Liam Neeson Talks Working With A Different Joe Carnahan On The Grey
The Grey isnít the first movie that Liam Neeson has done with director Joe Carnahan. Back in 2010 the duo worked together to make The A-Team a fun action romp in which Neeson played the classic role of John "Hannibal" Smith. The Grey, however, is a completely different beast (and Iím not talking about the wolves). And working on such a different film required a different kind of director, a director that Joe Carnahan had to become.
I recently had the pleasure of participating in a roundtable interview with Neeson to discuss not only working with Carnahan on The Grey, but also the responsibility that comes with being a lead actor, the metaphorical ideas that the movie presents, and what it says about modern masculinity. Read on!
How well would you do in those conditions if you were thrown into them?
Iíd curl up and die. Yeah, especially 40 minus degrees, which it was our first week Ė minus 40 degrees. And I remember thinking, I donít know if you remember that scene where the airplane malfunctions and I have to sit up in the snow, but that was our first day, and I thought, weíre never going to finish this film. Itís impossible. And cameras were malfunctioning and equipment wasnít working, and I thought, ďthis is ludicrous.Ē
But did it trigger something very primal in you?
Well, the script kind of did Ė the script read like a 19th Century epic poem for me, something like ďThe Ancient MarinerĒ or something. 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.
Itís becoming an annual event for us to get to see you in January and February in these very physical roles. Whatís inspired you to take these films on in such a quick succession? Is it doing one successfully and getting offered more?
Thatís it, essentially. You know, Taken came out four years ago, three years ago, and theyíre offering me a lot of these action films, and I think, my knees can maybe hold out another year, but thatís it.
But youíre going to ride it out?
Iíll ride it out for at least a year, yeah. Weíre doing Taken 2 at the moment, and itís a lot of fighting and killing and stuff.
Was the Joe Carnahan who directed this film the same one who you made The A-Team with?
Kind of, pretty much. I think The Grey was very much his love child, so I think he was more sensitive than he was on The A-Team. But heís an alpha male, you know? Heís a throwback to those directors from the 30s and 40s, I think Ė Hathaway, Howard Hawks, John Ford. Heís a real throwback to those guys, you know, and I love that in a director. And Katherine Bigelow is the same; sheís the governor you know? And I love having a leader. And especially on a shoot like this, these conditions; you need someone whoís in charge and knows what theyíre doing.
After the initial draw of reading it and genuinely kind of falling in love with it, I then thought, how the fuck is he going to shoot this thing? We have extremes of temperature, winds and stuff, and then wolves and raging rivers and stuff, itís like, howís he going to shoot this stuff in 40 days? But he did Ė he did it.
You are the leader of this ensemble, however. What sort of responsibility did that place on you?
I donít know. I just like to be on time every morning, not keep a crew waiting or keep my fellow actors waiting; I try to set the standard in that, like if I have to be on the set at 7:30 then Iím on set at 7:30. Iím ready, you know? Iím a big stickler on that Ė you donít keep people waiting. Certainly not movie crews. And itís an unfortunate thing in our business that weíre constantly hearing stories of people misbehaving, you know, and I hate it because it reflects on me; thatís my craft, itís my profession, and weíre professionals. So thatís what I do, and I just made sure, okay, Iím the lead actor, so Iíll be on time and be the first out in the snow if I have to be, and whatever.
The characters in these action movies you appear in are all alpha males. Is that something you relate to in real life?
No. Thatís why I love Carnahan Ė heís a leader, and Iím so not a leader. I can play them, but in life, Iím not one.
So is it very satisfying to play them?
Yes Ė itís great. Itís great fun, because I know that Iím the opposite.
How much did the filmís themes and even the shoot itself force you to come to terms with your own mortality?
Well, when you reach the age of 59 and a half, you do reflect a lot on why youíre on this planet, and what weíre doing, you know? Itís a constant Ė it is with me, anyway.
Is that partly why you connected so deeply to the material?
Maybe, maybe it was, yeah. I wasnít consciously, but I knew certainly the emotional range of this guy, I could access [it] with a certain amount of ease. And I donít say that as a brag, it just was a comfortable fit.
I hope thereís a bit of a joyride to it, but that itís a good, thrilling film. Thereís an element of horror in it, and also an element of spirituality in it. But that itís a good ride! I know thatís a clichť, but hopefully theyíll be intrigued by it and itís not your normal survival movie, you know?
Because you canít play a theme, how do you juggle those larger metaphorical ideas as youíre dealing with the practicalities of the character and the environment? Do you just deal with each day pretty simply?
Yeah, pretty simply. And certainly when I read the script, and re-read it, I could see there were those elements there. And I love Greek mythology, and thereís a mythological element to this film, you know? But yeah, the rest of it, I would leave up to Joe, and try and play each scene for the truth of it, and all of the cast as well.
