Liam Neeson - 'A sex symbol? Flattering, but I don't think so'

With five films out this year, Hollywood disagrees with Liam Neeson's view he might be past his sell-by date. The chatty star of Schindler's List tells Gill Pringle about his new nautical role – and the time he serenaded Paul McCartney with a Beatles medley...

"A sex symbol? A symbol of sex?" repeats Liam Neeson, trying the words on for size and debating whether or not he has still got what it takes. Most female audiences would argue that he most definitely has, but he remains unconvinced. "I don't think that I am a sex symbol, although it's very flattering. I'm 59, now, so I think I'm possibly past my sell-by date. I think I am."

Hollywood clearly disagrees, making him one of the busiest actors in town, featuring in five movies this year alone, including Battleship, Wrath of the Titans and The Dark Knight Rises.

There's also another school of thought – that he's buried himself in work as a coping mechanism, still grieving over the untimely death of his beloved wife, Natasha Richardson, from a skiing accident three years ago.

Quick to correct that false assumption, he says, "It just seems that way. I've got five coming out this year which is silly. So it seems like I'm working all the time when I actually have two or three months off in between.

"But it's good. I'm so touched that complete strangers will send me a script asking me to be in their film. That still amazes me – and sometimes for a lot of money too. It's like, 'You've gotta be kidding!' I believe in making hay while the sun shines. Work is work. It's great to get the chance to do it, to be honest."

One of those films is Battleship, where he plays a naval commander battling alien enemies alongside Rihanna and Taylor Kitsch, something he rather enjoyed. "The other cast had to go off and do boot camp, but not me. As admiral of the fleet, I give the orders. Everybody's saluting you all of the time. It's terrific.

"On my first day on the set in Hawaii, there I was dressed up in my impressive uniform, walking on board the ship to address 500 cadets but, unbeknownst to me, all the extras were real naval personnel, and, because I had all this stuff on, everybody stood to attention. I said, 'No, no, no, it's Liam – not sir!' Even if you have to find the bathroom, they all stand.

"But it was a chance to work in Pearl Harbour on this incredible ship, the USS Missouri, which was where World War Two officially ended, the Japanese surrendered on board that ship. It was a little bit of history for me."

Though he doesn't actually share any scenes with Rihanna, he sheepishly admits to having his photo taken with her. "She's a lovely girl, but I don't know her music, I'm ashamed to say. I stopped listening to music when John Lennon was shot – it has been that long ago."

Trying to recall if he has filmed at sea since 1984's The Bounty with Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson, he suddenly remembers sailing with Sir Paul McCartney: "Paul tried to give me a sailing lesson about 10 years ago. It was on one of those little Sunkissts, those little plastic boats. He took me out for an hour and a half. He didn't sing, but I did. I think I did half The Beatles' repertoire. He wasn't impressed."

Whether or not alien life forms exist, as in Battleship, he's undecided: "It's a big universe; I think there has got to be something. Whether it has got three heads or two eyes, I don't know. But do they look like ET? I doubt it. But I think there must be some other life forms, even if they're microscopic. It's just too vast for there not to be."

These days, he's pretty much open to any theory, his own faith wavering over the years. "I'm a spiritualist – let's put it that way. I was brought up a Catholic in a very religious family, but a lot of that has slipped away – although you carry the Catholic guilt forever. I know I do," he smiles. "But I think it's something we all ask ourselves every day, not consciously: what are we doing on this planet? What's it all about?"

Engaging in lengthy, often witty conversation, Neeson will mention his late wife while never once actually uttering her name, almost like a magical talisman whose name mustn't be spoken aloud for fear of losing its potency. Even at the happiest times, he has a forlorn, world-weary expression which often gets mistaken for sorrow.

Clearly tired of being treated with kid gloves, he signalled his readiness to enjoy a good laugh as much as the next man by appearing last year on Ricky Gervais's Life's Too Short, sending himself up in a sketch where he dolefully expressed his desire to get into comedy, even suggesting that Steven Spielberg hired him for Schindler's List on account of his penchant for list-making.

