Liam Neeson: Liam and the Force

Liam Neeson became famous as Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List. He's about to become a megastar as Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

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Coming from a Catholic minority in Protestant Ballymena in Northern Ireland, Liam Neeson never dreamed of becoming an actor. As a teenager he was interested in boxing, and won his weight class for three years running until he got punched silly in a fight when he was 15. School was always a serious matter for him, but after spending one year at a university and two at a teacher's college, he got caught copying someone's paper and wound up rethinking what he might do for the rest of his life. Luckily, he found an interest in the theater. In 1976 he joined the Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast and, two years later, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Neeson's film career began when director John Boorman cast him in Excalibur. The films that followed include Dino De Laurentiis's version of The Bounty (with Mel Gibson and Daniel Day-Lewis), Andrei Konchalovsky's Duet for One (with Julie Andrews), Roland Joffe's The Mission (with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons), Peter Yates's Suspect (with Cher), Leonard Nimoy's The Good Mother (with Diane Keaton), Sam Raimi's Darkman (with Frances McDormand) and Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives (with Judy Davis). Some of these films were anticipated "breakthroughs" for Neeson, but high expectations for his rise to superstardom kept falling short.

Then Steven Spielberg tapped him to star in Schindler's List, and he successfully handled a difficult performance, captured the hearts of millions of people and won an Oscar nomination. Schindler's List was a hard act to follow--Nell, Rob Roy, Michael Collins and Les Miserables were all worthy efforts that proved commercially disappointing--but being cast as one of the main characters in George Lucas's Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace will be an even harder act to follow. The two films that have that job are The Haunting of Hill House, due out this summer, and Gun Shy, an independent film produced by and costarring Sandra Bullock.

When I meet Liam Neeson, he's clean-shaven with short hair, looking more like Michael Collins than the shaggy Qui-Gon Jinn, the master Jedi knight he plays in The Phantom Menace. We find a table, order some red wine, and Neeson checks his watch with two dials, one always set at New York time, where he lives with his wife, Natasha Richardson, and their two toddler sons. "Oh God," he says, "look at the time. I forgot to call the children." He asks a waitress for a portable phone, and, hunching over the phone to achieve some degree of intimacy, he talks to his boys gently, tells them he loves them, then says good night to his wife. "All right," he smiles, handing the phone back, "now we can start."

LAWRENCE GROBEL: Were you a fan of Star Wars when it first came out?

LIAM NEESON: I was. When I was 21 or 22, I was working in theater in Belfast and I remember so well going to see it in this very heavily Protestant area where a bomb had gone off two days before. There were a lot of police and army out, but the cinema was open. I thought it was truly breathtaking. I love Arthurian legends and mythology, and here was a wee interpretation of these classical stories.

Q: Did you understand immediately it was capturing certain myths?

A: Yeah, I did, because it's a simple story, yet with all the complexities of myth. The technology was so understated--Lucas didn't knock you in the face with it. I thought he was an amazing director who had created this totally believable world. The other two films I wasn't a huge fan of, but he didn't direct them.

Q: Did the fact that Lucas was directing have a big influence on your taking on the part of Qui-Gon Jinn?

A: Yeah. American Graffiti is one of the great American movies. And the very rough cut of the film I've seen, which is maybe five percent of the computer graphics, is very, very powerful. Star Wars fans will not be disappointed. It's a kick-ass film.

Q: Can you understand the wide appeal of Star Wars?

A: It's recognizing that mythological stories are part of our genetic code. It's like the great John Ford Westerns. These stories help explain our existence on this planet--if there's a deity or a God or a Buddha. George and some of those great directors interpret that for an audience. That is part of the appeal of Star Wars, because he has successfully tapped into the subconsciousness that we all share.

Q: What, if anything, did you learn from these films?

A: Well, there's just the basic level of good versus evil. Finding a balance in your life. Just to be reminded of all that stuff. It's like if you pray or if you have a mantra, the more times you do it, the more the truth of it seeps into you.

Q: Do you pray?

A: I'm a Catholic, I pray, and I believe in the power of prayer. And the more times you say the Our Father or the Hail Mary, the more it actually reveals the truth to you. And I've been doing it for a long time.

Q: What do you pray for?

A: I pray for people who have become troubled, who are friends or family. And to give thanks for my life. I'm the luckiest guy in the world, I get a chance to do something I love and they pay me lots of money for it. This is an honor to sit with you in this beautiful hotel in Los Angeles. It should be wintertime, man. I should be working in some factory in Belfast. But I'm not. I give thanks for that.

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