James Nesbitt, director Oliver Hirschbiegel and Liam NeesonGetty Images

 

He grew up as a Catholic in Northern Ireland, but even after Bloody Sunday, Oscar-winning actor Liam Neeson somehow remained unaware of the Troubles.

On Monday morning right after the violence, he went dutifully to his classes at Queen’s University, Belfast.  “I thought it was odd that there were no other students about — there were maybe three people in the lecture,” he says. “So I came walking out with my wee briefcase and was heading back to the halls of residence and suddenly I was surrounded by maybe 200 students all shouting ‘Scab! Scab! Scab!’ at me!” The other students had boycotted class in protest, but Leeson knew nothing about it. 

Neeson was speaking to the Radio Times about the BBC drama "Five Minutes of Heaven," which won two awards at the Sundance Festival earlier this year. The interview took place before the death of his wife Natasha Richardson in a fatal skiing accident, and "Five Minutes of Heaven" tells a true story that is tragic in itself.

The Catholic Neeson will play Alistair Little, a Protestant and UVF man who, aged 17, murdered a 19-year-old Catholic called Joe Griffin. The murder victim’s little brother, Jim Griffin, was only 11 when his sibling was shot, and he never recovered from his big brother’s death. The film imagines an encounter between Alistair Little and Jim Griffin 30 years on when both men are grown up. Neeson’s fellow Northern Irishman James Nesbitt plays the part of Jim.

It sounds like strong stuff. In a BBC interview earlier this year, Neeson remarked, “A script like this comes along in an actor's life rarely.”

It’s fitting that Neeson and Nesbitt should both act in this film. They both spent their youth in Northern Ireland during the Trouble’s worst phase, when bombs and shootings were a daily occurrence. Strangely, the men told the Times that the tense environment did not politicize them. Even though they knew people who joined the IRA and UVF, they themselves never became involved in the skirmishes.

Still, death was always potentially just around the corner. Nesbitt’s father once left him and his sister in the car while he went to sort out his car tax in Ballymena. Suddenly an alarm started to ring, and a passerby urged Nesbitt and his sister to get out of the car. “A few minutes later there was this dull thud,” Nesbitt said, “and when the smoke cleared we saw that the car next to ours had been blown up.” Nesbitt added, “You were always aware that the violence was going on and there were boys who were sucked into it, boys you’d be sitting beside in class who somehow got involved with the paramilitaries and ended up doing time for shootings or GBH.”

But although Neeson attended a predominantly Protestant boys’ school, Ballymena Tech, religious discrimination was not a problem for him. Neeson even became head boy of the school, which was incredible for the time. And nobody made him feel “inferior or even different,” he said.

Perhaps the actors’ apolitical attitudes were their own way of responding to the harsh environment in which they lived. After that Monday-morning episode at Queen’s University, Neeson realized he needed to pay more attention to what was going on. “It was terrifying, but it was a real awakening for me that I had better start learning about my history.”