The Silence star shares how his friendship with a Jesuit priest saved his acting career and why he's playing one (again) on screen.
- Posted on Jan 5, 2017
Before taking on a starring role in Martin Scorsese’s faith-driven film Silence, actor Liam Neeson asked himself a humbling question: “Am I enough?”
It’s the first question he asks himself before agreeing to any role. But playing real-life historical figure Father Cristóvão Ferreira, a 17th century Jesuit priest weighed particularly heavy on Neeson. Ferreira was captured in Japan while on a dangerous and illegal mission to spread Christianity and wrestled with converting to Buddhism in order to survive.
“I was interested in this film because of where I was at in my own life with questions and thoughts about God, faith, science all the rest,” Neeson tells Guideposts.org. But, “I have to convince myself first,” he says.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader
Neeson kept mentioning other actors that Scorsese might want to cast instead of him. Javier Bardem made that list.
“I meant it,” Neeson says of his suggestions for the role. “It wasn’t a false modesty thing, you know? I had to get over that first, ‘Am I enough?’”
To find the answer, Neeson dug deep into his past. In 1986, he’d also played a Spanish Jesuit missionary in the British drama, The Mission, alongside Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro—a film that not only helped him on his faith journey, but also solidified that acting was a career worth pursuing.
During filming, a then-33-year-old Neeson met Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit poet, priest and activist who served as an adviser for the film.
“I’ll never forget the Mass that we shared in a hotel room sitting around a table,” Neeson recalls. “[Father Dan], Bob De Niro, Jeremy Irons and myself just reading the Gospel, reading the lessons of the day. The consecration of the bread, it made religion of the Catholic faith for me really, really alive.”
Because the Jesuit priests felt such a sense of duty and destiny, Neeson started thinking about his own. While he was being well-paid for his role in the film, the “gofer” workers on set were being paid next to nothing.
“I was conflicted,” Neeson admits. “Here I was hitting marks, saying lines, getting paid money for it. Whenever we had a day off, we’d get paid. The gofers that were working, carrying coffee urns up the sides of hills were getting [much less]. [That] really messed with my head.”
The experience was almost enough to turn him off of acting, but it was faith and Father Dan that brought him back.
“Father Dan in passing one day was talking about St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and he did some with me and Irons and Bob too,” Neeson explains. “He said, ‘Did you know that [Konstantin] Stanislavski, who was the first modern theorist of acting, who put this Bible of acting together, he based that book [off] Ignatius’s spiritual exercises?’ And a light bulb went off in my head. It was like, ‘I’m supposed to be here in the middle of the jungle to hear this.’ And it really changed something in me. I became very proud of the profession I’d chosen.”
That memory and the opportunity to bring a story to life that could help others think deeply about faith solidified Neeson’s decision to join the cast of Silence, playing Father Ferreira.
Though Neeson’s stakes as an actor weren’t nearly as high as Ferreira’s life-or-death decision to either convert to Buddhism or die, Neeson’s questioning “am I enough?” allowed him to bring the necessary vulnerability to the role of a man struggling with God’s will for his life.
The role had such an impact on Neeson’s faith, that even after the film wrapped, he found himself reading more and digging deeper into books that would help understand how the brain processes faith and religion. The film also gave him a greater appreciation of the faith he was taught as a child. His mother, a devout Catholic, never misses Mass.
“It’s quite profound,” Neeson says of that level of devotion. “I’m quite envious of it.”
Ultimately, his experience filming Silence has raised even more questions for the actor, something he thinks is a good thing when it comes to faith. Though he accepts that he doesn’t “have any answers,” he continues to search.
“I don’t believe you can really have deep faith without deep doubt. It goes hand in glove. I’m convinced of that now.”
“But …” he says smiling, “I still believe in a God.”