Veteran actor Liam Neeson discusses his career and describes a scary underwater car-stunt in Unknown; and hot cinematic newcomer January Jones talks about possibly being typecast as being "horrible," which she rather enjoys. See what these two Hollywood superstars have to say about working on this noir-type movie.
Izumi Hasegawa: How would you describe Unknown?
Liam Neeson: In a nutshell, I think it's an edge-of-your-seat thriller with an homage thrown toward Alfred Hitchcock and movies of that ilk, in the '40s, '50s, and '60s.
IH: January, can you talk about the appeal of this role? And with this and X-Men, are you looking more toward movies, and will you ever leave TV?
January Jones: What I liked about this role was that it was something I hadn't done before, and it was interesting and indefinable in the way that you don't know who she is until...well, if ever. I think the audience gets to decide whether she's a good guy or a bad guy. Like Liam said, it had a little touch of noir--an homage to the old Hitchcock films. It was fun for me. The question about leaving TV: Mad Men is my first stint in TV, and it doesn't really feel like TV to me. It depends on the project--whatever keeps me interested and challenged.
IH: Can you talk about the physical challenges of the film? How much of the stunt work did you get to do? What were the benefits of filming on location in Berlin?
LN: For a start, it was the coldest January and February in 20 years...and treacherously cold too. Frost on the ground and ice, stuff like that. As you saw in the film, there's a lot of physical activity outside. There was a challenge in that, just to execute the film in those sorts of conditions. But somehow it actually made us all closer.
IH: Liam, when I look at the list of films you've made, there's such a variety to it. Can you talk about the process of picking a script? And especially with this one, was there a point when you knew you wanted to do this character?
LN: I'm driven by script all the time. Our drama is based on the spoken word. It's writing, writing, writing, all the time. That's my criteria. I guess you'll have to ask Joel [Silver] and Jaume [Collet-Serra]. I seem to have gotten a new lease on life since this Taken movie was successful. At the age of 58...I'm sorry. Did I say 58? [At the] age of 37, it's great to get that kind of an action hero.
IH: You've said you're great friends with Aidan Quinn; have you worked together?
LN: We did three films together: The Mission, 1985, and then Michael Collins.
IH: Did you have a shorthand with him?
LN: Oh, very much so. He is a very dear friend.
IH: How long did it take you while reading this script to guess the ending?
LN: I actually didn't guess it. I really didn't. It really surprised me.
IH: You did a wonderful job of looking confused in this movie without overselling it. Is there an emotion that's harder for you to act than others?
LN: Confusion, yeah. You work with a very good director and then they bring it out of you. It's simple. It was difficult this time, actually.
IH: I wanted to ask you guys about typecasting. January plays such a horrible mother on Mad Men--an ice queen. Do you figure, for your movies, you'd like to do something warm and sweet, which is what you initially appeared to be in this movie? Is that intentional?
JJ: What's fun about being sweet? Am I typecast as being horrible? Maybe. It's kind of great, isn't it? I try to always do something different. I don't think this character has anything to do with anything I've ever done, and it just keeps me interested in the job to do all kinds of different things. I think that the "sweet," as you said, can be boring, so I will try to stay away from that for everyone's sake.
IH: Liam, you mentioned the great thing about having to reboot as an action hero at 37, or 58. Do you see heavy parallel careers here: one doing that kind of movie, and the other doing character work in film?
LN: I guess so. I always like to think of something Burt Lancaster said years ago. "He acts with his hair." When he's doing a studio movie, he has a wig, and when he's doing an arthouse movie, he shows his bald patch. So it's something.
IH: Did you wear a wig for this?
LN: Well, you know what I mean.
IH: January, I remember you were very ambitious back then; now you're a huge success. Did everything go according to plan?
JJ: I'm not ambitious anymore. Jaded. I don't know if I have a plan or if I ever had a plan, but I'm very happy with the way it's gone since then. I'm still very motivated and inspired and challenged. I don't know, just...older.
IH: Did you orchestrate any of this?
JJ: I don't think so. I don't know how you could, in this business, orchestrate anything, but I feel like I've been able to work with a lot of great people, and I've been lucky in my choices. I'm very strong willed, so that's helped a lot. But really I just feel very lucky to have been able to do the things I've gotten to do and haven't made too many mistakes...yet.
IH: Do you ever think, "This isn't my life; it's not really me," because you're doing so many things that maybe you never thought you'd be doing, like your characters? January, things have changed so much for you...
JJ: I feel like this is me. No, I'm good. I feel solid.
LN: I saw in the production notes, which was kind of interesting, that Berlin went through, and probably still is going through, a whole period of confusion since the wall came down, and very definite attitudes from West Berlin to East Berlin. Also, given the economic times that we're in, there's a definite confusion in the streets, almost like a pulse. That was good to tap into because that's what our characters were going through.
