A Walk Among The Tombstones: Liam Neeson Interview

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC A Walk Among The Tombstones: Liam Neeson Interview

Irish born actor, Liam Neeson, is the unlikely action hero. Yet, film after film, he keeps coming up with new takes on the genre that are better than one before. Enter director Scott Frank’s thriller, “A Walk Among The Tombstones,” out on Blu-ray and DVD on 18th January, courtesy of Entertainment One, and you have his latest action classic.

The film is based on Lawrence Block’s bestselling series of mystery novels about former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder, who works as an unlicensed private eye. Neeson stars as Scudder, who agrees to help a drug trafficker (Dan Stevens) hunt down the men who murdered his wife.

“Tombstones” is a bleak and gritty film. And it seems acting “bleak” is what keeps Neeson standing upright. It was only five years ago that he lost his wife, true love, Natasha Richardson, who died of a head injury from a skiing accident.

Then his 31-year-old nephew, Ronan Sexton, has been in danger of a similar fate when he reportedly climbed to the top of a telephone box during a night out with friends in Brighton, England, for the weekend. Seems he slipped and fell off the top of the pole and hit his head on the street pavement below and was hospitalized this Summer fighting for his life.

Neeson isn’t the timid type either. When there was a political campaign in New York City to take the horse drawn carriages off the streets, Neeson was a vocal opponent to keep them just where they’ve been for over 100 years. Not the most popular stance to take.

And then there’s his feelings about drugs and alcohol and his recent admission about substance abuse struggles that he battled over the last 15 years. As he explained to GQ magazine, he wasn’t much into drugs before a motorcycle accident that nearly took his life led him to a dalliance with painkillers.

He blames a motorcycle crash in the year 2000 for the start of his addiction woes. “I wasn’t supposed to last the night,” he revealed in an interview earlier this year. “And when they took me to the hospital and gave me morphine, ugh, I thought, ‘This is how I want to go, with a big fuckin’ jar of this stuff.’ And then when they give you that drip that you give yourself every six minutes… I knew I was hooked, because I was counting those fucking drips, the seconds until I could push that button, and it was instantaneous, that high was.”

Neeson ultimately beat his addiction to painkillers but it left him with a greater concern – how illicit chemicals can influence teenagers. A subject very personal to him as his kids are now teenagers as well.

“There’s a worry nowadays, with every parent I’ve spoken to. It’s fucking drugs. It’s a virus,” he said. “A teenager can take it and suddenly they can be hooked, and it changes their life and their family’s forever. That’s my constant worry.”

“I was drinking too much. It started since my wife died,” he admitted. “It was like, so easy to just… Never at work, never would do it like that, but this time of night? Sitting with you, I’d easily have–I’d be on my second bottle. Before we finished, I would have been halfway down a third–and be totally fine! Pinot Noir: That’s all I drink. I was never into spirits or liquor, hard liquor. And I gave up the Guinness years ago, because it just–past an age, it sticks to you, you know?”

Q: For the record, here I am talking with Mr. Liam Neeson.

LN: It makes me feel like a sixty-two year old, when you call me Mister.

Q: It’s just out of respect. I’m not making your age a factor. Despite your age…

LN: (Laughs.)

Q: Another fantastic performance here. Another one of these, from my perspective, these larger than life roles that you play so well. And I’m wondering if you have the same kind of opinion of a lot of these guys you play, and what your hook was, what your in was, to give this guy a different spin was, that made him so different for you to want to play.

LN: I was just telling somebody earlier on, I’m just attracted to, since I was a kid in Ireland, watching Robert Mitchum on TV, or Steve McQueen, or Charles Bronson, to a certain extent. There’s just something very noble and damaged about those sort of American cinematic heroes. I just find them very appealing. So to get the chance to do this, this is very much one of those sorts of characters, you know? Not good in the relationship world, and tortured. In Matt Scudder’s case, a recovering alcoholic, so, those guys, you know, they wake up in the morning, and they have to think of a reason to get up. And then once they’re up to not have a drink. All these little heroic battles they have, they fight with and against every day of their lives. And I think that Scott brought that out really beautifully in the film. So he’s not larger than life, he’s just one of us, really, but his career was in the police force, you know, and these guys see a part of humanity that we don’t want to deal with, on a daily basis.

