21 April 1996

Interview: Liam Neeson is Michael Collins

Picture this: four movie writers sitting round a five star hotel boardroom wondering if the Great Man would even appear.

Liam Neeson’s schedule on this hit and run promo tour is so tight there isn’t time to grant our respective publications a one-on-one interview. Now we have been told that that even our allotted thirty minutes with the star of writer/director Neil Jordan’s new film, Michael Collins, was in jeopardy.

The marketing flacks tell us we have to be satisfied with either a fifteen minute audience or none at all. We figure that at fifteen minutes there’s not much chance of even pretending to bond with Neeson, given we will have just under four minutes each to penetrate the movie icon’s psyche.

But such is life in a media ghetto. While we wait we chat about the film. Collins was an Irish freedom fighter in the 1920’s, the man credited with inventing modern guerilla warfare, and who brought the Brits to their knees in the war for Irish independence that followed the First World War. Collins would finally shift from his “talent for mayhem” to become peacemaker, negotiating the treaty which saw Ireland split into the Catholic free South and the British Protestant North.

Collins’s role in the treaty, according to Jordan’s version of events, led to his own assassination by the IRA for “selling out the North”.

We agree it’s starting to look hopeless when the former amateur boxer finally saunters in.

He looks more unreal in real life than on the silver screen. Chiselled features, immaculately cut Versace lounge suit, grandpa shirt, finely manicured hands that look more suited to piano than pugilism, and an almost sleepy demeanour. It is genuinely weird to clap eyes on the face that belonged to Oscar Schindler, Rob Roy and now Michael Collins.

After five minutes bowing and scraping from my “we’re not worthy” colleagues, your correspondent finally got a few questions in before his minders pack him away and cart him off to his next appointment.

Neeson grew up in Northern Ireland, what role does he think a film like Michael Collins can play there?

“Well, even though I grew up in the North, I’d only heard bits and pieces about Collins. In the history books at school this period usually got about one sentence - and the whole Irish independence movement maybe one paragraph. These people were presented as rebels, to be put down. We learned about the Great Fire of London, but not about our own history

“So this is a period that we in Ireland are only starting to discover and appreciate. It’s about a specific period 1918 to 1922, but it’s also about the British opression of Ireland for 700 years.

“It’s interesting that Schindler’s List has opened up a whole educational process about the Holocaust, and it would be great if this film could have a similar impact.”

Bringing the story of Collins to the screen has been a long time labor of love for Jordan, who wrote the first draft of the script over thirteen years ago, and had always slated Neeson for the title role.

After many false starts, it was only after Jordan’s breakthrough successes with The Crying Game and Interview With the Vampire that movie mogul David Geffen decided to back such a politically risky project and finally bring it to fruition.

“In Ireland the film is smashing all box office records, and even in Britain, where there’s a popular view that Collins was more a terrorist than a soldier, the film is doing very well.

“In fact I’ve even had good notices from some critics in Britain who usually give me short shrift.”

“So it’s been very satisfying to see the film finally come to the screen after all this time, and to make the impact we’d all hoped it would.”

The film is a weighty yet entertaining bio-pic, and by all accounts is a fairly faithful telling of the events that led to the partition of Ireland and the creation of the Irish Free State. And Jordan extracts an Oscar-bait performance from Neeson in the title role. He dominates the screen with an easy going passion, adding a human dimension, turning what could easily have been a self-important history lesson into a rollicking good yarn.

Yet his modesty is almost off-putting. He seems genuinely more interested in Collins-the-man than Neeson-the-movie star. In fact it’s all he wants to talk about.

“Collins’s story has all the classic elements of Greek tragedy, the subjugation of your own personal hopes and dreams for the good of the country. In that way Collins was certainly a hero - he loved Ireland and the Irish people, and wasn’t in it for any personal gain.”

I don’t know how he did it, but my fifteen minutes with Mr Neeson left me thinking he was really in it for the art, not the artifice - a position worthy of respect, for a film worthy of the ticket price.

MICHAEL HUTAK





First published in The Bulletin

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