But he doesn't imagine a second career in stand-up beckons: "I don't think I'm very funny," he apologises. "I was only any good because of Ricky and Stephen [Merchant]. You should see the out-takes. I can't tell a joke to save my life."

A practical man, he remains steadfastly focused on family, raising his two teenage sons while maintaining a long-distance relationship with the British PR Freya St Johnston.

Talk to him about single parenting and disciplining his boys, and he laughs: "Strike them regularly. Like gongs! But, seriously, I don't know if I'm a strict parent or a pushover. You'd need to ask them that. Now that they're getting older, we have some good conversations."

A former fork-lift driver and amateur boxer standing at 6ft 4in, his powerful physical presence has led to his embodiment of epic screen heroes such as Rob Roy, Michael Collins, Les Misérables' Valjean, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace's Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, Wrath of the Titans' Greek God Zeus and as Schindler's List's Oskar Schindler, for which he earned an Oscar nod.

"I've had an unbelievable life. I've been very lucky. You do create your own luck too, you know?" he says softly. "I never forget where I'm from. Whenever I pass a building site or see somebody digging a ditch, I always think, 'That's real work'."

Refusing to be typecast in strong-man roles, he's unafraid to convey his softer side, particularly in his roles as a mute in Suspect and as Meryl Streep's husband in Before and After. As the widowed father in Love Actually, he was never more sympathetic.

Off-screen he famously dated Helen Mirren as well as capturing the romantic attentions of Julia Roberts, Brooke Shields, Cher, and Sinead O'Connor. Neeson proved the ultimate gentleman, never kissing or telling.

Does he still enjoy acting as much as ever?

"The little period of time between action and cut is still very special. All the rest of it gets a bit trying sometimes, but I do like it, yeah," says the actor who turns 60 in June.

"You would have to bring that up," he sighs good-humouredly.

"But I try to stay fit. I try and do something every day but I don't jog," he says glancing out of the window of the New York hotel where we chat, suspiciously eyeing the joggers bobbing around Central Park.

"My body hates jogging. I tried all that. But when I'm in the city I do eight miles in Central Park and there's a gym nearby that I've been a member of for 17 years now, so I use that.

"You have to do something. I still box from time to time but I don't punch human beings – just the heavy bag. I try and eat fairly healthy. I can cook the basics: stews, roast chicken, stuff like that.

"So for the moment I'm still 59-and-something. I'm trying not to think about that too much. I'm not a surprise party person, nah."

Today, when he's not on the set, he divides his time with his sons between a Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side and a large estate in rural Millbrook, upstate New York, where he and Richardson had happily lived since their 1994 marriage.

Now a US citizen, he has made a permanent home in the States where he takes the education of his boys, Michael, 16, and Daniel, 15, very seriously. He was raised by a strict father who worked as a caretaker in a local school in Ballymena who taught him the value of a good education, and he attended St Mary's Teaching College in Belfast as a young man.

He rarely brings his own kids to the film set. "I used to when they were younger, but not any more because they're ensconced in school and it's important that they're there, you know.

"Occasionally, maybe at the end of term, I might take them out [of school] a day early. But they've been on quite a few sets since they were born."

Wary of his sons carrying on the Neeson-Richardson-Redgrave legacy, he says: "I hope not, because for every one of me there's 10,000 that still wait tables or wash dishes.

"Also, I think there'd be more pressure put on them because they have my name and so more might be expected from them, which I wouldn't want them to have."

Ask him to name his greatest success in life, he smiles: "Three weeks ago I caught a bone fish which was about this size," he says, arms held wide, indicating a large fish.

"They're known as the phantom fish of the flats. I think that was my crowning achievement. But it's catch and release so you let them go again."

His greatest setback?

"That would be the one that I did not catch in the same stretch of water."

'Battleship' is released on 11 April

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones