Unknown - Liam Neeson
Dr Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) suffers the car accident © 2011 Dark Castle

Liam Neeson has had an eclectic career, starring in major studio blockbusters and acclaimed independent features. Some of his best known movies have included Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, Kinsey, Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Clash of the Titans, Taken and The A-Team.

In his new thriller Unknown he plays Dr Martin Harris, who awakes in a hospital after a horrific car accident in Berlin only to discover his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones) suddenly doesn’t recognize him. What’s worse is another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity. When the police refuse to believe his story, he must find Gina (Diane Kruger) the taxi driver, who is the only person who can help him find out who he is.

This is a hard movie to talk about, how would you describe Unknown?

Unknown - Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn and Sebastian Koch
Dr Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), Martin B (Aidan Quinn) and Professor Bressler (Sebastian Koch) © 2011 Dark Castle

In a nutshell, I think it’s an edge of your seat thriller with a homage thrown towards Alfred Hitchcock and movies of that ilk, in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

Can you talk about the process of picking a script and especially with this one, was there a point when you knew you wanted to do this character?

I’m driven by script all the time. Our drama is based on the spoken word. It’s writing, writing, writing, all the time. That’s my criteria. I guess you’ll have to ask Joel [Silver, the film’s producer] and Jaume [Collet-Serra, the movie’s director, why they sent it to me]. I seem to have gotten a new lease on life since this Taken movie was successful. At the age of 58 – I’m sorry. Did I say 58? [At the] age of 37, it’s great to get [an] action hero role!

Can you talk about the physical challenges of the film? How much of the stunt work did you get to do?

For a start, it was the coldest January and February in Berlin in twenty years. It was treacherously cold, with frost on the ground and ice. As you saw in the film, there’s a lot of physical activity outside. There was a challenge in that, just to execute the film in those sorts of conditions. But somehow it actually made us all closer.

You’ve been doing action films for the last couple of years. How many of your stunts did you do yourself?

Unknown - Diane Kruger and Liam Neeson
Gina (Diane Kruger) and Dr Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) © 2011 Dark Castle

I don’t do my own stunts. I do my own fighting, which I don’t regard as a stunt, but my dear friend and stunt double Mark Vanselow does all my heavy duty stuff, and has been doing so for about twelve years now.

Was the toughest fight sequence in Gina’s apartment when the two of you were almost killed?

That was a tough little fight because it was supposed to look scrappy and not too choreographed. The choreographer, who’s also a very dear friend of mine, Olivier Schneider, it’s like doing a wonderful ballet with him. We’ve worked very intensely before, so that induces an absolute confidence.

When you’re confident, then you can start breathing normally and you don’t get as injured as much as you would with someone who’s stiff and a bit scared.

Weren’t you a professional boxer? Did that help you with the fight scenes?

Unknown - Diane Kruger and Liam Neeson
Gina (Diane Kruger) and Dr Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) being held by security guards © 2011 Dark Castle

I was a boxer. I was a kid when I boxed; I started when I was 9, and I finished when I was 17 or so, competitively. There’s just something about the discipline of going to a gym and hitting a heavy bag. It gives you a respect for hard work. That’s probably the bottom line of it. As well as keeping reasonably fit, it’s a discipline, and you have to apply that if you’re lucky enough to get films. That certainly applies.

There’s a physical discipline of getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning and shooting until 7, 8 o’clock at night and going home and doing your workout or whatever it is, and eating and going to bed for two months, three months, four months.

That training I did as a child, just the physical aspect, has certainly stood me in good stead in the motion picture business.

Can you talk about doing the underwater scene, when you almost drown in the taxi cab?

Unknown - Liam Neeson
Dr Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) © 2011 Dark Castle

It was very, very scary for me and I worked with Mark in a tank and a swimming pool to get used to it. I’m not a very strong swimmer; I came to the water late. In fact, I learned to swim at the age of 20. But Mark is an amazing friend, and an amazing stuntman. There were lots of days we would meet in the swimming pool and I’d put my head six inches under.

When we shot the scene, it was half a cab, and Jaume wanted it to gradually sink into the heated tank, which was great. I’m sitting in the back, and I felt confident enough. Mark was literally there with the mask, as I knew he would be. I banged the window, I’m unconscious, and just feeling the water coming up I just panicked.

We got out, which was easy enough. I wasn’t in control, that’s what it was about. Mark talked me through; I basically took deep breaths and lowered myself into the seat, which was much, much easier to do.

At this point in your career, how would you define in a few words your journey as an actor?

Two words. Very lucky. Seriously.

When you were reading the script the first time, how long did it take you to guess the ending?

I actually didn’t guess it, I really didn’t. It really surprised me.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.