Liam Neeson is having a big week.
First up, he voices a benevolent but scary monster in the form of an enormous gnarled tree in J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls. In the film, based on a 2011 children’s book by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay), heartbroken 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) summons the arboretum monster nightly to help him cope with the imminent death of his cancer-stricken young mother (Felicity Jones).
Although he’s never on screen, Neeson’s haunting, deep voice steals the film. (The other big star in the film is Sigourney Weaver, who plays Conor’s cold and strict grandmother.) Besides that voice, though, the movie has a lot of other things to recommend it, especially the illustrations—inspired by the book—and Pan’s Labrynth Oscar-winner Eugenio Caballero’s production design.
Neeson has been acclaimed for a wide range of films, notably Steve Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which earned him an Oscar nomination, along with Neil Jordan’s biopic Michael Collins and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Lately, the Irish actor has morphed into an action hero with his trio of Taken thrillers.
He also reunites with Scorsese in Silence, with opens December 23, the same day as A Monster Calls. In the epic film, which took Scorsese 28 years to get to the screen, he plays Father Ferreira, a 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit priest who has gone missing, and possibly apostatized, while on a mission in Japan. Two younger priests, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, attempt to track their one-time mentor down and find out the truth. Relatively little of the film’s almost three-hour screentime is given over to Neeson, but Ferreira’s absence towers over the story, as does Neeson’s shadowy figure in the movie’s poster.
When you were approached for A Monster Calls, was it just to do the voice? Did you say, “I want to do the motion capture as well?” And what was it about the book and script by Patrick Ness that made you want to play the monster?
Liam Neeson (LN): It just kept haunting me when I finished it. I thought, “Oh, I’m supposed to read this kid’s book. I thought there would be something more to this.” And I knew it was motion-capture, which I’d never done before, and I’d only seen the extraordinary Andy Serkis stuff—my God, Gollum! King Kong!
So then they needed to me for two weeks in September 2014. It was great because I was working with Lewis MacDougall and the director and five computer nerds in a space they called The Volume, with 70 cameras going around and 70 cameras up there, and you’re in the middle doing your thing dressed in a onesie, with ping pong balls… You look ridiculous! And a camera here [pointing to his face]. Lewis was off-camera, so I’d be acting to a little puppet that size, a little doll, and a house about that size, just to get the perspective right. And I’m thinking, “What the fuck am I doing?” But after the first day, I gradually got into it.
And Lewis was emoting all the time. This kid was, you know, giving a range of emotion that Shakespeare doesn’t even demand from Hamlet. So he was a real scene partner.
Do you think this book provides a learning experience for people who are dealing with grief and death?
LN: Oh, I think so, yeah. I’ve just had a relative die of breast cancer in her 40s, and that’s sad. It’s a horrible, horrible disease, cancer is, of course, but breast cancer especially. There has to be more money [for research], I feel. So, yeah, I think that the book and the film—it’s a cliché to say that I hope it will help people, but I do hope it will help people, and that someone who is suffering can reach out. That they may have family and good friends to rely on. It’s important that they have support, so maybe if the film could do that or encourage someone to go in that direction, that would be a good thing.
As a family man, what is the message you want the audience to receive?
LN: I don’t believe in messages. It’s great to be entertained, I think. The film is incredibly entertaining and then there’s layers to it that teach the young boy something and hopefully maybe teach audiences too. I’ve been guilty of it myself with my two boys, years ago. Sometimes we think, “Oh, the kids aren’t going to be capable of understanding this,” so I’d put it in a very simple way. Kids can, of course, understand. They may not intellectualize it, but they can feel it, and they can kind of rationalize it in their ways too—in their unique ways—because of who they are and the age they are.
The monster’s voice is a deep bass. Normally your voice is very soft. How did you arrive at the monster’s unique voice?
LN: I tried a few voices and then when they showed me a model of the bust of what J.A. wanted the monster to look like, I remember my first impression was that it looked like his face was pressed up against the tree. The monster’s nose was all bashed and broken, so when you have a broken nose—and I do—it affects your breathing. So we tried giving the monster difficulty breathing, and sometimes I did it too much and J.A. said, “We can tone that down in the sound room.” So we experimented with different layers and stuff. Then the computer guys did some nice stuff with it too.
What was your reaction to seeing the final version with the monster there?
LN: I was very, very captivated by the story. And J.A., he certainly did that in The Impossible. There’s not a frame I would have changed in that film. And it was always about leaving aside all the bells and whistles of what the film is capable of doing on a screen, CGI and motion capture. And that tsunami! That was a set! I was taken in. I thought they must have been in the ocean. But it was always about the human element; it was always the story of those kids trying to find their mom, or Ewan McGregor trying to find his wife. He never lost sight of that. And he did the same with this story. And as much as you kind of go, “Oh my God, wow, that tree comes to life!” it’s always to serve this human emotion that this kid is grappling with.
Did you have a specific inspiration for the character you created?
LN: No, not really. I remember as a kid I used to love and be terrified of those B-movies, those black-and-white movies like The Mummy. They certainly came to mind when I was moving for the first time, you know? He’s kind of got Mummy-esque qualities.
When you went on to do Silence, which Martin Scorsese had planned for over 20 years, and started casting in 2009, were you connected with that role?
LN: The agent called and said they were interested in me for it, and that it was a passion project for Martin. I don’t know who did the translation of Shūsaku Endō’s book, but I found it so dry. It was a real struggle to finish it. Then when they sent me the script that Martin and Jay Cocks had done, it was a different animal entirely. It was much more interesting—a real quest for faith and doubt and all the rest of it. Then I went down to meet Martin and I do what I always do: I always cast it. I said, “Well, you shouldn’t be seeing me. You should be seeing Javier Bardem, or you should see this one or that one.”
How can you do that?
LN: I always do, every film.
What did Martin Scorsese mean when he spoke about the film at its press conference the other day, and said there’s more to it than love ?
LN: I think for Martin it’s a real personal quest. He was brought up Catholic, an altar boy like myself. Even though his parents weren’t religious, apparently, for Martin it was a real singular journey. And the circumstances whereby he was given this book and read it a train, a bullet train in Japan going to shoot a movie for Kurosawa and he’s going to be Vincent Van Gogh… I mean, you would remember a moment like that. This book had an effect on him. Andrew Garfield’s character mirrored what Martin I think was going though at that time, you know? Questioning.
Did you see your priest, who has given up the faith, as a heroic figure in Silence? Did you make any kind of judgments? Did you see him as a tragic figure?
LN: I think he did what Andrew’s character eventually discovers at the end: that the id, the ego—they have to be suppressed. You have to be that size—tiny—before God, before the essence of the universe reveals itself to you.
Are you going back to do action movies soon?
LN: I just shot another thriller with Jaume Collet-Serra called The Commuter.
How about the movie Felt? You play Deep Throat, right?
LN: That’s going out next year.
Did you change your voice again for Felt?
LN: I used the monster’s voice. It seems to work. [Laughs] MM
A Monster Calls and Silence open in theaters December 23, 2016, courtesy of Focus Features and Paramount Pictures respectively.