Most of us know Liam Neeson as an action hero. His roles in Taken, Cold Pursuit, The Commuter, Non-Stop – and this long-lost film that has gained popularity from Netflix — to name just a few, have made him what Business Insider called “one of Hollywood’s most sought-after action stars.” He’s also known for some more eclectic roles, such as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, his turn in the early 2000s classic Love Actually, his critically acclaimed role in Schindler’s List, and for voicing Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia (via IMDb). For theater buffs, Neeson is also known for his impressive stage resume.
But how did Neeson become one of the most coveted, busiest actors in Hollywood? His story isn’t exactly a straightforward one. From his humble working-class beginnings during “The Troubles” in Ireland to an early career in forklifting, Neeson probably never expected so much success. Curious to find out how it all happened? Here is the stunning transformation of Liam Neeson.
Liam Neeson was raised in a working-class Irish Catholic family
Liam Neeson was born William John Neeson in Ballymena, Northern Ireland. His parents were Barney, a school custodian, and Kitty, a school cook. He had a traditional Northern Irish Catholic upbringing. At Sunday Mass, he told Men’s Journal, he got his first taste of grand theatricality. But growing up Catholic during “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland wasn’t easy. “You grew up cautious, let’s put it that way,” he said. As Irish Central noted, more than 3,000 people died during what is also known as the Northern Ireland conflict. “I never stop thinking about it,” he confessed during the premiere of Five Minutes of Heaven. “I’ve known guys and girls who have been perpetrators of violence and victims. Protestants and Catholics. It’s part of my DNA.”
Nevertheless, his early childhood was mostly pretty normal. “Everything revolved around school,” he told UNICEF. He added that his “best memories were working on [his] uncle’s little farm in the summertime — making hay, milking cows.”
It sounds like Neeson had a pleasant childhood that was overshadowed by the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland at the time — and this upbringing has stayed with him to this day.
Liam Neeson was interested in both acting and boxing as a child
As a young boy, Liam Neeson developed two hobbies that he was passionate about — acting and boxing. As he told GQ, he began acting at the age of 11 in order to impress a girl at school. His real passion as a child, however, was boxing.
As Neeson explained to HuffPost, “I was nine and was at mass one Sunday morning and our parish priest Father Darragh announced from the pulpit, ‘Listen, I am starting a boxing club on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7:30pm,’ or something like that.” Over time, the small club became one of the best in Ireland. Neeson was 11 when he started competing. For a while, he even thought he’d become a professional. “I have a photograph of Ali that I remember cutting out as a 12-year-old and he was an amateur boxer and I remember thinking, ‘My God, Ali’s 12 and I am 12. I could be the same.’ You think all that stuff,” he recalled.
However, Neeson stopped boxing at 17 when he realized he didn’t have enough time to train properly.
Liam Neeson dropped out of university and took on a series of odd jobs in Ireland
After finishing school, Liam Neeson pursued a degree in physics and computer science at the Queen’s University in Belfast. He dropped out, however, to work at the Guinness factory (via BBC). As Neeson later told Metro, it was at the factory that he realized he wanted to be an actor. One day, a man he worked with said, “Liam, what do you want to do in life?” Neeson replied, “Actually, I want to be an actor.” The man said, “You could be another Roy Rogers.”
Neeson then went on to train as a teacher in Newcastle, but this career didn’t last long either. When he encountered an unruly 15-year-old student who pulled out a knife, Neeson punched him. “My reaction was to punch him,” he said in an interview, “which I shouldn’t have done but I felt threatened” (via ChronicleLive). Neeson was fired, and in 1976 he joined the Belfast Lyric Players’ Theater.
Liam Neeson acted on stage throughout the '70s before landing his first film role in 1977
Soon after joining the Belfast Lyric Players, Liam Neeson began making some notable theatrical appearances and his first few film appearances. In his first movie, he played a Christ figure. As he told GQ, it was somewhat of an odd experience. Apparently, an evangelical-outreach organization came to town to find local actors. “I don’t know what I got paid,” he recalled. “Peanuts,” he went on, “but it was a lot, it seemed.” Nevertheless, Neeson wasn’t particularly interested in film at the time. “I couldn’t wait to get back to the theater and go into the pub,” he said.
