It was a fiery minister who inspired Liam Neeson to be an actor. His name was Ian Paisley, a towering Irish Protestant politician, known for his sharp tongue and fierce sermons. Twice a week, he would proselytize at a church in Neeson’s small town, where, as a boy, the Non-Stop star would sneak into the back of the room to listen. “He was fantastic,” Neeson recalled in a 2012 episode of Inside the Actors Studio. “He put the fear of God in me -- and the love of acting.”
That love spawned into a three-plus decade career of on-screen accomplishments -- and that's after years of working odd jobs (he was a Guiness factory forklift driver, a truck driver and an amateur boxer, and once aspired to a teaching career). Since his film debut in 1978’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Neeson has played a Jedi, a superhero, a doctor, a revolutionary, a mercenary and a priest. Eventually the role he became best known for was sympathetic Nazi Oskar Schindler in 1994’s Schindler’s List, an Academy Award-nominated performance that led to more critically acclaimed fare, like his Irish revolutionary Michael Collins in Michael Collins and sex-scientist Dr. Alfred Kinsey in Kinsey.
But in 2008, the then 56-year-old actor took on a new -- and unexpected -- role: mainstream action star, in Luc Besson's Taken.
The transformation has been impressive. Here is a man who, since age 26, was known for playing characters in historical dramas. Then, all of sudden, he becomes the next Bruce Willis. How does that happen? Part of it is luck -- finding the right script, the right director, being in the right place at the right time. (At an impressive 6'4", his height doesn’t hurt either.) But there is more to it than that. Mostly, Neeson’s transition took consistency. On-screen, he is always precise, confident and intense, qualities you need to topline action movies like the Taken series and his new film Non-Stop, which hits theaters this weekend.
Of course, it’s not like Neeson was action-less before 2008. He got into fights in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, crossed lightsabers with Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace and killed soldiers in Kingdom of Heaven. But those films weren't straight-up popcorn fare like Besson’s Taken, in which Neeson plays a former CIA agent attempting to track down his kidnapped daughter by hurting anyone involved with her disappearance.
Taken brought us something new: an intense, take-no-prisoners Neeson. Now, anytime he steps on-screen, we expect him to beat the hell out of somebody. It’s almost an in-joke at this point. Oh, there’s Liam Neeson, ready to kick someone’s ass. (You know you thought that as soon as he showed up in the trailer for Non-Stop.) It's all in the eyes; whether soft and sensitive in Schindler's List or burning with anger in Batman, we're equally on board for him to play biographical or deliver a royal beatdown. Indeed, as soon as audiences saw the Taken trailer, with its memorable and now oft-quoted “I have a particular set of skills” monologue, they were hooked. There was no question that Neeson could pull off an action movie.
Since Taken, Neeson has continued to hone his particular set of skills into more action-packed moneymakers like Unknown, Clash of the Titans, The Grey and, of course, Taken 2. At 62, how how long will he continue down this path? With Non-Stop, he shows no signs of slowing down. And we certainly don’t want him to.