Liam Neeson: “Our age of insularity is a big issue”

Liam Neeson is busier than Southern Rail's complaints department. Now, with runaway train thriller The Commuter, he's firmly back on the Taken branchline

Liam Neeson has been a professional actor for over four decades, moving into Hollywood’s A-list in 1993 with the lead role in Schindler’s List. He has an astonishing work ethic, barely missing releasing a film each year and often putting out several films over the space of 12 months. With an output like that, however, quality can be variable.

The Taken franchise, starting in 2008, helped position him as a twilight-years action hero, bringing an everyman element to a genre that often applauds dumb muscle. He will do more meditative films – like Martin Scorsese’s Silence in 2016 – that hark back to his astonishing turn in Lamb in 1985 where he played a Catholic priest facing an existential crisis; but then he’ll show up in a hammy remake of The A-Team and you’re left wondering what kind of actor he wants to be.

My character is an average Joe. I think audiences like that

His new film, The Commuter, is basically ‘Taken On A Train’, the Hitchcockian trick here being that it’s played out, for the most part, in real time. It’s high-octane with plenty of punch-ups, double crossing, shootings and a runaway train. While ostensibly about a commute that goes very wrong, it is also, you hope, keenly aware of its own sense of ridiculousness.

In it, Neeson’s character Michael MacCauley – an ex-cop-turned-insurance-salesman – has to actually speak to other commuters to solve a potential disaster that he himself, in a desperate moment, triggers. In an age of insularity propelled by social media and smartphones, is the idea of people sharing a train and talking to each other just ludicrous fiction?

“You’ve brought up a huge, big issue there – a huge, big question,” he says, his baritone voice slowing down as he chews it over. “We are trying to make a thriller film. It’s set on a train. People that you see every day of your working life are doing that commute. Then a stressful situation happens and it gets built upon. One of the things that I loved about the original script was the fact that this little community of people actually stand up for each other.”

Amid the derring-do, there are moments of intentional comedy, such as an “I’m Spartacus” reference, and some that are perhaps less intentional, such as Neeson battering someone with a guitar like Pete Townshend worrying about his lumbago. At this stage in the genre’s evolution, is it basically impossible to do a totally straight action film?

Since that first Taken film, which is now 10 years ago, Hollywood seems to have put me in a different category

“With any action film, there is always a moment or two to where you have to suspend disbelief,” he says. “You just have to.”

Neeson was not always going to be an actor and  from the age of nine trained as a boxer, rising to become an Ulster amateur boxing champion but giving it up to move into acting. So, in some ways, his oscillation between introspective and gung-ho films are his youth in microcosm – torn between the artistic and the pugilistic.

“Boxing training gave me a wonderful physical discipline and respect,” he argues. “I was always an avid trainer as a kid and doing these action films, when there are physical altercations in them, it requires a lot of rehearsing – repetitive rehearsing. When we execute the fight in front of the camera for the first time, we try and make it look as if we’re doing it for the first time. That’s a difficult one. That’s a thing we try and aim for.”

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Unlike other action heroes, Neeson, given his looks and the fact he is 65, embodies the conventional man pushed to the extreme – like Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman if he’d had boxing training.

“It is kind of an everyman situation,” he says of The Commuter. “Leaving the Taken movies aside, because it’s a guy with a certain set of skills, in this instance, this guy is an insurance salesman. He has been for 10 years and he used to be a cop – but he is an average Joe. I think audiences like that. And I think that is a great premise to start any action film with. An audience can see the hero or heroine and think, ‘Oh, I kind of know that person.’”

On that issue of relatability, a sub-theme of the film is the 2007-2008 banking crisis, sitting like a low-level Chekhov’s gun. MacCauley is an immigrant, coming to America as a youth with the debts run up by his reckless father weighing him down, instilling in him a sense of financial caution in his own life. He did everything by the book, rising to the middle classes with two mortgages and crippling university fees looming for his son. Yet the economic collapse has him on the horns of impending bankruptcy.

Well, I keep my money under the bed and I have done since 2009

As political as the film gets is when Michael discovers a fellow commuter – a hopelessly crass caricature of a Wall Street banker with his slicked-back hair, expensive suit and towering arrogance that would have felt pathetically clichéd 30 years ago – reveals he worked at Goldman Sachs a decade ago. “On behalf of the American middle class,” intones a furious Michael as he moves in close to his face and flips him the bird, “fuck you!”

It’s the closest the film comes to having an ideological message. Except the director refuses to see it that way.

“I don’t think it’s about the middle-class or that particular [financial] crisis,” says a defensive Jaume Collet-Serra, who has previously worked with Neeson on Unknown (2011), Non-Stop (2014) and Run All Night (2015). “We just needed to tailor the circumstances around this character and explain why he makes the decisions he makes. For me, it is not a specific commentary on the American crisis of 2008 and all of that.”

Except it’s explicitly mentioned in the film.

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Director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson pictured at the French premiere of the film – re-titled The Passenger

“It is explicitly mentioned,” he accepts. “But that is not what the movie is about.” But that’s precisely what it’s about. It’s about a character finding himself falling down a financial hole and being so desperate that he’ll do anything to save his comfortable life. It’s about the toxic allure of money as a quick fix that did for the global banks as much as it threatens to do for everyman Michael MacCauley.

As I come from near Ballymena in Northern Ireland where Neeson himself grew up – a real fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian market town where ostentation is a sin – I ask him if we could all have learned from the local farmers who are exceptionally parsimonious and always had enormous distrust of banks. 

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"Where are we going with this?" asks Neeson, unlikely to pop into Ballymena's The Grouse with Eamonn next time he's visiting...

“Well, I keep my money under the bed!” he deadpans. “And I have done since 2009.”

Sensing a sense of humour lurking amid the undergrowth of his gruffness and austerity, I try to push the Ballymena farmer analogy further, except it lands like a cow pat in the top field. Neeson, his hackles rising, asks where I am trying to go with this. I attempt to explain it was a joke to lighten the mood, but his alarming Pinter-esque silence is the cue to get this interview train back on the tracks.

I ask him where he feels The Commuter slots into his fitful body of work. “Since that first Taken film, which is now 10 years ago, Hollywood seems to have put me in a different category,” he says, although it’s hard to ignore the fact that action films will likely pay him a lot more than arthouse ones.

Perhaps keen to force the point that he’s not all about schlock and ludicrous fees, he wheels out the names of the most respected directors he’s collaborated with recently. “It’s still nice to go off to work with Scorsese for a few weeks on a film,” he says. “Steve McQueen – I did something with in Chicago last year. The Coen brothers – I have nearly completed a little film with them.”

So flitting between high and low cinema, cherry picking the best of both worlds?

“It’s nice to mix it up,” he says. “I’m lucky.”