Liam Neeson on Working With Irish Pals in New Film and Why He Said Yes to ‘Naked Gun’ Sequel

Liam Neeson was 56 when his career took an unexpected detour into the action hero genre thanks to 2008’s Taken, a Pierre Morel-directed surprise blockbuster that raked in more than $226 million worldwide and kick-started a franchise. He’s kept up a respectable pace ever since, churning out high-octane thrillers one after the next — and he’s not ready to hang up his holster.

“Audiences are innately intelligent and they’ll know when you’re past your prime in regards to throwing punches and firing guns, but I’m not there yet,” explained Neeson over Zoom last week while discussing his newest film, In the Land of Saints and Sinners. The Samuel Goldwyn Films release casts Neeson, who will be 72 in June, as Finbar Murphy, a man leading a relatively quiet life in the remote coastal town of Glencolmcille, Ireland, in the 1970s. While he’s eager to leave a dark past behind, a menacing crew of terrorists arrives in the village, led by a ruthless woman, played by Banshees of Inisherin star Kerry Condon, forcing him to choose between revealing his secret identity or protecting his neighbors.

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The film, which premiered last fall at the Venice Film Festival, offered Neeson more than another chance to hold a gun. It delivered another chance to work with his The Marksman helmer Robert Lorenz and a huge bonus in being surrounded by a cast of high-profile Irish actors, many of whom he counts as close friends, including Ciarán Hinds and Colm Meaney. Neeson talks to The Hollywood Reporter about working with his longtime pals, how he came to sign on for the Naked Gun sequel and the upcoming film that also stars his mother-in-law, Vanessa Redgrave, whom he expects to “steal the whole movie.”

Let’s talk about Finbar Murphy, who is not a typical hitman. He reads Fyodor Dostoevsky and has a conscience. What appealed to you most about playing him?

It’s a shame, actually, that doesn’t he have a more Irish name, right? It was a chance to work with Rob Lorenz, again, who is terrific director. This is our second time out, and we’re actively looking for a third. It was also a chance to work with the brother that I never had, Ciarán Hinds; my oldest friend, Colm Meaney; Jack Gleeson; and the lovely Kerry Condon, she’s terrific. And I just thought it was a good, modern-day Western set up in the northwest of Ireland. It was a good shoot. Tom Stern, our director of photography, he was with me in Australia, and we’ve done four films together. He’s just quick and keeps a great pace. This film ticked all the boxes.

With all the Irish talent together, how does that impact the set?

Well, with these particular ones, Ciarán, Colm, Jack, Kerry and myself, we all leave our egos at the door. When you’re called to the set, you go. You don’t wait half an hour or 40 minutes like some actors and actresses do. We’re there to shoot the film, tell the story. Colm, I’ve known for 40 years, and Ciarán, 50 years. Egos are left at the door and we get on with it.

A still from Robert Lorenz's film In the Land of Saints and Sinners.
Ciarán Hinds (left) and Liam Neeson.

You mentioned the pace of filming, and I was thinking about the pace that you keep when it comes to turning out back-to-back movies. When you’re working, what are the rules you abide by to keep the trains moving so that you’re able to keep up that momentum?

You take the time where it’s needed, but the films that I do are the kind of fairly fast-paced thrillers. You shouldn’t be taking endless takes, you know what I mean? That can dampen down the energy on set, both in front of the camera and behind it, too. I’ve done shoots like that, and it’s like pulling teeth. I’ve been really lucky. Rob comes from the Clint Eastwood school of filming, having done, I don’t know, maybe 15 films together. Clint doesn’t hang around. I personally love that pace.

A still from Robert Lorenz's film In the Land of Saints and Sinners.
Jack Gleeson (left) and Liam Neeson.

You’ve obviously found a great partner in Rob, like you said, filming The Marksman, this movie and you said you’re looking for a third together. What is it about him?