Shortly after, he moved to the Abbey Theater in Dublin (via Belfast Telegraph). It was there that he was spotted by John Boorman for the film Excalibur. This would be a life-changing film for Neeson as it would eventually move him to London.
Liam Neeson lived with and dated actress Helen Mirren in the '80s
While working on Excalibur, Liam Neeson met and began dating the famous actress Helen Mirren. As he told The New York Times Magazine, “She was so sexy. I thought, ‘Gosh, that’s Helen Mirren!’ She was as beautiful up close as on stage. … I was in love with this extraordinary human being.” Years later, the pair reunited on The Graham Norton Show, where Mirren explained that they were “a serious item for a while.” Neeson went on to recall his first meeting on the set of the film. “I was smitten,” he said.
While his relationship with Mirren only lasted for four years, it did prove to be pretty life changing for Neeson. He moved in with her in London, where his career really started to pick up. Throughout the ’80s, he starred in The Mission, A Prayer for the Dying, and Suspect. Then, in the ’90s, he landed even bigger roles in Leap of Faith, Ethan Frome, and Schindler’s List (via IMDb) — he was well on his way to becoming a bonafide movie star.
Liam Neeson was nominated for an Oscar for Schlindler's List after decades of acting work
Schindler’s List proved to be a huge turning point in Liam Neeson’s career. In fact, it marked his first Oscar nomination. At the time, it was one of the hardest roles he’d ever undertaken. He recalled “feeling unworthy” to Variety upon first landing the part. While filming, he remembers speaking to the producer Branko Lustig, who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. “This was more than just a role in a film that I was playing — it was testimony to one individual’s ability in the face of an evil regime to save lives,” Neeson said in a video for the 25th anniversary of the film. “Lives otherwise destined for the gas chamber and other horrific atrocities in these camps.”
Even though Neeson didn’t win the Oscar, the pivotal role catapulted him to become one of the most coveted actors in Hollywood. In fact, as he revealed to Men’s Journal, he was even considered to play James Bond!
In 1999, Liam Neeson announced he was quitting films to focus on stage work and his family
Liam Neeson met actress Natasha Richardson while acting in a play. The pair married in 1994 and had two sons. After Schindler’s List and Star Wars, Neeson announced that he’d be stepping back from films to focus on family and hobbies. According to a 1999 article in The Guardian, the busy Hollywood lifestyle was no longer something that Neeson wanted. “I’m getting out,” Neeson had apparently said in 1993.
By 1999, he seemed like he’d finally made up his mind. “It’s only recently that I figured out what I am uncomfortable with,” he said. “Now that I am in my middle years, certain intuitive truths have hit home. I don’t think I can live with the inauthenticity of movies any more.” His plan at the time was to appear in more plays and take some time off work altogether to learn carpentry and French while spending time with Richardson and their children.
Of course, Neeson’s plan to quit acting in movies never really came to fruition. As he told Entertainment Weekly that same year, he, instead, planned to take things more slowly.
Liam Neeson received no formal acting training and honed his craft from experience
Unlike many of his colleagues, Liam Neeson never trained as an actor. Instead, he learned his craft on the job. In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he explained how his technique developed and changed over the years. In terms of choosing roles, he begins with the script. “I’m always motivated by script first,” he said. “And it’s either something that gets under my skin or it doesn’t.”
When preparing for a role, Neeson said he tries to do as little as possible as his own head can sometimes get in the way. “I’ve learnt over the years not to [overthink] things,” he explained. “For me it’s an instinctive thing and the more I try to [intellectualize] the process the more I can mess it up.” By the sounds of things, Neeson’s career helped him to unlearn bad habits and do less to interfere with his own instinct.
In 2008, Liam Neeson starred in Taken, which became a career-defining role
When most people think of Liam Neeson, they probably think of him in the 2008 action thriller Taken. As Neeson told The Irish Sun, the role marked a turning point in his career. “I seem to have been re-envisioned as an action figure ever since Taken came out” (via Her). As Men’s Journal noted, it was an unexpected career change for Neeson. “Before he went around punching Albanians for a living, Neeson was usually cast in more introspective roles — professors, sculptors, and other sensitive types — wounded romantics who, like him, tended toward brooding and self-doubt.” Plus, Neeson was in his 50s when the movie was released.
