SOUTH AFRICAN EXCLUSIVE: Liam Neeson and the giant elephant in the room

Liam Neeson. (Photo: Getty Images)
Liam Neeson. (Photo: Getty Images)


An interview with an A-list star turns into a minefield of complexities when the Hollywood leading man makes a shocking racist statement that caused outrage across the globe. Channel24's Herman Eloff had to decide to either abandon the interview or to share what he discovered when it forced him to take a hard look at himself…

Cape Town - Late one Saturday night in early January Channel24 had the opportunity to do a telephonic interview with Hollywood heavyweight Liam Neeson and actor Tom Jackson about their new film, Cold Pursuit – which is only now, months later, available in South African cinemas.

But the excitement over a South African exclusive interview with the international star quickly turned to dread after The Independent revealed in an article by Clémence Michallon that the actor, during the same round of media interviews, admitted to a shocking racist moment in his past in which he confessed that he "walked the streets with a cosh, hoping to be approached by a black bastard" so that he could "kill him" after someone close to him was raped many years ago. 

He immediately added: "It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that and I’ve never admitted that, and I’m saying it to a journalist. God forbid."

Liam tried to backtrack, but the words had already escaped his mouth and were flopping around on the floor like a fish out of water fighting for breath. There was no way to take it back. It was there. Cold and crass and on record in the hands of a journalist.

He quickly added: "It’s awful. But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, 'What the fuck are you doing', you know?"

But no matter how sincere his follow-up – the impact of his initial statement was so painful and shocking that nothing could cushion the blowback that was to come from it. It had struck a nerve because it was rhetoric so familiar to people of colour who to this day face similar realities based solely on the colour of their skin.

The Guardian's Moira Donegan explains why there was so much pain within Liam's admittance: "Neeson’s intention of killing a random black man to avenge the rape of his friend recalls the history of American lynching, the mob murders of black people by white people that were often committed under the pretense that the black victim had committed sexual violence against a white woman."

As film screenings got cancelled and TV appearances abandoned, my initial thought too was to scrap my interview immediately. I could easily not write about my interview with Liam and just let it go away. Nobody would even know that I had spoken to him. As I mulled over the thought of publishing my version of the interview, in which Liam never mentioned anything of such nature, I went back and forth on what my intention would be with the piece.

I replayed my interview with Liam to myself several times…that's when one specific quote jumped out at me.


In Cold Pursuit, an American version of the Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten), Liam's character Nels Coxman, a snowplough driver, sets out on a bloodthirsty mission of revenge after his son is murdered by members of a drug cartel. Like picking petals from a flower, Nels Coxman brutally and violently kills the men that were responsible for his son's death.

I asked Liam how a character that seems so average and mundane could kill so easily? It was in his answer to this question that I realised why I had to publish this interview.

"I don't think the killing and revenge part comes easily for him," Liam said in that instantly recognisable Irish brogue.

He adds: "You know, if something happens to your family, God forbid, in a horrible way you have a primitive gut reaction to seek revenge on this guy. Nels is a total amateur. He finds out what to do and how to dispose of the bodies by reading a crime novel," he pauses before adding: "But it's never the answer. Revenge just leads to more violence. Violence begets violence. I grew up in the North of Ireland. I experienced it first-hand in the 1960s. There was just no end to avenge, you know…without getting too heavy about it all…but yeah it was kind of easy to relate to that."

Northern Ireland in the late sixties was characterised by ethno-nationalist conflict based on political and religious roots that are centuries old. Known as the Troubles this complex low-level war stretched from the late 1960s until about 1998. The conflict began during a campaign to end discrimination against the Catholic/nationalist minority by the Protestant/unionist government and the police force. Thousands died during this period marked by extreme violence.

In an interview with Irish Central, Liam – who grew up in Northern Ireland – said he "will never get over the conflict which cost more than 3 000 lives". He added: "It was an experience that shook me deeply, in complicated ways. But the message I took then was, 'Boy, you’ve got to wake up. Get moving. You’ve got to get going.'" 

The kneejerk reaction of violence and revenge, just like with his character Nels, is embedded within Liam – whether he cares to admit it or not. His own personal history has been crucial in his present-day decisions. Of course, he has grown and matured as a person, but at the core of every human sits our own personal history and background.

Liam Neeson and Tom Bateman in Cold Pursuit.

(Liam Neeson and Tom Bateman in Cold Pursuit. Photo: Doane Gregory/Studio Canal


This realisation made me take a closer look at myself.  As a white South African growing up during apartheid I found myself staring into the same mirror. Staring right back at me is a history steeped in racial segregation and extreme racism. No matter who I am today and how deeply I detest our racist past, I have to admit that the foundation of who I am as a person today is built on a system that found one person superior to another based solely on the colour of their skin. People of colour suffered greatly because of racist laws that favoured white people. 

