If you can’t believe that Liam Neeson is still making action movies, then he’s right there with you.
When the Oscar-nominated actor (Schindler’s List) signed up for 2009’s Taken, he thought he’d have a bit of fun, and the film would end up going straight to DVD.
Instead, it made over $200 million, spawned two sequels, and turned Neeson into Hollywood’s most unexpected action hero.
“I had no idea that it would lead onto other films and other action scripts,” Neeson previously admitted to EW. “They started sending me action scripts, and you’d see ‘Leading man, age 37’ crossed out and ‘late 40s, early 50s’ written in.”
Post-Taken, he’s navigated back-and-forth between prestige films like Silence and action vehicles like Non-Stop and Cold Pursuit (check out our Neeson action rankings), which, ironically, often find him fighting bad guys while on different modes of transportation.
That trend continues with writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Ice Road (premiering Friday on Netflix), in which Neeson stars as ice truck driver Mike McCann, who must lead a team on an impossible rescue mission over frozen waters to save a group of trapped miners.
To celebrate his latest outing of motorized ass-kicking, Neeson chatted with EW about learning the deadly danger of driving on ice while on ice, preparing to make his version of Speed, and demonstrating what negotiations for him to join Fast & Furious would look like. Hint: Tom Cruise might be able to help.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Over the last decade-plus, you’ve been sent so many action scripts, so when you got The Ice Road, what made this one unique?
LIAM NEESON: I knew it was inspired by that wonderful 1953 French film, Wages of Fear, and I loved that film.
When I read Jonathan’s script, it had the same tension — obviously a different environment entirely — but I just found it to be a page-turner.
For me, it has to pass the “cup of tea” test: If I get to page five and think, “Oh, I must make a cup of tea,” that’s not a good sign.
But with The Ice Road, I was able to finish the whole script before I thought of a cup of tea.
Always a good sign! To you, how did Mike differ from some of your heroes of the past?
The guys I’ve played in the past were kind of loner types. This time, it’s almost like [John] Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, in that I had this wonderful actor Marcus Thomas, who was playing my brother Gurdy, who has this condition called aphasia, which is a mental condition he developed after he received a bullet in the brain when he was serving in Iraq.
It affects the comprehension of speech and how he speaks.
So it was nice to have a protective element to my personality, as well as the challenges of being on the ice road to get to this mining village to save these trapped miners.
Considering it takes a certain type of guy to do this kind of work, what was it like tapping into that mindset? And was there any research on your part into the psyche of these ice road truckers?
I did speak to some truckers, and I drove on the ice. These trucks are like small New York apartments, and they’re very, very sensitive.
In my research, I did find that some of these drivers die on the ice because if they go past a certain speed, it builds up a water wave underneath the ice that when it hits the shore it reverberates back and breaks the ice.
If you’re speeding along at say 60 mph, suddenly you’re hitting this ice and down you go.
So there have been quite a few deaths that way, guys thinking, “S—, I’ll just give it an extra few mph,” and that is when tragedy can occur. We were told all this when we were on the ice and I was like, “Um, okay, I’m just an actor!”
But it was fascinating, and it was wonderful to drive one — with the expert, of course.
Jonathan wanted to do shots that we’d never seen before, no CGI, and so the crew were in the back where my bunk bed would be if I was a real trucker, and it was able to hold all these people comfortably so that they could shoot over my shoulder and see the ice and the expansiveness of the snow on the ice. It was really exciting.
I got my driver’s license when I was 28, so if people ask me what kind of car I drive, I say, “A black one.”
I know nothing about cars, but these things were like, “Wow, this is like being in Cape Canaveral or something.”
A few years ago, you were in similar weather conditions for Cold Pursuit, but then you went off to make Made in Italy, where you got to hang out in the Italian countryside with your son.
I wouldn’t have expected you to run right back to snowy Canada, so did you find yourself immediately pining for a return to that Tuscan villa?
It was a huge adjustment. But it was funny; we were in Tuscany for five weeks, and for four of those weeks, it was just fog and rain. I saw wine growers crying.
They said it’s the wettest it’s been in 50 years. Then, on the last week, the movie gods came out to help us, and we got those amazing Tuscan sunsets and sunrises. It was almost like a religious experience, just the change in the air.
And you can see why these renaissance painters just fell in love with Tuscany.
You’ve carved out such a singular and unique space for yourself over the last decade in these mid-budget, adult, non-superhero action films.
