve Ross talking and stuff, and then I thought, well, I’ve got two people to play, the Oskar Schindler and this guy Steve Ross. I don’t know what to do, so there’s ninety-five percent of my performance that is Steven. There’s a couple of things I think like, oh, I recognize the actor now doing something, but – and that’s not a criticism, that’s just the way it was twenty-two, twenty-three years ago now. I just felt a wee bit constricted. But we made an extraordinary film.