Nevertheless, action films proved to be the perfect fit for the Irishman. As he later told BUILD Series, “I’m like a kid in a toy shop with these stunt guys and they choreograph a fight for you. I love doing that myself … the fighting I love doing.” After all, Neeson had wanted to be a professional boxer as a kid. And, as of 2021, he’s still churning out action movies, even though he’s been considering retiring for a few years (via Independent).
Liam Neeson lost his wife, Natasha Richardson, in a skiing accident in 2009
In 2009, a tragic accident changed Liam Neeson’s life forever. His wife of 15 years died from head injuries after a skiing accident. Just one year previously, Neeson had told the Belfast Telegraph his life was “content.” One year later, he was flying to Quebec to visit his wife in her final hours and eventually take her off life support (via Vulture).
In an interview published in 2020 in The Jakarta Post, Neeson opened up about the horrific experience. “I speak to her every day at her grave which is about a mile and a half down the road,” he said. “I go down there quite often, so I do speak to her as if she’s here.”
Neeson was also left as a single father left to parent their two sons. Speaking to GQ in 2014, he said that raising two teenage boys was tough. “They’re flexing muscles and sometimes dangerous avenues, and you think, ‘F***. If Tasha was here someone could share this.’ But yeah, we’re doing all right, you know?'” (via Express).
Liam Neeson became less enthusiastic about Hollywood over the years
Around the time of his wife’s death, Liam Neeson began to tire of Hollywood yet again. After trying to quit film acting in 1999, he again felt the urge to spend less and less time acting in movies. In many ways, this shift was something that came with success. “I’m less driven than I used to be,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “Well, I’m not less driven when it comes to the preparation for it,” he went on. “I’m more driven for that but, all the rest of it, the trappings of the movie business, I must admit that the older I get I have very, very little patience with it.”
Fame, it seems, became more and more tiring. So, Neeson explained, he split his time between movies and theater for some variety and some much-needed peace from the speed of Hollywood acting.
Liam Neeson worked on himself after a headline-making article in 2019
In 2019, Liam Neeson made headlines when he confessed that he had once had racist revenge fantasies after his female friend told him she had been raped by a Black man. In the infamous interview in the Independent, Neeson said, “I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody — I’m ashamed to say that — and I did it for maybe a week.” He said he wanted a Black man to “come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know?” The revelation created a media frenzy with many fans and publications expressing shock and disgust.
Neeson later spoke about the interview on Good Morning America, saying that in his mind, the story didn’t show him to be racist. In fact, he explained that he saw it as a story of redemption, growth, and learning that had happened since then.
Liam Neeson acted with his eldest son in 2020
In 2020, Liam Neeson worked with his son, Michéal Richardson, on the James D’Arcy film Made in Italy about a man who has lost his wife and who rebuilds his relationship with his estranged son. Obviously, the subject matter was quite close to home for them both. As Richardson told The Times of his own mother’s death, “It was so sudden. When it’s unexpected and it’s just a complete freak accident, it really sort of messes with your mind, whether you believe in fate or not.”
When it came to shooting the movie, it was a cathartic experience for both Neeson and his son, who, along with his brother, is all grown up. “It was emotional,” he said. And as Neeson told Parade, he enjoyed working with his son in Tuscany. Plus, he said, the film was one of his favorite experiences. “I mean it 1,000 percent,” he said. “I’ve been very, very lucky, and with that, I’ve created my own luck.”
Liam Neeson is anxious to return to the stage
Despite enjoying a very, very long and distinguished acting career in Hollywood, Liam Neeson does have one minor regret. As he told Parade, “If I had one regret, it’s that I haven’t been onstage for 12 years, and I just feel I should, at some point, go back again before I lose my bottle completely.” For Neeson, the theater, it seems, has always been his first and greatest love.
In fact, in the future, he hopes to get back on stage. “I’m looking for, hopefully, a new piece of writing, a new play that I could do.” He went on to explain that he’d actually prefer to act in a smaller theater that doesn’t come with the same “commercial pressure.” One thing’s clear — Neeson certainly hasn’t lost any of his artistic integrity over the years. If anything, it’s stronger than ever.
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