Action hero Liam Neeson prefers romance

Liam Neeson reprises his character as a former CIA field operative in Taken 3 (above), this time to find the real killer and clear his name after he is accused of murdering his ex-wife. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Liam Neeson reprises his character as a former CIA field operative in Taken 3 (above), this time to find the real killer and clear his name after he is accused of murdering his ex-wife. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

At 62, action actor Liam Neeson is ready to move on to less taxing projects and do a good rom-com

Actor Liam Neeson is looking to bring down the curtain on his career as an action star.

The Northern Irishman, who is now 62, became an unlikely action hero in his mid-50s when he took on the part of ex-covert operative Bryan Mills in 2008's surprise smash Taken. He is now playing the role for the third and final time in Taken 3, but expects to hang up his shoulder holster for good soon.

"There are a couple more action-type things in the pipeline for the next couple of years, but I think after that, it's 'so long sucker'," he tells journalists in London.

The first two Taken movies - in which his character is forced to recall his training in retirement to save his family - earned about $800 million at the worldwide box office, much to the surprise of the Hollywood studio and its star.

He had thought the first film would go straight to DVD.

"I didn't know Taken was going to be a franchise," he says. "It was just a one-off little thriller that we shot in Paris. The studio did a remarkable job of selling it and it became really successful. But I didn't set out to do a franchise."

Indeed, he and main writer-producer, The Fifth Element director Luc Besson, were not sure they would even tackle a third Taken film, but with pressure from the studio and the right story idea, they were eventually persuaded to make another sequel.

Neeson says with a smile: "I did have some reservations at first because what else could we do? Bryan Mills couldn't have his daughter taken again, otherwise he'd be up for really bad parenting. But our screenwriters, which include Besson, came up with an interesting storyline."

In it, his character is framed for the murder of his ex-wife (Famke Janssen), forcing him to evade pursuit from law enforcement agencies led by Detective Frank Dotzler (Forest Whitaker).

He also has to hunt down the real killers so that he can clear his name and exact revenge. And, as with all the Taken movies, he must protect his daughter Kim, played by Maggie Grace.

"What makes this a quintessential Taken movie is that, at its heart, it's still about Mills doing everything in his power to save his family," says Neeson. "That's why these films resonate with a global audience because at their core, they are about the love and sanctity of family and the lengths we'll go to protect that."

The film reunites him with Taken 2 (2012) director Olivier Megaton, who says that it is Neeson's skills as a dramatic actor that make him a believable action hero.

"He's a good action star because he's a good dramatic actor, for sure," says the director. "He is just acting; he doesn't need to train, he just needs to think in order to act."

Indeed, Neeson says he can pull off action roles - including Taken, and last year's Non-Stop and A Walk Among The Tombstones - because he stays in good shape all year round.

"For any role, it's important to have stamina because any working day can be 12 to 14 hours and especially if you're playing a leading part," he says. "You need to show up on time, you need to be very fit. There's a certain physical regime I do for any film. With these action films, though, you do a little bit more."

As the franchise comes to a natural conclusion, he says he will miss the character.

"And I will miss being with Maggie Grace," he says. "Famke, too, to a certain extent, but Maggie I view as my own daughter. I care for her very deeply. I want to know whom she is dating and all that stuff. We keep in close touch."

Does he offer the 31-year-old actress any fatherly advice?

"In many ways, she offers me fatherly advice," he says. "She is a very wise old soul in a young body. She's incredibly widely read. I think I'm an avid reader but she is just exceptional.

"During the first film, she was reading Sense And Sensibility one day and then War And Peace the next. And she's so into it. I will miss her a lot, she really is like a daughter to me."

The actor has two teenage sons from his marriage to actress Natasha Richardson, who died after a skiing accident in 2009.

With Christmas coming when we meet, talk turns to family and Neeson smiles when the subject of pregnancy comes up.

In Taken 3, Kim is pregnant and talks around the subject with her doting dad. What would he say if one of his sons came home with news that he had made a girlfriend pregnant?

"They'd be f***ing dead." Neeson says, deadpan. "They've been told about that too many times."

When talk turns to Christmas presents, he insists that he tries not to spoil his boys too much.

"Every year, we do Santa's list," he says. "They write down ideally what they would like. Especially when they were younger, the list was huge.

"I'd go down and tick three items out of 27. We still do it. They do it like a wish list. Nowadays, it's computer games and clothes, and I tend to do gift certificates for certain shops rather than buy them a sweater."

He hates shopping. "I get dyslexia in shops, so I don't do it. I don't shop at all," he says.

When it comes to restocking his wardrobe, the clothes come to him.

He says: "I'm very fortunate. Every time I leave the house to do a function, I call up Giorgio Armani.

"They send over to the house a tailor and a rack of clothes. I try this and that on, the guy measures it and four days later, the fitted clothes come back. And I pass them on to the boys. I certainly believe in passing on. Giorgio has been decking me out since Schindler's List, which is more than 20 years ago."

It was Schindler's List (1993), of course, that propelled him to stardom, earning him his one and only Oscar nomination.

Born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, he grew up a keen boxer before starting his acting career on stage, which in turn led to roles in such films as Excalibur, Krull and The Bounty during the early 1980s.

After working with Spielberg on Schindler's List, he took higher profile roles in Rob Roy (1995), Michael Collins (1996), Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Kinsey (2004) and in two films from each of the Chronicles Of Narnia (2008/2010), Clash Of The Titans (2010/2012) and The Dark Knight franchises (2005/2012).

Among many other roles, he also enjoyed a small but memorable part in the opening segment to Martin Scorsese's Gangs Of New York (2002) and he is about to start work on his second film with the director, Silence. The film is based on the novel by acclaimed Japanese author Shusaku Endo, with Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield taking the lead role.

Neeson says: "I am just starting the research on Silence. My guy is Andrew's character's spiritual adviser and he's gone Awol. In a way, it's a bit Apocalypse Now (1979) or Heart Of Darkness (1993).

"They're hearing stories. Has he apostatised, has he taken a wife? They're on a quest to try and find my character, their mentor, and then he reveals himself at some point in the film. It's a very good story."

He has completed work on the action piece Run All Night - which sees him re-team with Unknown and Non-Stop director Jaume Collet-Serra - and on A Monster Calls, which is based on the celebrated 2011 novel of the same name by Patrick Ness. Neeson plays the eponymous monster and this is his first motion-capture performance.

"Now that's a process," he says of the performance capture. "How Andy Serkis and those guys do it on a six- to seven-month shoot for Planet Of The Apes (2011), I don't know. I just had to do it for a couple of weeks. You're wearing a skin-tight wetsuit, which isn't very flattering for anyone.

"I'm playing an ancient yew tree that visits this boy every night. But the real monster in the story is that the boy is living with his mother, who's dying of cancer and this is something that he refuses to accept. It's a beautiful story."

Neeson also has a cameo in the Seth MacFarlane comedy sequel Ted 2, following their collaboration on the Western comedy A Million Ways To Die In The West (2014).

"I did one little scene, which could easily not end up in the movie. It was just half a day of acting with a teddy bear. But Seth is a very talented guy. When I saw him in A Million Ways, I remember thinking, 'that must have been what Orson Welles was like in his heyday'. Like Orson, he has that multi-talented thing where his brain never stops."

And what does Neeson's future hold now that his action days are drawing to a close?

"I would love to do a really good romantic story for people my age," he says. "I don't know what it'd be, I just feel that there's a real audience for it.

"What's out there for people my age in the romantic genre? These rom-coms, most of them are terrible, but I'd love to get my hands on a really believable love story. That's what I'd like to do."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Taken 3 is showing in cinemas.