In his fifth major film release this year, Liam Neeson delivers a riveting performance in Scott Frank’s fast-paced thriller, A Walk Among the Tombstones, adapted from Lawrence Block’s best-selling series of mystery novels. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a disgraced ex-NYPD cop turned private investigator operating outside the law who’s approached by a heroin trafficker (Dan Stevens) to find the men (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) who brutally kidnapped and murdered his wife. Opening September 19th, the crime drama also stars Boyd Holbrook, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Sebastian Roché, Mark Consuelos, and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson.
At the film’s recent press day, Neeson revealed why he’s attracted to these larger than life roles, how he draws his inspiration from cinematic heroes like Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, the appeal of playing a character like Scudder, his research and preparation for the part, what it was like shooting the opening flashback that establishes his character, the careful choreography that goes into every stunt sequence, why he enjoys doing action movies at this point in his career, how he keeps in shape as a global action star, his thoughts on the awards process, and why he’s proud of his work in The Grey. Check out the interview after the jump.
Question: You play these larger than life roles so well and yet it always seems they’re based on people and events that could happen in real life. What is it about these types of characters that attracts you?
LIAM NEESON: I was always attracted to that type of cinema hero as an adolescent growing up in Ireland. Robert Mitchum springs to mind. Later on, it was Steve McQueen to a certain extent and Charles Bronson. They’re these types of grizzled characters who had one foot on the side of law and order and the other foot in the bad guy’s camp. I was treading a very delicate line. It’s great to get a chance to do that. I’m glad you think they’re real because that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s not superhero time. There’s something very noble and damaged about those sorts of American cinematic [icons]. They were heroes. I just find them very appealing.
How did you hope to give this guy a different spin that would make him someone you’d want to play?
NEESON: It was great to get the chance to do this which was very much one of those sorts of characters that’s not good in the relationship role and tortured. In Matt Scudder’s case, of course, he’s a recovering alcoholic. Those guys wake up in the morning, and they have to think of a reason to get up, and then, once they’re up, to not have a drink. It’s like all these little heroic battles they have that they fight with and against every day of their lives. Scott brought that out very beautifully in the film. Scudder is not larger than life. He’s just one of us really. But his career was in the police force. These guys see a side of humanity that we just don’t want to know about on a daily basis.
NEESON: Scott said that? Well he would, he’s a writer. Yes, Scott had mentioned that to me when we met in the early days. I wanted to find some kind of a research I could do other than reading Larry’s (Lawrence Block) book. I know some policemen in the N.Y.P.D., one of whom I know very, very well. I was able to get access to documentaries on serial killers – not just the crimes they committed, but the police work that went into tracking them down, which was very, very fascinating. This tiny little minutia of evidence they would find and put together with this. Do they connect? Oh my God, it does connect. That was fascinating. I thought Scudder has done that and has done it on a continual basis. And maybe, unbeknownst to himself, it brings out the good in him, because I think he is a good, righteous, old-fashioned kind of man. He has certain pillars of ethics of behavior that would never change. Even though he’s fucked up in lots of ways, he’s essentially a good man.
You do a lot of thrillers. Your character is always a hero, but you’re just playing a normal guy in this film and you’re so wonderful at it. Is there a reason why you choose these characters?
NEESON: I appreciate the compliment. I really do. Thank you. Look, I was in my fifties when this Taken film came out. I was sure it was just a straight to video good little European thriller, well made. Fox Studios took it and did this amazing sell job and showed the trailer at big sporting events, and the film became a hit, and I started getting sent these action scripts in my fifties. It was very flattering. I felt like a kid in a toy shop. And why not do them? But I didn’t want to try and become like a 27-year-old. I try in some of these fight scenes to fight as a 50-year-old, even though I’m 62. (Laughs) You know what I mean? So it’s not superhero time.
NEESON: No. I don’t think so. No man is an island, as they say. No. I’ve tried it. I’ve gone on retreats at various times in my life for three or four or five days. I was desperate to get out of there and talk to somebody. But I fly fish a lot, and I can only do that really by myself. I find I’m never lonesome when I’m on a river, far from it, but it’s a lonely practice.
You’ve got some great action scenes in this. You take a couple hits. You get a bloody nose in one scene. Do you like doing those action scenes and is there a way that you keep yourself safe?
