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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