No matter how grotesque that sounds I must admit that it is part of the fibre of who I am today. The government at the time, the schools, and shockingly even the church wanted to convince me that racial segregation was "normal". The three cornerstones of my formative years were pillars based on lies – and today I fight vehemently to escape it. There is no place for this way of thinking in the world – and when someone reverts back to that it is our duty to vocally hit back. We need to be loud in saying it's not okay to have a thought process wherein it's acceptable to incite violence against another based on their race, gender, or even sexuality. 

Liam has apologised and said he learned not to fight violence with violence - he has also vehemently denied that he's racist. He is still to publically acknowledge that his statement was racist. But more than that he has to admit that somewhere inside him it felt okay to share what he did. Somewhere deeply ingrained within him there was something that made it okay to think the way he did.

The backlash is a necessary and a vocal reminder to re-examine that inherent hidden layer and to address it. Only once we face it, we can take active steps to eradicate it.

Yes, the Liam Neeson I spoke to was kind and decent. And so are many of us. But sometimes racism is so deeply ingrained that we are oblivious to it. But that's not an excuse. What happened here has to wake us up and push us to take a much deeper look at our inner-self and ask serious questions about how we perpetuate racism in society even when believing that we don’t. Only when we unpack and understand the problem can we take active steps to start fixing it. 


Tom, who takes on the role of White Bull in the film and who also has to deal with the death of a son, touches on the same topic in our 15-minute chat about the film: "I think as a human being but also as an actor to be able to play the role you had to pick somewhere to find something that you better understood. For me personally, my background is a gang world on the streets of Winnipeg, and I had to kind of go there to remember what those instincts were."

He importantly adds: "It was an interesting experience for me. I had a moment when the lightbulb went on. We shot it pretty much chronologically in sequence, so from the opening scene it was possible for me to find a place to understand and recognise the brutality of the death. His son was killed. It was like taking an instrument and splitting your chest, opening it up and finding out where do you go from here? What do you do from that experience? And for me, uh, I don't know that White Bull ever picked up a gun. I don't know that he ever shot anything. But trying to delve into the character was something that you only see in my mind anyway, you only see in a film. You only imagine. You only dream. And it's not a pleasant dream. But are you willing to go there? Well, personally I wouldn't go that route, but not everybody gets on the same bus."

Liam, who is more reserved during the interview, adds: "There's also the touching subject matter of the relationship between father and son. I just love that scene when I'm with Tom in the truck. We're both dads and we've lost our sons and we've gone through this horror of violence, but there's a kind of a recognition that they need to get back to normal, you know. I think it's a quite a special and very private scene and very special to do it with Tom."

Tom Jackson in Cold Pursuit

(Tom Jackson in Cold Pursuit. Photo: Doane Gregory/Studio Canal


The film takes on serious topics like revenge and death with mega-dose of humour. For many, that's a coping mechanism in dealing with something extremely violent.

For Tom that was the exact reason why he decided to take on the film and he shares a beautiful personal story: "Well, I can say that I had not read the script before I decided to do this. I will tell you why. Because I was sitting in my living room, which is a pretty big kind of open space. And my wife, Alison, was reading the script. And she kept belly laughing. If you've never heard Allison's belly laugh, then you've never understood joy. So, when I heard that, I made a decision right there and then. I said, well, okay, this has gotta be something I want to do because there's humour in it. Then I got to read the script and I liked it. It was very funny. And that was the deciding factor. It was Alison," Tom said.

"That's a lovely…uh…that's a great answer," Liam says sounding almost disappointed that his answer wouldn't live up to the same expectation, but he continues anyway; "I watched the original film In Order of Disappearance. I did not know what I was going to see. It was screened for me. I felt like here were two heavyweight European actors, Bruno Ganz and Stellan Skarsgård, and I find myself laughing and tittering throughout the whole film. Then afterwards Michael Shamberg, a wonderful producer, said well that's the reaction we want, so we're going to make an American version of it. I felt Frank Baldwin, the writer, did a superb and very unique script."


Tom adds: "We're in an industry that's called entertainment. I never expected when I watched the screening of this that I was going to feel as good as I did when I left. Joy is priceless but it loses its value if you don't share it. And I saw the people in that theatre…when we watched this…I saw them leaving with so much joy on their face. I couldn't understand how themes like revenge and vengeance could make someone feel that good. But that's just a measure of the art…a measure of how good this team actually was."

Liam adds: "It's a lovely wonderful piece of entertainment. There are levels to it. You can think about it and there's a terrific grain of humour that goes through all of this. The director and the writer laugh at the folly of mankind all the time while being surrounded by this extraordinary scenery that's millions, if not billions of years old. And there we are squabbling…our little pathetic human lives amidst all this. And I think Hans Petter Moland (the director) sort of picks up on all that, you know. A lot like Samuel Beckett. It reminds me of some of his writing…just of the folly of mankind.

"These mountains are still there, and they will be there after we've left this planet. Observing it all," Liam says with a deep laugh, the kind of laugh my grandfather would laugh when he knew something that we didn't.

Cold Pursuit is showing in South African cinemas now. 

READ NEXT: Danny K understands and acknowledges his white privilege and if it hits a nerve with you, then good!

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24