Liam Neeson opens up about working with Martin Scorsese on ‘Silence,’ which took 26 years to make

liam neesonDiana Yukari/Business Insider, Getty Images

Liam Neeson admits he wasn’t impressed with Shūsaku Endō’s novel “Silence” when Martin Scorsese offered him a role in the movie adaptation two years ago.

“It was very dull,” the Oscar-nominated actor recently told Business Insider over the phone.

But after reading the movie’s script, he said, “the issues in the book really came alive for me.” And so Scorsese had the final piece in his latest attempt in 26 years to make the movie.

Neeson gives an incredible performance as Father Ferreira, a Jesuit priest who in attempting to spread Christianity in 17th-century Japan is captured by samurai who are keeping the religion out of the country and put Ferreira through numerous types of torture until he renounces his faith.      

Neeson talked to Business Insider about the role, preparing for a grueling torture scene, how the experience was different from working with Scorsese on “Gangs of New York,” that time he almost played Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and why we will probably never see his Qui-Gon Jinn in any upcoming “Star Wars” movies.

silence paramount finalLiam Neeson in “Silence.” Paramount

Jason Guerrasio: A major scene for Father Ferreira is the torture scene. What were the discussions you and Scorsese had about tackling it?

Liam Neeson: It was an actual torture — many martyrs lost their lives that way and were punished that way in Japan. We knew exactly what happened and what the pit was filled with, which was human excrement, and they were hung upside down. Then these boards were put around them so after some time you didn’t have a sense of where you were in space or time and you were constantly suffering. You didn’t die, but there was an agony, and you couldn’t move your body because you’re harnessed in like a straightjacket.

Guerrasio: Did you experience it yourself outside of the shots we see of your doing it?

Neeson: Beforehand, to get some type of feel for it, I hung upside down on that machine that you’ll find at the gym, inversion table, and you can hang upside down. So I did that in preparation.

Guerrasio: Did you use any of your experience making “The Mission” in helping to prepare for “Silence”?

Neeson: Very much. I think we made it in 1985, I believe. Our technical adviser was Father Daniel Berrigan, who just passed away last year. I was pals with Father Dan; he was a famous Jesuit in his time. Myself, Bob De Niro, Jeremy Irons, we talked with Father Dan about the gospel and how it relates to today’s world, then being the ’80s. It was really, really enlightening. We did preparation in Jesuit training, which they still do to this day — namely the spiritual exercises. So my research on “The Mission” played very heavily in this film.

The Mission Warner Bros“The Mission.” Warner Bros.

Guerrasio: Was it a different experience working with Scorsese this time around?

Neeson: I knew how important “Silence” was for Martin. He spent 26 years putting the film together. The sets on “Silence” were incredibly quiet. He did demand from all the crew, especially when he was talking to his actors before we do a scene, he did demand absolute silence, and he got it. He did create this space for you to do your best work, to really focus.

Guerrasio: That was different from “Gangs of New York”?

Neeson: I’m not saying on “Gangs of New York” he was walking around telling jokes — it was a different subject matter. There were always crowds of actors. It was a different energy.

Guerrasio: Did you have to wait around for a call from Scorsese that it was time to finally shoot “Silence”?

Neeson: No. I met with Martin around 2015, and this is when he was very close to shooting. It wasn’t like I was waiting around for years and years.

Guerrasio: You have such an incredible filmography, but I want to bring up a project you didn’t take on: Any regrets not doing “Lincoln” with Steven Spielberg?

Neeson: I have absolutely no regrets about that at all. The script I was involved with Steven on was totally different than what he shot. I thought I was past my sell-by date with this. This just isn’t me anymore. And I’m glad it happened. When I saw the film and what Steven had done and certainly what Daniel [Day-Lewis as Lincoln] had done was f—ing extraordinary. I thought it was beautiful. I was so pleased I made that decision. Dan was superb.

Liam Neeson as Qui Gon Jinn in Star WarsLiam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn. Lucasfilm

Guerrasio: Deep down, do you want to go back and play Qui-Gon Jinn again?

Neeson: No. No. That was 20 years ago. No, and nor have I been approached. And with all these spin-offs they are doing who knows what’s going to happen.

Guerrasio: That’s why I bring it up — the character may have a reason to get back in the mix.

Neeson: I would certainly take their call, let’s put it that way, but I think that ship has sailed.

“Silence” is currently playing in theaters.

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