Home Film The Grey – Liam Neeson on working with a frozen brain

The Grey – Liam Neeson on working with a frozen brain

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The Grey - Liam Neeson
The Grey - John Ottway (Liam Neeson) © 2011 The Grey Film Holdings LLC

Liam Neeson’s new movie The Grey could be physically the hardest experience of his film career. In it he plays John Ottway, a sharpshooter who has been hired by a oil refinery in Alaska to keep bears and other wild beasts from attacking the workers during their shifts.

When he, along with a group of employees, are heading back to civilization for a well-earned vacation, their plane crashes in the Alaskan tundra. Only eight survive the accident. Trying to make their way to the nearest town, they are pursued by a pack of mysterious, almost mystical wolves, practically prehistoric in their size and ferocity.

This is Neeson’s second movie with director Joe Carnahan, the first being the action comedy The A-Team. At the press junket he spoke of their working relationship, and the freezing snows of British Columbia.

This movie is quite harrowing

The Grey - Liam Neeson
A plane crash in the far-north wilderness is only the beginning of problems for John Ottway (Liam Neeson) © 2011 The Grey Film Holdings LLC

Yeah, it’s not a chick flick!

What brings you to play such intense characters?

I was on a publicity tour for The A-Team and I was given this script and I think Christian Bale was to play it originally, I’m not sure. It read like a 19th century epic poem, like The Ancient Mariner, it touched on aspects of spirituality, Greek mythology, it was right up my street.

There were no cars, no computers, no iPhones in it, it was just sparse, man versus himself.

The Grey triggered something very primal inside of me. When I read the script, I was 57 years old, and the little boy inside of me thought it would be great to take on such a demanding role. I wanted audiences to say, ‘Wow, how did you guys do that?’ At the same time, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, can I physically do this?’

I would imagine you had to be in good shape to be out in those conditions shooting the movie?

The Grey - Liam Neeson
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) and colleague after the plane crash © 2011 The Grey Film Holdings LLC

Yeah, I remember seeing a documentary of this crazy Brit a few years ago, one of these guys who swims in the Antarctic from iceberg to iceberg. And his training in London was standing under freezing cold showers for 10 minutes every morning.

I thought, ‘I’ll do that,’ and I got up to 7 minutes every morning to immunize my body for the extremes of cold. It was minus forty the first week up in Canada. And it worked, it really worked.

I didn’t tell the other cast members. There are certain secrets you want to keep to yourself.

How important was it to work in such conditions? Movies are illusions, you could be shooting it in a warehouse in Hollywood and convince us you are in the freezing cold.

The Grey - Liam Neeson
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) with his surviving work colleagues © 2011 The Grey Film Holdings LLC

I don’t think we could convince you, not modern audiences. Modern cinema-going audiences are very sophisticated now, as regards to CGI and all that stuff. I think when something’s real, it’s real and you know that it’s real and you experience it as real. There is no CGI because it was all about weather.

There’s a little bit of CGI with the wolves, but the weather is real. All those storms and all the rest of it was absolutely the real deal. You can’t fake that. Walking a few feet in three feet of snow was like a three hour workout. It was really challenging. All you want to do is just stay warm.

So what was it like working in the icy conditions?

It was just a physically impossible time during the first few days. We had lines to memorize and our brains were freezing and all we could think about was how to stay warm.

Didn’t your fellow actor, Nonso Anozio, burst into a Shakespearian oratory about the elements from Othello? Did that help you?

He was just so exhilarating and it reminded us that, yes, it may be minus forty degrees outside but we’re actors, damn it, and we’re going to get through this scene no matter what. It filled us all with this great warmth, and I’ll never forget hearing that man’s voice for as long as I live.

What was it like working with Joe Carnahan again?

The Grey - Liam Neeson
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) © 2011 The Grey Film Holdings LLC

On The A-Team I learned about Joe’s phenomenal passion and energy, and on The Grey those qualities seem to have doubled. He’s a very funny guy, and I think you need a sense of humor because in certain scenes you go into some really dark places.

It’s all about survival, about keeping your body and soul together, because if the elements don’t get you then the wolves most definitely will. When the camera is turned on and you’re facing those kinds of incredibly intense situations, that’s what real acting is all about.

My character has a specific relationship to these wolves. He works on the refinery’s fence line and his job is to make sure that animals don’t approach the men at work. What weighs heavily on Ottway’s mind is that, perhaps, the wolves are now coming for revenge.

How were the special effects done with the wolves?

The Grey - Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) and Diaz (Frank Grillo) © 2011 The Grey Film Holdings LLC

We’ve all seen CGI effects, but we wanted something as close as possible to a real wolf. So we used these huge puppet heads operated by three or four people, we used acrobats dresses in wolf suits, we used other effects and we just cut to them for two or three seconds.

In my first direct experience with them, my character was attacked by two wolves, one grabbing my leg and the other getting me under the waist. There were two guys operating these bellows to make it seem as if the wolf was breathing and, you know, it became real for me. Oh my God, it was real!