Revenge, reality and racism: Hollywood writers process Liam Neeson's disturbing revelations

Liam Neeson's recent admission to contemplating a racist attack has some fans stepping away from the action star.

Actor's admission that he wanted to kill a black man has Hollywood buzzing

Liam Neeson appears on the red carpet for the film Third Person. The actor recently set-off a storm of controversy for comments about wanting to attack a random black man following the rape of his friend. ((Jon Blacker/Reuters))

A man hell bent on a mission of revenge.

It's a description that applies to a litany of roles Liam Neeson has played over the last decade.

Beginning with 2008's Taken, the Irish actor remade himself as Hollywood's favourite angry man, growling at an endless line of kidnappers and thugs.

But Neeson's recent real-life admission has brought a disquieting sense of reality to the vicarious thrills he provides onscreen.

Watch the trailer for Neeson's film Cold Pursuit:

In an interview with the Independent to promote the film Cold Pursuit, Neeson talked about homicidal thoughts he had 40 years ago after learning his friend had been raped.

He asked the friend what colour the attacker was. She said he was black. Then Neeson told the reporter, "I went up and down areas with a [club] hoping I'd be approached by somebody – I'm ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some 'black bastard' would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him."

I can't separate this person that I now believe holds very deep-seated racist beliefs  from the character he's playing- Kathleen  Newman-Bremang

That shocked Kathleen Newman-Bremang. An entertainment writer with Refinery29, Newman-Bremang said hearing Neeson freely admit to what she describes as a "hate crime" will affect whether she watches his movies. "I can't separate this person that I now believe holds very deep-seated racist beliefs from the character he's playing."

Liam Neeson speaks with Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts. (Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC/Associated Press)

In a subsequent interview on Good Morning America, Neeson said he's not racist and hopes his confession will get people to "open up" because bigotry and racism exist.

While some on social media applauded the 66-year-old actor's candor, Newman-Bremang sees it as sign of more open discussions about race.

But she said the way Neeson talked about looking for any black man to hurt is dangerous because it plays into stereotypes "that all black men are responsible for the actions of one black man."

Entertainment writer Johanna Schneller remembers her first encounter with Neeson. It was 1994 in Scotland.

She was waiting in his trailer on location for the film Rob Roy. Neeson stomped in, caked with mud, none too pleased to be talking to a reporter.  

Eventually, Neeson warmed up, but Schneller said he's always been "self-aware but he's self-aware after the fact."

She points to the time Neeson referred to the #MeToo movement as a "bit of a witch hunt."

As someone who's seen a lot of celebrities up close, Schneller said most movie stars enjoy a veneer of protection, shielding themselves from consequences.

When that protection is shattered, she said, they're often shocked saying,"Why me? I'm a good guy. You're supposed to like me!"

Liam Neeson and Viola Davis in a scene from the film Widows, where they played a passionate married couple. (20th Century Fox)

While a series of promotional interviews to launch a wintry revenge thriller may not seem the right platform, Schneller said films can kickstart meaningful discussions about topics like racism. "I am a person who believes people go to the movies because they give us an excuse to start these kinds of conversations."

While moments of honesty in such interviews are rare, Schneller said journalists fail if they don't truly confront what they hear.

"As celebrity interviewers, we get [so few] moments when a person is unguarded," she said. "We would actually be doing everybody a service if we were say 'no, we're not done with that yet,'" and pressed movie stars for more in-depth responses amid controversies like this. 

Meanwhile, Neeson's career is far from over. In the new film Cold Pursuit, he plays Nels Coxman, a small town snowplow driver who goes gunning for the drug dealers who killed his son.  

In his quest for justice, Coxman sets in motion a chain of events that spins out of control.

In real life, Neeson's recent comments led to the cancellation of the film's red carpet premiere in New York City.  

While Kathleen Newman-Bremang said she will be steering clear of Neeson's future projects, she's not concerned about his career.

"He is a successful, generally well-liked, white man in Hollywood. He is going to be fine. "

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story included a caption saying Liam Neeson and Viola Davis starred together in a film called The Heist. In fact, the pair appeared together in a film called Widows.
    Feb 06, 2019 10:38 PM ET