Liam Neeson is losing it. His voice, that is, that distinctive booming bass that can sound threatening and reassuring—often at the same time. Speaking to a packed audience following a screening of his new film Kinsey, in which the 52-year-old actor portrays sex researcher Alfred Kinsey from his late 20s to his early 60s, Neeson apologizes for his raspy tone. His voice barely a whisper, he still manages to captivate the crowd, which hangs on every precious word.
The following morning, Neeson's voice hasn't improved at all. If anything, it's gotten worse. But he remains the consummate trouper, keeping his interview appointment. Later that evening, he will attend the Kinsey premiere, gamely posing for photographs, working the red carpet, and talking at length to support the film. Then he'll fly to New York, where he's supposed to be hosting Saturday Night Live that weekend. At this point he has no idea what he'll be doing on the show, but he's not concerned. "I haven't got time to be nervous," he says simply.
Neeson's commitment to Kinsey is admirable, but it's also understandable. The actor is flawless in the role, delivering perhaps the best performance of his stellar career. Audiences have seen Neeson play charismatic leaders before, such as his Oscar-nominated role in Schindler's List or as the IRA leader in Michael Collins. He's excelled in comedic parts, such as in last year's Love Actually. And he has more than held his own against the likes of Jodie Foster (Nell), Jessica Lange (Rob Roy), and Diane Keaton (The Good Mother). But in Kinsey Neeson gets to run the gamut as his good doctor grows from an awkward suitor—a virgin on his wedding night—to a pioneer in the study of human sexuality. Along the way, Kinsey discovers his own bisexuality with the aid of his research assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard) and grows into a powerful, if frequently bullying, figure. Neeson is matched every step by Laura Linney, an actor, he has worked with twice before, who portrays Kinsey's understanding wife, Clara. In addition to their emotional scenes together, the film is also equally full of humor and a touching sweetness. It's a pleasant surprise that a film that ostensibly presents itself to be about sex ends up being one of the most beautiful love stories of the year.
Neeson was appearing in a Broadway revival of The Crucible with Linney when he received a call from writer/director Bill Condon (see sidebar) about starring in the film. Linney was already committed to Kinsey, but Condon had long had Neeson in mind for the title role. "When people talked about Kinsey, the thing that they always mentioned first is the power that he had, the power that seemed to emanate from him," Condon told Back Stage West. "He had a real leader-of-men quality. Obviously Liam has that. But Kinsey is a contradictory figure; he also had this incredible gentleness, this amazing empathy. It's not a common combination, that sense of a 'gentle giant.' " Condon's only concern, according to Neeson, was his ability to mask his distinct Irish accent. "We had a meeting in New York, and I think he was concerned," Neeson recalls. "But when push came to shove, he offered it to me. I was just thrilled."
While the actor looks nothing like Kinsey, he found an in to the character by studying the extensive research Condon sent him. In addition he found inspiration in two unique places: the hair and the voice. "He had this extraordinary haircut that was described like a wheat field, blowing in the wind," says Neeson. "It's hard to explain, but it revealed to me something artistic about him." The actor also learned a great deal from an audiotape of a lecture that was sent to him by Kinsey's Institute of Sex Research. "It's only about 30 minutes long, but it was a great help, because you could hear his joy at disseminating knowledge," says Neeson. "He starts off, and his voice is very, very frail. But when he gets into his subject matter, the voice becomes incredibly strong and forthright. It just reminded me of what an extraordinary teacher he was and how lecturing and passing on knowledge gave him a buzz. He was a natural-born teacher."
Neeson knows a thing or two about schooling; two of his sisters are teachers, and he dabbled briefly in education himself. "I was a terrible teacher," he says with a groan. "Very, very bad. I just could not handle a room full of 12-, 13-year-old girls." Neeson was unable to get a grant to attend a drama college, but he received a grant to go to a teacher-training college to teach drama. "I did that for two years, thinking it might just be a pale imitation of an actor's dream," he notes. "But I just ended up doing more plays with a bunch of like-minded students." One day he phoned The Lyric Theatre in Belfast on a hunch. "A lady there asked me what height I was," he recalls. "I said, 'I'm 6-foot-4.' And she said, 'Can you be up here next Thursday?' And I snuck off work and did this very crude audition for her. But that afternoon I signed an Equity contract, and my life changed." It turns out the theatre was looking for a tall actor to play the role of Jim Larkin in The Risen People, about a famous Dublin strike in 1914. "Jim Larkin was a big, big man," says Neeson. "And he appears in the play for only three minutes. But, for the rest of the play, everyone talks about him. So it was a perfect part, you know?"
