Liam Neeson's latest is the aeronautical thriller "Non-Stop." Credit: Getty Images
Liam Neeson is aggressively soft-spoken. Even in a relatively intimate conference room with a microphone at the ready, his voice is just barely audible. He’s so gentle and shy — yet confident and, at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, imposing — that it’s not surprising when the now 60-something action star utters, in response to how he would handle the hairy situation in the new “Non-Stop,” the following three words: “I’m a pacifist.”
He does elaborate, a bit, even if his words won’t sate his action movie fan base. “Thankfully I’ve never been in this situation. You like to think you would be heroic. But who knows?”
Still, his offscreen ethos hasn’t kept him from becoming, in his AARP age, a Charles Bronson-style action star. Two decades ago Neeson was Oskar Schindler. Today he’s the star of “Non-Stop,” in which he plays an air marshal taunted by a mysterious killer on his latest flight.
Neeson is quick to point out this isn’t to be taken seriously, even given the setting. “It’s entertainment,” he insists. “A lot of journalists in Europe were asking about September 11. Oh, please.” That said, he knows he can only be brusque in 2014. “I don’t think the film could have been made a few years ago. It would have been totally insensitive.”
It’s worth noting that “Non-Stop” isn’t another “Taken” or “The Grey” or even “Unknown,” also directed by Spanish-born Jaume Collet-Serra. It’s a thriller, not an action film, and it only features one (admitted doozy) of a fight, in the tight confines of a plane bathroom.
“On this film we didn’t want to do martial arts. It’d be corny,” he confesses. “Whatever physical altercations happen on the airplane, we wanted to make them real. I worked quite closely with a Special Forces guy who trains air marshals. We came up with the fight in the bathroom based on stuff that he was trained to do. We tried to keep it real. And exciting, of course.”
For him, learning action techniques is like learning everything. “You learn it and then you forget it,” he admits. “It’s like learning a dance. Or when you study for exams. You forget it. Except for how to work a lightsaber — I know that.”
There’s another distinctive aspect about “Non-Stop”: Neeson is no hero. He’s barely even a badass. He’s an alcoholic — his first act in the film is to spike his coffee before going on the job — and his actions are so sloppy that everyone on board quickly learns to hate and mistrust him.
“I like to play these so-called action heroes as vulnerable. They’re nervous. I always try to portray a weakness,” he says. But this guy is different. “He’s an alcoholic and he’s an addict. That’s what’s in charge. His big battle is he thinks he can’t get through even a six- or seven-hour flight without having a couple short ones. It’s the little human gestures like that that I think resonates with people. Many of us are addicts, if it’s tobacco or whatnot. I like those human touches.”
Of course, nice as Neeson is, he’s not that nice. Asked what happens when people come up to him in the airport, he says, “I just tell them to f— off.” He’s kidding. We think.