'Acting Is a Form of Prayer'
Liam Neeson rediscovered spirituality when he realized his passion for acting itself was a connection to the divine
"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."
Acting as prayer is enhanced by the fact that theatre actors must perform their parts over and over, he says. "It becomes like a mantra. The more you repeat it, the more it reveals its secrets. You really enter into that world. When you're doing it eight times a week, twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays, you can get in touch with something quite extraordinary."
What seemed like a revelation when he was in the jungle actually had its roots in that Irish Catholicism of his childhood. Christened William John Neeson, his family called him Liam in honor of a local priest. For six years he was an altar boy, "getting up at all hours for Mass with only the priest and two old ladies in the church." Even though it was hard rising early and heading out into a cold morning in northeastern Ireland, the experience affected him deeply. "There was always something really powerful, which I've never forgotten. The putting on of vestments and lighting candles, it's a wonderful ritual that never changes from one Mass to another. It helped fashion me to want to be an actor."
He appeared in school plays and at festivals around Ireland, while still pursuing another interest: boxing, for which he achieved the status of Ulster youth heavyweight champion. A broken nose when he was fifteen didn't stop him from continuing, but blackouts and memory loss did. He attended Queen's University in Belfast for a year before transferring to a teaching college in Newcastle, which he left after two years.
Stints as an architect's clerk and forklift operator followed while he was in his early twenties. In 1976, on a dare from a coworker, he called the Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast. The owner just happened to be looking for an actor his age and height--six feet, four inches--so he auditioned and got the part. After two years he joined the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It was during that time he landed his first movie role, as Sir Gawain in "Excalibur" in 1980. He went on to work in London and Hollywood before making his Broadway debut in "Anna Christie" in 1993 opposite Natasha Richardson, whom he married in July 1994.