'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
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.
That role, as seaman Mat Burke, earned him a Tony Award nomination. It also landed him the role that made him a star, that of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He was nominated for another Tony in 2002 for his performance as John Proctor in a revival of "The Crucible."
Living now in New York and continuing to act in movies and onstage, he attends Mass occasionally and says his faith is different from that of his altar boy years. "I question more now. I don't mean that it's all hokum, but I've lost a simple faith. I do still believe, but I like to encompass all religions now. I believe we're all paying homage to God."
But churchgoing is still a part of his life. "I always drop in a church when passing to say my Catholic prayers, and I make sure my children say them." He is raising his two sons Catholic because "they should learn some roots in a certain dogma. Not The One True Church, but I tell them there was a man called Jesus Christ who was the Son of God, simple stories, that he was a man the world is still figuring, he is." Churches are "comforting places," he says. "Generally I just give thanks for how lucky I am. I'm healthy, I have some money in the bank, I have healthy children and a wonderful wife."