Liam Neeson is no stranger to playing larger-than-life, real life heroes on the big screen. From his Oscar-nominated turn in Schindler’s List to Michael Collins and Alfred Kinsey (who, yes, is a hero of sorts to those in the medical realm), the Irish actor brings gravitas and moral integrity to every character he portrays. In Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Neeson plays the titular Felt, the man who risked his reputation and career as the FBI’s Associate Director in order to bring crucial information about the Watergate scandal to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.
Prior to the film’s premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, we sat down with an esteemed group of international journalists to speak with the acclaimed actor who effortlessly charmed the room with his Irish burr and down-to-Earth attitude.
The following is an edited and condensed version of that roundtable conversation.
How did you first get involved in the project?
Liam Neeson: I was approached by Peter [Landesman] but I didn’t know who Peter was initially. I had read some of his investigative journalism pieces over the years, certainly bits he had written about the Balkan crisis, I remember those. Then he showed me his film Concussion, and I know nothing about American football. I’d sooner watch paint dry than watch football. It’s just not my thing. But I was fascinated by that film! Then I thought that for a journalist, and Concussion is only his second film, that he’s quite the director. Then I met with him and we talked about this project. I just knew the broad outline of Watergate because I was brought up in Ireland and we were going through our own troubles at the time. So Watergate was very low on my totem pole in my life’s existence. I admire Mark Felt, though, but I don’t think he was initially motivated by an act of heroism. I think he was crushed when he didn’t get the job when Hoover died. He was a committed FBI guy, 30 years, he and Hoover were like that, professionally. And then the White House administration brought in Patrick Gray and he was a submarine commander! Nothing to do with the FBI! So I think Felt and his cohorts really felt hurt and insulted by that.
What did you learn about Mark Felt that particularly surprised you while making the film?
LN: I only learned this recently but Bob Woodward, the reporter, he had only met with Mark Felt 6 or 7 times at the underground garage. Woodward knew nothing of Felt’s personal life, he knew nothing about his daughter running away and having a baby or Mark trying to find her through very dubious means. Woodward knew nothing about that. So it says something about Felt having to compartmentalize his life, you know? But this was four movies ago for me, I’m still shooting something at the moment, so I really had to do my research all over again recently. About two weeks ago I punched into YouTube ‘truth and lies’ and ‘Watergate’ and a program came up from CNN, a very good program. And then on the side it says ‘you might also like’ and here are these lectures given by these guys, not just Woodward and Bernstein, but Max Holland, who wrote Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. And that led on to other stuff, so there’s amazing stuff to research, you know? Yet at the end of the day, I have to tell Peter’s script. As an actor, what I did like about the guy is that he was unreadable. Professionally he had just a screen over himself. But when he was home he adored his daughter and he adored his wife. There was one interview I saw with Mark, I think it was Meet the Press, and he was defending the FBI but he did it in a very charming way. Yet you could not read what was going on in his head. He had this incredible mane of silver hair that was very beautiful. I thought, “He’s really proud of that hair”. And he seemed very proud of the suits that he wore, I assumed that he had good footwear too. So I had an extraordinary wig made and incredibly good footwear and good suits.
Can you talk a little about working with Diane Lane and crafting that extraordinary rapport with her on screen?
LN: Well Diane is a great actress. Theatre trained, which I love, because I am myself. There’s a line that you can cut through to with a theatre actor. Josh Lucas was the same way, Tony Goldwyn too. She’s terrific though. There were a lot more scenes from the film between herself and myself that were unfortunately cut. When the editor put it together it became cluttered in a way. But she’s a great actress, and I mean great. And she has the butt of a twenty year old! Don’t tell her I said that. *laughs*
There’s a very different physicality to Mark Felt when compared to the action hero roles we’re used to seeing you in now, the ones you’ve been doing since 2008.
LN: Well look, the action stuff wasn’t planned. *laughs* It’s great fun to do and great to do all that stuff. At the age of 65 they’re still offering me stuff where I’m beating guys up. But it was nice to play Mark Felt.
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House opens on October 13 in Toronto (Yonge-Dundas), Vancouver (International Village) and Montreal. The film opens throughout the fall in other cities.