Nearly two months after admitting to the London newspaper The Independent that he tried to bait a black man into accosting him in an irrational attempt to avenge a friend who was raped by a man of the same skin color 40 years ago, Liam Neeson has reevaluated his shocking revelation, and its polarizing aftermath. He just issued a new apology:
“Over the last several weeks, I have reflected on and spoken to a variety of people who were hurt by my impulsive recounting of a brutal rape of a dear female friend nearly 40 years ago and my unacceptable thoughts and actions at that time in response to this crime. The horror of what happened to my friend ignited irrational thoughts that do not represent the person I am. In trying to explain those feelings today, I missed the point and hurt many people at a time when language is so often weaponized and an entire community of innocent people are targeted in acts of rage. What I failed to realize is that this is not about justifying my anger all those years ago, it is also about the impact my words have today. I was wrong to do what I did. I recognize that, although the comments I made do not reflect, in any way, my true feelings nor me, they were hurtful and divisive. I profoundly apologize.”
Neeson’s initial revelation came in answer to journo Clémence Michallon’s question of how as an actor he tapped into revenge mentality for Cold Pursuit (the movie he was promoting). Neeson said at the time that he was mortified by his actions, snapped out of it, and addressed his rage with a priest. He said he wasn’t a racist, but many didn’t buy it. The weight of the revelation was heightened by this curious cultural moment, where every celebrity and Hollywood exec is standing on trap doors that can get sprung quickly. Many of the fallen, the predators, got what they deserved, but some have gone down for mere words, and no quarter is given for transgressions that happened long ago.
I used to do a lot of in-depth movie star interviews for magazines like Playboy and Details. I don’t recall being told anything as dark as what Neeson divulged. But these kinds of revelations as life lessons were not uncommon, and they were graded on a more realistic curve that acknowledged people are imperfect, they screw up, and get second chances and the benefit of the doubt. The job was to get your subjects to drop their guards and be candid about a life’s worth of highs and lows that helped forge the famous person sitting there in front of you. I recall stars from Robert Downey Jr. to Quentin Tarantino, Denzel Washington, Harrison Ford, Will Smith and a couple dozen others who respected the tradition of that Playboy Interview forum and were honest in discussing how mistakes helped them evolve. I remember sitting across from Sam Jackson, believing he was the coolest and most centered actor I ever met, suddenly telling me of a dreadful period in his life when he had snorted away the cartilage in his nose to the point he could put a match up one nostril and pull it out the other. This led him to ingest cocaine by smoking it — he didn’t know this was crack — and being surprised when his wife told him he hadn’t changed his shirt in weeks. This low point in his life was well in his rear view mirror by then, and he was at peace that he had conquered those demons. It was chilling to hear and electric to read. There was the time Dwayne Johnson, maybe the nicest movie star I’ve met, talking about the time he got into a fight with a U of Miami Hurricanes football teammate and attempted to tear the tongue out of his head. This was a teammate. These were among many confessionals that readers appreciated and took in stride.
Stars today hold still for such frank conversations at their peril, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they largely become a thing of the past if this “gotcha” moment we are in doesn’t ease up a bit. That would be a shame, because the alternative is all varnish, like you get when you see athletes interviewed. People make mistakes and learn from them. Instead of spurring talk of ending a career, Neeson’s admission that long ago he pondered such an abhorrent violent act — tied to skin color — ought to spark discourse on what was in his head at the time, and the regrettable way we categorize people by race, ethnicity or religion, no matter how evolved we believe we are. He should not be lauded for the revelation, but also not shunned and defined by it.
The incident happened 40 years ago, which means it was likely before he got going as an actor, starting with Excalibur and leading to Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, and a lucrative detour to action star in his 60s with Taken. Forty years ago, Neeson was a boxer turned wannabe actor immigrating from Northern Ireland, where eye-for-an-eye violence between Catholics and Protestants were regular occurrences. None of this excuses the poison that was in his head. If Neeson had actually harmed anyone, his future would have been in the prison system and not the movie business.