His broken nose, a legacy of amateur boxing, keeps Liam Neeson from conventional leading-man handsomeness. But women who saw him awaken Diane Keaton's passion in "The Good Mother" or romance Mia Farrow in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives" understand the Northern Irish actor's appeal. So does Natasha Richardson, who's costarring with him on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie." "He's sexy in the truest sense of the word," Richardson says. "He has raw and open sexuality. It's not contrived. It's not about looks, although he's a terrific-looking guy. It comes from somewhere deeper than that. You feel that he's been through a history."
That history includes more than a decade of stage and television work in Britain and Ireland before Neeson made the big move to Hollywood in 1987. Fifteen films later, the actor, who blends the sensitivity of a poet with the toughness of a street fighter, could be on the the brink of realizing his ambition: joining that exclusive club of male stars who can get a project made on the power of their name alone. "Anna Christie," his Broadway debut, has earned him dream reviews. When the run finishes at the end of this month, he'll go off to Poland to star in "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's movie about the German industrialist who saved hundreds of Jews during World War II. And in the film of Edith Wharton's bleak novel "Ethan Frome," set to open next month, he gives a powerful performance as the scarred and tormented title character whose dreams of escaping a loveless marriage end tragically.
Even though he longs for the clout of Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner, Neeson, 40, chooses projects not for their box-office potential but for their challenge. The part of seaman Mat Burke in "Anna Christie" was his first stage work in eight years, but he was hungry for the role after a steady diet of moviemaking. "To get back and recharge your batteries with these genius writers just fills your soul with why you wanted to become an actor in the first place," he says. "I feel as if I've been to Tibet and spent three weeks with some unbelievable guru." Richardson was impressed with his professionalism. "He had learned all his lines before we even started rehearsals," she says. "Liam belies the mystical division between film and theater acting," says director David Leveaux. "He can do both."
Neeson plays Burke with an animallike intensity. When he finds' out that the woman he loves has been a whore, he lets out a groan of pain that seems to shake every cell of his muscular 6-foot-4 body. In "Ethan Frome," he is equally compelling, but the emotion is restrained, conveyed by a poignant glance or a wistful smile. "He's got one of those faces that is transparent to the camera," says the film's director, John Madden. "You can see his feelings very clearly." Madden recalls their first meeting, in a New York restaurant. "He had obviously fallen in love with the project even though he had only read the script the day before," Madden says. In the midst of conversation, Neeson got up and started demonstrating Frome's crippled walk. "You can never see the wheels turning with Liam ever," says Madden, "even though they are. He knows what he's doing."
A meticulous craftsman, Neeson clearly believes God is in the details. Take the dialects in "Ethan Frome." Neeson says he didn't change his Irish accent because in 19th-century New England, the setting for the film, "older residents sounded like they just got off the boat." His goal is authenticity. He remembers being struck by the way the actors spoke in "Prizzi's Honor"-all with the same nasal New York accent, a false touch in a fine movie. "I waited for the credits," he says, "and there it was: dialogue coach."
Acting is not just his profession, it's an obsession. Without it, Neeson says, "I'd shrivel up and die." Yet after six years in Hollywood, he still doesn't think of himself as a movie star. "When I see people with sunglasses on and their hair pulled back, of course they're drawing attention to themselves," he says. "It's part of the acting exercise to say I'm going to go out and about on my own and no one's going to recognize me." Never married, Neeson "adamantly" refuses to discuss his love life, which has included relationships with Barbra Streisand, Julia Roberts and Brooke Shields.
The son of a school custodian and a school cook, he grew up in a close-knit Catholic family in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Becoming an actor was a "gradual process," he says, starting with school plays and amateur theater. He also recalls feeling the magic of performance at mass: "The smell of incense and candles and wearing special robes ... It was charging." That is the essence of acting for Neeson. "The acting process is as old as man itself," he says. "Actors are the modern-day shamans of those ancient tribes." Inside the theater, he says, "people see heightened reality performed by actors in a structured piece of drama. When it's great, it does put you in touch with some spirit." The location doesn't matter. "Some of my best memories are playing to these freezing little parochial halls in the middle of Ireland with an audience of 40."
Neeson's already working on his next role, Oskar Schindler in the Spielberg film. Schindler was a hero, Neeson says, but also a "bon vivant, drinker, womanizer and black marketeer." He's been watching tapes of Schindler as an old man and listening to recollections of survivors. After he finishes filming in June, he has no plans. And that's the way he wants it. Neeson may move around in jets instead of horse-drawn wagons, but he wants to feel like he belongs to an old traveling troupe of players. "I really do like the gypsy sort of existence," he says. As long as there's an audience, he's at home.