Arts

This ain't my stop: Liam Neeson has no plans to quit action roles after The Commuter

With numerous action films under his belt, Liam Neeson is known for throwing some serious punches – and fast-paced thriller The Commuter sees him on top form. The Ballymena man tells Georgia Humphreys how, despite being 65, he won't be giving up the genre anytime soon

Liam Neeson plays retired New York cop Michael MacCauley in The Commuter

LIAM Neeson may play the ultimate tough guy on screen – but put him in traffic, and he insists he doesn't feel very brave.

"There's crazy drivers out there," the actor admits in his slow and tranquil Co Antrim tones. "That always scares me a little bit."

Neeson (65), who began acting on the stage of Belfast's Lyric theatre, has starred in everything from fantasy epics (Excalibur) and historical dramas (The Mission) to romcoms (Love Actually) and superhero flicks (Batman Begins), and was of course nominated for an Oscar for his role in the Steven Spielberg Holocaust epic Schindler's List.

And yet, in the latter part of his career, it's action roles, like his hit film Taken, which we've arguably come to associate most with him.

When it comes to The Commuter, his latest fight-scene-heavy film, the appeal was the chance to collaborate with director Jaume Collet-Serra for the fourth time.

"When we did Non-Stop, which was set on an aeroplane, I just thought he was so inventive, considering we were on set for three months, with his camera angles and stuff – always telling the story, never showing off with the camera," says the actor, fresh from having received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award from President Michael D Higgins last week for his contribution to Ireland and to humanity.

And Neeson says Collet-Serra has done the same with The Commuter – only this time, the drama takes place on a train in New York.

"We shot it all on one-and-a-half carriages – it was a set in Pinewood studios. So, his preparation was meticulous. I thought it was a really good build-up of tension in the story."

As you've probably guessed by now, the film revolves around something that is normally anything but exciting – yep, the daily commute.

And, at first, former cop Michael MacCauley (played by Neeson), who lives with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman), seems like a pretty ordinary man. Every day he wakes up early, is dropped at the station, and embarks on his route into New York city, where he works as an insurance salesman.

But it becomes clear he's struggling financially, especially as his son is about to head off to college, and one day, things take a huge turn for the worse when he's fired from his job.

Then, on his journey home a few hours later, he's faced with a unimaginable moral conundrum.

A mysterious stranger (played by Vera Farmiga) offers him a huge sum of money – but only if he agrees to find the identity of the passenger "who doesn't belong" on his train before the last stop. When he tries to do so, he becomes caught up in a criminal conspiracy that puts everybody's lives at stake.

"The story almost plays in real time," explains Neeson. "The tension cranks up at every stop as new passengers get on, and another clue is left for him.

"The danger gradually gets greater and greater and the film becomes this really fast-paced psychological thriller along the lines of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest."

Similarly to his role in Taken, Neeson, who has two sons of his own, depicts a man who is in a race against time to save people he loves.

Asked how important it is for him to try to create different characters each time within the action genre, he says: "I'm not one of those actors that goes in and tries changing my voice, or putting on false noses, to be different. I'm not very good at all that stuff."

But what he did want to achieve with The Commuter is to play someone that audiences can empathise with.

"The guy's reached the age of 60," he explains, before getting sidetracked and adding with a chuckle: "I'm 65, so I tried to get it down to 55, but the director said, 'No, it has to be 60'.

"He loses his job, because he's reached that age – they want younger blood in," he continues of his character Michael. "So, I think audiences kind of identify with that, unfortunately – certainly in America, and maybe it's true in Britain too. The middle class has been shattered."

On the topic of getting older, does Neeson think men face the same sort of ageism as women do in the acting industry?

"I have lots of friends who are brilliant actresses and they haven't worked as much as they should have done on film," says the actor, who hit the headlines last weekend for telling viewers of The Late Late Show that the Hollywood sexual harassment scandal has sparked "a bit of a witch hunt". "It can be tough on guys too, but it's really hard for women."

Indeed, one could argue that Neeson has successfully reshaped any idea that action roles are meant for younger men. He certainly seems to have embraced the physical preparation needed for The Commuter.

"I'd rehearse and rehearse with Mark and the stunt guys – you have to, otherwise you get hurt – after the shooting day ended," he says. "And it was great fun.

"It demands a level of fitness, so I was in the gym for 45 minutes every morning before going on set, but that's part of the fun."

And don't believe any rumours that he plans to retire from films like The Commuter any time soon.

"I'm planning to do a couple more in this genre, one more with Jaume next year, all being well," he reveals. "I'd like to think that I know when an audience is going to look at me and go, 'Oh come on! You can't outrun a train! You can't outrun a horse! Don't be stupid'. So then I'll get out of that genre, I think.

"But, at the moment, I'm fit and I keep healthy. We'll see how it goes."

:: The Commuter is in cinemas from today.

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