The first time I met Liam Neeson, he flirted with me. It was 1990, I was new to the celebrity beat, and I'd just moved to Los Angeles. I was in the check-out line at my first Whole Foods. He was in front of me buying flowers, and a sprig of blossoms was stuck in the sleeve of his thick, blue, cotton sweater. Mustering my nerve, I touched him on the elbow. "You're sprouting," I said.
He looked at me. He looked at the sprig. He looked back at me. Then he held his elbow out for me to remove it. (He must have been amused by how furiously I was blushing.) At that moment, Neeson's gorgeous date arrived, holding something exotic she'd gone off to find, Jerusalem artichokes or artisanal sheep's milk. She inserted herself between him and me, and that was that.
The second time I met Neeson, he terrified me. Vanity Fair had flown me to Fort William, Scotland, to interview him on the set of his 1995 film Rob Roy. I didn't know this yet, but the shoot was having technical difficulties and everyone was tense. I was ushered to Neeson's trailer and told to wait.
I was drifting off when Neeson banged in, in full costume (kilt, hair extensions), covered in mud and movie blood. He was too tall for the trailer; he had to stoop. He was literally steaming (rain, wet wool). He picked up a nearby Vanity Fair, glared at it and growled, "Why would anyone ever say anything personal to a journalist?" He tossed the magazine aside. "So what's your first question?" (Um, when is the next plane home?)
Contrary to appearances, a celebrity interview isn't a duet – it's two solos. In the interview, the star leads. But in front of the computer, telling the story, the writer has the power. Perhaps sensing this, Neeson phoned me a week after I got home and answered questions at length, thoroughly charming. (He phoned again after the story came out: "You could have slaughtered me and you didn't," he admitted.)
The last time we met, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Neeson rattled me again. I was in a hotel elevator, riding up to interview him and the Canadian writer-director Paul Haggis about their new drama, Third Person, which interweaves three stories about difficult love. Neeson plays the main character, a prize-winning novelist suffering from writer's block; Adrien Brody, Mila Kunis, James Franco and a half-dozen others show up to complicate matters. (It will be available Tuesday on disc and demand.)
The elevator stopped and Neeson stepped on, wearing a hoodie and holding a cup of tea with the bag in. He's 62 now, with an appealing wheel of lines around his blue eyes. Though he's actor-slender, he's a big fella, all chest and meaty hands. I reintroduced myself, saying, "I once chased you around Scotland."
"Yes, I remember," he replied – rather menacingly for 9 a.m. "You wrote about my fee."
Pardon? "My fee," he repeated. "My salary for Rob Roy. You wrote about it. That's what I remember."
"That's what you remember?" I sputtered.
"That. And other things," he said darkly. He turned away to watch the numbers light up. There's a scene in Third Person where Olivia Wilde, playing Neeson's mercurial girlfriend, exasperates him, and he shouts out an expletive. (I later learned he improvised that.) At that moment, I knew how he felt.
My point is this: No matter how often you meet someone, you can't ever know who they're going to be. Flirty, frosty, charming, churlish – we are all of those and more. That's a subtext in Third Person, and it turned out to be pretty much the whole text of this interview.
Haggis didn't exactly relax the situation. He's 61, well-dressed, with a smooth scalp and a short beard. The founder of the non-profit Artists for Peace and Justice – whose aim is to help impoverished communities, especially in Haiti – he's also a former Scientologist who now speaks out against the organization. In person, he has a brusque, "don't screw with me" manner. If he's a tad arrogant, well, writing two best-picture Oscar winners back to back (Million Dollar Baby in 2004, followed by Crash in 2005, which he also directed), as well as two Bond films, can do that to one.
Third Person began three years and countless drafts ago, said Haggis, who's in his second marriage: "Having had a few complex relationships, I started asking myself, 'What do you do when you fall in love with an impossible person? How do we choose whom to love?' The movie is fiction, but all the terrible things the characters are feeling are things I've felt. You can't recognize me – maybe a bit in Franco's character, because he's a son of a bitch." He laughed. "But all the characters are aspects of me, and all of them illustrate deep questions I have about relationships."
He rhymed off a list: What happens when you trust someone who's not trustworthy? If you damn a person, does he become damnable? What happens after you get someone to truly open up to you – do you change her into someone you no longer love? (By the way, these are also questions the celebrity interviewer asks herself – but I was still sweaty from the elevator, so I didn't pipe up about that.)
"When Paul sent me the script, I thought, 'He's bloody brave; I'm in action movies these days,'" Neeson said, suddenly modest, referring to his many franchises, including Taken, Star Wars and Clash of the Titans. I asked why he's focusing on action films. He mimed being on the phone, discussing a deal: "How much?" he asked, then grinned and said, "Okay!" (This from the man who was miffed that I wrote about his fee.)
"But this character [in Third Person] is scared, intelligent, guilt-ridden," Neeson continued, serious again. "A man trying to get over a horrible tragedy. In writing his novel, he's trying to comprehend his guilt and grief. I thought, 'Maybe I can relate to this.' Because, listen, my wife died a few years ago, everybody knows that." (His wife, the actress Natasha Richardson, died after a skiing accident in Quebec.) "I'm still dealing with that, that's an absolute fact. We carry our lives about, we just do."
"I couldn't possibly write a novel," Haggis chimed in. "I can write a screenplay – a damn good one, I hope – but I can't do what real writers do."
"Paul was always putting the props of a writer around me – the cigarettes, the pills, the booze," Neeson said. "The guy knows."
"Well, you don't want the pills too far away," Haggis said.
Back in the elevator, my head spinning over cold/warm Neeson and curt/jokey Haggis, I could have used those pills. If one point of Third Person is that, even after years together, you can't fully know a person, then how can you hope to sum them up after 15 minutes? You can't. You have to just write down what happens.
I do wish I'd had the stones to ask Neeson what his fee was for Third Person. Maybe next time.