'Action heroes used to be for much younger men, but now I get all these scripts where it’s, ‘Scratch 35, and now it’s 60’!' laughs Liam Neeson, 62, acknowledging his role in reshaping today’s new breed of bus-pass-carrying action hero.
But he’s still not old enough for The Expendables. “No, they haven’t asked me. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.”
On screen, we rarely see Neeson without a gun in his hand, be it in his lucrative Taken franchise, recent action thriller Non-Stop or his latest gumshoe film noir, A Walk Among the Tombstones. Even in this year’s comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, he was toting a gun, so it is interesting to hear his thoughts on the subject.
“I am totally for gun control in the US,” he says. “The population of America is roughly 300 million and there are 300 million guns in this country, which is terrifying. Every day we’re seeing some kid running rampant in a school. And do you know what the gun lobby’s response to Newtown was?” he asks, referring to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 20 children dead in December 2012.
“The National Rifle Association’s official response was ‘If that teacher had been armed…’ It’s crazy. I’ll give Britain its dues, when they had the Dunblane massacre in Scotland, within 24 hours the gun laws were changed so you could not have a handgun.”
Born in Ballymena, County Antrim, but a resident of New York, Neeson became a US citizen five years ago in the wake of the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, in a freak skiing accident in 2009. The actor cites the outpouring of goodwill from Americans as one of the main reasons for his decision. Part of the naturalisation process involves a test on US civics; Neeson, therefore, understands the Constitution as well as anyone. “It is the right to bear arms which is the problem. I think if the Founding Fathers knew what was happening they would be turning in their graves with embarrassment at how that law has been interpreted,” he says, in reference to the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
Given his tough screen persona, he is unafraid to confess to fears of his own. “I do have a fear of heights but my son and I recently climbed this little peak called Mollie’s Nipple in Utah. It’s only 3,000ft or something but I was shit-scared, especially getting nearer the summit. It wasn’t pickaxe time but it was pretty steep. Everybody says don’t look down but you have to look down. It was scary but I’m glad I did it. I did it for my son,” says the single father of two teenage boys.
It comes as a surprise to learn that technology is also on the list. “It terrifies me,” he says, when we meet in a hotel off Hollywood Boulevard, showing me his older-model Apple iPhone. “I’m fine with this but every month [my sons] are telling me to change to the latest version, and [I say], ‘Oh shut up.’ But now it’s playing up and I know they’ve put some gremlin in there, saying: ‘Oh, he’s had that phone for two years. It’s time.’ I swear, that’s what they do.”
The problem, Neeson believes, stems from a generation that prefers to replace older items rather than repair them. “They just don’t fix things any more. It gives me cause for concern. Where I live in New York, any time a bar closes down, suddenly there’s a Revlon make-up shop. There must be about 15 of them along Columbus Avenue. In the middle of it all there’s a little cobbler who operates from a tiny little space and I find myself sometimes breaking shoes in order to just bring them to him; just to keep it alive.”
He understands he is expressing the typical views of an older person, thankful for his sons for keeping him young, although he faces an empty nest now that his eldest, Micheál, 19, is at university and Daniel, 18, will follow next year.
“They are not afraid of anything. They pick up the technology off the ether. And these digits here,” he says, splaying out his own enormous thumbs, and demonstrating a typical teen texting at high speed, “If you have children, check their thumbs – they’re really flexible. And their kids… these thumbs will be like another finger,” says the actor who divides his time with his sons between a Manhattan apartment and an estate in rural Millbrook, in upstate New York, close to the church where his wife is buried.
As a young man, Neeson was rarely short of female company. He dated Helen Mirren, Julia Roberts, Brooke Shields, Cher and Sinéad O’Connor, but it was Richardson who captured his heart. They married in 1994. After his long-distance relationship with a British publicist, Freya St Johnston, dwindled this year, he told People magazine: “I’m keeping myself to myself. And I like it that way. I’m not hunting. I’m the opposite of a – what would a male cougar be? Is there such a thing? Whatever it is, I’m not that.”
Preferring his own company, he talks expansively about his passion for fly-fishing and reading: Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell. When he feels like company, he can count on people such as Ralph Fiennes. “He’s one of my closest friends. He’s very into yoga and I do bits of that with him. We hike and walk and talk a lot.”
Any wild boys nights out? “Nah,” he says, cracking a smile. “We don’t really do that stuff.”
And then there is fellow Irishman Bono, with whom Neeson is developing a film. “We chat, or with him a lot of the time I just listen. He’s a wonderful man. He’s got an idea for a script which we’ve been working on for the past six years,” he says, going on to outline the story, which is inspired by the Irish showband phenomenon of the Seventies.
In his latest movie, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson plays private eye Matt Scudder, the anti-hero in a collection of books by Lawrence Block. Set in the months before the end of the last millennium, the story plays out against the backdrop of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Neeson has admitted drinking heavily after his wife’s death, but he has since got it under control, and attended AA meetings only as part of his research for the role. “I went to quite a few AA meetings in LA and New York,” he recalls. “I went to some big meetings, where there were about 300 people, and some with just five or six people, witnessing these incredibly heroic acts where people get up and tell a horrendous story about their relationship with drugs or alcohol, and people in the room understand it.” Did Neeson feel the need to share? “No, I just observed. But I was touched by the experience.”
No stranger to addiction, Neeson quit smoking 21 years ago by carrying a toothpick as a substitute, something he continues to do: “I gave up one bad habit and just kept the other,” he says.
A Walk Among the Tombstones was another opportunity to explore the lone vigilante type. “I enjoyed some of those guys Robert Mitchum played, and Steve McQueen in the Sixties and I guess Dirty Harry, all who were just on the right side of the law with their foot in both camps,” says the actor, who will next be seen in a small ensemble role in Third Person.
Capitalising on the second act of his career, he continues to work apace. He will play a 17th-century Jesuit priest in Japan for Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a tree in the children’s fantasy A Monster Calls and another hitman in Run All Night. Taken 3 and a cameo role in Ted 2 also await.
As the title suggests, A Walk Among the Tombstones involves scenes where Neeson visits graveyards. Refusing to tip-toe around the topic of death, he prefers to exercise a dark sense of humour, saying: “I like graveyards. I find them very peaceful. I like window-shopping.”
‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ is released on Friday