Liam Neeson may be one of the most accomplished actors in modern-day Hollywood, but it’s easy to look at his recent films and see only the arc of an action hero. At first glance, his new project Memory seems to fall into that category as well, continuing along a path that started in earnest with Neeson’s 2008 hit Taken. But as Alex Lewis in Memory, Neeson also gets an opportunity to find “shades of gray” in this character, something that wasn’t necessarily available in many of his previous action roles.
That’s because Lewis isn’t just another character with, as Neeson calls it, a “certain set of skills.” While he’s still capable of taking out anyone in his path, Lewis also suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s, an affliction that compromises the precision and accuracy required for a line of work that involves killing people without leaving a trace.
Neeson recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his role and the film, which was directed by acclaimed action filmmaker Martin Campbell (The Mask Of Zorro, Casino Royale). He also reflected on his approach to projects like this, and discussed coming to terms with a body of work that, by his count, now spans more than 100 films.
The A.V. Club: You’ve played a number of roles since Taken that, at least on the surface, seem similar. But with Memory and the recent Blacklight, does it feel like you’ve found the morality of these characters has become more complex? Or do they simply reflect the more complex nature of the world itself?
Liam Neeson: Yes, I think that’s a good point, actually. And I’m very, very aware of it. Certainly with Blacklight and especially with Memory, which we shot in Bulgaria coming up to a year ago, it was a very, very interesting character to get into this whole experience because he’s suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s dementia. So it really gave a nice richness to the character and also a moral dilemma, too. But there’s lots of shades of gray, as his brain capacity is gradually being diminished.
AVC: Is it a joy or a challenge to find new dimensions to roles like this, which can overlap with other characters that audiences might be familiar with?
LN: It’s certainly a joy. I mean, it’s great to play these action heroes, fighting bad guys and all the rest of it. I think audiences vicariously live through you, through their heroes. But as an actor, it’s great to get your teeth into something that has a more of a texture to the character. And Alex Lewis certainly is one of the more complex hit men I’ve played.
AVC: You’ve had so many great opportunities to play these characters as you’ve gotten older. Are they also an opportunity for you to live vicariously through these characters? Do they keep you young?
LN: Well, to be offered the part in the first place is a real joy. And I still get a kick out of that. I usually say to my agent on the phone, I say, “I read that Chris, it’s really good. But they know what age I am, yes?” Chris will usually say yes, they do, and I’ll say, “Okay, I’ll be there!” So I turned 70 in June, and I keep pretty fit. I’m not a gym rat, but I keep pretty fit—because you have to. Certainly if you’re playing the lead in any movie, it doesn’t have to be an action movie, you have to be there every morning, five days a week, six days a week, ridiculously early hours. And so that requires a certain amount of stamina. And you have anywhere from 60 to 100 people in the crew waiting for you. So you have to keep yourself together, make sure you get your sleep, make sure you look after yourself, make sure you eat well. And I get a kick out of it, I do. I love hanging out with these stunt guys and evolving fight sequences and stuff. I get a joy out of it, I must admit, that they’re still offering me these things, you know? So I feel very, very lucky and very blessed.
AVC: We think of actors transforming themselves in these roles. How interested have you been in that as a creative exercise? And can you tap into these elements pretty easily now, or is it still a challenge?
LN: I don’t know that it’s tough. I always think of the late, great James Cagney, who some ingenue was asking him once on a film, she—I think it was a lady—asked how she should approach a scene. Cagney had said to her, “Walk in the room, plant your feet, speak the truth.” I kind of always think of that before I start a piece of work, just to strip away all the ego, all the rest of it, and just try to say the words as the writer intended to, and that the audience believe what’s coming out of my mouth. It’s as simple as that—and as complicated as that too.
Obviously having someone like Alex Lewis to play, there’s any amount of research I did, watching documentary films on Alzheimer’s, dementia, reading some books on it too, and I have a friend in Ireland whois going through the early stages of dementia at the minute. And it’s troubling and it’s traumatic and yet it’s absolutely fascinating. And it’s an affliction, a disease that many of us know, if not in our immediate family, certainly in our families’ circle of friends. But that being said, we’re making a piece of entertainment and it’s an action thriller. And our lead character is gradually being afflicted by this disease. And so moral questions, ethical questions suddenly become shades of gray rather than black and white.
AVC: Martin Campbell obviously has a remarkable pedigree as an action filmmaker. What does he bring to a movie like this compared to some of the upstarts that you’ve worked with on some of your other films?
LN: I like that, “upstarts.” Martin’s old school, by that I mean, he’s my type of director. He’s always aware of the thrust of the film, the arc of the film, where it’s going, where it needs to be paced up or taken down. Works very, very closely with his actors, worked very closely with me, and especially with little bits of stuff I wanted to add as regard to showing the progression of this Alzheimer’s affliction. So I relied very, very heavily on Martin to say, “Take it back a little, Liam, that’s too much,” or, “Maybe a little bit more of this,” which was great because he’s the outside eye that can see it. But I also worked with some very good upstarts as well. Jaume Collet-Serra is a friend and we’ve done three films together. I just love that guy, too. He’s like a younger version of Martin, always thinking of the thrust of the film, the story, so that we don’t lose an audience.
AVC: Preparing for this reminded me of when I was 15 and Darkman was my favorite movie of all time. In an era of lega-sequels, where people are bringing characters back, whether it’s Peyton Westlake or someone else, is there a character you’d be interested in revisiting?
LN: Good question. I have to say no, that’s boring. Nobody’s springing to mind. Peyton Westlake was fun to do, I must admit. That was great to do with [Sam Raimi]. No, but you’ve got me thinking. I’ve made a hundred films up until last Christmas past. One hundred. I’m staggered at that, absolutely staggered. But, God, you’ve got me thinking, man. I’ll get back to you on that.