Liam Neeson on A Monster Calls & Silence
Liam Neeson shows off the range of his "very particular set of skills" this month by starring in both kids' fairy tale A Monster Calls and Martin Scorsese's God-questioning epic Silence. The actor discusses his action star persona, CGI wizardry and faith
In recent years, Liam Neeson has been best-known for becoming a late-blooming action hero, having appeared in the financially successful Taken films and various other movies of a similar ilk. The 64 year-old Irish-born actor has been as surprised by his latent action star status as anyone. “People keep sending me scripts for action movies, and I turn around to my agent and say, 'Do they know what fecking age I am?' Maybe another 18 months of them, but then I think audiences won’t want it.”
Looking back on the first Taken film, he had no idea it was going to be a watershed movie that would launch his career in a whole new direction. “When the first movie happened I thought that it was a straight-to-video movie,” he says before adding: “I am not judging how the film was made, because I think that it is a cool little European thriller.”
He’s on hiatus from punching people for the moment with two new features of very different fare. The first is A Monster Calls, a modern-day fable by J.A. Bayona based on the beloved book by Patrick Ness. Neeson appears as a tree-like monster (perhaps a distant cousin of Tolkien’s Ents) that makes night-time visits to a young boy who is coming to terms with his mother’s diagnosis of cancer, making the lad confront his worst nightmares. “Kids can handle stuff,” says Neeson, “and you should tell them the big issues in life. You know [the truth about] the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, it starts there.”
Neeson on CGI and A Monster Calls
For the film, which he compares to Oscar Wilde’s fairytales, Neeson was transformed into a nightmarish creature that dwells atop a church graveyard, not dissimilar to Treebeard in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but less ho-hum and more doom and gloom. The impressive transformation was achieved with motion capture technology, which Neeson happily admits he found to be a strange process.
“You are in this tight-fitting onesie and I felt like a twat,” he says. “I had a GoPro in front of my face, and all these cameras all over the place, and you are in this space, which the computer nerds would call ‘The Volume’ – I have no idea why. We would talk about the scene, and shoot it. Then the computer nerds would add their digital make-up. I still can’t understand it, but when you see it, it is extraordinary. The technical process was amazing.”
Another of the challenges was how exactly Neeson would be able to embody this giant tree monster. “One thing I had noticed [from the illustration] was that its face looked like it had walked into a tree, and was all squashed. I thought that would affect the breathing, so that when he had to speak it would be an effort to draw up the air from somewhere. I imagined that the air would come up from all the graves that surround the yew tree in the churchyard.”
Neeson is no stranger to playing digitally rendered characters. In 2005, he appeared as the voice of Aslan, the Christ-like Lion in Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – a Christian allegorical tale, if somewhat diluted from the original text. Films of a spiritual nature have peppered Neeson’s career, ranging from 1986’s The Mission, alongside Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, to Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, where he plays a pious knight attempting to atone for the sins of his past.
Spirituality and Silence
This isn’t a conscious decision on his part he explains. Spirituality, and faith, is something that he has been exploring all his life, saying he is “always questing.” Which leads us on to Silence, a project that Martin Scorsese has been working on for over three decades based on the book of the same name by Shūsaku Endō.
In the adaptation, Neeson bookends the film playing Ferreira, a Jesuit priest in 17th century Japan who’s rumoured to have recanted his faith under pressure from the Nagasaki officials who are persecuting Christians. This causes two of his former pupils, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, to leave Europe for Japan and seek out the truth.
Appearing in far fewer scenes than his co-stars was something that Neeson enjoyed. “I liked it,” he quips. “Andrew and Adam had been labouring away for seven or eight months and I went there for three weeks, did my little bit, and then the characters are talking about you for the rest of the film.”
Neeson worked previously with Scorsese 16 years ago on Gangs of New York. He says the reunion was a pleasure, but he knew that this wasn’t going to be an easy project for the Oscar-winning director. “Today, we aren’t a spiritual society, and religious attendance is plummeting around the world,” says Neeson. “You can imagine Marty going to the producers and him telling them what it is about and they turn around and say, 'Well, thanks for coming in, Marty,' and showing him the door.”
"I thought to myself that I would leave God aside..."
What does he believe Scorsese was trying to say and do with this deeply personal project? “I think that he was trying to explore his own spirituality, it was his own quest, and that big 'why',” suggests Neeson. “Ultimately, we all ask why the fuck are we here? I think that was what Marty was after.”
Silence triggered a reaction in Neeson that caused the Catholic-raised actor to consider his faith with unexpected results. “With the research that I had done, and spending time with a Jesuit priest – and I had done a fair amount with Father Daniel Berrigan in the 1980s on The Mission – I was intrigued by it all, but on the way back from [shooting] Silence, I read a science article, and I thought to myself that I would leave God aside for a second and see what science had to say about all this.”
This led to reading Richard Dawkins’ atheist best-seller The God Delusion. “I am fascinated by science and the inroads they are making into the brain, and the natural opioids in our brain and how we release them, as well as the placebo effect,” he explains. “This stretches to the power of what faith and religion is and if it is a construct of the brain. It is very interesting. Science will always answer the 'how' questions, but the one they can’t and won’t is the big 'why' questions.”
With the recent release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, we come on to the subject of whether he would return to the franchise. “Qui-Gon who?” he jokes, suggesting that it would be good to go back to playing the Jedi Master. So, what's next? “Around September, I realised that I was very tired. I have been very lucky in my career, but whenever I am offered a film I think, ‘Oh, how much? Feck it, I’ll do it.’”
Silence and A Monster Calls are both released 1 Jan, the former by StudioCanal, the latter by Entertainment One