By Anthony Haden-Guest
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Never quite the leading man, Liam Neeson finally has the big time in his sights as the star of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler's List.
The award-winning photographer and film producer Mary Ellen Mark travels the world in her quest to take pictures that reflect a high degree of humanism. Her work is published internationally. Of the actor Liam Neeson she says: 'It is a pleasure to work with someone who is so focused. He makes the job easy. And he is so good-looking.'
“It’s a place where every actor wants to be, to have a bit of clout.”
Even for showbiz it was abrupt. On a Sunday night in February last year the curtain came down on the Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, the leads, were swamped in one of those sentimental ovations that are peculiar to the last night of a serious hit "Most of the cast had family members there,' Neeson said. The closing party included a young woman who had seen the show 11 times.
On Monday morning, after a little sleep and much last-minute packing, Neeson said goodbye to Richardson--the lead player in his private life, too--and flew to Poland. At 5:30 the next morning he was standing at the gates of Auschwitz, dressed to the nines, for one of the year's most coveted roles: Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg's movie Schindler's List. "I suddenly felt: 'Oh my God! This is like doing repertory theatre back in Belfast," said Neeson. "You know, O'Casey one night and Ibsen the next Then I had the sneaky thought: Am I up to this ?' It was like going from an incredible high to the most appalling low, from the sublime to the horrible."
Certainly it is a meaty part. The movie is taken from the factually based novel Schindler's Ark, by Thomas Keneally. Schindler was a German entrepreneur, as hungry for money as he was for pretty women and the good life. He arrived in Krakow, Poland, to make his fortune during the war. Wearing a Nazi pin, he got into the good graces of the Nazi bigwigs by plying them with black-market goods and secured huge manufacturing contracts, which he fulfilled at a factory manned by Jewish slave labour. He also saved those Jews--1100 of them--from the gas chamber, and was honoured by Israel before his death, in 1974, as a "righteous Gentile'.
A bitter-sweet plum of a part for Liam Neeson, though he had to wait until that evening, after Spielberg had finished shooting a major sequence, before he stood in front of the cameras. 'We got to the scene at five o'clock and the light was fading fast," Neeson said. "There were millions of things going through my head. It was my first time in costume. And there were silly little things. Like I had wonderful Church's shoes on. I picked them. I always seem to work from the feet up. I like good shoes that have a nice click--certainly with this guy, because he was German and I could kind of hear the sound his feet would make,. As silly as that seems. But the ground was slick with frost. They were slipping and sliding all over the place. It was an analogy of what I was feeling. I just couldn't get a grip."
This sequence, though shot early in the schedule, falls towards the end of the film, and the Schindler whom Neeson was playing at that point was a changed man, saving children from the gas. Neeson had decided to show Schindler at his most persuasively charming: "I thought Schindler should be at his most suave there. And then maybe just a shake as he pulls out a cigarette, like: 'Jesus, I pulled it off !" But Spielberg would have none of it: he was, in fact, impassioned by the story. "Steven comes up and says Schindler is so angry, so angry, that he should just rip this guy's head off' ("This guy" being the actor playing the Nazi-in-charge.) "So I thought, Well, I better,' Neeson said, reasonably. Shooting progressed.
Schindler's List is a strong, wrenching movie. And it leaves the 41-year-old Irish actor poised to join that coterie of actors who can give their nod to a major movie, like Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and--the honorary dame--Julia Roberts. Or so they are telling Liam Neeson. He is having a hard time believing it, though. He has, you see, been close before--close enough to taste it--and not just once, either.
There are actors, from Woody Allen to Schwarzenegger, who seem much the same on screen and off. You look at them and the same machinery is pumping. Others, like Robert De Niro and Sir Alec Guinness, when not actually filling up a character, seem to prefer to idle along in neutral. I met up with Liam Neeson in the bar of a Manhattan hotel - one of those almost-Mayfair haunts with green walls, a fireplace and leather-bound books on shelves behind a grille--and found him, for all his six foot four inches, very much in the latter category and rather self-effacing. He has a pleasant, slightly inward manner and resembles, with his blue work-shirt, cords--and light--tweed jacket, a cross between a schoolmaster and a television sports presenter. He does not look one bit like that elegant, magnetic lover of wine and women, Oskar Schindler.
Liam Neeson comes from Ballymena, a small town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The family was Catholic in mostly Protestant territory and his parents both worked in the school system. He remains close to his three sisters. At Queen's University, Belfast, he studied physics, maths and geology. He was there in 1971/72 and made heavy weather of it. "Physics I liked very much," he said. "But I just lost all willpower to work. I was catatonic for a year. And the only saving grace was doing some amateur dramatics with a Belfast group. We did Under Milk Wood, Johnny Belinda..”