As we are getting fewer and fewer of those, you continue to churn them out.
Why do you feel like you’ve been able to thrive in this specific genre?
I don’t know. I just know they are harder to get financed. The big tentpole Marvel movies with guys flying in capes, I’m not a fan of the genre.
I do admire how they’re made; I’m just not a fan. It seems to be them and these streaming services, Netflix included at the top of the heap.
But movies like this — I don’t know quite what our budget was, it wasn’t vast — they seem to be just getting harder and harder to finance.
It doesn’t matter who you are; if you’re Brad Pitt, George Clooney, whoever, they’re just harder to make. So I’m very, very blessed and lucky so far.
Another very particular skill you have is being able to pull off making movies where just one sentence is needed to suck audiences in. “Liam Neeson saving his kidnapped daughter.”
I’m there! “Liam Neeson fighting terrorists on a plane.” When can I see it?!
Even here, “Liam Neeson on an impossible rescue mission.” Sign me up! Have you noticed this trend, and do you get a kick out of it?
[Flashes big smile] I do. I think you’re slightly overexaggerating, but I do get a kick out of it, I must admit.
I’m 69! I just turned 69 years of age, and the conversations I have with my agent now are, “Liam, have you read this script? It’s an action script,” and I say, “Chris, let me ask you this, they do know what age I am, right?” “Yes, they do.”
“Okay, that’s all I want to know, thank you.” That being said, I keep reasonably fit, and you just have to for some of these films.
If you’re playing the lead in any film, you have the responsibility; you’re in practically every scene, it behooves you to be fit.
You don’t have to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the age of 35, but you have to have stamina. So I do my little workouts every day and keep reasonably fit.
I remember when I talked to you for Cold Pursuit, we discussed the rumors that you were going to retire from action films, and you said you’d know when it’s time to hang it up.
Since then, you’ve done the opposite of retiring, as just in the last few months we’ve gotten Ice Road, The Marksman, and Honest Thief.
Is that a coincidence, or are you trying to get as much action in while you still feel like you can?
I guess, and I just did one in Australia with Mark Williams, who did Honest Thief.
It’s an action film called Blacklight, we finished it before Christmas, and I just finished another one, and I’m having trouble remembering it. [Laughs] Oh my God.
Memory, yes! Memory, with Martin Campbell directing it; he did Casino Royale and really kickstarted the Bond franchise again.
We just finished that in Bulgaria with wonderful actors Guy Pearce and Monica Bellucci, who is very easy on the eye.
I play a hitman who is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s — as you can tell!
An obsession of mine over the last few years — and it comes up every time we have an interview — is how many modes of transportation you’ve fought bad guys on.
You already had a plane, train, snowplow, even a battleship, and now we’ve added ice road trucks.
Do you have a personal favorite mode of transportation that you’ve kicked ass on?
I like trains. My grandfather was a steam engine driver in his early years.
I have a vivid memory at the age of 5 or 6 being in Waterford, Ireland, which is where he lived, and him coming into the station on this big steam train and seeing him descending from the cabin of the train through this steam.
He was like a god descending on the Earth, just picking me up and putting me on the steam train. I’ll never forget that.
Then we owe a big thank you to Run All Night and The Commuter for giving you not one but two train movies! So what’s next then? You previously tossed out the idea of a cruise ship to me, which is intriguing.
I’m going over to Berlin next Monday to start a film where my fat Irish ass sits in a Mercedes or BMW for 98 percent of the film, with my two kids in the back.
I’ve been told it’s a bomb-pressurized seat, because I’m in the financial markets and I’ve lost a customer a lot of money and he’s taking his revenge. [Laughs]
Sold! Here’s your one sentence: “Liam Neeson’s Speed, but in a car.
Exactly, it’s kind of Speed. It’s Speed-ish.
You bring up cars, and I couldn’t help but notice that Ice Road is coming out on the same day as the next Fast & Furious movie. It’s like a face-off of the two premier vehicle fighters. We might need to merge them together, maybe get you in as the yet-to-be-seen husband of Helen Mirren?
Helen is in them too? Oh, good. She’s obviously giving it a bit of class. This must be Fast & Furious 15, right?
9! So we still have time to get you in before Fast 15.
[Gives money signal by rubbing fingers together, before miming a phone call] “I’m sorry, guys, I’m not hearing the figure. Show me the money!”