Evidenced by his recent spate of ass-kicking roles, Liam Neeson seems like the scariest actor in Hollywood. Tall, broad and blunt, he cuts an intimidating profile, and watching him face down a pack of ravenous wolves in his new film — the mythic, man-versus-nature thriller “The Grey” — he seems like an equally ferocious creature, especially after he duct-tapes broken airplane liquor bottles to his knuckles. To hear Neeson tell it, however, he wouldn’t last five minutes in the sub-zero conditions his character endures. “I’d curl up and die,” the Irish actor says. “On our first day, cameras were malfunctioning and equipment wasn’t working, and I thought, ‘This is ludicrous.’”
In the last three years, Neeson has remodeled his imposing dramatic pedigree to suit action fans, spawning the unofficial “Neesploitation” sub-genre — with films like “Taken,” “Unknown” and now “The Grey” — where he squares off physically against a rogue’s gallery of international baddies and proves unequivocally he’s not to be trifled with. While his command of the screen is undeniable, he insists he’s not the alpha-male type. “I can play them, but in life, I’m not one,” he says. “It’s great fun, because I know that I’m the opposite.”
“The Grey” reunites Neeson with his “The A-Team” director, Joe Carnahan, whose survivalist thriller about a small group of plane crash survivors lost in the frozen north appealed to Neeson on both visceral and existential levels. “The script read like a 19th century epic poem for me, something like ‘The Ancient Mariner’ or something,” Neeson says. “And also the little boy in myself — I just thought it would be great to be out with a bunch of guys on a cliff face or a rock face and doing manly things.”
Although Neeson’s recent foray into action has led him from the more cerebral films that helped make his name — like “Schindler’s List” and “Kinsey” — he says he’s doing movies like “The Grey” because he’s asked to, not because he feels compelled to test himself physically or even professionally. “‘Taken’ came out three years ago, and they’re offering me a lot of these action films,” he reveals. “I think my knees can maybe hold out another year, but that’s it.” Nevertheless, Neeson says he plans to embrace this opportunity at least until the sequel for the film that transformed him into a badass comes out. “We’re doing ‘Taken 2’ at the moment, so I’ll ride it out for at least a year,” he says.
In the meantime, Neeson regards his work in “The Grey” cheerfully, observing that while it certainly satisfies his previous films’ testosterone quotient, it also possesses a deeper resonance that connects his current persona to his previous one. “It’s a good, thrilling film,” he says. “There’s an element of horror in it, and also an element of spirituality in it. But it’s a good ride! I know that’s a cliche, but hopefully [audiences] will be intrigued by it — it’s not your normal survival movie.”