This, of course, was when the Troubles, after decades of quiescence, had come flaring forth anew, but Neeson had been "very much a loner" at university. He soon discovered just how much of a loner. "I was at a physics lecture one Monday morning:' he said. "There were very few people there. I thought, 'Oh, the students have been partying. There's been some huge party and everybody has a hangover.”
'After the lecture I was walking back to the halls of residence. There was no one on the streets. I thought that was weird - there were always flocks of students around. I was walking merrily along with my briefcase and I saw this group of placard-carrying students. They all surrounded me. I was mortified. I felt, “Why am I being singled out?' The placards said, 'SCAB! STUDENTS - STAY AWAY FROM UNIVERSITY:' Bloody Sunday in Derry had occurred the day before. I remember feeling totally ignorant and selfish. And, having had a cosseted childhood, based on amateur dramatics and amateur boxing, it had a real effect on me. Then I bought some books on the history of my country.
"I'll never forget that feeling. Just helplessness. And shortly after that I felt university life wasn't for me …'
Neeson had been an enthusiastic heavyweight boxer, as his nose bears witness. "I broke it when I was 15," he said. "It was fixed in the corner by my own trainer." But he knew that boxing was not where his future lay. "I just didn't have the killer instinct" After flunking out of university, jobs included driving a fork-lift for a brewery and manning a photocopier for a building firm. He had reached the end of his tether at that particular job when he called the Lyric Players, Belfast, looking for work. It just so happened they were looking for somebody who was 6ft-plus for a part in a forthcoming production. Neeson was finally in the theatre, legit. That was 1976.
A couple of years later he ran into a small theatre troupe at the Dublin Theatre Festival. The upshot was that they did David Rabe's Vietnam play, Streamers. It was his performance in this that led to his being signed to Dublin's venerable Abbey Theatre, and it was his performance as Lenny in the Abbey's Of Mice And Men that in turn led to the director John Boorman's decision to cast him as Sir Gawain in his Arthurian extravaganza, Excalibur.
Excalibur was not actually Neeson's first movie role. He had already appeared as Jesus Christ in a Billy Graham production. "I wore a false beard. And a wig. Apparently it's still doing the rounds in mission halls in Africa and Egypt;' he said. But Excalibur was his first real movie. "I thought John made a really wonderful film for $5m. The characters were cardboard cutouts, but to tell that huge epic you had to get on with it. It's still showing at places like the Brixton Ritzy. It's become a cult."
Neeson returned from the set to the stage straight away. In 1980 he joined Field Day, the touring Irish company set up by the actor Stephen Rea and the playwright Brian Friel. He moved to London, went into a production of Friel's play, Translations, at the National and began getting a fair amount of television work. “American production companies were coming into England then," he said. "They were shooting lots of mini-series and I did a few of those. But then it just started to dry-up.”
At this stage Neeson began to think seriously about moving to America. "I'd got the film bug from working with John Boorman. I wanted to do more.” He had already had small parts in a couple of British productions, most notably as a Jesuit priest, alongside Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, in The Mission, a vivid saga of religious zealotry and colonial savagery in 16th-century South America. "I only had a few lines, but I had a good death.”
Neeson's first trip to the States, where The Mission had garnered respectful reviews but done little business, was what he calls "a recce visit out to LA" in 1985. A couple of young agents had shown interest "But they said, 'There's nothing we can do with you sitting in London. You have to come out.' So there came this point, you know. I remember sitting in my little flat in Stockwell. It was one of those grey November or December days in London when the sun never seems to shine and it gets dark at three o'clock in the afternoon. And I thought: 'To hell with this! I've got to do something.”
"So I made a pit stop in New York to see a couple of actors who were in The Mission. I was only there for four days, and was quite happy walking around the streets, being a tourist." But the friend with whom he was staying, Robert De Niro, suggested he meet a couple of casting directors he was friendly with. The meetings were low key. "I was on a kind of holiday. I wasn't trying to impress or anything," Neeson said.
One of the casting directors was working with the then huge hit show, Miami Vice. She called the day Neeson was leaving and said she had the script of the opening episode for the coming season. "She said the main character is this Irish playboy who's secretly out to blow up Concorde, and one of the girl cops in the show falls in love with him. She said, 'if you don't get this part I'm quitting my job. That was how she put it."
