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.
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.
Neeson’s film career began when director John Boorman cast him in Excalibur. Some of [his] 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 but being cast as one of the main characters in George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace will be even harder.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Were you a fan of Star Wars when it first came out?
LIAM NEESON: I was. When I was 21 or 22, 1 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.
Did you understand immediately it was capturing certain myths?
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.
Did the fact that Lucas was directing have a big influence on your taking on the part of Qui-Gon Jinn?
Yeah. 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.
Can you understand the wide appeal of Star Wars?
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. 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.
Do you pray?
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.
What do you pray for?
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.
Did you have favorite Star Wars characters?
I loved Obi-Wan Kenobi. I just loved what this man stood for. And because Alec Guinness is such a brilliant actor, I believed that world.
And is your character, Qui-Gon Jinn, similar?
I’m from that code, from that world of Jedi.
How did Lucas convince you—or you convince him—that you belonged in The Phantom Menace?
I sent out feelers. I’d heard there was maybe a part for someone like me. The feeler returned was, “Do you want to meet George Lucas?” Of course I did. We were both going to be in London at the same time, so I met with George and Rick McCallum, his producing partner. And all we talked about was rearing children. He suggested I read this book, which he sent to me, and that was the end of it.
Never talked about the movie at all?
Not really. And I hadn’t read the script.
I said at the end of the interview, “Look, George, for what it’s worth, if you think there’s something for me, I’d love to be involved in your film. And I’m glad you’re gonna be directing it.” When they offered me this, I still hadn’t read the script. Rick called up and said, “The character was originally a 60-year-old, would you be prepared to play 55?” I said, “Sure, I’m an actor.” But I thought, I’m not going to do old-man acting, because that would be stupid—this guy has to have a lot of lightsaber fights. So we struck a balance.
Where does the name Qui-Gon Jinn come from?
I never asked George. I just loved the poetry of it. I had a joke with Ewan McGregor, who is Obi-Wan Kenobi and my apprentice. I was Qui-Gon Jinn and he was Tonic. Gin and Tonic.
Did you understand your character’s background?
There’s actors who want to know what their character had for breakfast last Tuesday. I’m not from that school. I had this amazing costume, half samurai, half Arthurian, and just having that on, I got the guy. I knew how he stood. So, do I know his world? Yes, I do. But if I have to describe it, I can’t.
Did Lucas describe him to you at all?
Yeah, he did. George is very passionate about it. There’s a scene where I talk to one of the characters about these “midiclorians”—it’s a wee bit of science gobbledygook. I asked George, “What is this stuff I’m saying?” He said, “It’s like in our bodies there are thousands of different bacteria that our body needs in order to stay alive. Let’s say one of those bacteria has an intelligence that’s able to commune with the ether, the cosmos, the universe.” That’s clever, I thought. “Thank you. Say no more, I’ve got it.” So I’m from that world. Times 10.
Has anyone ever played this kind of master?
Alec Guinness in the first Star Wars. And there was Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai—he kind of inspired me. But my character is supposed to be a slightly maverick master Jedi. Unlike Sam Jackson’s character, my character’s not on the Jedi Council, this elevated board of Jedi masters who rule the universe. I could have been on that years ago, light-years ago, but I chose to follow my own instinct, and have sometimes gone against what the Jedi Council stands for.
How old is your character supposed to be?
On this planet, compared to where they are? About 400 years old, given Einstein’s theory of relativity and all the rest.
What did you have to learn to play this Jedi knight?
Reading Joseph Campbell and watching the Star Wars films again, and the Star Wars comic books, which I found so complex I almost couldn’t fathom them.
Do you think your life will ever be the same?
I’m 46 years of age. I’m married with two kids. I love to fly-fish. That will never change. At the end of the day, you know something? It’s just a movie.
Harrison Ford was the break-out star of Star Wars. Who do you think might be the break-out star here?
They all have a chance. There’s this wonderful actor called Ahmed Best, who plays the amphibian character Jar Jar, truly one of the great comic creations. George saw him in Stomp in San Francisco. He’s totally concealed, but the computer graphic is all based on Ahmed’s wonderful performance. If I was to hedge a bet, he’s the next Eddie Murphy.
You’ve said that every minute of making Schindler’s List was precious. Why?
I’d have to put it on par with Michael Collins, which took us 14 years to make and was very dear to my heart. But with Schindler, I was aware that it isn’t just a piece of entertainment. It was important.
You’ve worked with both Lucas and Spielberg. Would you consider them geniuses?
Ah, geniuses. Mozart was a genius. Van Gogh. When I hear “genius” in our industry—like a “genius actor”—there’s no such thing.
What do you think of the description of you in GQ: “He looks like an extremely handsome man who has been whacked in the face with a frying pan”?
… was that written by a guy or a girl?
Must have been a woman because you rarely speak to male journalists.
Joyce Carol Oates said, “Men have a far more difficult time simply living, existing, trying to measure up to the absurd standards of masculinity in our culture.” Agree?
I do feel men are kind of lost at the moment because of the whole women’s revolution, which wasn’t a real revolution because we weren’t included. Women’s power is very prevalent at the moment and it’s great, but men are really scared by it. They don’t know how to cope with it. Men are still from that era of the strong, silent type who never cried and kept it all in, and that doesn’t apply anymore, it’s bulls*.
What do you envy in women?
Their openness. They’re great at talking to each other. Two women can get together and talk about their periods. That’s pretty intense. Guys aren’t very open with each other.
You’ve said that directors’ egos are larger than actors’ egos, and that directors are all fascists at heart.
I think their egos are huge. They just are. I have a love/hate thing with directors within myself.
Where were you when your father died?
I was in Los Angeles, living in Venice Beach. This particular morning I woke up and there was a bird sitting outside the window. And I thought, “Oh, it’s going to come in and fly around and bang up against the windows and and it’s going to take forever to catch it.” The bird came in, flew around the room three times, landed back on the window, and as I went over to open the window further for it to fly out, it just didn’t move. And my father reared canaries and I just started thinking about him so strongly. That afternoon I got a call from my sister saying Dad had died in his sleep. I went home for the funeral and was talking to my middle sister, Bernadette, and she told me how she’d seen this pigeon with a damaged claw and she started thinking about my father. When she and I were telling this to my aunt, my father’s sister, she said, “Oh yeah, yeah, yes, there’s always a bird appears when a Neeson dies.” She said it so matter-of-factly. That’s the gospel truth.
Seven years ago you said you wanted to see how far you could take it, for the power it would give you to do what you really wanted. Do you feel you have achieved that power?
I guess I have. A lot of these things I’ve said were before I became a father. In fathering, everything is put in its slot, including acting. A few years ago it would have been, “Why does he not want me?” Now it’s, “You want me for this? Fine. You don’t? I’m not going to lose a night’s sleep.”