Is it easier to find the truth of a scene in films like this one, that are more realistic, or ones that are more fantastical?
Um, well certainly in the fantastical ones you still have to make them real. Like we just finished reshoots on Wrath of the Titans, and Iím playing Zeus and my buddy Ralph is playing Hades, and weíre saying fantastical things to each other and about each other. But you still have to try and make it real within that convention, within that genre. But sometimes itís easier than other genres, and sometimes itís not; it depends on the writing.
Sam Worthington recently said there were things in Clash of the Titans he wasnít happy about that he wanted to fix in Wrath. Were there things you were unhappy with that you wanted to sort of correct or explore differently?
Those Greek mythology stories are endless, thereís so many variations of them, and I thought it would be interesting if they explored a bit more of Zeus and my relationship to Perseus, or Sam, and to my brother Hades, Ralphís character. So weíve done that to a larger extent in this next one, with all of the thrills and spills to a movie like that has to have with various monsters and stuff.
Iíll tell you what I did. I remember seeing this documentary from a couple of years ago about this crazy Brit who swims from iceberg to iceberg in Antarctica. You know, you find these people sometimes, and he was this London guy, and he started preparing for these swims by standing under freezing cold showers for ten minutes, 15 minutes every morning, and I did that. I got up to seven minutes most mornings, and it actually works; it immunizes your body, and your body starts getting used to the cold. It really works. So that was my preparation.
What was the most memorable scene in the movie for you to shoot?
I donít know about that. I just loved being with the guys. There was a campfire scene where we get to tell our stories, and I liked doing that. Theyíre a fantastic bunch of actors, the best guys in the world.
How about working with the wolves?
Nasty fuckers, you know? No, I didnít work with any wolves Ė it was animatronics, puppetry. But they were vicious, and they werenít real, they were supposed to be kind of mythical, you know what I mean? Like the shark in Jaws Ė yeah, itís a great white, but itís bigger than a great white, and itís got a mythic proportion to it. So we tried to do the same with these wolves.
Because of the mythical aspects of the story, did you find yourselves discussing those aspects off set?
Sometimes, yeah. I mean, there were no trailers on the locations we were at. Between setups, weíd share this cat, this vehicle with caterpillar tracks for that terrain, and weíd all share that. And weíd talk about Ė a lot of dirty jokes, weíre a bunch of guys. But occasionally weíd dip into the metaphysics and we became very close Ė very good friends.
Iím scared of heights. Heights give me a real Ė you know that iconic black and white photograph of those guys sitting on a girder having their lunch break? Describing Ė even thinking about that now is making me [uncomfortable]. I get dizzy on a thick carpet; heights just donít do it for me. Thatís a big fear, actually. I canít go on roller coaster rides with my kids, I never could. ďDad, please! Dad, please?Ē Sorry, I love you to death but Iím not getting on that thing. I couldnít do it.
Flying is okay?
Flying is alright, yeah.
They said you had to get on a plane the day after you shot the plane crash?
Oh, I know. I know. We were all [whistling]; nobodyís talking about airplanes as this thing is [shaking]. And then of course, once we got up in the air, everyone was like, ďwhew, okay!Ē
This is about very masculine men, but we live in an era of metrosexuality. What does this film have to say about modern masculinity?
Wow. I knew it would be you, I just knew it coming into the room. You tell me, what do you think it says about modern masculinity?
It certainly explores the range of what it means to be a man now.
You think? Well, I think in general it does touch on manís general fear Ė I donít think for this generation, but for my generation and my fatherís generation, of difficulty in accessing emotion and then being able to talk about it. I think it certainly touches on that, and these guys, these characters in this film find it very, very hard to relate certainly to themselves and to one another. Which is one of the nice things about the film, that they do, in a way, they do share in a very primitive, basic way.
It seems like once they tap into that primitive feeling, theyíre more easily able to communicate emotionally with one another.
Yeah, yeah. Because thereís nothing to hide behind anymore; itís us versus these elements. Frankís character, he plays it beautifully; he pretends heís got this machismo, but I think ultimately it breaks down, the way it has to. And then his real spirit comes out, and itís fantastic Ė and he plays it beautiful too, you know?
Itís like in order to reach that part where they can genuinely communicate, they should access this much more masculine side Ė that itís a simpler thing.
Well, I guess weíve all experienced that, right? Sometimes you have an emotion or something inside yourself that you canít talk about, and somebody taps you in a different way, or sometimes even a complete stranger, suddenly you open yourself up and youíre telling a complete stranger your life story. And then the relief you feel when youíve shared whatever that thing is, and you think, God, that was so easy to do.
Because the first Taken was a surprise hit, do you feel more empowered, or more pressure?
Youíll have to wait and see. But thereís a few thrills.
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