Then, too, Neeson himself has characteristics in common with Schindler. "He has some of that hedonistic, b.s.-ing spirit," says Thomas Keneally, author of the book on which Schindler's is based. And Neeson reluctantly shares his character's reputation as a ladies' man: Among the women who were allegedly smitten with his busted-nose boxer's profile are Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Grey, Sinead O'Connor, and Julia Roberts. His biggest splash as an actor before Schindler's was last season on Broadway as Eugene O'Neill's bare-torsoed testosterone tower in Anna Christie with Natasha Richardson, who left her husband of two years for her costar. The New Yorker's review of the play dubbed Neeson "a sequoia of sex." The priapic praise amuses and embarrasses him. "I had to ask somebody, 'What does a sequoia mean?'" he says. "We don't have 'em in Ireland."
"He's the same sort of bloke Schindler was," says Keneally. "If pushed to it, he could be slightly dangerous, slightly out of control. The press has made quite a meal of his instinct for good times. He likes an occasional drink and a bit of banter. Of course, what's very average Irish intake can strike Southern California as galloping substance abuse! But he was always pristine, clear-eyed, and deft in his movements."
Neeson has a clear-eyed assessment of what made Schindler improbably great: "Balls, that's what he had in spadefuls. I think he enjoyed fookin' with the Nazis. In Keneally's book it says he was regarded as a kind of a buffoon by them. I'll give an exampleif the Nazis were New Yorkers, he was from Arkansas. They don't quite take him seriously, and he used that to full effect."
Neeson had less success with Spielberg's efforts to fatten him up to Schindlerian proportions. "I lost weight doing eight performances a week on Broadway, and Steven got me all this bloody bodybuilder weight-gain powder, this packet of 5,000 calories, and it hit my stomach and came straight up again. The other thing that went through my head, and I didn't say this to Steven, was that, y'know, nobody in the audience really knows what Schindler looked like. And call it ego, but I didn't want people to think, God, Liam Neeson's puttin' on a lot of weight!"
While his immediate plans include reviving Strindberg's Miss Julie on Broadway next fall with Natasha Richardson (his eyes soften: "It's wonderful when you connect with another actor-I'm not talkin' about fancying 'em, I mean she's without doubt the best actress I've ever worked with"), Neeson dismisses the very concept of career strategy in acting. "Schindler's is a blessin' and a coorse, too, because scripts I would've jumped at a year ago, now I'm subconsciously comparing them with Steve Zaillian's script. But at some stage, with bills coming in, I'm gonna have to say, yeah, this'll be great to do!" His erstwhile roommate Helen Mirren concurs. "He's not going to say, 'Oh, wow, now I'm a leading man!' That's journalist talk, not actor talk," she sniffs. "Whether he retires as a farmer in Iowa or becomes the next Gary Cooper, he's still going to be the same Liam I know and love." But his career is not going to buy the farm any time soon. For Liam Neeson, it's high noon.