Liam Neeson stands tall in his Oskar role

Published Jan. 31, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

When Liam Neeson was still an unknown actor, back in 1988, he had a small role in a film with Clint Eastwood called The Dead Pool.

Eastwood is a big man, nearly 6-feet, 4-inches tall, and so is Neeson. But since Eastwood was the star, Neeson was not permitted to appear bigger than the Mighty Clint.

"They actually put me down a couple of inches shorter than Clint," Neeson says. "Where we were filmed side by side, he stood on curbs and the upside slopes of hills. Because he was the hero, I was made shorter. That galled me."

Today, Neeson occupies his rightful place in the stratosphere. He has the title role in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, playing the mysterious Oskar Schindler, a handsome, hedonistic German-Catholic businessman and confidant of the Nazis. Schindler protected and rescued more than 1,100 Jews from certain death during the Holocaust.

Around the world there are more than 6,000 descendants of the Jews Schindler saved, and still, no one knows for sure what made him risk his life and his fortune when millions of others didn't even try.

"He was, first and foremost, a humanist," Neeson says. "But he was obviously filled with contradictions. He was a bon vivant and a womanizer. He was a drinker. He was a gambler. He was a black marketeer. (In the film) we see him becoming a better person because of the war.

"In real life, he was a spy for the forces fighting against Hitler. We don't show that in the film because if we set out to show him being good _ a good man _ then we have no arc for the character.

"His selfishness at the beginning _ he wants to profit from the war situation and fill the coffers, and that evolves into the fact that he becomes a savior _ it's more interesting dramatically.

"He wasn't a saint. Who is a saint? They're all human beings."

"I think it's interesting that in his pursuit to save lives and mess up the Nazi war machine, his vices were as important as his virtues. If he hadn't been a bon vivant and all those other things, there are 6,000 people alive today who wouldn't be here to tell the story."

As Neeson talks, you can hear what Steven Spielberg meant when he described him as a man "with a cigarette and cognac voice."

It's deep and as smooth as crushed velvet, and his Irish accent turns words such as "out" into "oot" and "know" into "knoo."

In real life, Neeson came from a small, working-class town in county Antrim, Northern Ireland. So adopting the elegance and style of Oskar Schindler required some research.

"I had the help of watching a lot of films with Cary Grant and George Sanders," he says. "Especially All About Eve. Someone had told me that Oskar Schindler, the man, felt very flattered if people came up to him and compared him to film stars. That included George Sanders and Curt Jurgens, the German actor. He did have some similarities, some physical similarities to Curt Jurgens, so I thought, well, that's a good place to start.

"So I watched all the films I could get of George Sanders. It was wonderful because I'd always admired George Sanders."

Neeson believes part of the reason the movie is so powerful is that the entire film was shot in Krakow, Poland, where the actual events took place.

Spielberg has said that working on location in Poland was an intensely painful and frightening ordeal. As a Jew himself, he was forced to come face to face with his own history, and he was unable to find any Jews in Poland to be Jews in the movie because Hitler had killed them all.

Neeson shared that sense of history and suffering that came from working in Poland, but for him, as an actor, it was a special blessing. "I found there was an air _ a blanket, call it _ of melancholy about the city that I feel is from those times, the horror of those times. There's a physical law: Energy can't be dissipated. It's there. I felt it.

"I think the important thing about this film is that Oskar Schindler is immortalized as a man to show all of us that one human being can make a difference, y'know? Human beings aren't animals. They can't be treated that way, and every one of us is filled with a spirit, a beauty. People like Oskar Schindler, even if they're not saints, have the capacity to bring that out in people. That includes everyone."