STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
If you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you’re in luck. The Irish-born actor pops up in two wildly different movies this month.
Neeson plays a priest in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” the story of Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan. The movie, which also stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, is playing in Philadelphia-area theaters.
And this weekend, Neeson delivers his first-ever motion capture performance in “A Monster Calls,” a family adventure from J.A. Bayona about a youngster (Lewis MacDougall) who copes with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness by conjuring up a tree monster (Neeson).
Oddly enough, Neeson had much different reactions to the source material for his new films. The actor was eager to work with Scorsese again after appearing in “The Gangs of New York” but he was less than thrilled with the Shusaku Endo novel on which “Silence” is based.
“My agent called and said they were interested in me for this book that Martin was doing and, for him, it was a real passion project,” says the actor.
“I don’t know how they [managed to adapt] Endo’s book [because] I found it was so dry. It was a real struggle to finish it. Then, when they sent me the script that Martin and Jay Cocks had written, it was almost a different animal, entirely.
“It was a real quest for faith and [it concerned] doubt and all the rest of it. Then I went down to meet Martin and I do what I always do, I told him, ‘Well you shouldn’t be seeing me. You should see Javier Bardem or you should see this one or that one.’”
Despite Neeson’s trying to convince him otherwise, Scorsese cast the Irishman as a priest who goes missing in Japan, which sets a rescue mission by two other Jesuits in motion.
Neeson was much more enthusiastic when he was handed the children’s book “A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness. Instantly, he found himself enchanted by the tale of a youngster conquering his fears with his imagination.
“It just kept haunting me when I finished it,” says the actor. This is just a kids’ book, he thought, “but there’s something more to it.”
Another reason Neeson was eager to jump aboard was the work of J.A. Bayona, who also directed “The Impossible” about the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia.
“There’s not a frame I would have changed in ‘The Impossible,’” says Neeson, 64. “Aside from all the bells and whistles of what we’re capable of doing on a screen now, the CGI, the motion capture and all that, [the movie] is about the human element.
“It was always the story of those kids trying to find their mom, or the dad trying to find his wife. J.A. never lost sight of that. He did the same thing with this story.
“As much as you go, ‘Oh my God, wow, that tree comes to life,’ it’s always to serve this human emotion that this kid is grappling with.”
When Neeson signed on for the gig, he knew he’d have to provide the voice for the Tree Monster and also lend his physicality to the motion capture process. For two weeks, Neeson dressed in a special suit so he could be photographed digitally. In the years that followed, the information was fed into a computer for the purpose of helping to animate his character.
“I had never done motion capture before but I had seen it obviously through the extraordinary work which Andy Serkis did as Gollum [in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ series].
“So, they needed me for two weeks in September 2014. It was great because I was working with Lewis and J.A. and five computer nerds. We were all in a space they call the Volume, with 70 cameras going all around you.
“You’re doing your acting dressed in an onesie with ping-pong balls attached. … I remember thinking, ‘What the [hell] am I doing?’ But after the first day I gradually got into it.
“And Lewis was emoting all the time. I mean this kid was giving a range of emotion that Shakespeare doesn’t even demand from Hamlet. “
When Neeson was trying to personify a giant tree monster, he thought back to some of the B movies he watched as a youngster.
“I remember as a kid, I used to love and be terrified of those B movies, the black and white movies of ‘The Mummy,’” he recalls. “Those certainly came to mind when I was moving for the first time [as the tree monster]. I felt as if he’s kind of got that mummy-esque movement.”
As for his vocal performance, Neeson didn’t have to search too hard for inspiration.
“At home I tried a few voices and then they showed me a model of what J.A. wanted the monster to look like,” recalls Neeson, who’s also voiced the majestic Aslan in the “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies.
“I remember my first impression was it looked like someone who’s face was pressed up against a tree. The nose was all bashed and broken, so when you have a broken nose and I do, actually, it affects your breathing.
“We tried giving the monster a voice [that reflected that he had] difficulty breathing. Sometimes I did it too much and J.A. said, ‘We can tone that down in the sound room.’ So we experimented with different layers and stuff. The computer guys did some nice stuff with it too for certain scenes.”
While Neeson hates to discuss a movie’s “message,” he does believe that “A Monster Calls” tackles some relatively weighty themes for a family film.
“I’ve just had a relative die of breast cancer in her 40s and it’s a horrible, horrible disease,” he notes. “Cancer is, of course, horrible but breast cancer, especially. There has to be more money put into [research].
“But, this book and the film, even though it seems a cliche to say it, I hope it will help people. If someone is suffering they [should] reach out. … It’s important they have support. If the film teaches that, or guides someone to that direction, that might be a good thing.”
“Silence” and “A Monster Calls” are just two of Neeson’s 2017 releases. He’ll also appear in “The Commuter” as a businessman who finds himself caught up in a spy conspiracy on his commute home; Neil Jordan’s “The Trainer,” the story of a down-on-his-luck horse trainer; and “Felt,” the saga of Mark Felt, an FBI agent who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein crack the Watergate story.
Felt was, in fact, Deep Throat. “I used the Monster’s voice,” says Neeson with a laugh. “It seems to work.”