The name Liam Neeson has become synonymous with "kicking-butt and taking names" over the last several years. He is currently shooting the sequel to the film that cemented him as a man-not-to-be-messed-with, Taken, which he assures us will "have thrills" as well as "a lot of fighting and killing and stuff."
There are, in general terms, three varieties of conflict in a film: man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. Director Joe Carnahan's The Grey has all three of those elements - as many truly exceptional films do. About an oil drilling team's struggle to survive after a plane crash strands them in the wild, The Grey works as a mythic exploration of man's most frightening, and essential questions: why we are on this planet and what is to come when we exit it?
We had the chance to sit down with Neeson at the Los Angeles press day for the film to talk about his response to the larger themes in The Grey, working in negative 20 degree temperatures, and the nature of the Alpha male.
Question: This is an all male cast, and the themes are very masculine. What do you think the film has to say about modern masculinity?
Liam Neeson: "I don’t think for this generation, but for my generation and my father’s generation, men had difficulty in accessing emotion and then being able to talk about it. I think it certainly touches on that, and these guys, these characters in this film, find it very, very hard to relate to themselves and to one another. Which is one of the nice things about the film, that they do, in a way, they do share in a very primitive, basic way."
It seems like once they tap into that primitive feeling, they’re more easily able to communicate emotionally with one another.
LN: "Yeah. Because there’s nothing to hide behind any more; it’s us versus these elements. Frank (Grillo's) character pretends he’s got this machismo, but I think ultimately it breaks down, the way it has to. And then his real spirit comes out, and it’s fantastic – and he plays it beautifully."
The men in this film are facing an unimaginably inhospitable environment. The temperatures alone are potentially deadly. How well would you do in those conditions if you were thrown into them?
LN: "I’d curl up and die. Yeah, especially 40 minus degrees, which it was our first week. I remember thinking, 'we’re never going to finish this film. It’s impossible.' Cameras were malfunctioning and equipment wasn’t working, and I thought, 'this is ludicrous.' After the initial draw of reading it, and genuinely kind of falling in love with it, I then thought, 'how the fuck is he going to shoot this thing?' We have extremes of temperature, winds and stuff, and then wolves and raging rivers and stuff, it’s like, how’s he going to shoot this stuff in 40 days? But he did – he did it."
But did it trigger something very primal in you?
LN: "Well, the script kind of did. The script read like a 19th Century epic poem for me, something like 'The Ancient Mariner' or something. And also the little boy in myself; I just thought it would be great to be out with a bunch of guys on a cliff face or a rock face and do manly things."
How did you prepare yourself for this film in terms of the conditions and physical challenges?
How much did the film’s themes and even the shoot itself force you to come to terms with your own mortality?
LN: "Well, when you reach the age of 59 and a half, you do reflect a lot on why you’re on this planet, and what we’re doing, you know? It’s a constant. It is with me, anyway."
Is that partly why you connected so deeply to the material?
LN: "Maybe, maybe it was, yeah. It wasn’t consciously, but I knew certainly the emotional range of this guy, I could access it with a certain amount of ease. And I don’t say that as a brag, it just was a comfortable fit."
Because you can’t play a theme, how do you juggle those larger metaphorical ideas as you’re dealing with the practicalities of the character and the environment? Do you just deal with each day pretty simply?
LN: "Pretty simply. Certainly when I read the script, and re-read it, I could see there were those larger elements there. I love Greek mythology, and there’s a mythological element to this film, you know? But yeah, the rest of it, I would leave up to Joe, and try and play each scene for the truth of it, and all of the cast as well."
Is it easier to find the truth of a scene in films like this one, that are more realistic, or ones that are more fantastical?
LN: "Well certainly in the fantastical ones you still have to make them real. Like we just finished reshoots on 'Wrath of the Titans,' and I’m playing Zeus and my buddy Ralph (Fiennes) is playing Hades, and we’re saying fantastical things to each other and about each other. But you still have to try and make it real within that convention, within that genre. But sometimes it’s easier than other genres, and sometimes it’s not; it depends on the writing."
Sam Worthington recently said there were things in Clash of the Titans he wasn’t happy about that he wanted to fix in Wrath. Were there things you were unhappy with that you wanted to sort of correct or explore differently?
LN: "Those Greek mythology stories are endless, there’s so many variations of them, and I thought it would be interesting if they explored a bit more of Zeus and my relationship to Perseus, and to my brother Hades, Ralph’s character. So we’ve done that to a larger extent in this next one, with all of the thrills and spills a movie like that has to have with various monsters and stuff."
It’s becoming an annual event for us to get to see you in January and February in these very physical roles. What’s inspired you to take these films on in such a quick succession? Is it doing one successfully and getting offered more?
LN: "That’s it, essentially. You know, 'Taken' came out four years ago, and they’re offering me a lot of these action films, and I think, my knees can maybe hold out another year, but that’s it."
Joe Carnahan directed this film as well as The A-Team, did his methods and style vary on the different projects?
LN: "I think 'The Grey' was very much his love child, so I think he was more sensitive than he was on 'The A-Team.' But he’s an alpha male. He’s a throwback to those directors from the 30s and 40s: Hathaway, Howard Hawks, John Ford. He’s a real throwback to those guys and I love that in a director. And Katherine Bigelow is the same; she’s the governor you know? I love having a leader. Especially on a shoot like this, these conditions; you need someone who’s in charge and knows what they’re doing."
The characters you play in these action movies are all alpha males. Is that something you relate to in your own life?
LN: "No. That’s why I love Carnahan. He’s a leader, and I’m so not a leader. I can play them, but in life, I’m not one."
You are the leader of this ensemble, however. What sort of responsibility did that place on you?
LN: "I don’t know. I just like to be on time every morning, not keep a crew waiting or keep my fellow actors waiting; I try to set the standard in that, like if I have to be on the set at 7:30 then I’m on set at 7:30. I’m ready, you know? I’m a big stickler on that – you don’t keep people waiting. Certainly not movie crews. And it’s an unfortunate thing in our business that we’re constantly hearing stories of people misbehaving, and I hate it because it reflects on me; that’s my craft, it’s my profession, and we’re professionals. So that’s what I do, and I just made sure, okay, I’m the lead actor, so I’ll be on time and be the first out in the snow if I have to be."
What do you hope the audience will take away from this film?
LN: "I hope there’s a bit of a joyride to it, but that it’s a good, thrilling film. There’s an element of horror in it, and also an element of spirituality in it. But that it’s a good ride! I know that’s a cliché, but hopefully they’ll be intrigued by it. It’s not your normal survival movie, you know?"
Indeed, it is not.
The Grey opens in theaters this Friday, January 27th.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc