Liam Neeson had his first raccoon encounter on the set of the hit '80s T.V. show "Miami Vice."
And he never forgot it.
The one-time Oscar nominee, known lately for his successful "Taken" franchise, has been letting loose behind the mike (and the camera), voicing animated features, including, "The Nut Job" and "The Lego Movie."
Neeson plays the ever-mischievous Raccoon in "The Nut Job," telling Yahoo Movies in an exclusive interview that he finds the dumpster diving critters — some of whom can be found near his New York home — simply fascinating.
Read on for the Irish actor's raccoon tales, meeting and working with Comedy Central's Key and Peele (famous for their "Liam Neesons" sketch), and how he once survived a serious motorbike crash with another wild creature — a deer. And, oh yeah, we might soon see him in more comedies opposite the likes of Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen. (Awesome.)
[Related: Will Arnett Gets Squirrelly In 'The Nut Job']
What is your general relationship with raccoons? People seem to have strong opinions about them.
Liam Neeson: They're not an indigenous species to Ireland. I remember doing an episode of "Miami Vice" years and years ago in the '80s and I saw a raccoon going through trash. And seeing this thing use his little paws and actually lifting a lid of a garbage can, peering in — it saw me and it was quite sinister because it almost had a human quality to it, quite sneaky. I just had never seen a raccoon in my life before and the impression stayed with me.
If you don't mind me asking, how old were you when you first saw one then?
L.N.: Oh God how old was I when I did "Miami Vice"? Maybe 1987? I'm 61 now, so I was in my 30s.
Did you need to incorporate any of that into your "Nut Job" performance?
L.N.: No. I remember when they showed me, I was shooting a film here in New York and they showed me artwork for Raccoon and it all came back to me. There was something very powerful about them. I have a property upstate and now I'm used to raccoons, in fact, I trap them and take them away to the countryside and release them. They're very interesting animals.
[Photos: 'The Nut Job' Movie Pics]
Director Peter Lepeniotis says you help "define villainy" in the film. Would you agree or disagree?
L.N.: [Laughs] Well the Raccoon, he has a job to do, you know? Some people say he's evil, he's bad, other people say, "No, he did the right thing." But it was certainly fun doing it.
Getting in the booth for this one, were there different body positions involved? What did you need to tap into?
L.N.: That can help. ... You do find yourself animating yourself and moving your body in certain ways, depending on what the scene is of course. It's an interesting process because you're lending voice to some complete stranger's drawing. ... Last year I did, like, four animated features and they really were a learning curve in a lot of ways.
Are there different types of acting skills you tap into for voice acting?
L.N.: Well that's a good question. I wish I could intellectualize it and say, "Okay, I do these one, two, three and four things." In my early professional life in Belfast I did quite a number of educational programs on BBC radio. I did some radio plays when I moved to London and became very very aware of the power of the microphone. I love when I go back to London and listening to Radio Four and the BBC World Service and stuff. ... It was always a part of my life growing up, listening to boxing on the radio and just using your imagination that way.
Would you say that this raccoon has any redeeming qualities?
L.N.: Yes. He was a leader of the animals in the park for a reason. He's earned it, it happened to him as a rite. Then the animals all took a vote a number of years ago that he would look after them, so he definitely has redeeming qualities.
What do you like about animated movies and animals in them, how we can connect with animated versions of them with human-like characteristics?
L.N.: Isn't it terrific? That's one legacy from Walt Disney that is just fantastic. We're living with it in a more serious way where we are infested with deer and you look at these things and if you get close to them, all you see is Bambi. We've given these things a human quality because we've grown up with these characters, at least I have, as a 61-year-old man, with "Robin Hood" and all these extraordinary films that Walt Disney Studios produced that reanimated these animals. It just gave them this human quality, so now if you try and shoot these deer - I'm a hunter - there's an uproar. I had a motorbike accident, a very serious accident a few years ago and I had lots of sympathy cards from people, and quite a few from people saying "I hope you're praying for the deer, because you killed the deer on your stupid motorbike," it [wasn't my fault], the deer literally climbed over the motorbike. They're big and you see them moving through the woods and you could hear a pin drop, they're so quiet.
This movie is called "The Nut Job," putting you on the spot, who would you say is the biggest nut job in Hollywood?
L.N.: Oh no I couldn't go there. Actually I haven't worked with a nut job at all. Nearly 70 films, not one nut job. I can say that open with hand on heart. … for performances, sure, [actors] can go into nutty places, but no, I've never once worked with a crazy, nutty performer.
What is the ratio of live action roles you're offered versus voiceover roles?
L.N.: Oh it's still very much dominated by live action. I do do a number of documentary films, I lend my voice to that. I do as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, I do quite a lot of voiceovers for UNICEF for their promotional films. I love doing that stuff. … Sometimes it can be [nice to hear familiar voices], you hear a voice and you may not know who it is but it consoles you in a way, you know you're in good hands.
Are you aware that your voice has a Facebook page?
L.N.: No, not at all. I'm not on the websites.
Well there is a Facebook page for Liam Neeson's Voice and it has 14,000 fans.
L.N.: Really? 14,000 that's cool.
Of course the first post there is a reference to the Key and Peele "Liam Neesons" sketch.
L.N.: You know, it's funny you mention that, I just did a little sketch with them in L.A. on Monday to promote this film I have coming out at the end of February called "Non-Stop." It was SO hard to try and keep my face straight with those guys. I don't know if you've seen them doing their valet parking guys…
Yes, it is tremendous.
L.N.: So it's that and then I come out of the revolving door of the restaurant to get my car and they recognize me and they are so genius, those guys. Every take was totally different and equally funny. I'm a huge fan of those two guys.
Who first showed you the sketch?
L.N.: It was writer/director Joe Carnahan, a friend of mine, who directed "The A-Team" and "The Grey." He said, "You've got to check this out," and I didn't know what the hell this was. He sent it through YouTube and they are just so funny and now they're on Comedy Central. I've got their 20-minute shows and stuff, they're fantastic. If you haven't seen it and you're a fan, you've got to see them do "Les Miserables." It's brilliant, just brilliant. You have to see it.
Do you get offered more of those comedic-type projects now?
L.N.: There have been a couple, Ricky [Gervais] and I might be doing a film together, maybe in the next year and a half or so, and Sacha Baron Cohen has come out and they'll be doing something, so it might be a change in career for me [laughs].
We're excited about it and all of your other films, which seem like a lot
L.N.: Do you know what, I've got nine films coming out this year. Four of them are animated, and it's just the way the cookie crumbles. Last year a week before Christmas I finished my ninth or 10th if you consider I had a little cameo in "Anchorman 2," which was just a day's work so not counting that. Nine films it is great.
It is, and now I can't wait to see your sketch with "Key and Peele."
L.N.: Good, you'll definitely have a giggle. If you like their humor you'll definitely have a giggle. But do punch up that Key and Peele "Les Miserables" sketch. [Here it is!]
"The Nut Job" is in theaters now.
Watch 'The Nut Job' Trailer: