Learning to look at work as prayer is something Liam Neeson discovered in the jungles of Colombia, South America, while filming “The Mission,” a 1986 movie about eighteenth-century Jesuits. “I was at a crossroads in my life,” he says. “I was reasonably successful as an actor. I was thirty-two or thirty-three with a potential career ahead of me. I had done some flimflam movies, but I didn’t understand what being an actor meant anymore.”
He liked the downtime, “getting drunk at night and getting laid as much as I could,” to which he adds, “I was single at the time.” But for the classically trained stage actor, something was missing. “The work side was easy. It was no big stretch.”He had let slip the Roman Catholic faith he had been raised in in Ballymena, a predominantly Protestant town in Northern Ireland near Belfast, which contributed to his feelings of being at a crossroads. As research for “The Mission,” he read “The Jesuits” by J. C. Aveling and “Theology of Liberation” by Gustavo Gutierrez. He also became friends with the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., a technical advisor for the film who “told me extraordinary stories of his life and the life of a Jesuit.”
Through his Jesuit research Neeson made a discovery that deeply affected his outlook. He learned about the Spiritual Exercises of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola who encouraged his students to study scripture by taking the part of a character in a Bible story, such as a shepherd in the stable at Bethlehem, and employing all the senses to imaginatively enter into the scene. Neeson recognized the connection between the Spiritual Exercises and Konstantin Stanislavsky’s “An Actor Prepares,” which deals with the profound process an actor should go through to present a part onstage.
“I found out in the jungles of South America that Stanislavsky had based his technique on the Spiritual Exercises. It was a real revelation to me, and it brought two big parts of my life together. The Irish Catholic side was married to the life of an actor and I found out acting could be a form of prayer. It helped me knowing that. It was like a little godsend message.” Now he uses that form of prayer for others. “I offer my performance as prayer for someone I’ve worked with as an actor or someone who has died. The image that comes into my head as I walk to the stage, I offer that performance up for that person.”
Acting as prayer is enhanced by the fact that theatre actors must perform their parts over and over, he says. “It becomes like a mantra. The more you repeat it, the more it reveals its secrets. You really enter into that world. When you’re doing it eight times a week, twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays, you can get in touch with something quite extraordinary.”
What seemed like a revelation when he was in the jungle actually had its roots in that Irish Catholicism of his childhood. Christened William John Neeson, his family called him Liam in honor of a local priest. For six years he was an altar boy, “getting up at all hours for Mass with only the priest and two old ladies in the church.” Even though it was hard rising early and heading out into a cold morning in northeastern Ireland, the experience affected him deeply. “There was always something really powerful, which I’ve never forgotten. The putting on of vestments and lighting candles, it’s a wonderful ritual that never changes from one Mass to another. It helped fashion me to want to be an actor.”
He appeared in school plays and at festivals around Ireland, while still pursuing another interest: boxing, for which he achieved the status of Ulster youth heavyweight champion. A broken nose when he was fifteen didn’t stop him from continuing, but blackouts and memory loss did. He attended Queen’s University in Belfast for a year before transferring to a teaching college in Newcastle, which he left after two years.
Stints as an architect’s clerk and forklift operator followed while he was in his early twenties. In 1976, on a dare from a coworker, he called the Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast. The owner just happened to be looking for an actor his age and height–six feet, four inches–so he auditioned and got the part. After two years he joined the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It was during that time he landed his first movie role, as Sir Gawain in “Excalibur” in 1980. He went on to work in London and Hollywood before making his Broadway debut in “Anna Christie” in 1993 opposite Natasha Richardson, whom he married in July 1994.
That role, as seaman Mat Burke, earned him a Tony Award nomination. It also landed him the role that made him a star, that of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He was nominated for another Tony in 2002 for his performance as John Proctor in a revival of “The Crucible.”
But churchgoing is still a part of his life. “I always drop in a church when passing to say my Catholic prayers, and I make sure my children say them.” He is raising his two sons Catholic because “they should learn some roots in a certain dogma. Not The One True Church, but I tell them there was a man called Jesus Christ who was the Son of God, simple stories, that he was a man the world is still figuring, he is.” Churches are “comforting places,” he says. “Generally I just give thanks for how lucky I am. I’m healthy, I have some money in the bank, I have healthy children and a wonderful wife.”
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