Let’s play the word association game. I’m going to name some famous film stars and you think of the first adjective that comes to mind. Renée Zellweger; Al Pacino; Steve Martin; Reese Witherspoon; Matt Damon; Emily Blunt; Mark Wahlberg.
In order your list would probably read something like this: down-to-earth & heart of gold; dangerous Mafioso ; hapless patsy; dizzy blonde; tough & resourceful; dark & mysterious; heroic hardman
Of course, our descriptions might differ slightly, depending on what part they’ve recently played and what movie we’ve seen them in but my point is that most actors and actresses have a certain style and persona which means they will often be typecast into roles that suit their personality and particular acting skill sets. This doesn’t come about by accident. A movie director, reading through a new script and visualising the characters, will often have a good idea of who he or she would like to cast in the leading roles from their past work and we, the audience, will have clues as to what to expect from the movie just by looking at the cast list.
So in the light of recent events I’ll add one more name – Liam Neeson. Let me run through the titles of some of his biggest blockbusters – Taken (1, 2 & 3), Unknown, The Grey, Non-Stop, A Walk among The Tombstones, Run all Night, Darkman, Silence. They don’t sound like something you’d take the kids to see for a fun night out and indeed they all come with age restrictions. Neeson has carved a name for himself as the rough, tough anti-hero, specialising in psychological thrillers with a good smattering of dark evil and supremely sadistic violence.
Now an actor’s job is to play a part, to become something other than them self, but the most convincing amongst them are often those who have dug deep inside their souls and drawn out aspects of their own self and psyche which they bring into their characters and make them come alive. From the list at the start, for example, Mark Wahlberg , product of a fatherless family struggling to make ends meet, dropped out of school aged 14, joined a gang, dealt drugs and then viciously attacked 2 Vietnamese nationals without provocation, hitting them with a 5’ stick, and quoted as saying ‘Vietnam f----ing s—t’ for which he was subsequently charged with attempted murder, later reduced to criminal contempt and sentenced to 2 years in a correctional facility. In the end he served only 45 days in jail, during which time he made a decision to turn his life around and on his release he channelled his energies into developing an acting career.
On now to Liam Neeson. You’ve all heard the interview – voice so low you have to strain to hear it, he relates a dark time in his life, some 40 years ago, when he was so enraged by the brutal rape of a friend by an unknown black man, that he picked up a cosh and for several nights, roamed the streets of his town looking for any random black man, hoping to provoke him into an attack so he could react with extreme violence, even to the death. After describing the event Neeson says he is deeply ashamed of the episode, that it no way defines him as a racist and that it was born out of a primal need for revenge, a feeling he had never experienced before or since.
Since the television interview aired, mainstream and social media has been in a frenzy of commentary. There are those who utterly reject his apology and who brand him as racist through and through, despite the fact that it was one week some 4 decades ago. There are others who sympathise with his reaction, pointing out that in the end, he did not act on his intent and accepting that he has moved on and grown, both emotionally and intellectually. Interestingly, these opposing views are not divided along racial lines. Today, for example, brought condemnation from singer Lily Allen (white) and support from Whoopi Goldberg (black).
Then there are the cynics who question why, having kept his silence for all those years, choose now to reveal his dark secret. Could it be because he has a new movie to promote, a movie which in some ways mirrors the incident in that it revolves around, a hunt for revenge, entitled Cold Pursuit? Well, if that were the case it has backfired disastrously, with the New York red carpet première of the film cancelled in light of the media feeding frenzy.
Now I’m not pretending to have any insight into the incident but for those of you who may not be familiar with the dark times in which Neeson spent his formative years, a brief summary might go some way to explaining his actions and reaction. Liam Neesaon (66) was born and brought up in Northern Ireland, not to be confused with Eire or southern Ireland, a separate country and not part of the United Kingdom but in the similarity of the names and the proximity of the two countries, therein lies a tale. Northern Ireland has been part of Britain for hundreds of years, while its southern neighbour, literally referred to in history as being ‘beyond the pale’ was left to its own devices. The south subsequently developed into a largely Catholic country, the north more Protestant. By the start of the 20th century, these religious and national differences were coming to the fore, with a core element of the north wishing to unite with their southern cousins, another faction determined to stay part of the United Kingdom. Decades of sectarian violence followed, culminating in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the militant illegal IRA (Irish Republican Army) waging a bombing campaign war against Britain, with many random civilian attacks including one that killed Prince Charles’ uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten. The British army was moved into Northern Ireland to counter the attacks and keep the peace between the fighting factions. The major cities of Belfast and Londonderry were peppered with sandbag barricades and army checkpoints. Protestants hated Catholics and vice versa and everyone hated the British soldiers. Atrocities were carried out by both sides of the divide. Men and women were literally tarred and feathered, some disappeared over night and to this day many bodies have never been recovered, others were openly executed Mafia-style to make a point. These were dark, dark days indeed for Northern Ireland and it is hard to imagine what it must have been like for young people growing up in such a fetid, febrile atmosphere.
Little wonder, then, that a young Liam Neeson’s first reaction to an attack on his friend, hardened by the daily brutality all around him, might have been vicious revenge. It was how things were done. Of course it wasn’t right, of course it isn’t justified but an eye for an eye was a factor of his daily life. The irony of the tale is that he tells us he went looking for any black b-----d on whom to exact his revenge but in ‘80s Northern Ireland they would have been as rare as rocking horse droppings! No-one in their right mind, black or white, would have to wanted to move to NI so happily Neeson never found his random black man and after a few days of being literally out of his right mind, he came to his senses and abandoned his violent quest. Like Mark Wahlberg, he moved on, moved to America and subsequently carved out a very successful movie career. Also, like Wahlberg, given their respective backgrounds, they were unlikely to be cast in family film franchises or comedic characters. Both actors have used their early experiences as inspiration for the dark, deep anti-heroes they were destined to play.
The comparison of these 2 big movie names is apposite. Both were guilty of racist and violent thoughts, Wahlberg acting upon them, albeit as a juvenile, and having to face the full force of the law, Neeson fortunately never able to carry them out, except in later life in the cathartic world of movie acting. Importantly, they have both moved on and turned their lives around which surely is to be applauded? Anyone of a religious or spiritual nature will know that forgiveness is at the core of all belief systems. Nominated for many acting awards, widowed in 2009 after the tragic death of wife, actress Natasha Richardson, let’s separate the leary young Neeson, a product of those dark, dog eat dog times of The Troubles with the fine movie actor that he has become, bringing his past into his craft and acting, rather than acting out.
What’s more, let’s hope most of us never have to reveal those fleeting dark thoughts we’ve all had at one time or another, left we be similarly shunned or tried in the kangaroo court that is the world of social media.