For his 100th film role, Liam Neeson plays hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe — a character previously played by Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum and Elliott Gould. In the Neil Jordan noir Marlowe, Neeson tries to do something he learned from watching James Cagney: just speak the truth.
Set in 1930s Los Angeles, Marlowe finds the private investigator embroiled in a tangled web of deceit, mystery and double-crosses after being hired to track down the missing lover of a glamorous heiress played by Diane Kruger in a scene-stealing turn.
Following the film’s world premiere at the 70th San Sebastián Film Festival, MovieMaker’s Guillermo De Querol spoke with Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger about the film, their first together since 2011. “It was lovely. I know things have changed in our personal lives but it was less like I’d just seen Diane last week,” Neeson said. “We did have fun. You were happy to come to work every day because it was great in every sense — the beautiful sets, the dialogue, the cast,” confessed Kruger. “It felt like doing a real movie, you know?”
Neeson and Kruger discussed the past and future of movie stardom, how they got their starts, and where they find inspiration.
Liam Neeson on His Favorite Golden Age Actors
Guillermo De Querol: Marlowe feels like a throwback to classic Golden Age film noir. Can you name some of your favorite actors from that era?
Neeson: Definitely Spencer Tracy. Robert Mitchum I admired very much, in westerns and whatever genre, and his Marlowe, of course.
Guillermo De Querol: Did you watch any previous Marlowe film adaptations to prepare for the role?
Liam Neeson: I had seen The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, all these films, but I didn’t want to re-enact Mitchum, or Elliott Gould. One of the producers sent me the script William Monaghan had written based on a book I’d read. And then Neil Jordan changed some things and introduced the idea of Clare’s father, a Joe Kennedy-type caricature who buys RKO, which was quite unique and interesting. And I went along with that.
Diane Kruger: I love Ingrid Bergman. I’ve been doing a lot of research on Marlene Dietrich as we’re developing a series about her. But I didn’t want to model my performance after them, you know?
Actors from that era had such a different and interesting experience, they were signed by a big studio, they often used recreational drugs to stay up because the shooting hours were so crazy, the way the films were lit — everything was part of what made Hollywood and part of why I wanted to become an actress. I didn’t want to copy that, I’m trying to be part of that story right now.
Diane Kruger on the Old Hollywood System
Guillermo De Querol: The very concept of a movie star seems to have completely changed since that era. Some may argue it is fading away with the advent of social media and streaming.
Liam Neeson: In those days, you signed a five- to seven-year contract and the studio was churning out films, so it was an amazing apprenticeship. Nowadays, movie stars will do one movie a year, maybe two. They were really working on their craft, which I kind of admire. That doesn’t exist anymore.
Diane Kruger: I do think that people come and go more frequently. In the old days, Dietrich had Von Sternberg and so on. They created these characters and the myth of movie stars together. I don’t know how much of it was true, so I don’t know if that still exists. And to be honest, I’m not sure if it’s not better that it doesn’t.
Liam Neeson: There’s a whole wind of changes that happened with streaming and the pandemic. I think it’s fantastic for writers to be able to develop characters over a period of three to four years in television. I personally have a slight snobbery about being on TV because I’ve done too many series and find the process to be too quick and fast.
Guillermo De Querol: Did you have any ambitions of becoming movie stars when you started out?
Diane Kruger: For me, that was just something that happened. I was like 25 when I went to drama school in Paris, hoping that they would accept my French accent because I loved Romy Schneider growing up and I’ve always had that melancholy of living there, smoking cigarettes, marrying a French actor and making French films that are very dramatic. That kind of became true for a minute. And then America just came knocking, you know? So I got lucky, I guess.
Liam Neeson on His First Role: ‘F—, She’s Going to Offer Me a Job’
Neeson: I turned professional in 1976. I started off doing amateur theater. My ambition, if I had any then, was to be maybe in the Royal Shakespeare Company, maybe in the National Theatre of Great Britain. That was about it.