Neeson returned to London, sent back copies of his reviews so the application for an H1 performance visa could be made on his behalf, and duly nabbed the part. He flew over and was put up at the Alexander Hotel, Miami Beach. "The bellboy took my bag and opened the door of my suite," he said. "You know how they open the blinds and show you the fridge and switch on the TV? And as he switched on the television, my face appeared on the screen. This huge close-up. It was a mini-series called Ellis Island that I'd done a couple of years previous to that. He said, 'Señor.. .. por favor...' He was dumbstruck. For some reason I thought this was a good omen."
“I started becoming a real cynic, not trusting the film community any more.”
At the end of the three-week shoot Neeson returned to London, cleared out his flat, put it on the market and left for California. It is piquant to note that it was not his kudos at the Abbey or the National but a stint in the pastel Armani heaven of Miami Vice that gingered up the actor into making this jump.
Neeson arrived in Los Angeles in January, 1986. Money was tight "I literally was able to stay five or six weeks tops," he said. "I was at this little hotel on Hollywood Boulevard." Here he was just another hungry actor: "They come in by the busload, wanting to be stars' And most of the busloads were somewhat younger. Neeson's plus was that, unlike the others, he knew how to act. He also had energetic agents.
"The first two weeks I was just out on casting calls. I was a stranger in town and I was really surprised by the welcoming attitude. I was called in on an ABC movie-of-the-week. It was a very good part, a serial killer, a case that actually happened in the 1970s. And I got it! So I was able to stay on in LA for a few more months. It's funny how work breeds work, because Peter Yates got in touch with me."
Yates, the veteran British director (Bullitt, Breaking Away, The Dresser), gave Neeson a part in a movie called Suspect. The female lead was Cher, and Yates told Neeson he wanted him for one of the male leads. It was a challenge: a deaf-mute wildman of the streets. "Peter said, 'It's going to be a battle, getting you into it." But there he was, in Los Angeles, and he was called to a meeting in the 30th-floor office of an executive of the production company, Tri-Star. "I met this man and he said, 'Peter really wants you in. Do you like this part ?'I said, 'Yeah, I love it. I'd love to be able to do it: He said, 'Okay. Good. Thanks.'
"And that was the end of the meeting. Peter said, 'That's the greatest thing that could have happened the fact that you were in LA, so this guy could just see your face.' He said, 'If you'd been living in Ireland or London there's no way they would have flown you over.” So then I saw that this really was the place I should be."
Neeson's next lead was in 1988. He played opposite Diane Keaton in The Good Mother, a film taken from the novel by Sue Miller. The story is that he and a previously repressed divorcee (played by Keaton) with a bubbly six-year-old daughter are having a "liberated relationship'. But Keaton's ex learns that the Neeson character--in an excess of (off-screen) liberalism--has allowed the little girl to touch his private parts. The father brings a custody suit. Keaton offers to give Neeson up, but loses anyway.
At the time there were those who said that it was a "courageous" role for Neeson to take. Neeson pooh-poohed this. "I think the film could have been a bit more courageous, if anything' he said. "In the book the character actually gets an erection."
"It was interesting. I had a lot of letters from single mums, opening their hearts out. And their sense of anger at the judge's decision." He added, with a touch of glumness: "I understood why she would give me up for the sake of keeping her child. I didn't terribly agree with it, but I understood it' Neeson's forehead was corrugated. He was actually fretting about something that happened to a character he played in a movie six years ago.
The Good Mother got respectful reviews but, again, did little business. Films that followed included an unexpected dud, High Spirts, directed by Neil Jordan (who would do rather better with The Crying Game) and Darkman, an offering for the Batmaniac market, which became a cultish hit, but was not exactly a career-builder for Neeson because he spent most of the movie with his face apparently caked with melted mozzarrella. He then returned to his roots for the part of a bare-knuckle boxer in the British movie The Big Man.
But then he went up for a part in Shining Through. This was an ambitious player's dream. Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas, two audience--pulling stars, had already been cast as a couple who go underground in Nazi German. The third lead was a Nazi, and everybody was up for it. "It was a ferocious casting session," Neeson remembers. "I think they tested every really good British actor. I think they even tested David Bowie. It was like casting Rhett Butler or something. So I got that, and I was thrilled. I did think it would be a good film. And that it would be commercial. As it turned out, the film wasn't as good as the script. That happens:' He was seized by a fit of retrospective melancholy.
So there the magic failed, but soon after came an equally propitious vehicle, Leap Of Faith, with Steve Martin, playing a sleazy Bible-thumper of a miracle worker, and Debra Winger. This time Neeson felt so confident that he disburdened himself in an interview with American Elle: "I did Leap Of Faith for very political reasons' he told the interviewer. "I realised that the way to crack Hollywood is to do a successful box-office film. This has a $30m budget and it's slated to be a Paramount blockbuster' The picture bombed.
