Liam Neeson strides into the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Central Park West one day last week looking happier and healthier than I have ever seen him.
Recent press speculation has linked him to women on both sides of the Atlantic, but whatever is going on in his private life (and Neeson is adamant that it will stay private) something is clearly agreeing with him.
Box office receipts may have something to do with it. When Taken was released back in February 2009 no one, least of all Neesonhimself, had much hope for the low budget sleeper.
But against all the odds Taken resonated with the public and became an outsized international hit that took in over $226 million worldwide and revived Neeson’s fortunes as an action film lead.
“I thought Taken would go straight to DVD,” he tells the Irish Voice.
Instead it became the biggest hit of his career.
“I thought the film was a tight little punchy European thriller, but it opened reasonably well in France and amazingly well in South Korea, where I felt like one of the Beatles.”
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Then Neeson got a call from his nephews in Ireland.
“Uh, Uncle Liam,” he inmates them, with Northern Irish accents. “We saw your movie, Taken.”
“I told them they couldn’t have seen it, it hadn’t been released. ‘Uh, we were able to download it off the Internet.’ That was the end of that movie, I thought.”
But 20th Century Fox did a terrific public relations job in January 2009, Neeson says.
“We all belong to families and we all know how important family is, myself included. You’ll do anything for your kids. So I think that’s how Taken tapped into something in people,” Neeson says.
“I also think at that particular period that the world was turned upside down financially. Our so-called leaders were shafting us, let’s face it. Huge criminal acts were being perpetrated with vast amounts of our money. I think people felt vulnerable and nervous and a little bit scared, and when people are feeling like that they want entertainment that addresses it.
“In Taken they see a guy who is not going to call authority figures to help him, he’s going to do something about it himself. I think people got a real guilty pleasure out of it, you know?”
Taken 2, opening nationwide on Friday, is expected to perform equally well, and based on my own viewing I can tell you it has stuck closely to the run from the bad guys, then watch them run from you formula that made the first Taken such a success.
In personNeesonhas a sensitive but craggy face that can alternate between humor and fury faster than just about any other Irish leading actor I have ever met. It looks like he never actually got used to being famous, and he resents anyone who thinks he should take its trappings in his stride.
Being an actor is something he does. Being a celebrity is something he apparently loathes.
Just make him laugh and you’ll see how Irish he is; annoy him and you’ll see it too. Born in Ballymena, Co. Antrim in 1952, Neeson was a keen boxer in his teenage years, where he came by his distinctive broken-nosed look.
“I have a very engaged sense of what that eye for an eye kind of cycle can lead to. I’m 60 years of age and I grew up when that all started in 1969, and you know yourself every day it was in the newspapers,” he says.
“One killing and then a revenge killing and it went on for 30 years. I was very aware of it shooting these films.”
Does a movie like Taken 2 make Neeson a more cautious traveler?
“Absolutely the opposite. I have had so many people say I made my daughter or my son watch it because this stuff can happen. But I don’t agree,” he says.
“They can’t be afraid, kids have to get out there and explore the world and explore different cultures.Only 15 percent of Americans actually have passports. I’m always at pains to say we have to send our children out there to explore the world, you know?”
Neeson is, of course, happy with the success of Taken, but he’s not about to be taken in by all the flattery.
“I’m not like the Terminator. I don’t have a production company. But Hollywood likes to pigeonhole you and I guess after Schindler’s List (his powerful turn as a factory boss who protects his Jewish workforce from the Nazis) I was pigeonholed in a certain way,” Neeson says.
“Then with the success of Taken I was re-pigeonholed again. I started receiving quite a number of action scripts where the hero is obviously 30 years of age but he’s become 40 or early fifties, which is quite flattering.”
Hollywood has noticed Neeson’s run of recent hits, including Taken andThe Grey, have involved one man pitted against a host of bad guys (or bad wolves) and have responded by adopting the formula themselves.
Even Neeson has noticed the trend his film started, adding playfully, “I heard Nicholas Cage is a new movie with a similar title called Stolen? Is that true? His daughter gets – taken? Now there’s an original idea.”
Having mentioned that he would do anything for his own family, Neeson sounds relived that his two sons (who are rapidly approaching college age) don’t want to be actors. But he doesn’t want to talk about being a single dad raising them on his own. Neeson tragically lost his wife Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident in March 2009, a month after Taken was released.
“Now you’re getting into sensitive territory,” ha says and takes a deep breath. “I don’t walk to talk about my wife. Can I just say that we’re doing fine, thank you? And yes, they will soon be leaving home and they’re not showing signs of being interested in the business.” At this he makes a deeply Irish sign of the cross to underline his relief.
Here's the trailer for "Taken 2":