It's August 2003, and on the New Jersey set of his latest film Liam Neeson has morphed into his character, the infamous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, from head to toe. Actually, make that head to ankle. While dressed in a natty gray suit appropriate to the 1942 setting of today's dinner-party scene, Neeson's also wearing. . . ratty Top-Siders, and (horrors!) no socks. No, the wardrobe department hasn't run out of petty cash. It's just, as Kinsey writer-director Bill Condon explains between takes, ''Liam's obsessed with comfortable shoes!''
Flash forward a year, and the actor explains: ''I'm like Imelda Marcos I just have a thing about shoes. If they're not right, it totally throws me, because it's the base of your column, your whole center of gravity. So any time we weren't shooting my feet, I wore these old boat shoes. They don't interfere with anything.''
Neeson's foot fetish is certainly our gain. The 52-year-old Irish actor has been slipping comfortably into a variety of roles for the last two decades, most notably as real people from Holocaust hero Oskar Schindler to Irish freedom fighter Michael Collins to his latest role in Kinsey (due Nov. 12), where he plays the controversial author with subtle humor and remarkable restraint. Over tea (apparently, he's fussy about more than shoes he brings his own decaf English Breakfast tea bags) at his favorite café on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Neeson reminisces about his most memorable parts, his famous female costars, and a most bizarre lunch with George Lucas.
Suspect (1987) In the Cher-Dennis Quaid thriller, Neeson played a mute homeless man on trial for murder. ''I loved [playing a mute], because that's the history of movies, the silent screen. There were no lines to learn. I remember staying in a shelter in downtown Washington for two days as a transient, just to get a taste of that world. It was just mind-blowing what goes on there at night, those poor guys. It's just, there but for the grace of God go you. It was a delight to work with Cher. She took care of me; she looked after me.''
The Good Mother (1988) Neeson's free-spirited sculptor causes a bitter custody battle for an uptight piano teacher, played by Diane Keaton. ''Diane was really, really focused. I was put off a little bit in the early days because when the camera was rolling she would have her headphones on and would be listening to female artists to get inspired. And [director] Leonard Nimoy would go, 'Okay, I'm rolling, and. . . action!' And Diane would go [mimes removing headphones quickly]. That was a wee bit off-putting. I took it as a bit of an insult to start with: Am I not motivating her? But I very quickly got over it, you know?''
Darkman (1990) Neeson is Peyton Westlake, a hideously scarred scientist who seeks revenge on his attackers. The film's middling $33.9 million box office notwithstanding, Spider-Man director Sam Raimi's first superhero movie has subsequently developed quite a cult following. ''The makeup sessions were from three to five hours. I would get home about 8 or 8:30, I would literally eat a pizza, go straight to bed, and be getting up at three, doing a workout for an hour and a half, go down to the makeup chair, and then start shooting again at 9. That went on for 14, 15 weeks. It's something I wouldn't do again. [The film] has rabid fans, especially in the black community, I've found. It's always the black dudes who are stopping me and giving me a high five. I saw Spider-Man, and a lot of it was shot-for-shot Darkman.''