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The Unknown Neeson

A conversation with Liam Neeson, autumn years action star

I seem to have got a new lease on life since Taken was successful,” says Liam Neeson. “At the age of 58—did I say 58? I mean 37!—it’s great to become an action hero.”

Arthouse fans of the tall, grave-voiced Irish actor were a bit nonplussed a few years ago when Neeson starred in that violent thriller as a retired spy hunting the white slavers who kidnapped his daughter. But he has always worked both sides of the Hollywood aisle: After a decade of supporting roles in the 1980s, his first hits were action films, Sam Raimi’s Darkman and the Dirty Harry movie The Dead Pool.

And if the enormous worldwide success of Taken has turned up the heat on his career, he’s old enough to put it into perspective. He quips, “I like to think of something Burt Lancaster said years ago, that he acts with his hair. When he’s doing a studio movie, he has a wig. When he’s doing an arthouse movie, he shows his bald patch.”

Neeson has his metaphorical wig on for Unknown, a Joel Silver production that is equal parts Jason Bourne and Alfred Hitchcock, with nods to Roman Polanski’s Frantic. Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, an American academic in Berlin for a biotechnology conference. An accident sends him into a coma for a few days. When he revives, he finds that he cannot prove his identity, and that his place at the conference has been taken by another man (Aiden Quinn) using his name. Even his wife (Mad Men’s January Jones) denies that he is the real Martin Harris. His only allies in trying to sort out what has happened are the cab driver who saved his live (Diane Kruger) and a former Stasi operative turned private investigator (the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz).

I thought I knew exactly where Unknown was headed in the first reel, but I was wrong. Despite some hyperactive action clichés (particularly a car chase scene that, while well executed, is utterly preposterous), it slowly builds tension for a finale that is as satisfying as it is surprising.

Neeson is speaking at a press conference in Los Angeles, where the balmy weather is as different from what we’ve been having in the rest of the country as it was from Berlin when the movie was filmed last year.

“It was the coldest January and February in 20 years,” he recalls, “and treacherously cold, too—frost on the ground and ice. And as you saw there was a lot pf physical activity outside. So it was a challenge to execute the film under those conditions.”

Because of the large proportion of exterior scenes, Berlin is a substantial presence in the film, which Neeson saw as particularly appropriate to this story. “Berlin is still going through a period of confusion since the wall came down. [There are] very definite [shifts in] attitudes from West Berlin to East Berlin. And given the economic times we’re in, there was a confusion on the streets, almost like a pulse, so that was good to tap into, because that’s what our characters are going through.”

Asked about doing his own stunts for a stunt-heavy movie, Neeson corrects the questioner: “I don’t do my own stunts. I do my own fighting, which I don’t regard as a stunt, but my friend and stunt double Mark Vanselow does all my heavy-duty stuff, and has been doing so for about 12 years now.”

Unknown’s most memorable fight scene takes place in a tiny apartment. “That was a tough little fight because it was supposed to look scrappy, not too choreographed,” he says. “The choreographer Olivier Schneider, who is also a very dear friend of mine, it’s like doing a ballet with him. We’ve worked very intensely before, so that produces an absolute confidence, and when you have that you start breathing normally, you don’t get as injured as much as you would with someone who’s stiff and a bit scared.”

As a young man Neeson was an amateur boxer, who fought competitively until he was 17, and it’s a sport he credits with giving him discipline. “It gives you a respect for hard work, you know? As well as keeping you reasonably fit. You have to apply that if you’re lucky enough to get into films. There’s a physical discipline to getting up at six in the morning, shooting until six or seven and night, going home, doing your workout, eating, and going to bed, for two or three months. So the physical aspect of that training has stood me in good stead.”

No amount of training, though, could prepare him for the scene that sends his character into a coma, as Martin Harris’s cab plunges into an icy river. Neeson admits that “It was very very scary for me. I’m not a very strong swimmer—I came to it late, at the age of 20. I worked with Mark in a tank in a swimming pool to get used to it.”

On the day of shooting, sitting in a cab rigged to fill up with water, “I felt confident enough because Mark was there with the mask. So I bump my head, I’m [playing] unconscious, sitting there and the waters coming up and up, but once it got to there [points to his jaw] I just panicked, because I wasn’t in control. We got out, and Mark talked me through it, I took a lot of deep breaths and lowered myself back in.”

With his career revitalized, Neeson is hoping to start alternating film work with the theater. “The Abbey Theater asked me to do something this year. It’s not going to work out, but I do feel a need to go back to the theater. It’s kind of like a drug, or a muscle you have to exercise now and again. The last time was two years ago at Lincoln Center, so I’m due to go back. I’m on the lookout for something.

Watch the trailer for Unknown

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