Flying to a new career high

LONDON - A few years ago, Oscar nominee Liam Neeson did a movie that he thought would go straight to video. Instead, Taken (2008), about a retired CIA agent who rescues his kidnapped daughter, reinvented him as an action star.

"I am surprised," he says of his transformation. "I was working away comfortably and it was fine, then I took myself off to France for three months for this Taken film that I was convinced was going straight to video.

"But they made this thing and I saw it and thought actually it was a kick-a** little thriller. Then Twentieth Century Fox took it and made a huge success out of it, showed it at all these sporting events.

"It had this extraordinary life then, and people started seeing me in a different pigeonhole. Suddenly, I was sent a lot of action scripts." He laughs and adds: "I love it, it's great. As long as my knees hold up, it'll be fine."

Neeson, 61, has appeared in plenty of action roles over the years - including Batman Begins (2005) and Rob Roy (1995) - but there has been a proliferation since the unlikely success of Taken in 2008, which took more than US$225 million at the worldwide box office.

Since Taken's surprise success, directors have queued to cast him in action roles, and he has subsequently featured in the likes of The A-Team (2010), The Grey (2011) and Taken 2 (2012).

His latest is Non-Stop, a fast-paced action thriller set entirely on board an aircraft. He plays a United States federal air marshal, who while in the air receives a series of threatening text messages, stating that a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a bank account.

"Non-Stop felt very different and it was a really good script," he says. "It was very Agatha Christie-esque - it keeps you guessing.

"Audiences nowadays are very intuitive and clued-in and quick to guess who the bad guy is. But with this I found the whole story tense and interesting and it was great to work with Jaume again."

Spaniard Jaume Collet-Serra directs the film, having worked with Neeson on the 2011 movie Unknown, a thriller where the actor played a man who discovers his identity has been stolen.

Collet-Serra says: "Shooting action in tight places presents a technical challenge that pays off exponentially because people feel they are much closer to the action. The audiences feel like they're on this plane, and the action involves them and feels like it's happening all around them.

"You can do a lot of car and motorcycle chases, but having fights happen around you in a tight space is much more intense."

Sharing the intensity with Neeson are Julianne Moore and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery, both of whom play prominent supporting roles. It is Neeson's second film with Moore, following their 2009 drama Chloe, and the acclaimed actress offers an interesting insight into his success as an action star.

"People are always asking Liam about being an action hero," says Moore, "but he has a wonderful sensitivity and humanity that you feel in everything he does. When you combine that quality of his with this heroic genre, it's really appealing. I think that's why people respond so well."

Neeson is more self-deprecating in his assessment - he does not see himself as an action hero at all.

"The secret to making a great action hero? You need a good script," he says. "You have to make it very plausible.

"And the thing that I admire about heroes in general is when they don't know they are capable of acts of bravery, but they just do them. They put themselves in the line of fire and didn't plan it."

He cites as an example his character from one of his most celebrated films, Steven Spielberg's 1993 drama Schindler's List, which earned Neeson his sole Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. "I like heroes who rise to the challenge, even though they're flawed characters. Oskar Schindler springs to mind because he was a second-rate businessman, a very shifty character, but he saved more than 200 lives."

In April, he will start production on Taken 3 and he recently wrapped on the action thriller Run All Night with the Non-Stop director Collet-Serra.

Also on Neeson's plate: a comedic Western, A Million Ways To Die In The West, from Seth MacFarlane, creator of animated series Family Guy and the hit feature film Ted (2012).

"It's set in Santa Fe where we shot it," Neeson says. "It's about all the crazy things that can happen to you - how you could have died in the Wild West, which we kind of over-romanticise. Seth takes the pi** out of it all."

The actor says he is fond of Family Guy, thanks to his two sons, Michael, 19, and Daniel, 18.

"The kids introduced me to it and I like the humour," he says. "Seth's so talented - he stars in it, he wrote it and produced it. He's a very smart and cool guy. I loved working with him. He said he's going to put me in Ted 2."

Neeson, who was born in Ballymena in Northern Ireland, is certainly one of the hardest working actors around.

He enjoyed a recent cameo in Anchorman 2, and has signed on for a role in Martin Scorsese's next picture, Silence, opposite The Amazing Spider-Man's Andrew Garfield and Japanese star Ken Watanabe.

He moves from project to project with alacrity.

His career, he says, provides a tonic and a focus following the tragedy he suffered in 2009 when his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident. She was 45 years old.

It was a shattering turn of events, which Neeson recently spoke about on US television show 60 Minutes, recalling how he had to switch off his wife's life-support machine.

"I was told she was brain-dead," he says on camera, "and I went in to her and I just told her I loved her. I said, 'You've banged your head. I don't know if you can hear me but this is what's gone down and we are bringing you back to New York and your family and friends will come,' and that was more or less it.

"She and I had made a pact that if either of us got into a vegetative state, we'd pull the plug. So when I saw her and saw all these tubes and stuff, that was my immediate thought, 'Okay, these tubes have to go. She's gone.'"

He met Richardson, daughter of Oscar-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave and producer-director Tony Richardson, while shooting the film Nell (1994) and they married in 1994.

He says that even today, he still finds it hard to accept that she is gone.

"There are periods now in our New York residence when I hear the door opening," he adds, "especially the first couple of years.

"Anytime I hear that door opening, I still think I'm going to hear her."

Still, life goes on and he somehow manages to keep his humour about him.

In relation to the aviation theme of his new movie Non-Stop, he recounts an episode where he had a three-hour wait for his connecting flight.

He was not an executive club member with the airline he was taking, but he thought he would ask if he could spend the layover in the clubhouse anyway.

"I went to the airline desk and asked if I could possibly use the club," he begins. "I knew the women recognised me and she looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I'm sorry, we don't make any exceptions.'"

He was disappointed but had no wish to cause a scene. "I went and sat down," he continues. "It was fine and I just buried my head in a book.

"Then, when we were about to board the plane," he says, a hint of joy beginning to infuse his words, "I was in the line and they were checking the tickets. She was there and she says, 'Excuse me, Mr Neeson, would you mind signing this for my kids?'

"And I said to her, 'I'm terribly sorry, I don't make any exceptions.'

"Her face reddened, but I thought it was fair enough."

Non-Stop is now showing.

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