Q: When I interviewed (director) Scott Frank earlier, he mentioned sometimes some character’s like yours have to find the worst in themselves, before they can find the best. I was wondering if you could comment on that, as part of your human role?

LN: Did Scott say that? He probably would, he’s a writer. Yes, Scott had mentioned that to me, when we’d met, in the early days. I wanted to find some kind of research I could do, other than reading Larry’s book, Lawrence Block’s, books. I know some policemen, on the NYPD, and one of them I know very, very well. I was in to get access to documentaries on serial killers, and not just the crimes, but the police work that went into tracking them down, which was very, very fascinating. Any little minutiae of evidence they would find, and put it together with this, and does it connect, and oh my god, it does connect. That was fascinating, you know. I thought Scott had done that on a continual basis, and maybe, unbeknownst to himself, it brings out the good in him. Because I think he is a good, righteous old-fashioned kind of man. I think he has certain pillars of ethics that never change, even though he’s kind of fucked up in a lot of ways. But he’s essentially a good man, you know? I’m not really answering your question, am I?

Q: You are attracted to characters that are loners. Would you consider yourself a loner in real life?

LN: I’d like to think I am, you know? No, I don’t think… No man’s an island, as they say. I’ve tried it – I’ve gone on various retreats in my life, for three or four days, and I get desperate to get out of there, and talk to somebody. But I fly-fish a lot, and I can do that really only by myself. I’m never lonesome, when I’m on the river, far from it, but it’s a lonely practice.

Q: So, your schedule’s been packed. You’ve been taking a lot of projects, recently. Your kids are probably on their way off to college, now, both are getting kind of close to college age. How do you balance all the work, with spending the time with the kids, and what support do you get, in terms of picking projects, and balancing that perfect life?

LN: Oh yeah, I’ve got to. Mental note: must call. Listen, I have a great support team, I really do. Fantastic family… If I’m away on a project, my mother-in-law moves in. We’re sort of like chess pieces, you know? (Laughs.) But yes, it’s always a balance. I’m very fortunate to get to play these characters, at this stage in my life. I love doing it, and I’ll keep doing it as long as they keep sending me scripts, you know? And my kids are used to it. From when they were born – one of them was born on location. So they’re used to dad being away for certain periods of time. So far, it’s worked out okay. They’re not damaged.

Q: You’ve got some great action scenes in this. You take a couple of hits, you get a bloody nose… Do you like doing those action scenes, and is there a way that you keep yourself safe, from little bumps and bruises?

LN: Well, I love doing them, and I have a great fight coordinator, who’s my stunt double too, called Mark Vanselow. We’ve done sixteen films now. So we work very, very closely with each other. I don’t do my own stunts, but I do my own fighting and stuff. I love doing that stuff. Yeah, that’s always fun to do. In this film, it’s important to kind of make it real, it’s not that cinema fight stuff. We wanted to make it very dark and gruesome and ugly, you know? You don’t know where punches were coming from, and stuff – the way it would be in real life.

Q: Did you get any little bumps or bruises?

LN: No, I haven’t, I haven’t. Occasionally you get a few knocks, but slap on the Arnica and it’s gone, you know?

Q: Do you have an exercise routine or special training to be ready for whatever role of action comes?

LN: I keep pretty fit, in life. I would step up the regime, a couple of months before we start. I do a whole mixture of stuff; it’s not strictly this regime, or that regime. I do a lot of power walking. I use a lot of kettle bells. Do you know what they are? They’re great. Making a film, you do need stamina, whether you’re doing fight scenes or not. They’re long days, especially… ‘Tombstones’ was set on eight weeks of night shoots, so you do need stamina for that work, so it’s important to keep fit, and I’m not talking about having perfect abs or stuff, but you have to be on top of your game, especially if you’re playing the lead. You have to be there, you know? It takes stamina. You have to look after yourself.

Q: Talk about that flashback scene. Normally you’re a bloke, because you have that great hair and everything, but also because…

LN: It’s all my own, too. Very proud. Good genes. (Laughs.)

