To read Liam Neeson’s interview in the Independent – bewildering and alarming in equal parts – is to be reminded of the actor’s cameo in Ricky Gervais’s Life’s Too Short. This moment was a highlight of a largely forgettable Warwick Davis vehicle, playing off the idea of Neeson turning his hand to comedy. Pitching his concept to Gervais and Stephen Merchant Neeson, hunched by the weight of ineffable angst, says he’ll “do some improvisation comedy. Now.” He proceeds to imagine himself as a HIV positive African prostitute. The joke is of course that Neeson, in an age where action cinema has become comedically self-conscious, is the last true serious star. He was praised for getting the joke. But maybe, as shown by the bizarre and entirely unprovoked admission that he once roamed the streets in search of a black man to kill in retaliation for rape, he wasn’t entirely in on the parody.
The racial specificity of Neeson’s comment is undeniably troubling and entirely deserving of condemnation. Yet it is also true that there is something distinctly on message about this story of self-absorbed masculinity, of the hard man with a tin ear for modern sensitivities. Neeson and those in his orbit have a number of options of how they proceed.
The first in line for a bollocking is of course the hapless publicist. What now for them? To channel one of Neeson’s iconic avengers, now is the moment for them to show their very particular set of skills. One of the striking aspects of the Independent interview is that Neeson and his Cold Pursuit co-star Tom Bateman were left alone in the room with the journalist. In an age where even the most minor of stars has an army of publicists policing their every breath, there is something refreshing about this set up. Journalists, who have long complained about interfering PRs breathing down their necks in interviews, will rejoice. It is true that the rise of the personal PR has seen the number of reps sitting in on interviews skyrocket – most of whom are paid just to be meat in a room. Many PRs do their profession no favours by having a hostile attitude towards journalists and closing down legitimate routes of enquiry. Yet what the Neeson episode shows is that a publicist is necessary – not to attack the interviewer but to assist the client in staying on track. This requires a certain trust and understanding between client and publicist, something that rarely exists in the modern, corporatised environments of entertainment PR, where the junior publicist is in awe of the celebrity they are sent to chaperone. If a PR was in the room with Neeson would they have preventing him from walking into his own trap? I doubt it. Since the interview dropped, Neeson’s PR has gone into the inevitable tailspin of putting out muddled statements (“I am not a racist” has a distinctly Nixonian ring to it) and getting him seen hugging as many people from different backgrounds as can be sourced. None of this will be enough until Neeson gets himself a publicist in whom he has the trust to help steer his thoughts and save him from his worst self. Even then it might be too late for him.
Also entangled in this mess are the studios with films Neeson is attached to. There will be countless anxious execs worrying how the fallout will affect their investments. Their choices are twofold. They can cut ties with a toxic star and limit as much as possible his association with their project. Call that the Spacey rule. In the immediate term the studio behind his latest release Cold Pursuit have wisely opted for this by cancelling the red carpet premiere and putting on hold all future press opportunities (although there must be some who are privately gleeful that a second tier action film released in the quiet pre-Oscar weeks is getting such column inches, proving that you hardly need a Netflix marketing budget to get talked about). The calculus is different for the actor’s future projects. The studios associated with these films may consider whether they can ride it out and hope the outrage recedes. They might even want to capitalise on Neeson’s maverick aura – if you somehow managed to shed the racial overtones you’re left with the same dark moody persona that gave the actor a new lease of life in the mid-2000s.
And finally, what now for Liam Neeson? In many ways his next move is the least consequential of all. Whether or not he is given a free pass is largely out of his control. It helps that his story is so bizarre and that he doesn’t appear to have a history of racism. It is true that, on the back of Me Too, no one is untouchable. Yet Hollywood is peculiarly forgiving when it comes to racism, as the revival of Mel Gibson’s stock goes to show. Yes, Blackkklansman is nominated for Best Picture, but so too is Green Book, a film with a white saviour message that seems to hark back to an earlier time. I thought we were beyond seeing fried chicken wings as a motif of racial tension and reconciliation. But times are changing nonetheless. So what is for sure? Neeson has needlessly declared himself a target and one more false move – whether it’s a failure to acknowledge the offence he’s caused or the emergence of further accusations of racist behaviour – will be fatal.