Sunday, May 16, 1999

Neeson still in films, extols 'Phantom'




BY MARGARET A. McGURK
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[stars]
Liam Neeson with co-stars (clockwise) Ewan MacGregor, Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman.
| ZOOM |
        NEW YORK — Liam Neeson is not giving up on the movies, no matter what you have heard.

        He confesses he told an interviewer in a moment of exhaustion that he was through acting for the cameras. “But it's not true,” he tells a room full of writers, “I was just venting a bit of anger and missing my family and missing being on a trout stream.”

        That's good news for admirers of the Irish actor who plays the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the movie that accounts for the mob of writers waiting to question him.

        Dressed in an elegant charcoal suit and black shirt, he is affable, soft-spoken, self-deprecating — but ever so slightly uncomfortable giving too much of himself to the publicity machine.

        “The professional side of me doesn't want to describe how the rabbit comes out of the hat,” he admits. “It's nobody's business. It's part of my craft and George Lucas's (craft), and I feel no one has a right to know that stuff. I love mystery in life. I love mystery in performance. And yet, (publicity) gets bums on seats, y'know? Deep down inside myself, I resent it.”

        Nevertheless, he is persuaded to reveal some of the tricks he used to turn himself into the heroic figure who trains Obi-Wan Kenobi and recognizes the potential Jedi in Anakin Skywalker.

        He says he drew inspiration from the classic Western Shane, from Mr. Lucas, even from the costumes made to fit his 6-foot-4 frame. Also, “good shoes, good footwear. I'm not being facetious. It's very important.”

"Very powerful'
        Mr. Lucas says of the actor, “It seemed, from my point of view when his name came up, that Liam was born to play that role. He's very quiet, very powerful, but he's very contemplative.

        Co-star Natalie Portman says, “It's such a wonderful image to see this huge guy, and he's so sensitive and gentle.”

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        Mr. Neeson says he takes a minimalist approach. “As an actor, you always try and make it simpler and simpler. The basic thing that you want is an audience to believe what's coming out of your mouth is true. And that you've just invented it.”

        Playing a stoic hero is not as much fun as some characters, he admits. “On a very basic level, you're a straight man, like Abbot and Costello. However, you can't have Costello without Abbott.”

        In the end, “I was honored George picked me to do it. It was very exciting to do. It was hard work, but... it's wonderful to be in a little bit of the jigsaw.”

        He also makes a point of putting the role in perspective. “I'm a jobbing actor. Qui-Gon Jinn was wonderful to play, but it's another character,” he says. “I'm just lucky it happened to be with a wonderful director in a cinematic saga everyone happens to know about.”

        He acknowledges that attention is inescapable with this film. “It's like flames. The more oxygen it gets the more it sort of spreads,” he says.

Original was magical
        Mr. Neeson remembers what it was like to see the original Star Wars in 1977 in Belfast, where sectarian violence was an everyday fact of life. “I'd never seen a movie theater with every seat filled. All ages. And everyone was transported.”

        The effect, he says, was magical because of the primal ideas that the movie and its sequels invoked.

        “They're based on epic, heroic, mythological stories that we recognize. ... Also I think that we're living in such a complex world that there's confusion every which way we turn — with our elected leaders, with counties going to war with each other, with disease and famine. We kind want to see something that ...just reminds you of the basic pillars of wisdom that we still stand on — loyalty, integrity, truth, justice.”

        He wasn't all that crazy about the two sequels, particularly the Ewoks that played such a big role in Return of the Jedi.

        “They're like those things people used to put in the back of their cars,” he says. “Have you ever had that, when you're going to date a girl and you see one of those nodding things in the back of the car and you, like, run? You actually stand her up because of that? That's what those Ewoks kind of did to me.”

        As for what's next, a fishing trip will do.

        “I want to catch a 22-inch brown trout more than anything. With my new dry fly. It's called the Qui-Gon — it's the master Jedi of dry flies.”

'Phantom Menace' queen poised for stardom
Lucas: Fans drove hype
- Neeson still in films, extols 'Phantom'



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