IH: Liam, you've been doing action films for the last couple of years. How many of your stunts did you do yourself?
LN: My hair is looking really good. I don't do my own stunts. I do my own fighting, which I don't regard as a stunt, but my dear friend and stunt double Mark Vanselow does all my heavy duty stuff, and has been doing so for about 12 years now.
IH: How did you train, considering your age?
LN: The usual thing. I keep fit as much as I can.
IH: By running or...?
LN: Just my own private stuff. Lots of sex. That'll open it up!
IH: Were there any physical ramifications or injuries because of any training you did?
LN: Lots of training when you know the fight's coming up. Little [injuries], nothing serious.
IH: Was the toughest one in her apartment when the two of you were almost being killed?
LN: That was a tough little fight because it was supposed to look scrappy and not too choreographed. The choreographer, who's also a very dear friend of mine, Olivier Schneider--it's like doing a wonderful ballet with him. We've worked very intensely before, so that induces an absolute confidence. When you're confident, you can start breathing normally and you don't get as injured as much as you would with someone who's stiff and a bit scared.
IH: Liam, you need something to get us to forget "Release the Kraken!" I have a great memory of the first time I had an opportunity to interview you. You walked through the room with a cup of tea and splashed a little on your trousers by accident and said, "You can take the Irishman out of the bog..." then sat down and did a terrific interview. Going back to the bog, you did Five Minutes of Heaven a couple of years ago. Do you look for Irish stories? For instance, if the Abbey Theatre asked you to be in a production, would you be interested in going back to those roles?
LN: They did, actually. They asked me to do something this year. It's not going to work out, but I do feel the need to go back to the theatre. It's kind of like a drug, and it's a muscle you have to exercise every now and again. The last time was two years ago at Lincoln Center, so I'm due to go back. I don't know in what, but I'm on the lookout for something.
IH: Would it be particularly significant to go back to Ireland?
LN: It would be at this stage because I haven't really worked there, certainly in theatre, since 1980, I think. It would be nice to do something.
IH: Can you talk about doing the underwater scene?
LN: It was very, very scary for me, and I worked with Mark in a tank and a swimming pool to get used to it. I'm not a very strong swimmer; I came to water late. In fact, I learned to swim at the age of 20. But Mark is an amazing friend and an amazing stuntman. There were lots of days we would meet in the swimming pool and I'd put my head six inches under, two inches under... When we shot the scene, it was half a cab, and Jaume wanted it to gradually sink into the heated tank, which was great. I'm sitting in the back, and I felt confident enough. Mark was literally there with the mask, as I knew he would be, and I banged the window. I'm unconscious and just feeling the water coming up, knowing everybody's there, and once it got to there, I just panicked. We got out, which was easy enough. I wasn't in control--that's what it was about. Mark talked me through; I basically took deep breaths and lowered myself into the seat, which was much, much easier to do.
IH: Were there crowds in Berlin when you were filming on the streets? Are they really not aware of movies being made there very much? Did you sign autographs and take pictures with fans; did they know who you were at all?
LN: Not too much, actually. I wasn't aware.
IH: How satisfying, in an age of so much computer effects–there's some in this movie, but not too much–is the appeal of a film like this--the literally hands-on aspect of the combat in the stunt sequences?
LN: That's partly an attraction. Again, I just go back to the script. That was our foundation, and even time after time, it was always exhilarating to read the script. Little bits you may have forgotten, or a little piece of stage direction that I usually ignore when I'm reading a script, but in this instance, the stage direction was actually quite critical. It was like delving back into a great short novel again.
IH: Has your experience as an amateur boxer helped as an actor?
LN: I guess, in a deeper way. I was a kid when I boxed; I started when I was nine and I finished when I was 17 or so, competitively. There's just something about the discipline of going to a gym and hitting a heavy bag. It gives you a respect for hard work. That's probably the bottom line of it...as well as keeping reasonably fit. It's a discipline, and you have to apply that if you're lucky enough to get films. That certainly applies. There's a physical discipline of getting up at 6:00 in the morning and shooting until 7:00, 8:00 at night, and going home and doing your workout or whatever it is, and eating and going to bed--for two months, three months, four months. That training I did as a child, just the physical aspect, has certainly stood me in good stead in the motion picture business.
IH: I noticed you with a toothpick today, and I remember you had one at the A-Team press conference. Is that a habit, or we just happen to catch you after breakfast?
LN: It's not. It's an addiction, I'm afraid. I gave up cigarettes 16 years ago, but I was chewing these at the same time, so I thought, "One of you guys has got to go." I wanted to keep my toothpicks.
IH: Well, you quit 16 years ago, so it worked.
LN: It does. And they taste good too.
IH: At this point in your career, how would you define, in a few words, your journey as an actor?
LN: Two words? Very lucky. Seriously.
Warner Bros. Pictures' 'Unknown' is released on February 18, 2011.