NEESON: I do love doing them. I have a great fight coordinator, Mark Vanselow, and he’s my stunt double, too. We’ve done 16 films now. We work very, very closely with each other. I don’t do my own stunts, but I do my own fighting. I love doing that stuff. That’s always fun to do. In this film, it’s important to make it real. It’s not that cinema fight stuff. We wanted to make it very dark and gruesome and ugly. You don’t know where punches are coming from, which is the way it would be in real life.
Did you get any bumps and bruises?
NEESON: No, I didn’t. Occasionally, you get a few knocks, a slap on the arm. That’s all.
NEESON: I keep pretty fit in life. I step up the regime a little bit a couple of months before we start. I do a whole mixture of stuff. It’s not strictly this regime or that regime. I do a lot of power walking. I use a lot of kettlebells. Do you know what they are? Those things are great. Making a film, you do need stamina, whether you’re doing fight scenes or not. They’re long days, especially. A Walk Among the Tombstones was seven or eight weeks of night shoots, so you do need stamina for that work. It’s important to keep fit. I’m not talking about having perfect abs and stuff, but you’ve got to be on top of your game, especially if you’re playing the lead. You have to be there and be committed. That takes stamina. You have to look after yourself.
I loved that flashback scene, not only your look, because you had that great hair, but also…
NEESON: Yeah, and it was all my own, too. (Laughs) It was so great.
It was awesome hair. What I really liked about that scene was how it establishes why your character is where he is at this point. Can you talk a little bit about doing that extended scene that we keep coming back to during the film?
NEESON: We shot it in two or three days. We had access to an area north of the city, north of Manhattan. We had that whole set of steps where the bad guy falls down. That was on a Saturday. We shot the bar scene during that week. It was only two to three days of the wig and all this stuff. I wanted to avoid that classic drunk. You know, that’s really hard to act, to do a drunk. But a functioning drunk, that’s a different thing. I tried to do a little thing. I hope it’s in the film. I haven’t seen it now for some time. But when I follow the bad guy, when I come out of the bar, I’m like, “Ah fuck, this is great. Bang!” But he’s got at least four whiskeys in him. And then, that leads to the carelessness and this horrible death. So, there’s Action Jackson stuff, but it was very, very carefully choreographed, and certainly Scott was at great pains to [make sure] – even if I ran — just how I would run. Would I run a straight line? Would I be a bit squiggly after having these few drinks? I thought no, this guy’s done this for years. He’d run absolutely in a straight line, but in his head, it might be a bit squiggly. Anyway, that was that.
One of my favorite movies is The Grey which I think is a cinematic masterpiece, but it was ignored during awards season. And then, a film like A Walk Among the Tombstones may be put aside just because it has action elements. Do you get frustrated when great movies sometimes get ignored?
NEESON: Well, the whole awards thing is… Listen, I think they’re great. Why? Because the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards, they put a focus on the industry, and that focus translates into people buying tickets to see movies or download films, legitimately download them. And it keeps us all at work. So I’m a big fan of award shows. But it takes a helluva lot of money to mount a campaign for any film. With a picture like The Grey that came out January or February, and then the closing date for that year’s consideration is December, it takes a lot of money to remind an audience again, to put a film out again. They did with The Grey. They showed it in a couple of theaters here in L.A. It’s okay. It’s not really frustrating, but it’s… What was it Lauren Bacall said? “It’s a great medium, lousy business.” It’s alright. It’s always been that way. The reward is just doing the work, and I think The Grey is a lovely film. I’m very, very proud of it, whether it wins awards or not, so it doesn’t matter.
Your schedule has been packed and you’ve had a lot of projects recently. How do you balance all the work with your personal life and spending time with the kids?
NEESON: Oh yeah, I’ve got two kids. I forgot. (Laughs) I must call them. Listen, I have a great support team. I really do. I have a fantastic family. If I’m away on a project, my mother-in-law moves in. It’s like chess pieces. But yeah, it’s always a balance. I’m very fortunate to get to play these characters at this stage of my life. I love doing it, and I’ll keep doing it as long as they keep sending me these scripts. My kids are used to it, like from when they were born. One of them was born on location. They’re used to Dad being away for certain periods of time. So far it’s worked out okay. It’s alright. They’re not damaged.
I spoke with your Taken co-star Maggie Grace about a week ago and asked her to sum you up in one word. She came up with “goofy.” How would you sum yourself up in one word?
NEESON: Goofy’s not bad. My daughter said that?
NEESON: Next time I’m going to give her away. Taken 4 will be Given. Please take her.
A Walk Among the Tombstones opens September 19th.