Three weeks ago, when I stood in the elevator of a New York City hotel to interview Liam Neeson about his new film during a press junket, I thought I knew what to expect. Press junkets are a peculiar breed of interview. They are rigid environments in which journalists are given a specific amount of time, and a specific time slot, to speak with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Junkets have a justified reputation for leading to fluff pieces. Celebrities don’t typically open up about personal matters in that setting, and the fact that they’re often paired with a co-star only serves to reinforce that tendency.
So when I sat down in the sprawling suite of that Manhattan hotel to speak with Neeson, 66, and his 29-year-old co-star Tom Bateman, I was hoping to leave with enough material to write an interesting celebrity profile. Then, 12 minutes into what turned out to be a 17-minute interview, I asked Neeson a question about his character in Cold Pursuit, and as we now know, everything changed.
I have listened to the tape countless times. Bateman had just answered one of my questions, pertaining to how he researched his role as a sociopathic drug lord. Neeson was eating a piece of dark chocolate.
I asked: “Liam, your character is, like you said, a normal guy who suddenly – I mean, not suddenly, but, [he] goes on a murder spree. Why do you think that unlike Grace [Neeson’s character’s wife in the film], he’s unable to do the internal work of moving on and taking that distance that she does? Why does he flip a switch?”
It wasn’t the most eloquent question I’ve ever asked, nor was it the most compelling. In fact, Neeson almost gave me a non-answer, saying: “Well for a start, there’d be no story [if his character didn’t act the way he does in the movie].”
I laughed. Bateman laughed. I said: “Well, yeah. True.” But Neeson kept talking, adding: “There’s something… primal about it”, and a few seconds later: “I’ll tell you a story.”
You’ve heard the story. Many years ago, someone close to Neeson told him she had been raped. He asked if she knew who had done it. He asked “what colour” they were. He then told me he spent about a week walking “up and down areas” with a cosh, hoping he’d be approached by “some black bastard” so that he could “kill him”.
What do you do, then? What do you do when a globally famous actor – who, apart from an interview last year in which he likened the #MeToo movement to a “witch hunt”, has mostly steered clear of controversy – shares with you the most damning story of his career, during a press junket, on the record?
I let Neeson speak. When he started telling me about his friend’s rape, I had no idea where the story was going. I needed to hear it all. Then, less than five minutes after I asked that question – which turned out to be my last – a press minder stepped in and declared: “That’s enough time.”
Neeson kept the interview going for a few more seconds, asking me to be “really careful” if I was going to use that story. Then, he made what was clearly a joke – and whether or not you think that was appropriate is up to you – referencing a famous scene from the movie Taken. In that scene, Neeson’s character tells his daughter’s kidnappers: “I will find you, and I will kill you.” Neeson used part of that quote with me, joking in his Taken voice that if I weren’t careful, “I will find you”.
Of course, I had more questions. There was so much to unpack. Over the next few days, as I worked on the first of many drafts, I got in touch with Neeson’s team asking for follow-ups. That request was denied.
During the time I spent working on the piece, I contacted several civil rights organisations, as well as organisations specialising in race-related issues. Some declined to comment, and some didn’t get back to me.
I also got in touch with Dr Lasana Harris, an associate professor of experimental psychology at University College London. Dr Harris has done extensive work on racially motivated crime, a topic extremely relevant to Neeson’s story. I explained the situation to Dr Harris without mentioning Neeson’s name. Dr Harris asked me what I wanted to know. I asked him how someone could come to think the way Neeson did, because I couldn’t fathom reacting in a similar fashion. Dr Harris explained how our pre-existing biases shape our view of the world. He told me that our human brains are here to help us gain awareness of our thoughts, and that generalisations such as those expressed by Neeson are, of course, fundamentally flawed.
As indicated by our conversation and by his follow-up interview on Good Morning America, Neeson thought he was telling a story of atonement. Many have rightfully pointed out the cynicism of seeing a white person praised for publicly admitting to having harboured the desire to commit a racist murder. My colleague Kuba Shand-Baptiste wrote about the profoundly harmful myth of the “black brute” and the psychological effects on all of us of living in a racist society in an important comment piece on this site in the immediate aftermath.
Since the original interview was published, Neeson doubled down on his narrative during an interview with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts. He also made a slightly less publicised appearance on Live with Kelly and Ryan, where he was greeted by a crowd of applauding fans and stopped to shake hands and give hugs. During his talk with Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, Neeson said he had “already talked” about the story earlier on, presenting it as an opportunity for “genuine dialogue”. He stepped back into his Hollywood actor shoes – and in that moment he seemed far removed from the man who spoke into my recorder and shared that startling narrative. Eventually, he discussed the movie as he would on a regular press tour. The red carpet of the film’s premiere was cancelled on Tuesday, but the movie was still screened.
I have been asked whether I think this interview marks the end of Neeson’s career. That is not my call to make – and I do not mean that as a cop-out. My opinion genuinely doesn’t matter. The future of Neeson’s career rests not in my hands but those of movie-goers and film studios. They will decide respectively whether they still want to see Neeson’s films and hire him. The next chapter of this story is up to them.
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