Q: Yes the hair, the awesome hair. 

LN: (Laughs.)

Q: What I really like about the flashback scene was that it establishes where this guy is. Where he is, at this point. Can you talk a little bit about doing this scene, because it’s kind of an extended scene, and we keep coming back to it. And secondly, I spoke with Maggie Grace about a week ago, and I asked her to sum you up in one word, and she came up with “goofy.” 

LN: Goofy!? (Laughs.)

Q: I know, it surprised me, too. how would you sum yourself up in one word?

LN: Goofy’s not bad. My daughter actually called me that. So I might have to agree with Maggie on that… But my daughter? Next time I’m going to give her away. Take her…

Q: Tell me a little bit about executing that flashback scene?

LN: We shot it, I think it was two or three days. We had access to an area North of Manhattan. We had that whole set of steps, where the bad guy falls down and stuff. It was on a Saturday, and we shot that bar scene during that week. So it was really only two or three days of the wig, and all this stuff. And it was, I wanted to avoid that classic drunk… That’s really hard to do, to act drunk. But a functioning drunk, that’s a different thing. I tried to do a little thing, I hope it’s in the film, I haven’t seen it in some time. But when I follow the bad guy, when I come out of the bar, it’s like, “Oh, fuck, this is great.” But he’s had at least four whiskeys in him, now, and then that leads to the carelessness, and this horrible death. So there’s this ‘Action Jackson’ stuff, but it was very, very carefully choreographed. Scott was very, very careful about that stuff. Even if I ran, just how I would run? Would I run a straight line, or would I be a bit squiggly, after I’ve had these few drinks? And I thought, “No, he’s done this for years.” He’d run absolutely in a straight line, but in his head it might be a bit squiggly, you know?  Well, anyway, that was that.

Q: I feel sometimes, a movie like this, like ‘Tombstones’, it will be ignored just because it has action in it. So may, people aside, do you get frustrated when great movies sometimes just get ignored?

LN: The whole awards thing is, listen, I think they’re great. Why does the Golden Globes, the Academy, it puts a focus on the industry, and that focus translates into people buying tickets to see movies. Or download films. It keeps us all in work. So I’m a big fan of award shows. But it takes a hell of a lot of money to mount a campaign for any film. So a picture like ‘The Grey’, that came out in January, February, and then the closing date for that year’s consideration is December. And it takes an awful lot of money to remind people again. To put a film out again. I think they showed ‘The Grey’ in a couple of theaters here. It’s okay, it’s not really frustrating. What was it (the late) Lauren Bacall said, “Great medium. Lousy business.” It’s all right, it’s always been that way. And I think ‘The Grey’ is a lovely film. I’m very, very proud of doing that, whether it wins awards or not. It doesn’t matter.

Q: You do a lot of thrillers. Your characters are always heroic, but your characters are always are VERY real people. It’s real things that could happen in real life. What is your take was on that? Do you always happen to fall into these characters because you’re so wonderful at it? Is there a specific reason why you choose these characters? Or is it just because you’re so good at it?  

LN: I was in my fifties when this ‘Taken’ movie came out. I was sure it was just a straight-to-video, good little European thriller, well-made. And Fox Studios took it and did this amazing sell job, and they showed the trailer at big sporting events, and the film became a hit. I started to get sent these action scripts, in my fifties. It was very flattering, and I felt like a kid in a toy shop, and why not do them? But I always wanted to, I didn’t want to become like a twenty-seven year old, you know what I mean? I try, in some of these fight scenes, to fight as a fifty year old. Even though I’m sixty-two, but… so, I’m not playing these superheroes, not the sort of super-hero type, you know? I just have always been attracted to that type of cinema hero as an adolescent, growing up in Ireland. Robert Mitchum springs to mind. Later on, it was Steve McQueen, and to a certain extent, Charles Bronson. Those types of grizzled characters, who have one foot on the side of law and order, and one foot in the bad guy’s camp. Do you know what I mean? Always treading a very delicate line. I just find them very appealing. It’s great to get a chance to do that, you know? I’m glad you think they’re real, because that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s not super-hero time.



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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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