Liam Neeson for “K-19: The Widowmaker”

Liam Neeson has always come across as a strapping 6 foot plus actor. The Irish actor seems to end up in films that are not the easiest to shoot. He had his share of problems shooting the special effects-laden Phantom Menace and now, back in his first major Hollywood film since, K-19: The Widowmaker, Neeson endured months of shooting the Cold War-set submarine saga in cramped conditions.

“It was a tough shoot to be sure” the quietly spoken but self-deprecated Irishman confirmed, chatting in a New York hotel room. “The first few weeks I was getting a good bang at least five times a day, so I’d learn where everything was, then the prop guys would move stuff for another shoot and it would start all over again.” In Widowmaker, Neeson plays a nuclear submarine’s second-in-command officer, to Harrison Ford’s tougher captain.

Being banged about on a cramped film set was a piece of cake in comparison to Neeson’s much publicised motorcycle accident two years ago which almost killed him just north of New York City. As a result, he suffered a broken pelvis, broken heel, and a multitude of abrasions when his motorcycle went out of control after colliding with a deer on a country road near his home. “At one point the deer was over my handle bars and I was trying to keep balanced.” Neeson spent a week in the hospital recovering from his near-death crash, then months of gruelling physiotherapy.

It was a horrific ordeal, and the actor remembers it clearly. “I remember being on my ’89 Springer Softail, an hour outside New York City, on a country road, the 11th of July, about 12 noon and was carrying my pannier bags, a bran muffin and a New York Times. And two bones for the pup. I had all this heavy gear on and in a blink of an eye a deer came out and started to climb over the motorbike. At one point I’ve got the handlebars and she’s hanging over this thing and her legs are caught in the spokes of the wheel and I’m trying to get balanced. My instinct is to get off the road even though there’s no traffic. I veer off and what I thought was solid is an embankment and I go down and hit a tree. I wasn’t unconscious; as I banged up against the tree, I had my helmet on, which saved my life, and the deer slithered into this ditch. I was saved by this young tree.”

It might have been a life and death moment for the 50-year old actor adds that “my wife told me that I’m still the same, grumpy old bastard that I ever was”, he laughingly adds. Yet, he says, quietly, life post the accident has been interesting and full of coincidences, he says. “For example, The Crucible came up when it did, and I was absolutely ready for it.” The accident, in some ironic twist of fate, prepared him for one of his greatest challenges as he took the play that initially inspired him to act some forty years ago, to Broadway at this time in his life. “The accident forced me to become incredibly fit and the way I played Proctor, it was also a very physical performance.”

Neeson admits that he accepts the big-budget Hollywood movies so that they “reinvigorate my desire to return to the theatre as often as possible.” The actor shuns the spotlight, preferring to live in New York, with his wife Natasha Richardson and their two sons, rather than Los Angeles. Neeson remains ferociously private, rarely giving interviews unless there is a reason, such as promoting a new movie. The actor has no illusions as to why he was sitting in a Manhattan hotel room talking to the press, instead of taking advantage of the city’s sunny weather.

“We’ve all been in this business for some time, and movies are, after all, a business. It’s wonderful that Paramount has sunk millions of dollars in telling this story but at the end of the day it is a product and they want a return on their investment so require Harrison and myself to sit down and talk.” Neeson admits that sometimes find that very difficult “because the older one gets the more you want to preserve your own privacy.” Neeson follows that philosophy in relation to other actors, and admits that he does not follow the tabloid exploits of his fellow actors. “I haven’t done so for a number of years, because I just get depressed reading the stuff.”

Neeson has appeared in over 60 films, having made his debut as Gawain in 1981’s Excalibur. Asked if the often intense actor saw himself as this perennially serious actor, Neeson merely retorts: “I take it you haven’t seen my comedic roles?” Neeson doesn’t take himself too seriously, but the good-natured and calm Thespian continues to be attracted to characters who, much like the actor himself, somehow exemplify Man’s inner goodness. Characters from Ireland’s Michael Collins to Oskar Schindler, Jean Valjean, Star Wars’ Qui-Gon Jinn or Mikhail Polenin in K-19. “I do tend to gravitate toward what guiding light we have,” says Neeson.

“If I read something that’s got those ethics in it, then I go towards it. We live in such a corporate world where everyone is passing the buck, it seems to me. Therefore I like stories where the individual takes responsibility for BEING the individual, and not just for himself, but for his comrades, his society and ultimately for his country. Ultimately, we can all learn a lesson from that and not be browbeaten by the corporate world which is taking over.” How ironic that here Neeson is, promoting a movie financed by an industry which remains symptomatic of that sense of corporatisation. “But at least Hollywood has been consistent and has always been that way.” At least it continues to give Neeson those shining light characters he loves to play, reinforced, perhaps, having stared death in the face and come back.

“Life’s been great, and now I long to return to the stage and maybe do a little play with the missus,” he concludes smilingly.