After these two blockbuster wannabes, Neeson went into two "small" pictures. The first was Woody Allen's Husbands And Wives, in which he was one of a quintet of players including Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. That sour metropolitan comedy finished shooting on a Thursday and the following Monday he was in Vermont, in thick snow, beginning work on a movie version of Edith Wharton's iron-thewed rural tragedy, Ethan Frome. The Allen movie soon got lost in the real-life hubbub surrounding Allen and Farrow. Ethan Frome (to be released in Britain later this year) is a gem, as hard and beautiful as that suggests, and Neeson is formidable in it. But his strength is that of a character actor, not a movie star.
The irony is this: the klieg light of publicity that has been inattentive to Neeson's professional career has begun over the last couple of years to focus on his private life. His fame as a womaniser seems to have started when he went out with Julia Roberts. Since then his name has been mentioned in tandem with various famous faces who, as he put it, "need the publicity like a hole in the head' Neeson is irritated at the way interviewers sooner or later get on to this, like water glugging down the plughole of a bath, but he should not be surprised. Hollywood is a forest of icons; there is a hunger for a replacement for that Lover Emeritus, Warren Beatty, and it sure isn't going to be Rob Lowe.
But is it Liam Neeson? Not all the clichés about womanisers are true. For example, they do not necessarily dislike women. What is often true is that they are collectors, show-offs, more interested in conquest--usually fairly public--than in possession. Liam Neeson doesn't fit the bill. Neeson loves women.
"It's like, how do you live without your left leg?" he explained. "They are part of my life and always have been. Like my sisters. I was always attracted to the mystery of women. They were just much more interesting. They can talk about anything; they can change in a heartbeat. They can talk dead seriously with somebody then suddenly become very, very frivolous. I've always found it fascinating ... I don't see myself as a womanizer.'
He has, he said, few male friends, at least in Los Angeles. "I have one. Tim Roth. A British actor.' Of the other LA Brits he sees less. "I want to avoid those cliques. I'm not interested in meeting up every Sunday to play cricket. I like to keep on my own.'
Indeed Neeson began finding Los Angeles insupportable. "I started becoming a real cynic," he said. "I found myself not trusting the film community any more. If I read something good I would get a flash of, 'My God! That's really good!' But once the flash left it would be replaced by, “Well, of course, I'm not going to get it. It'll go to Richard Gere or somebody. What's the point of even going to the meeting?” I was stabbing myself.
"But part of my problem in LA was that I didn't interact with the community. I kept to myself. I was too sceptical about going to a party or to somebody's house for dinner where there'd be illustrious people from the industry because I'd think, “Well, I don't know why I'm being invited. Maybe they might think I'm after a job if I go.” I had these ridiculous notions in my head. So inevitably I'd decide to stay home and watch TV or read a book.
It was Natasha Richardson who talked him into doing Anna Christie on Broadway. "She was one of the producers' he said. "It was wonderful. That whole process just rejuvenated me, It gave me back some kind of feeling of worth as a performer, made me realise why I wanted to be an actor in the first place." It was also during the run of the play that Steven Spielberg called and offered Neeson the lead in Schindler's List.
Poldek Pfefferberg, who is portrayed in the movie as a dauntless young black-marketeer, and who personally acted as consultant on the film, described to Neeson how the project began: "Pfefferberg had a luggage shop in Beverly Hills, and Thomas Keneally came in to buy a bag.' said Neeson. Pfefferberg, now called Page, bounced out of his office upon hearing Keneally's Australian accent and talked to him while his credit card was being verified.
Keneally, due to return to Australia the following day, was by no means the first writer Pfefferberg/Page had buttonholed. He had been trying to interest writers in the marvelous doings of Oskar Schindler for years. Kenneally cancelled his flight, and listened as the luggage-store owner talked non-stop, buttressing his story with photographs and documentation for 24 hours. Kenneally's book was published in 1982 and became a bestseller. Spielberg acquired the rights soon after and started filming even before post-production was finished on Jurassic Park.
What next, then, for Liam Neeson? "I honestly don't know. I'm not a great planner. There's a couple of projects I'm interested in. It's a place every actor and actress wants to be, to have a choice, have a bit of clout.
"There's a part of me that thinks it's not going to happen, too. I say that to myself, maybe just to keep well and truly grounded. But I'm constantly being lectured about it. They say, 'Look, you may never get another moment like this. Just go with it! Enjoy it!"
"There is a tide in the affairs of men,"I quoted. "Grab luck by the scruff.” Neeson laughed and countered with Robert Burns: "And also 'The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley.” Of course, it was his part in Of Mice And Men that got him into the movie business in the first place .