I remember taking the day off and taking the train up to Belfast, which was 30 miles away, and doing two bits for an audition in 1974. Thinking back on it, I don’t think I was particularly good. The owner of the theatre told me to come down and explained how hard it is to be an actor.
And the more she talked about it, the more I thought, F—, she’s going to offer me a job. And she did. That afternoon, I remember signing a contract to join the British Equity, taking the train back home, and showing everybody at my local pub my copy of the contract. I remember going home and my parents’ faces. That color.
I never had aspirations to be in a movie, forget about being a movie star, until I did Excalibur with John Boorman, who was just a mentor to me in that film. I fell in love with the medium, just running in shining armor and riding horses, and one thing led to another. Then I moved to London, and then I thought I should go to L.A. I had certain winds of changes in my life that I’ve always followed.
Guillermo De Querol: I’m sure you’re well aware this is your 100th film role.
Liam Neeson: Yes, but that includes some documentary footage.
Guillermo De Querol: Does reaching that milestone make you reflect on your career and life?
Liam Neeson: Oh, yes. I turned 70 last June, and when I hit it, I just went down the rabbit hole for a while. For some reason, there’s an age, I’m talking eight, nine, ten, years old, when you think that 70 is really old.
But you also have to be able to laugh at yourself. There’s this sequence in Marlowe where two thugs arrive, and you know there’s going to be a fight, so we have a little fight. And as I left the camera frame, I thought, “I’m too old for this”. And Neil [Jordan] said, “Keep that in. I like that.” And so we did.
Guillermo De Querol: You don’t look a day over 40 in Marlowe. Does acting keep you young?
Liam Neeson: It beats digging ditches in Ireland in weather like this. I’m dead lucky, seriously. Acting allows you to use your imagination and act the way you were as a kid. We’re always pretending.
Guillermo De Querol: How would you describe the way you approach a role, especially looking back to your earlier years?
Liam Neeson: Bob De Niro is a friend, you know?. Daniel Day-Lewis is an old pal, right? I have every admiration for what Daniel used to do to get into a role. I mean, he went beyond the beyond and I totally admire that. But that was the only way he knew how to act. Other people I have acted with could just be, you know?
The old actors from a different generation, James Cagney told an actress once when she asked him how to play a scene. And I still quote this to young students, if I’m ever asked, he said, “Sweetheart, you walk in the room, plant your feet, speak the truth.” That’s great.
Henry Fonda had another one when he was asked what’s his definition of screen acting, he said, “It’s learning how to wait.” That’s equally true, you know.
Guillermo De Querol: Does that process get easier with experience?
Liam Neeson: No, I don’t think it gets easier. But I do love that little period between action and cut. I still love that.
Guillermo De Querol: You always manage to bring such credibility to your roles, even as an action hero.
Liam Neeson: I’m just going back to Jimmy Cagney trying to speak the truth. There may be silly lines or whatever in action movies. But you just try to be truthful with the situation.
The audiences have the say, that’s the lovely thing. All these executives kind of say, Well, this is the budget, and this is what the audience will expect. But the audience is always the X factor. They decide. And I love the unpredictability they bring when they go to see a movie. Like, “Oh, this is going to be a surefire hit.” It turns out it’s not. Something didn’t click with the audience. Or the opposite, you know, some apparently insignificant little film just suddenly takes on a life of its own because audiences just need to be told that story. I love that.
Guillermo De Querol: Is there any specific character that you haven’t played yet but would be interested to play in the future?
Diane Kruger: You know, the question gets asked around a lot and for me, the rule is you don’t know until it’s in your letterbox. I love when you read a script for the first time and you’re just like, “Wow, I can’t believe somebody thought about me for that role. Nobody offered me anything like that. Let’s say yes before they change their mind.” Those moments I really do look for and hope for.
Marlowe is now in theaters from Open Road Films.
Main image: Diane Kruger and Liam Neeson in Marlowe.