EXCLUSIVE: When Liam Neeson sits down to read a script he often tests it. If he doesn’t have to get up to make a cup of tea within ten minutes, he knows it’s worth continuing.

When his old friend Bono sent him the script for Northern Irish drama Normal People, Neeson must have been slightly skeptical. The actor hadn’t made a film in his homeland, Northern Ireland, for more than a decade, and the intimate two-hander was a far cry from the hustle and bustle action films he has been known for recently. But he quickly knew he was onto something.

“I went straight through this one,” the Schindler’s List star told me. “I knew it was special. The subject matter is heavy but it’s a beautiful love story. It’s invested with Irish humor and it made me cry a little. I knew I had to do it.”

Normal People is the story of Tom and Joan, a long-married couple whose world is turned upside down when the latter is unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer. The script comes from acclaimed Irish playwright Owen McCafferty and is partly based on his own experience.

As soon as Neeson put it down, he thought of Lesley Manville, who had recently wrapped on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. He called his agent to make sure the project got to her. McCafferty’s script had a similar impact on the English actress. “It was a very emotional script to read,” she confirms. “I cried a number of times.”

The script was unusually shoot-ready. “We changed very very little on Owen’s script,” explains Neeson. “From my experience, the only other film I can think of where virtually nothing changed in the script was Schindler’s List. It was ready to shoot the next day.”

The project has been shepherded by Northern Irish filmmaking duo Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (Good Vibrations) — who tell me “the film acknowledges the dark times we have to go through sometimes as human beings and how we can find the light and commonality between each other to help us through those times — and producers David Holmes (known as a composer on movies such as the Ocean’s franchise), The Wife and Churchill producer Piers Tempest and rising filmmaker Brian J. Falconer. The latter was making shorts only 18 months ago and turned down a job on Game Of Thrones to pursue his own producing career).

The film’s subject matter hit home for both actors. “I’ve had four relatives who have died of cancer, three of them of breast cancer over the last few years,” says Neeson. “I’m very aware of it. People still whisper about cancer. But why do we speak in hushed tones about a disease which is so prevalent and attacks so many we know? We’re all one degree of separation away from this experience. Millions of women go through this particular cancer (it’s so important they are regularly tested for it). We’re representing the story of what they go through. It can be ugly and brutal but there’s an extraordinary love and humor channeling through their experience. It’s essentially a love story about two normal people: lower middle-class, ex-civil servants.”

“Hardly a family escapes without someone getting cancer,” adds Manville, who spent hours in hair and makeup each day to portray her character’s hair loss and the scars following surgery. “We know how cancer can affect you physically, but it affects people in many different ways. My character is resilient: she has already suffered tragedy in her life. It’s also refreshing to show a relationship on screen between people over the age of 60. They’re not stuck together because they have nothing better. They share a great connection, mentally and sexually.”

Manville concurs that on paper, at least, this is a movie that is an antidote to Trump-world bombast and megalomania.

Despite the film’s serious subject matter, the set was a happy one. “Egos were left at the door,” says Neeson. “We had humor between takes. Some actors like to go heavy throughout. I like to find some humor between takes even on heavy movies.”

The actor’s recent action roles even proved a subject of levity. “I joked on set, ‘Please guys, let’s just put one scene in where I beat up a doctor?’ I’m sure there will be some in the audience expecting me to pull out a gun at some stage [the Taken and Non-Stop star admits he loves making action films and working with the likes of Studiocanal on them but confirms there won’t be a Taken 4, “Christ, there’s only so many times your daughter can get taken”, he laughs].

The Normal People experience was a liberating one, both actors tell me. “My main preparation for this film was to make sure not to get in the way of the writing,” says Neeson. “I’m not speaking in funny accents. I’m being myself and speaking in Owen’s words. Our characters speak in their own accents. It was freeing not having to think about pronunciation.”

The film shot in only five weeks this summer. “I wish we had some drama for you,” both actors tell me. “I’m afraid not,” explains Manville. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve had on set,” concurs Neeson. “The crew were excellent. Many of them cut their teeth on Game Of Thrones.” As a parting gift, the actor ordered a waffle truck to come to set on the last night of shoot.

The film was an eye-opener for Neeson in a number of ways. It also served as a means to reconnect with his homeland. “I’ve been offered a hundred things over the years to do with the IRA and the Troubles and I wanted to avoid it. Now that there is a real peace there and a new generation in Ireland it feels like there is a youthful energy about Belfast. It’s great.”

Joining Oscar-nominees Neeson and Manville in the cast were Amit Shah and David Wilmot. Backers include Head Gear Films, Northern Ireland Screen and the BFI. Above is a first look at Neeson and Manville in the movie. The image’s release coincides with breast cancer awareness month.

The project has been a pre-sales hit for Bankside which has closed deals in Spain (Inopia), Scandinavia (Scanbox), Latin America (California Filmes), Switzerland (Praesens), Israel (Forum Films), Greece (Tanweer), Turkey (Tanweer), Ex-Jugoslavia (Fox Vision), Middle East (Front Row), China (Blue Share), India (PVR), South Africa (TMF), Indonesia (Sahamongkol Films) and Taiwan (Vie Vision). CAA reps domestic.