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The caveat for this week's phone interview with Liam Neeson was "no personal questions." But there's a brute parallel in the biographies of Neeson and his latest film character that demands at least one.

In his new drama The Grey, which opens Jan. 27, Neeson plays Ottway, an Alaskan oil-pipeline employee who's grieving his beloved wife's untimely death. Sadly, Neeson's own wife, the actress Natasha Richardson, died suddenly after a skiing accident in March, 2009. So though The Grey is an adventure pic – in which a plane carrying pipeline workers crashes in the tundra, and the small band of survivors must outwit a pack of ravening wolves – Ottway's hollow-eyed pain looks real.

I steel myself to ask: Was it difficult to play a man mourning his wife? But Neeson answers readily, without objection. "Not in the least," he says. "That was part of the reason I was attracted to it. I thought, 'I can access this man's emotions with ease.' It was kind of a cathartic experience, actually."

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That's the thing about Neeson, 59, which I learned the first time I interviewed him, in 1993, for Vanity Fair: He can be intimidating. He stands 6-foot-4 and sports the big hands and battered nose of a boxer – which, growing up in Belfast, he was. He's not thrilled about the celebrity game of selective revelation, and not shy about saying so.

That first interview took place over three days, on the set of Rob Roy in Scotland. When I arrived, it was wet and cold, and Neeson was shooting a scene where Rob was being dragged by horses down a muddy road. An assistant ushered me into Neeson's trailer, where I was to interview him between takes (a hard way to get a conversation flowing). I waited. And waited.

Without warning, the door banged open, and Neeson huffed in, covered in mud, fake blood and matted hair extensions, snorting like a dray horse, steam rising from his wool shirt and kilt. Too tall to stand upright in the trailer, he loomed over me, picked up a copy of Vanity Fair that lay on a table and flipped to a profile of Tom Cruise.

In an accent as meaty as Irish stew, he said, "Cruise talks about his father, to a journalist," pronouncing that last word with the same sneer one might use to utter "Peeping Tom." "Why would anyone ever tell anything personal to a journalist?" He crashed down into the seat opposite me. "So what's your first question?"

Things continued this way for two days, me trotting after him, him growling responses when caught. Then on the third day, when we finally got some time for a proper interview, I learned another thing about Neeson: He can also be wonderfully convivial, full of charm, telling jokes on himself, calling me (and everyone else) "darlin' " and delivering anecdotes with a tinge of poetry. When I left Scotland, he clasped my hand in both of his, and when the story ran, he phoned me at home. "I was a right bastard sometimes, and you could have stuck it to me," he admitted.

This week, even in a short phone call, I could see that pattern was still in place. There was some evasion. Neeson's not keen to talk about his off-screen life in New York City, or his two sons, who are 14 and 15, other than to say that he's "their chauffeur" for tennis, hockey and soccer.

There was some lyricism. "The first day of filming [ The Grey] in Smithers, B.C., it was minus-35, and I'm lying in the snow in only a sweater," Neeson says. "It was almost surreal. It was so visceral, the wind blowing. That image will stay with me for quite a while."

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The story "appealed to the little boy in me," he continues. "I get fed up with plots that are driven by someone constantly getting information on a computer. In this, everything had to come from the characters – man versus the challenge of the wilderness, and versus his inner demons. It touches a bit on Moby-Dick and Jack London. I loved that literature when I was growing up. It distills life down to its essence, makes you question your reason for being on the planet in the first place."

And there was some self-deprecation. About the relentlessness of the wolves in The Grey, Neeson says, "Of course we know real wolves would keep as far away from mankind as possible. But it's like Jaws – is it a great white shark? Yes, but it's more than that. Same with our wolves. They're kind of mythological."

Neeson's career has long mixed Oscar bait ( Schindler's List, Gangs of New York) with popcorn flicks ( Star Wars: Episode I) and roles that call upon his kingly stature ( The Chronicles of Narnia, Clash of the Titans). (He swears he had no idea that his Titans line "Release the Kraken!" would become a catchphrase.) But lately he's zeroed in on fathers or father figures who are men of action – what a colleague calls "mad dads" – in movies such as Taken, The A-Team and Unknown. There's lots of corralling his inferiors, roaring at bad guys and chomping on cigars. And there's more to come: He recently completed the sequel, Wrath of the Titans, and played an admiral in Battleship (based on the board game); he's in the midst of shooting Taken 2 and did a comedy sketch for Ricky Gervais's show Life's Too Short.

Neeson likes the lighter stuff, he says: "It's great to be able to do it. It's terrific. You have to see it for what it is, and play to that. Don't play against it. Just try and keep it frothy. Don't be afraid of it." He laughs. "As long as my knees hold up. I'll be 60 this year. Nowadays it takes a bit longer to recuperate." For The Grey, he insisted on doing many of his own stunts, even plunging into a freezing river three times. "It was something I had to do," Neeson says. "You had to know it was me, and not a cheat."

"I have no desire to play King Lear or Hamlet," Neeson sums up. "I never had a grand ambition. I just followed my nose. I left Ireland because I thought, 'Right, I should be in London now.' Then after a while I thought, 'Right, this is drying up, I want to do more film work, so go to Los Angeles.' A little inner voice every few years would tell me to go, a little wind of change would happen, and I would follow it." He chuckles. "It seemed to work out," he says. Then, with a final "Take care, darlin'," he slips away again.

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