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MOVIES : A Hero of Another Fashion : It's hard to follow a film like 'Schindler's List,' and Liam Neeson took his time deciding on his next role. When he did, it was another hero: 18th-Century Scotsman Rob Roy.

November 20, 1994|David Gritten | David Gritten, a writer based in London, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

FT. WILLIAM, Scotland — Talk about a tough act to follow.

When you've starred in a hugely serious, consciousness-raising film like "Schindler's List," the most praised movie of our times, and won an Oscar nomination for your efforts, what do you do next? Come to that, what do you do for the rest of your life?

Don't think Liam Neeson didn't ponder hard.

"I waited a whole year before committing to anything," he says. " 'Schindler's List' was a curse and a blessing in that respect. Every script that came my way, I was comparing it to 'Schindler's List.'

"Doing that film made me aware of the importance of what you say on a 20-foot screen that 20 million people are going to see. There's a responsibility. It's not that I wanted to play good guys all the time. But it made me wary of doing a piece of trash just because it had a large budget.

"Not that there's anything wrong with entertainment, and Hollywood will churn that out regardless. It's just that I was suddenly made aware of the responsibility I have as an actor."

He is telling me this in unlikely circumstances--dressed in plaid and a kilt, with a hairpiece to enhance his already straggly mane. You see, what Neeson did next, in the wake of the adulation over the Holocaust-themed "Schindler's List," was to choose a substantially lighter piece of work--the title role in "Rob Roy," a United Artists movie about the legendary 18th-Century Scottish hero immortalized in the novel by Sir Walter Scott.

It is only in recent weeks, since starting work on "Rob Roy," that Neeson says he has felt able to move forward from "Schindler's List," accept his part in the film as a defining experience and recognize that such a role might never come his way again.

"Even when I was shooting it, I knew it was going to be special, and it was a story that needed telling," he mused. "Leaving aside the joy of working with a great master like Steven Spielberg, it was Hollywood at its best, a team of workers at their peak doing something unique. We all knew it was special, but we didn't have a sense it would become the event it did. It seemed to touch the psyche of the whole world.

"There's a side of you that thinks, well, perhaps I've stepped into another league now, as regards how I'm viewed in Hollywood. Yet in a way that was bastardizing what we'd done in 'Schindler's List,' you know what I mean?"

*

He was not alone in his dilemma. His "Schindler's List" co-stars Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley also voiced concerns that other films would inevitably seem anticlimactic.

"Ralph and Ben and I spent a long time talking about it," Neeson recalled. "We'd say, 'What has Steven created here?' "

As it turned out, Fiennes was quick off the mark, accepting the role of Charles van Doren in "Quiz Show," a script he greatly admired, before he had even finished "Schindler's List."

Kingsley waited several months, until after the release of "Schindler's List," before agreeing to a role in Roman Polanski's adaptation of the acclaimed play "Death and the Maiden."

Neeson himself had already made a commitment before being exposed to the Schindler experience. He plays a North Carolina country doctor in the Christmas release "Nell," which stars Jodie Foster and Natasha Richardson, whom he married earlier this year (the couple recently announced they are expecting a child early next year).

But around the time "Schindler's List" was released to such a rapturous reception, it became clear to Neeson that having been a part of the movie had changed his life.

"I was in New York when the film came out, walking along the street, and an old man came meandering toward me. I stopped out of deference to his age. He was obviously Jewish. He shook my hand, and there were tears in his eyes. And he said, 'Thank you for saving my people.'

"That incident really got to me. It made me realize what an impact you have if you're a film actor. It's different if you're playing, say, Batman, but this was serious."

Neeson thinks he might well have been mentally immobilized by such considerations but for a conversation he had around this time with MCA President Sid Sheinberg.

"Sid said to me, 'Look, a "Schindler's List" comes along maybe every 30 years,' " Neeson recalled. "He said, 'Now you have to get on with the rest of your life.' And it's right, it's a good philosophy. Films like that do only come up every so often, and you can't wait for them."

So it was that Neeson read the script of "Rob Roy," by Scots-born screenwriter Alan Sharp ("Ulzana's Raid," "Night Moves") and immediately liked it. "I attached myself, and suddenly there was a green light straight away," he said appreciatively. "No shilly-shallying."

Though "Rob Roy," due next year, is a swashbuckling romantic adventure yarn far removed from the terrors depicted in "Schindler's List," Neeson insists: "The story has great moral dignity. The word honor is written all the way through it."

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