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Liam Neeson, at human size

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

The Liam Neeson in Toronto this week isn't the Liam Neeson you often read about.

Quickly dismissive and growling about the trappings of stardom and moviemaking: That Neeson didn't show. Neither did the one whom director Neil Jordan describes as being so physically massive. He isn't here either.

More angular than heavy set, this Neeson, casually sipping iced red wine and chewing on a tooth pick, exudes regular-bloke, save for the consciously tousled hair and possibly a pat of makeup applied for the day's photo shoots.

And this Neeson, like most actors, also seems more refined in person than on camera, with his hook nose, clay-moulded face and innocent expression.

Really, the only resemblance to the person he is sometimes said to be is his cigarette-and-cognac voice, as Steven Spielberg has apparently called it. With only a hint of brogue, it's the voice of an old storyteller reeling off a spellbinding yarn, which is how many will view his new film directed by Jordan, Breakfast on Pluto.

Neeson plays Father Bernard, a priest sympathetic to a young transvestite during the times of the early 1970s Troubles in Northern Ireland. The role of an ethical, orderly man caught in a whirl of disorder is an obvious one for Neeson.

"I love that, yeah, especially now that I'm a father of two boys. I'm really conscious of the ethics of the film and the story. That's not to say I wouldn't do a piece of mindless entertainment. God, I've done a few of those," he says.

"Especially since Schindler's List, I was really aware of the power of those images and the responsibility we have as performers, as artists, as moviemakers."

He sits back and squints. "We live in such a bloody corporate world. There are certain pillars of ethics and wisdom that we all should share: truth, fidelity, honesty, integrity. It's almost old-fashioned nowadays to mention words like integrity. You know, it's important to always remind yourself that these are the real pillars of humanity."

His voice is barely above a whisper, like a priest in a confessional. But unfortunately, it's a characteristic of Neeson's that, despite his Hollywood clout, still gets him typecast as the big, caring, Irish guy. Part of his fondness for Manhattan, where he lives (and roams Central Park regularly in very unmovie-star old clothes), is the fact that in New York he isn't pegged as Irish.

"Any successful actor in films will tell you that it's very, very hard to come by good material," he says. "Everybody gets pigeon-holed. Laurence Olivier was pigeon-holed. Marlon Brando was pigeon-holed. But there are times when a script arrives, and I say, okay, I can see myself playing this."

That's not to say that Neeson negates his roles in The Phantom Menace and this summer's Batman Begins. "Star Wars and Batman are still very challenging. It's a different genre. Yeah, you kind of do flex different muscles."

He adds, in fatherly confidence, "Listen, I don't know if you've heard the old expression. Making movies, it's like sex. When it's good, it's good. And when it's bad, it's still good.

"Even the worst films I've made -- there's always something good I've extracted from them. Or some relationship I've formed from a grip or a DP [director of photography] that's going to inform me for the rest of my professional life. I love that collaboration, I really do."

And even though Neeson has at times disparaged being made to feel like a puppet on some film sets, he notes that following a good director can be thrilling. It's clear this was the case with Jordan and Breakfast on Pluto. Unlike many films which are obviously a chore to promote, with actors saying platitudes which don't ring true, that's not the case with Neeson and this film.

"This is my third film with Neil, and his cinematic language has just gone through the stratosphere since Michael Collins," in which Neeson played the title role. "He was possessed shooting this movie. He reminded me what an abstract painter would have been like, just applying colour all the time."

Neeson's next major role is to play Abraham Lincoln in a new Spielberg film. He has been researching the part since November. It's a challenge, Neeson says, leaning back again. And like his title role in Kinsey, it's a role that'll hopefully move Neeson further away from the pigeon-holing that some still attach to him, simply out of habit.

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