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November 2004
Kinsey: An Interview with Liam Neeson

Kinsey: An Interview with Liam Neeson

By Wilson Morales

When you think of the roles that Liam Neeson has had over the years, none of them are flamboyant or over-the-top. "Resigned" is probably the best word to describe them. From Jean Valjean in "Les Miserable, to the role of a Master Jedi in "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace", and let's not forget his Oscar nominated performance as Oskar Schindler in "Schindler's List", Neeson has always played the voice of reason. In a role that may seem a bit against type considering that character he plays wants to go beyond any means to achieve success, Neeson plays Alfred Kinsey in the title film, "Kinsey". 1948 Alfred Kinsey shockingly changed American culture with his book, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male". Neeson spoke to blackfilm.com about his character and the subsequent roles he has forthcoming.

After seeing this film and the role you played, one would want to inquire as to who taught you about sex?

Liam Neeson: Toilet walls.

Do you remember the toilet walls, the specific illustrations?

LN: No, but they were crude, sort of strange Picasso-esque drawings of male and female, that's where I learned it from, and from my school chums. Terrible feelings of guilt, too, looking at these crude drawings, you know.

With the era of sexual repression in those days, did it bring you back to era in Ireland of those feelings?

LN: Well it certainly made me think about that, you Irish too, right? It made me think how church and state are very much had in glove, as James Joyce once said. It had a total iron grip on the morals of the country, and I grew up in the 50's. Of course sex was never talked about and discussed

Did you have the overlay of Paisley-ism and all of that in Belamina, did that affect you?

LN: Well, I used to go and hear Paisley preach in this little church down near Belamina train station, but I went for other reasons. It was just to watch a great actor perform, because he was extraordinary. He was this preacher, this Bible-thumping, big, big, man who's a politician in Northern Ireland, and still going strong at the age of 76, 77.

Now you've done a few nonfiction films so far, a few films where you've played real people. Is there anything that particularly draws you to historical films and the realm of nonfiction?

LN: Well, I think I've made 44 films and only like four times I've played real characters I'm just drawn to people who have a pioneer spirit, this extraordinary energy and commitment to their cause. That's certainly true of Michael Collins, certainly true of Schindler, to a certain extent, and most definitely Kinsey. Maybe I'm drawn to them because I'm a lazy slob myself. I just love to see people with energy that just burn up their day with their quest for what they're after.

What did you know of him before?

LN: Very little. In my general reading in my twenties I think I became aware of the Kinsey reports and the effect they had of American society.

Do you remember if it made any great news in Ireland?

LN: Well I don't remember because I was born in 1953, the female book came out in 1953, and it probably never came to Ireland. It would have been banned, I'm sure.

How relevant do you think this is outside the US? How do you think it will be received in Ireland, for example? Or in Europe, on an international level?

LN: Well it's going to be interesting, given the general sexual mores of Europe, and the fact that in this country we're in a neo-conservative time, and have been since the 1980's. and it seems to be getting tighter and tighter. Everything from sex education, gay rights, gender equality, are huge issues.

So does that mean in Europe it may even be obsolete in the sense that they are not discussing these things any more, they're more of a reality with the sexual liberation over there, as opposed to here? In many ways in Europe the discussion itself may be obsolete?

LN: In certain countries I think, yeah. Probably in Holland, in France, Poland too, maybe Sweden, so they may look at the picture and think, "What's the big deal?," but I hope they don't. But, you know, sex is controversial, it just is and it always will be. I think what I find interesting, being European and having lived here for many years, it that what troubles Europe when they cast their light on America is, "Why all this hoopla over sex when they violence that's shown in movies and on the TV doesn't seem to be garnering any attention?". At the same time, there is a schizophrenia in the country where Sex and the City, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, The L-Word, Queer as Folk, these are all big mega-hit cable shows. And yet, Janet Jackson doesn't even show her nipple, she shows her breast, and there is public outcry, and a bit of news footage of gay guys having just gotten married in San Francisco, and there's outrage.

Well, the argument there is with cable people are paying for it, and Janet Jackson and gay guys getting married are airing on our free TV, and that's why it's an issue.

LN: That's interesting, yeah, you're right.

When you were working on this film, what things did you learn about Kinsey that were really revelatory to you, and what things did you think about in terms of general sexuality that hit you or stuck you in a way you hadn't thought of before?

LN: Just the variability of the sexual practices of the human species. Kinsey's quest was really for us all to be tolerant and accepting of each other. So that rich tapestry is really quite extraordinary which I had never really contemplated before I was doing my research. And also just the times he was living in and the level of ignorance, especially with young people. Kinsey was devoted to young people. There were surveys done in the forties where 90% of high school boys didn't know that they male was responsible for having a baby with the woman. 95% never knew the word "masturbation". Just the whole physiology of sex, a woman's menstrual cycle, was totally unknown to these boys in the forties. And it was common for girls in the thirties not to know where babies came from. This is what Kinsey was confronted with, to provide a springboard, to do something about it. He saw this awful gap in human knowledge that he wanted to fill.

How easy or hard was it to get into the character and explore the character. What were the challenges for you?

LN: Well, from an acting point of view, I bear no relation, I don't look like Alfred Kinsey at all, but I thought somewhere in my artist's soul, my actor's soul, I could capture something of the spirit of the man. And then there's obviously the accent, the way of walking, and there's an age range Laura and I have to go through which was kind of subtle because it's from 30 years of age up to 62, so we wanted to do that as subtly as possible, and not draw attention to it. At the Sex Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, they were a phenomenal help, too. We went out there for a few days, and they gave us access to materials. And the biographies, there are four or five, ranging from very poor to excellent.

What was the best source for you?

LN: The best source, I think, was the Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy biography called Sex: The Measure of All Things, it was pretty definitive for me. And the Institute sent me a little film footage of Kinsey himself preparing to do an interview for television to talk about his work, so that was quite valuable for me. And then, very late in the day, they sent me a tape of half a lecture he's giving the year before he died. Now he was very, very ill then, and I could tell from this tape, it's an audio tape, how big the auditorium is, because you can hear these coughs and sniffles and stuff, and you can tell there's a big, big, group of people. And when he starts of his voice is very, very shaky and very weak, but when he gets into this lecture he gets this clarity and strength, and that's told me a lot of information, how much he absolutely loved teaching and lecturing.

What kind of kisser is Peter Sarsgaard?

LN: He's not bad. Needs to shave a bit more.

He didn't think you were much good.

LN: (laughs)

Laura Linney was praising her parents earlier, saying she had not realized until later on how lucky she was to be educated early on about sex. I know you've got a couple of young kids yourself, and I imagine they've seen Star Wars, at what point do you imagine it would be all right, for you, for them to sit down and see this film?

LN: Oh, I think they'd be so bored if they watched this, but they'll see it at some point, I think.

And in term of sex education?

LN: We've done it.

And how old are they?

LN: They're eight and nine, and a few months ago they started asking pertinent questions, so we had to tell them.

Do you think it had anything to do with your being in this film?

LN: No, it came up the way it comes up naturally. I didn't quiz them on stuff, they were asking the right questions.

And was there trepidation on your part?

LN: Oh yeah, I thought I'd be pipe-smoking, cardigan, "Come here by the fireplace," but I looked at my wife with pleading eyes, "You go first."

Who went first?

LN: She did.

Do you think of yourself as a liberal parent?

LN: As a liberal parent in what way?

Like in Kinsey, for example, in the dinner table conversation, when his older daughter was like, "I think I'm going to have sex with my boyfriend." Would you be shocked down the line if one of your kids said that?

LN: I'd like to think not. I mean, we're liberal about lots of things, but the important thing is to be able to talk. Sitting down to eat in our house is about sharing, you know, talking about the day you've had, be it in school or work or whatever, so that's very important to us.

Would you have liked to have had this film shown in Ireland in the 50's or early 60's to sort of educate them a little bit?

