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In director Joe Carnahan’s latest action thriller The Grey, Liam Neeson stars as Ottway, a sharpshooter hired to protect oil-rig workers from the hungry Alaskan wildlife. However, when their plane crashes in the desolate tundra, Ottway and the roughnecks are forced to survive both the brutal elements and a vicious pack of wolves whose territory they’ve accidentally entered.
“Well, it’s not a chick flick,” Neeson joked recently to SPINOFF ONLINE and other members of the press.
The actor said he was immediately drawn to the film’s themes when Carnahan handed him the script on the set of The A-Team.
“It read like a 19th century epic poem, like ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ and it touched on aspects of spirituality and Greek mythology, and I thought this is right up my street,” he said. “It’s just sparse, man versus nature.”
As his character contemplates God and questions of existence, so too did Neeson during filming. He told reporters that despite being raised Catholic he thought of himself as a spiritualist, and was a voracious reader of religious and philosophical books, including the works of atheist Christopher Hitchens, who passed away in December.
“This film reverberated with me in lots of ways,” he said. “I’m constantly reading books about God, the absence of God, atheism, and I miss Christopher Hitchens very much. I miss those sorts of writers who make you question yourself. I love his writing — I loved his spirit and I loved his mind.”
In addition to re-reading “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to get into the role, Neeson also spoke with real oil-rig sharpshooters to get into character.
“I thought they’d be really tough motherfuckers, but they’re the most sensitive people who hated having to occasionally take down a polar bear or wild animal that was about to attack some of these workers,” he said.
More than anything else, this sensitivity is what Neeson said he hoped to imbue in his portrayal of Ottway. “It surprised me, I don’t know why, but it did surprise me,” he added.
However, the actor thought the hardest part of the film sprang not from the emotional weight of the movie but from dealing with the environment on location in snowy British Columbia.
“I was always concerned about the river sequence,” Neeson said, referring to a scene in which his character is carried down a fast-moving, icy river. Praising his stuntman, who did the majority of the sequence, Neeson said he still had to get into the water for close-ups and other shots.
“I was concerned about that because it was a real river and there were various people down the river waiting in case the current does just take you away,” he recalled.
In fact, Neeson worried so much about his ability to cope with the harsh weather that he began taking cold showers in hopes of conditioning himself.
“I saw this documentary of this crazy Brit a few years ago, one of those guys who swims the Antarctic from iceberg to iceberg … and his training in London started by standing under freezing cold showers for 10 minutes each morning, so I thought, I’ll do that,” he said. Smiling, the actor confessed he eventually was able to withstand the shower for up to seven minutes, a regimen he’s convinced helped to prepare him for conditions on location, where temperatures routinely dropped to minus-40 degrees.
“Of course, I didn’t tell the other cast members,” he joked.
Circling back to the blue-collar workers Neeson met during his research for the role also led him to recall working as a young man for Guinness.
“There was a forklift truck driver in a Guinness factory in my hometown, and this guy could make a forklift truck speak, he was so brilliant at what he did,” Neeson recalled. “Anyway, I was the apprentice forklift truck driver [and] we were waiting on these cases of Guinness that then get put onto pallets, and we took the pallets and store them; so we’re waiting and he says, ‘Liam, how long are you planning to stay here?’”
The actor, then about 20 years old, told the driver what he really wanted to do was act. “And he thought about it and said, in all sincerity, ‘So you could be another Roy Rogers!’” Neeson laughed. “Of all the actors, it wasn’t James Cagney, it was Roy Rogers … but that stayed with me.”
Outside of the physical challenges of The Grey, Neeson said he didn’t consciously attempt to access any memories or tragedies to imbue his character with emotion.
“I didn’t channel anything,” he said. “I knew what had to be done, and I think the more you try to intellectualize those things the more you build up a wall to your emotions. I knew I was capable of doing the scene without thinking about it.”
Despite the toned-down nature of The Grey as compared to his recent roles in Taken and The A-Team, the actor said he didn’t see the film as taking him in a different direction, nor did he regret becoming an action star.
“They’re fun, they appeal to the little boy in me,” Neeson said, adding that he still passionately loved acting in any capacity. “The little period of time in between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ is still very special to me. … I’m so touched that complete strangers will send me a script, asking me to be in their film, it still bamboozles me.”
The actor laughed and with a grin added, “And sometimes for a lot of money, too!”
The Grey opens Jan. 27 nationwide.