’Charming just up to a point’
Liam Neeson has an unusual reaction when he’s asked to star in a movie. His first thought is: Who would be better at this than me?
So when writer/ director Peter Landesman approached him to play the title role in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, he immediately thought of Ed Harris.
“And then I might watch a couple of Ed’s films. And I think: Ah, there’s something there that I can use.” But would Harris have been a better Felt? “That would have been a good idea,” says Landesman, ribbing his star.
The two are speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Mark Felt had its world premiere in September. The film had been in the works for more than 10 years, ever since the former FBI associate director published his 2006 autobiography A G- Man’s Life, shortly after revealing he was the Washington Post’s “Deep Throat” source during the Watergate scandal.
But the film’s release could not have been more timely. In May, President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey over his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Christopher Wray had been in command of the bureau for little more than a month as the festival opened. “It is a coincidence, which is something you have no control over,” says Landesman. “When Liam and I first sat down and talked about it ... Trump was the court jester of New York, which is where I grew up. I never imagined ...” he trails off.
But he says the themes of integrity fighting corruption are always with us. “Human behaviour does not change. Those dynamics live in every institution, every government on the planet, within families, within Hollywood, within journalism and newspapers.” Even so, “the fact that we’re seeing it now when this movie is coming out is supernatural, I have to say.”
In addition to scouring the films of Ed Harris, Neeson watched Jimmy Stewart in 1959’s The FBI Story, and footage of Felt, who died in 2008.
“I was very taken with the fact that he was a debonair, charming man,” says Neeson.
“But charming just up to a point. Suddenly, a veil would come down and you couldn’t read him. And I found that fascinating as an actor. I thought: I look nothing like him, I will sound nothing like him, but I will try to give an essence of the man. And serve Peter’s script, which I loved.”
He was also relieved at the change in pace of playing a bureaucrat, given his recent run of action-hero roles in the likes of Taken, Run All Night, the upcoming Commuter and more. “It was great to not have any fight rehearsals,” he says with a grin.