LN: They would have stopped the canisters from getting off the boat, and they'd have come after me as well.

What would Michael Collins think of Alfred Kinsey?

LN: I think he would have admired him. He would have admired his energy and his work ethic, definitely.

Are there other historic figures you'd like to play, if you had a dream situation and you could call up this director or that director, and say, "Do this."

LN: I'd like to play Ian Paisley, actually. I'd need building up, though he's very frail now

Do you think that Kinsey's thoughts on homosexuality were skewered a little bit by being bisexual? We had an expert who was talking to us on Friday night who said that he over-sampled prisons, and vastly under-sampled rural areas. Do you think he was trying to push a certain agenda?

LN: I don't think he was pushing an agenda. Bear in mind that he had planned to write a whole series of books. The data he gathered from those 18 years of interviews, they used one tenth of that data to write these two enormous volumes on male and female sexuality. There's 90 percent of stuff still at Indiana University that scholars from all over the world have access to and are still using, certainly in a historical context they are. Still, the breadth and the scope of what he and his team did has not been surpassed. Yes, there was critical reaction to it, but his team did tidy up those statistics. They took away the interviews from prisoners, and the major findings that they found did not change that much, actually, certainly with the prevalence of homosexuality in society and the country. In those days it was a pathological disease, and it was a crime, and one of those things he did show was the prevalence of homosexuality, and indeed the penal code was altered because of these reports. But, you know, there's still an argument, there's still ten states that outlaw premarital sex, and many more states where adultery is still outlawed and a crime.

Do you think that homosexuality and heterosexuality can be divided on a scale of zero to six?

LN: That's interesting, when you see the little scale, zero to six, you think that's kind of na´ve, but you see he never wanted to pigeonhole people and say, "You're a homosexual, you're a heterosexual," he always thought we were all in a continuum.

And what do you make of that?

LN: I think it's interesting. I have very dear friends who are 100% gay, I have a couple of bisexual friends, too, friends and acquaintances I've met over the years. It's an interesting scale, and I think it's secretly still used by scholars, I think they have it up their sleeve and wouldn't quite admit it.

Can you talk about Batman for a minute?

LN: I can't talk about it.

Well, what made you say yes to it, it's gotta be night and day to do from something like this?

LN: Well, it's easy, Christopher Nolan. And the script is quite phenomenal, actually.

How was the shoot? I heard it was tremendous.

LN: They only wrapped a few weeks ago after seven months, I was on for like four.

Talk about your relationship working with Bill Condon on this film.

LN: Very, very good. I've been an admirer of his since Gods and Monsters, and he's one of the few writer/directors I've worked with. Certainly Neil Jordan, Woody Allen, Chris Nolan, exceptional people who are as gifted with a pen as they are with a camera.

Lots of homework with him [Condon].

LN: Yeah, yeah. Lots of prep, and we were fortunate enough to have two weeks of rehearsal before we started shooting, which was a luxury. You rarely get that.

When you saw the movie completed, were there revelations to you that you hadn't expected?

LN: Well, the first time you see a picture and you're in it, it makes me feel like a three-legged stool. I'm going through the edit, remembering takes, stuff like that, and I did a bit of that the first time I saw it. The second time was in Toronto with an audience, and a sufficient amount of time had lapsed from the first viewing to the second and it very good, it was like watching a different film, and it shows how important an audience is with motion pictures. And the humor that was in it, too. Very rich little laughs and giggles came out, it was great.

What's next, what's exactly next, that you can talk about?

LN: I've got this Ridley Scott film coming out called Kingdom of Heaven about the second Crusades, and I just finished this Neil Jordan film called Breakfast on Pluto coming out next year too, and Batman's coming out in the summer as well.

Could you talk about the Oscar buzz real quick?

LN: It's flattering, it's that time of the year, and it's better than someone saying you're crap. It puts focus on the industry, and hopefully it extrapolates people buying tickets to see movies, keeps us all working.

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