About 80 percent of a crime
She handled the situation of the rape in the most extraordinary way. But my immediate reaction was … I asked, did she know who it was? No. What color were they? She said it was a black person. I went up and down areas with a cosh [bludgeon], hoping I’d be approached by somebody—I’m ashamed to say that—and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some “black bastard” would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could … kill him.
— Liam Neeson to Clemence Michallon of The Independent, during a press junket for Cold Pursuit
Everyone in Hollywood is about 20 percent smaller than you think they are. This is a function of the camera— it favors the fine-boned and delicate. People with relatively large heads photograph well. Thinness is rewarded. Many actors and actresses are quite small in real life, in part because acting is a profession where being relatively small is not a disadvantage. It’s all a matter of scale.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any physically imposing people in Hollywood. In fact, it used to almost be a requirement that leading men be tall. Cary Grant and Clark Gable were both about 6 foot 1. John Wayne was a famous 6 foot 5. Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart 6 foot 3. Humphrey Bogart was an outlier in his heyday, though at 5 foot 8 he may still have been tall enough to play quarterback in today’s NFL.
But in general, when you meet Hollywood celebrities, they tend to run to about 80 percent of your expectations. I have stood next to a lot of movie stars in my time. I was surprised to learn I am quite a bit taller than Arnold Swarzenegger and that Forest Whitaker, who seems so imposing in The Last King of Scotland, is a bit smaller than I am. I was surprised to discover the strapping Liam Neeson, billed as 6 foot 4, is almost precisely my size.
My editor might not like me telling this story, but I was mistaken for Neeson once, in the bar of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. You might better understand how that might happen if you know that I was only in the hotel waiting to interview the actor and that the people who took me for him knew he was somewhere on the premises. And it was in a bar and though I was drinking coffee I can’t vouch for what they were having.
I don’t remember much about my interview with Neeson except for the measured gentleness of his voice and the way he downplayed his supposed “career” as a prizefighter. He only boxed a little as a boy, he said. He only played tough guys in the movies.
I came away from the interview liking him more than I did whatever movie he was in—this was before Taken but after he’d begun to carve out a career as an aging action star— and wishing I’d had more time to talk to him about growing up Catholic in a predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland town. But you hardly ever get a chance to talk about real things in those interviews; if you stray too far away from the product being promoted the publicist in the corner might intervene.
So while I admired the intelligence he seemed to project, the interaction was strictly transactional. He fulfilled his contract with the
film’s distributors and had a chance to burnish his own brand; I got enough content for a column inch or two and whatever else we derive from being proximate to the famous. I got to measure myself against Liam Neeson.
And now, years later, when Neeson is in a bit of trouble, I get to revisit that brief interaction. I get to say something about something he said to another reporter, in a situation I imagine wasn’t dissimilar from the one I found myself in all those years ago.
It seems obvious to say that Neeson shouldn’t have said what he said to that reporter because there are things that prudent people do not say out loud to anyone ever. It was the sort of thing maybe you should say to a priest or a therapist, someone bound to hold your secrets. It was a regrettable thing to say, especially to a journalist who, having heard it, was bound to repeat it.
Because that is what journalists do, even though we understand better than most about how stark and authoritative things look in print.
Look, I don’t even know if Neeson was being honest when he gave Clemence Michallon that quote. One of the problems with interviewing actors is that they are very good at enlisting empathy while pretending to be people possibly very different from who they really are. In their presence, it’s very easy to believe they’ve connected to you, and one of the tricks they use to make you believe this is the sharing of little confidences. Neeson’s new movie, like a lot of his movies, is about the single-minded pursuit of retribution by a grieving man. He might have manufactured an anecdote to demonstrate his firsthand knowledge of his character’s motivation.
That’s a cynical view and I
don’t have any reason to believe it, but it is possible.
It’s also possible that he spoke honestly and without guile and that he was horrified by his own capacity for violence and hate. It’s possible he was genuinely vulnerable when he told Michallon about the worst thing he had ever thought about doing.
I suppose if you want to “cancel” him, in the same way we seem to have canceled Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein, that’s your business. Neeson has had sadness in his life, but in the big picture he’s a guy who is paid handsomely to pretend. I probably won’t see Cold Pursuit.
But when I ask someone a
question I always hope they’ll answer me honestly, even if their answer puts them in a bad light. Because that’s the point—none of us are the brands we try to project, all of us are sometimes scared and angry and subject to bad thoughts. We all think them. Maybe our bad thoughts are different than the bad thoughts
Neeson talked about. Thoughtcrime isn’t yet crime. Here, it wasn’t just a thought; Neeson admitted to prowling for trouble. But he didn’t follow through. It’s not as big as it looks.