He gets it. Obviously, the building block is the script and if it’s a good story and we like it and we’re committed to it, then what’s the most expedient way to shoot this and to enjoy ourselves. I don’t mean that we’re cracking jokes all the time, but there can be a lovely, healthy, experienced ambience on set. Tom, Rob, myself, Ciarán, Colm and Kerry, we have a lot of experience between us and it’s great to use that experience, without patting yourself on the back or blowing smoke up your ass. You have a sort of unspoken communication, at least I do with Rob and certain directors. You don’t have to intellectualize each scene and discuss the importance of this moment, you know what I mean? You just get it.

A still from Robert Lorenz's film In the Land of Saints and Sinners.
Neeson in a scene from Robert Lorenz’s In the Land of Saints and Sinners.

Speaking of the script and story, I imagine you connected with it on a deeper level. You grew up in Ireland at a time when there was a lot of violence and car bombings. What do you remember?

I remember a lot. First and foremost, I wasn’t involved in anything, nor was Ciarán, who was brought up in Belfast. My hometown was 30 miles outside Belfast, but I was a university then, 1971 and ’72. It was bad. You could hear bombs going off, drive-by shootings and stuff. It was a very, very nasty, horrible time for everybody. So, it’s interesting to do a film like this, which is entertainment and yet it’s based on a reality that happened. We didn’t bloat on it when we were shooting, but we all just got it.

It’s interesting, though, when I tell my American pals about growing up in the north of Ireland where we were surrounded by violence, military violence, para-military violence and the constant news about The Troubles, I guess that leads to a certain amount of post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t feel it, but there had to be something. Maybe that gets released in some way with a film like Saints and Sinners. I don’t know. But when I am talking about it or when someone asks me a question about it, I think to myself, “Gosh, that did happen. Bloody hell.”

Switching gears, I wanted to ask you about your upcoming work schedule. I see that you’re doing the Naked Gun sequel. After a spate of intense action movies, I would imagine it must be appealing to do a comedy. What else appealed to you about taking that on?

It’s funny because right before Christmas, my sons and I were looking through the Academy screeners and trying to find something silly, some still, stupid movie that we could giggle at. There was none, of course, as they were all very heavy and international. I mean, brilliant movies, but all very heavy. When Seth MacFarlane approached me about it — this was about two years ago, now — I thought, yeah, I guess I could do that as long as I play it dead seriously and not try and imitate Mr. Leslie Nielsen. He was wonderful. Akiva Schaffer is directing it and he’s from the [Saturday Night Live] world. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a good script, and there’s a few laugh out loud moments in it.

Also on your schedule, I see a movie called Cold Storage from director Jonny Campbell about a fungus that wreaks havoc on the world. Your mother-in-law, Vanessa Redgrave, has a role in the film. You share a close bond, and even an agent in CAA’s Chris Andrews. How did it come about that you’re both in this film and what was it like to work together?

Well, I had absolutely no scenes with Vanessa at all. In fact, the day she started work was the day I actually flew back home from Rome. But we were in the same hotel and so we had dinner. Her character and her scenes in the film, she’s probably going to steal the movie. She’s perfect casting for it. It’s a good script and a good story. But, yeah, she’s going to steal the fecking movie.

Two years ago, during an interview on NBC’s Today show with Willie Geist, you talked about conquering the action genre. At the time, you said you weren’t sure how much longer you were going to be able to do that on the eve of turning 70. Has anything changed?

I’m 72 in June, for God’s sake. But there are a couple of scripts I’m interested in that I probably won’t get to until 2025 that aren’t specifically action-oriented. This one that I did in Melbourne, [Ice Road 2: Road to the Sky], there’s a bit of action. But, I think the day when my fight coordinator, Mark Vanselow, says to me, “Look, Liam, I should step in and do these,” I will know when to call it quits. Audiences are innately intelligent and they’ll know when you’re past your prime in regards to throwing punches and firing guns, but I’m not there yet. I might have one or two left in me. I’ve been very privileged and honored to be a part of the action genre since that first Taken movie, which we shot now 16, 17 or 18 years ago.

Where do you go from here?

Just focusing on The Naked Gun. We start in May, well May or June, in Atlanta, Georgia. After that, we’ll see. There’s nothing definite.

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