'Acting Is a Form of Prayer'
Liam Neeson rediscovered spirituality when he realized his passion for acting itself was a connection to the divine
BY: Retta Blaney
Learning to look at work as prayer is something Liam Neeson discovered in the jungles of Colombia, South America, while filming "The Mission," a 1986 movie about eighteenth-century Jesuits. "I was at a crossroads in my life," he says. "I was reasonably successful as an actor. I was thirty-two or thirty-three with a potential career ahead of me. I had done some flimflam movies, but I didn't understand what being an actor meant anymore."
He liked the downtime, "getting drunk at night and getting laid as much as I could," to which he adds, "I was single at the time." But for the classically trained stage actor, something was missing. "The work side was easy. It was no big stretch."
He had let slip the Roman Catholic faith he had been raised in in Ballymena, a predominantly Protestant town in Northern Ireland near Belfast, which contributed to his feelings of being at a crossroads. As research for "The Mission," he read "The Jesuits" by J. C. Aveling and "Theology of Liberation" by Gustavo Gutierrez. He also became friends with the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., a technical advisor for the film who "told me extraordinary stories of his life and the life of a Jesuit."
Through his Jesuit research Neeson made a discovery that deeply affected his outlook. He learned about the Spiritual Exercises of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola who encouraged his students to study scripture by taking the part of a character in a Bible story, such as a shepherd in the stable at Bethlehem, and employing all the senses to imaginatively enter into the scene. Neeson recognized the connection between the Spiritual Exercises and Konstantin Stanislavsky's "An Actor Prepares," which deals with the profound process an actor should go through to present a part onstage.
"I found out in the jungles of South America that Stanislavsky had based his technique on the Spiritual Exercises. It was a real revelation to me, and it brought two big parts of my life together. The Irish Catholic side was married to the life of an actor and I found out acting could be a form of prayer. It helped me knowing that. It was like a little godsend message." Now he uses that form of prayer for others. "I offer my performance as prayer for someone I've worked with as an actor or someone who has died. The image that comes into my head as I walk to the stage, I offer that performance up for that person."