Film interview: Neeson soaring high in action thriller Non-Stop

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You’d think that the opportunity to surround yourself with a bevy of scantily-clad actresses in exotic locations would be one too tempting to resist.

But veteran actor Liam Neeson had a compelling reason to turn down the role of James Bond when it was offered to him during the early years of his career.

Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore in Non-Stop.

Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore in Non-Stop.

“I was heavily courted, let’s put it that way, and I’m sure some other actors were too,” says Neeson, as he chews thoughtfully on a toothpick and rests his long limbs on an armchair.

“It was about 18 or 19 years ago and my wife-to-be said, ‘If you play James Bond we’re not getting married!’ And I had to take that on board, because I did want to marry her,” he recalls, smiling.

Indeed, he did go on to marry the woman he’s referring to - the actress Natasha Richardson, who died five years ago following a tragic skiing accident.

In his first interview after her untimely death, the actor said: “It hits you. It’s like a wave. You just get this profound feeling of instability... the Earth isn’t stable anymore and then it passes and it becomes more infrequent, but I still get it sometimes.”

Turning down the iconic 007 role certainly didn’t do his career any harm.

The former amateur boxer’s breakthrough big screen role came as Jesus Christ in 1978’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but it was 1993’s Schindler’s List which really propelled him into the limelight.

Since then, he’s cemented his position as one of the world’s best-loved actors with films like Love Actually and Gangs Of New York and, at the age of 61, is an in-demand action star.

There’s been The A-Team, the Taken series (the third film is currently in production) and now his latest flick, Non-Stop, in which Neeson plays a grieving federal air marshal who springs into action during a transatlantic flight when he receives a series of threatening text messages that put his fellow passengers at risk.

The film saw the cast, including Julianne Moore, Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery and Oscar-nominated 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o, work for 40 days on a makeshift plane.

Far from being claustrophobic, the atmosphere on set was “fun”, although being on a plane, even one which was stationary for so long, did bring back a rather unsettling memory for Neeson.

“I had a long haul flight to South Africa where someone [sitting next to me] was violently ill and I couldn’t change seats,” says the actor in his Ballymena brogue (he was born in Northern Ireland), grimacing at the memory.

“I was next to them for most of the flight and then eventually the flight attendant gave them a sleeping medication, and it worked.”

Thankfully there was no air sickness on set (though the director Jaume Collet Serra has spoken about his own fear of flying) but Neeson, who is involved in some on-screen fight sequences, did his best to stay in ship-shape condition for the role.

And that meant setting a good example on set.

“I keep pretty fit as a rule in life, because making any movie is a very concentrated period of time and you have to have your sh*t together,” he says. “Especially if you’re playing the lead, you have to set an example. You have to be on set on time and I try and do that as often as I can.”

The father of two’s work ethic has served him well in his 40-year acting career.

He has no regrets about roles he’s turned down, he says, but there was one film that took his fancy last year.

“All Is Lost was a very, very good film,” says Neeson of the Robert Redford drama.

It’s a one-man show, with Redford playing a doomed sailor lost at sea; the film’s up for an Oscar and also received Golden Globe and Bafta nods.

“That’s the only thing recently where I thought, ‘Oh I would have loved to have played that part’,” Neeson admits. “Mr Redford was wonderful and it’s a terrific film, but I did feel a little pang of you know, jealousy!”

Even if he had a mild dalliance with the green-eyed monster, in reality, it sounds unlikely he’d have had time to fit another movie into his hectic schedule - he worked on a whopping nine movies last year.

This year though, the actor is taking on fewer new projects, but with roles in Taken 3, Seth McFarlane’s new film A Million Ways To Die In The West, plus Martin Scorsese’s latest film Silence to be getting on with, it doesn’t sound like he’ll be twiddling his thumbs any day soon.

“I made nine films last year, four of them were animated, it was stupid!” he confesses, smiling.

“I’m keeping busy, which is thrilling. I love to work.”

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