Liam Neeson on Martin Scorsese’s Silence: ‘The theatricality of mass made me want to be an actor’

The star of Silence, Martin Scorsese’s epic drama about the persecution of Catholic priests in 17th-century Japan, tells us how churchgoing inspired his acting career and why a Scorsese set can be intimidating.

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Lou Thomas
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Watch Liam Neeson talking about Silence

In Martin Scorsese’s epic adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, Liam Neeson plays Father Cristóvão Ferreira, a Portuguese Jesuit priest who commits apostasy in 17th-century Japan. The film centres on the plight of fellow priests Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, on career-best form) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) as they face the perilous task of finding their mentor in a forbidding landscape where Christians are persecuted and often tortured for their beliefs.

Scorsese has a history of tackling faith loss in his work. The director had protagonists question God’s will from the very start of his career, with his debut feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) featuring a young Harvey Keitel concluding the film searching for spiritual solace. By Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese would have Keitel ruminate in far more depth, caught between the pull of the Catholic church and the life of a gangster. In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Willem Dafoe plays a Jesus markedly removed from his biblical portrayal and often tempted by sexual desire.

For his part, Neeson has less explicitly tackled a rejection of faith but is no stranger to roles where religion is key, most notably when he played a priest in The Mission (1986).

Neeson and Scorsese worked together on Gangs of New York (2002), but Silence is an altogether deeper, heavier beast, one that asks searching questions about the nature of belief at times of endurance. It’s a beautiful, often uncompromising work that may lack the commercial appeal of Scorsese’s last film (2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street) but stays in the mind like a prayer lingering on the breeze.

We caught up with Neeson, when the actor answered questions on Silence, faith and his collaboration with Scorsese. The actor was quietly spoken but contemplative and clearly glad to be working with his director again.

Did your own religious beliefs affect your decision to take this role?

No, but what did affect my decision was to get the chance to work with one of the great movie directors. This is the second time Martin’s directed me in a film. I was very interested in the subject matter of Jesuits in a very hostile environment in Japan in the 1600s, so it was a no-brainer in regards to “Do I do it, do I not do it?”

To what extent did you discuss your character’s actions before you started shooting?

Not a huge amount of discussion. I mean I know Martin and Jay Cocks, his co-writer, had spent 20 years just fashioning, honing this script from the book by Shusaku Endo, so it was all in the script. Martin and I didn’t discuss a huge amount about the Jesuits in the 1600s, but there was any amount of research to read and study, of course.

What do you think about your character’s action in the film?

Well, he had to do what he had to do, as they says in the best westerns.

Have you ever considered abandoning your own faith?

No, I try not to abandon anything really [apart from] bad girlfriends years ago, but that’s about the only thing I’ve ever abandoned. I don’t think you ever abandon things like faith and friendships, real friendships. You don’t. They’re all part and parcel of you, you know?

Did Scorsese tell you anything about his own sense of faith?

No, not really. He’s given interviews over the years and you get a sense of his passion for this project, and I know a little bit about his upbringing. It’s not hugely dissimilar from myself as regards his interest in the Catholic church. He was an altar boy; I was an altar boy for a few years. In fact I would safely say that the wonderful theatricality of the celebration of the mass and various religious ceremonies made me want to be an actor. Vestments, lights, candles, lights, all that stuff, you know?

You’ve previously said “He’s intimidating”. Is that still the case?

It’s not so much that he’s intimidating. He creates an atmosphere to do your work in that can be a little intimidating. Certainly when everybody stops work and silence prevails then you think: “Oh gosh, I have to act now.” That gets a bit intimidating.

In 2016, Church of England attendance went down to less than a million people a week for the first time. Do you think we’re undergoing a time of faith loss?

I’m not sure if it’s a loss. It might be people getting fed up with organised religion, but I think people are inwardly questing after the reason we’re on this planet. I think we’re spiritually looking for something. But organised religion is taking a big hit.

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