Liam Neeson prepared for “The Grey” by taking freezing cold showers every morning for seven minutes.
Updated: February 23, 2012 8:05AM
LOS ANGELES — Liam Neeson clearly has a love-hate relationship with turning 60.
Tell him that he doesn’t look a day over 45, and he smiles sweetly and says, “I love you so much.”
Someone else jokes, “I’d say 55,” and the A-lister flips him the bird.
There is no gray area for the star of the wolf film “The Grey” (opening Friday) when it comes to his big birthday on June 7.
“Turning 60 feels like s---,” he says. “I really hate it. My sons even said to me, ‘Dad, we must have a big party for you on your 60th.’ I’m just say, ‘Boys, no, we’re not.’ ”
There are moments when he shows his age to his teenage sons. “I don’t listen to their music at all. The techno beat? I cannot bear it in the same way my father couldn’t stand the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.”
Neeson tries to take care of himself. “I still consume way too much red wine,” he says. “My friend tells me it’s not drinking, but it’s food. I do shadow boxing and use a heavy bag, but I don’t spar with anyone.”
But he has his macho moments. To get the cast of “The Grey” in the mood for the wild, director Joe Carnahan had wolf stew prepared for them.
The meat was made from real wolves. And no, it didn’t taste like chicken.
Many cast members lost their lunch. But Neeson “went up for seconds of the wolf stew. A few guys did upchuck. We all knew what we were eating. All I can say is it was very game-y. But I’m Irish, so I’m used to odd stews. I can take it. Just throw a lot of carrots and onions in there and I’ll call it dinner.”
In “The Grey,” he actually is dinner.
Neeson plays a man with a bit of a death wish after the loss of his beloved wife. He joins an oil-drilling team whose plane crashes in the barren wilderness of Alaska.
A 100-strong wolf pack tries to hunt down the ever-dwindling group of human survivors, played by actors including Frank Grillo and Northwestern grad Dermot Mulroney.
Neeson has been a widower since his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, sustained a head injury after a skiing accident in 2009.
To play a man who recently lost his wife, “let’s just say that I had to do very little research,” Neeson says in a soft voice.
“I knew the emotions that had to be accessed,” he says. “On the set, we never discussed how real life played into it for me. We just played the scenes of a man whose heart is broken.”
He embraced the idea of a man who isn’t afraid to die while trying to find a way to survive.
“This movie’s script read to me like a 19th century epic poem. I just thought it was so beautiful,” he says. “This was a throwback to the old movies they use to make where it was man vs. nature and not just people pushing each other’s buttons.
“It reminded me of ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ (1972),” he says. “There was just something so pure about this idea that you might not survive because nature is bigger than you.”
Other names, including Bradley Cooper, were floated to play the lead in the film. But Carnahan says that Neeson was his man.
“We live in a day and age where we largely have boys playing men in films,” says Carnahan. “What you see with Liam is an actual man playing a man. That’s a huge advantage in this kind of movie.
“I consciously populated this film with men to remind Hollywood that they do indeed exist and you don’t have to be shirtless and 18 to be a movie star.”
Neeson was told that they would film in 20-below conditions in British Columbia. “Dermot told me that was actually nothing compared to Chicago weather,” Neeson jokes.
Still, he hit the showers. To man up.
“I saw a documentary about this British man a few years ago who liked to swim through icebergs in Antarctica,” Neeson says. “He started preparing by taking freezing cold showers for 10 minutes every morning.
“I did the same thing to prepare for this movie, but I only got up to seven minutes,” he says. “It actually immunizes your body because your system gets used to the cold.”
He also had to film the plane crash scene that lands him in the wolves’ den.
“To be honest, I’m scared to death of rollercoaster rides,” says the actor. “I just can’t do it. My kids beg me to get on the rollercoasters with them and my response is always the same. I’ll say, ‘Sons, I love you to death, but I will never get on that damn thing.’
“The plane crash scene was like a rollercoaster ride for me. I was in part of a plane attached to a mechanical arm that really jolted me around. I was terrified.”
When the “Grey” trailer was released months later, Neeson showed it with pride to his kids and their friends. “They just sat there and said, ‘Oh, Dad, that’s cool.’
“They love the movie ‘Taken,’ ” he says. “My sons will call me up and say, ‘Dad, will you say that speech you said at the end of ‘Taken’ to my buddy Treavor?”
He recently shared other movies with his boys, including his Oscar-nominated performance in “Schindler’s List.”
“I haven’t seen the movie in a few years,” Neeson says. “So, I showed it to my eldest boys but didn’t watch it with him. I left the room because it’s tough for me to watch myself. I only do that in ‘Michael Collins’ for some reason. I had my youngest boy watch that film with me because it explains something about the current state of Ireland.”
“Afterwards, I never quiz the kids. I don’t want to put them on the spot.”
His career is on an upswing.
“Since this ‘Taken’ movie came out, they keep throwing assassin movies at me,” Neeson says. “Some are good; some are not.”
He does think about his own expiration date when it comes to the action genre.
“I give my knees another 18 months,” he jokes. Yet, he soon will start shooting “Taken 2” and has “Wrath of the Titans” out this spring.
Neeson is reflective about his late wife, the woman he called Tosh.
“I love that expression, ‘How do you make God laugh? You just tell him your plans and then watch as fate takes you in a different direction.’ ” Neeson says. “You think your life is going one way and then suddenly, you’re on another track.”
He’s raising their sons, Michael, now 16, and Daniel, 15, as a single father and trying to teach them their mother’s lessons.
“It’s funny, but you get to a time in your life when you think you have all the friends you will ever have,” Neeson says. “Then I think of how Tosh would meet someone at a party and suddenly they would become a dear friend.
“I never thought at this stage in my life, I’d be able to meet some of my best friends. I can say that the men on my new movie ‘The Grey’ have become fantastic friends to me even now that we’ve stopped filming. We call each other all the time and talk about regular stuff like how it’s s---ty get older or how our kids know that we’re full of crap when we discipline them.
“Tosh would be pleased,” he says. “She always told me you should never close doors in your life.”
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