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Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker – Veteran Actors on the Run in Taken 3

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker at the "Taken 3" press day at the Essex House Hotel, New York.  Photo © 2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker at the “Taken 3” press day at the Essex House Hotel, New York. Photo © 2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker

Veteran Actors on the Run in Taken 3

by Brad Balfour

From Transporter to the Taxi series, the French producer/director/writer Luc Besson has displayed a uncanny instinct in making action thrillers that find passionate audiences.

What makes the Taken series all the more remarkable – other than the 50-something ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills’ many fighting skills displayed while saving his family and self – is that creator Luc Besson once again has another surprising hit action series.

The 55-year old media entrepreneur successfully comes up with the right hook, draws on his pool of able directors and casts the right people to play his characters. For the first Taken, he enlisted veteran Irish actor Liam Neeson to play the lead. Neeson perfectly suited his character, an experienced but world-weary Special Ops guy who seemed well past his time.

Once again, with Taken 3, Mills must step out of retirement to react to yet another assault on his family. Or rather on himself this time. He is set-up in the murder of his ex-wife Lenore “Lenny” Mills (Famke Janssen). Pursued both by the Los Angeles police, headed by Inspector Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), and a team of Russian hitmen, Mills again draws on his particular skill set to figure out who was the true killer and clear himself.

Helmed by the still-svelte 6’4” Neeson – and with Janssen and Maggie Grace (as daughter Kim) again on board – this edition brings in the 6’2” Whitaker. Whitaker’s character goes from an adversary tracking him down to an ally in getting to the truth of the crime and in killing off the bad guys. Taken 3 offers familiar characters making familiar moves yet it pulses with action. It is never tired or boring.

Both Neeson and Whitaker have been award-worthy actors, noted more for their skills at developing a character than at throwing a punch. The 62-year-old Neeson has been nominated for acting Oscars (Schindler’s List and Kinsey) and the 53-year-old Whitaker has won one for The Last King of Scotland. Yet, here they are, the point men providing an unrelenting drive to the action.

This brisk one-on-two interview was conducted at the Essex House Hotel shortly before the film’s release.

You both show a confidence in your characters in this film, but also seem wary of making a critical mistake – showing that balance between being confident in your skills and instincts, yet not so much so that your characters make inadvertent mistakes, takes real skills as an actor. How do you get that balance?

Liam Neeson: I think that’s [director] Olivier [Megaton]’s and the editor’s job [Audrey Simonaud and Nicolas Trembasiewicz]. We both knew when we read the script that there’s definitely a cat and mouse thing happening here. My guy has met a very intelligent equal – in fact, he is more intelligent. I think Olivier cast it well. When I read the script I knew they needed a heavyweight actor and was thrilled when they got Forest.

Forest, how do you get that balance where you’re both confident but unsure?

Forest Whitaker: You have to be inquisitive, get new information in, but try not to overlook or overstep yourself.

How did you get that down to a science with the fight scenes? Did you ever ask for pointers? 

Liam Neeson: I don’t know if it’s a science. I’ve got a great fight coordinator, and Mark Vanselow, who’s been my stunt double for 16 movies we’ve done together. Alain Figlarz, who’s the [film’s] fight director, is an ex-Israeli Special Forces agent – and a very cool guy. They bring a lot to the table. They choreograph it, they come up with it.

I will say to Mark sometimes, “I don’t know if I can pull this move off. How about we change it from three moves to one?” We work it out [and do what’s expected of me].

Forest, were you ever amazed at seeing what he does?

Forest Whitaker: I loved the fighting sequences that he does. They’re really on point. I didn’t realize on the page the magnitude of some of the moves he does; like the elevator shaft, the truck going down the freeway. I didn’t imagine it completely, but I knew we were on some kind of intense action ride.

There are some dramatic car chases here. You both have some intense moments – what tricks did you learn in doing these car chases? 

Forest Whitaker: Yeah, but he’s got the fast car.

I hope you didn’t pick up some bad habits that you’re going to use on the road, but tell me, did you learn anything?

Liam Neeson: You know what the trick is? It’s called a top rider. They get a crazy little French guy – I’ve done about three movies with him – he’s actually driving the car. He’s on top with a steering rig, but I’m behind the wheel and he moves it. You just have to act.

It’s scary because you’re in the driver’s seat and you just have to trust this guy. All these cars are coming at you, particularly in Taken 3, because you’re driving down the wrong side of the highway. It’s fucking scary no matter how many times you do it. Things can happen. But this guy is a master.

What about you, Forest? I don’t know the depth of your car chase experience.

Forest Whitaker: I didn’t have to do much. I think the greatest thing is going in reverse as fast as you can to keep that lined up. I learned that a long time ago. When I don’t want to go a certain direction, I just need to look where I’m going. If I’m going to a pole, look at the pole. I didn’t do much, I did a different kind of thing.

Are there any funny anecdotes that come from the experience making such an intense film?

Liam Neeson: That’s always a question I’m asked…. Let’s put it this way: Olivier, his preparation for these movies is phenomenal, and his crews. He’s under constraint of time. He has freeway sequences, the freeway is open for four hours, then it has to be opened to the public. There’s a lot of constraints on him.

However, given all that, there’s a lightness on set. Otherwise people get tense and accidents happen. There’s a lovely confidence that he shows, but doesn’t show it off. There’s a lightness in all the scenes we did. There are some very heavy scenes, and some action scenes of course, but he just keeps a nice balance.

Did you ever laugh? I can see a little tinkle in your eyes from time to time…

Forest Whitaker: Like you said, it’s a fun experience. Trying to keep up with the camera when you’re racing down these halls was pretty intense. You’d be surprised how fast these things can go.

Liam Neeson: There’s a special kind of camera operator for that. I worked with them the first time in Turkey, doing Taken 2. My first day was running around a rooftop. He was the Steadicam operator and was running backwards. I couldn’t keep up with him.

When I interviewed you both before, it was for historical films – in Liam’s case, Kinsey, and Forest for The Last King of Scotland. But this film is pretty unhistorical. Does that then engage a different sort of process to making these two kinds of films, or is it pretty much the same either way?

Liam Neeson: I think if you do a historical film there is a responsibility there. The more well known a person is to the general public, the stronger that responsibility is to get mannerisms right or a tone of voice. But other than that, it’s acting.

Forest Whitaker: Every character has its own performance, different things you have to learn, different source material. This one has its own things in it. Maybe it’s about being more physical. It always depends.

You have become the master of cinematic series, whether it’s Batman or this or Star Wars. What is it that gives these directors such a confidence in you to add to these franchises?

Liam Neeson: You tell me. I really don’t know.

It’s that rooted quality with a rock-solid presence. I don’t know how you do it.

Liam Neeson: That’s quite a compliment; I accept that. Thank you.

Was it because you were a boxer at an early age and it gave you a competitive edge?

Liam Neeson: Maybe. It also has to do with being a father. I remember that affecting me greatly. Gabriel Byrne told me, and I always quote him, when he saw his son be born, his first child, he realized his place in the universe. And that’s absolutely right.

And as for you, Forest you’ve done…

Forest Whitaker: I haven’t done a lot of…. Taken, [Clash of The] Titans, Star Wars, those are all franchises, and I haven’t really done those [like Liam has].

You’ve done TV series that required the experience of developing a character over a long period of time, like a franchise…

Forest Whitaker: Sometimes it’s a great experience. Working on The Shield for ten episodes was a great experience. [The] opportunity to play a great character with fine people. But that was a little different, though. That was week after week for ten weeks doing ten episodes.

Liam, you have another film coming up with the director of Non-stop, Jaume Collet-Serra called Run All Night. But Forest, what’s on your calendar?

Liam Neeson: He’s playing Satchmo [the late great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong – who had a mega-pop hit with “Hello Dolly” in 1964] and possibly directing too. I’m very excited about that…

A lot of people don’t realize that Satchmo was quite a complex person that has quite an important history as a musician and a black man in a white world…

Forest Whitaker: Yes, he was a classic character… Quite a man…

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: January 9, 2015.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2015. Courtesy of Europacorp. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2015 Daniel McFadden. Courtesy of Europacorp. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2015 Daniel McFadden. Courtesy of Europacorp. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2015 Sam Urdank. Courtesy of Europacorp. All rights reserved.

#6 © 2015 Sam Urdank. Courtesy of Europacorp. All rights reserved.

#7 © 2015 Daniel McFadden. Courtesy of Europacorp. All rights reserved.

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