According to Neeson, it was while at the theatre that he became an actor. "It was amazing," he raves. "We were doing a new play every four weeks, and it was extraordinary training. We did the whole canon of European writers—Shakespeare, Chekhov, Yeats—every month for two years." His love for the theatre remains to this day, and he tries to return to the stage every two years. "You flex different muscles," he says. "And it's a chance to be in control. From 8 to 11 o'clock you're in charge, so to speak. And if you mess it up, you get a chance to do it the next night, and the night after that. I mean, movies are wonderful, but I think they are essentially a director's and an editor's medium."
In 1980, while playing Lennie in a production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, director John Boorman saw Neeson and cast him in his first film role—in the epic Arthurian saga Excalibur. Neeson went on to play small roles in films such as The Bounty and The Mission before landing his breakout role in 1987's Suspect, where he played, oddly enough, a mute. Without a single word, Neeson steals scenes from headliners Cher and Dennis Quaid, and he soon found himself landing starring roles in films such as Sam Raimi's comic blast Darkman and Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives. The actor soon found himself inundated with offers, but his choices have always come down to the power of the script. "There's been several scripts that were just OK," he admits. "And scripts that you kind of have to work on. But there are some that just pop off the page, and I've been very, very fortunate." He specifically cites Schindler's List, Michael Collins, and Kinsey as screenplays he was instantly drawn to. "You'd literally read them and be unable to put them down," Neeson says. "They're real page-turners."
Neeson also looks for stories in which he can expand beyond what people's expectations might be. Perhaps that's why the handsome actor took on Darkman, in which he played a hideously disfigured scientist, as one of his first leading roles. Certainly, Neeson has never relied on his looks in any role. "People want to pigeonhole actors and actresses and say, 'Oh, yes, this is what he does, this is what she does,' " he says. "And a lot of the time it's not true. They just find it hard to flex that imaginative muscle that will put somebody unlikely in a part. And those are the parts you have to fight for." The actor also doesn't waste too much time worrying about being typecast. "Everybody gets pigeonholed," he says. "Laurence Olivier was pigeonholed. That's just the nature of the business. But certainly, if a part does come along that there's some instinct that tells you, 'You can really do this,' then I believe in fighting for it."
Despite its natural drama and sharp humor, Kinsey might not be the most commercial film of Neeson's career. Made for only $10 million, the movie has already generated some controversy about its central figure, who has long been the center of debate. Kinsey is a difficult figure, frequently unlikeable and difficult to sympathize with, a fact Condon recognized from the beginning. "He's a tough character to pull off, because he's sort of socially maladroit and a bully and so single-minded," says the director. "But even in his most difficult, stubborn times, Liam also keeps you aware of what a damaged person [Kinsey] is." Condon points specifically to the scene in which Sarsgaard's character seduces Kinsey for the first time. "Liam was so generous; he worked closely with the young actor who played him as a teenager, Benjamin Walker. And in Liam you see this adolescent anxiety about making this sexual move. It's something [the character has] never acted on before, and now he's going to do it, and it's almost like he's back to being a virgin again. I keep marveling at Liam's performance, that you see glimpses of the young man in the old man, the way he layers in all aspects of this complicated man's life."
Even when the on-screen characters are expressing their discomfort with sexuality, Neeson says the Kinsey set was a comfortable and friendly environment. He praises his co-stars, particularly his good friend Linney, whom he calls his "dance partner." Linney concurs, saying, "Liam and I work very, very well together. We did a play together for six months, so when we went to play a married couple on film, we started at a level that normally you don't get to until the movie is over—if you get there at all. We have an easy time working with each other; we enjoy being around each other."
Working with actors such as Linney is one of the highlights Neeson credits when he speaks about why he loves acting. He also cites the uncertainty, something not every actor embraces. "I love the precariousness of it," he says. "It's most certainly not a 9-to-5 job. The highs can be incredible, and the lows can be incredible, too. I've got a certain amount of success, which I'm very, very fortunate to have. To the point where, like now, my wife [Natasha Richardson] is making a movie in Shanghai, and I get to take my kids to school and pick them up and be with them. And I don't have to worry about the bills being paid." Neeson pauses for a moment, and then adds, "Well, I'll start worrying after Christmas again. But, between now and Christmas, I'm OK."
On the opposite end, is there anything Neeson doesn't like about a career in acting? "Well, the business sometimes just sucks, you know?" he says. "I just can't handle that side of it. That's why we need agents. I don't have a manager; I draw the line there. But I just don't understand the business, you know? I like the mystery of filmmaking, and I love the little snippets of time between action and cut. I love crews; I get a buzz out of filmmaking teams. I love when there's 200 people in a room, and we're all equally important." BSW