Liam Neeson Doesn't Think Very Highly Of His Schindler's List Performance

Some would say "Schindler's List" is Liam Neeson's best movie. It's not a knock against any of Neeson's other movies; it's just to say that "Schindler's List" is one of the 20th century's greatest films, and it's rather hard to top that. On the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time, only seven titles ranked ahead of "Schindler's List." And only one of them, "Raging Bull," was made after 1978 — the year Neeson made his feature-film debut in another literary adaptation, "Pilgrim's Progress."

Directed by Steven Spielberg, "Schindler's List" was based on the book "Schindler's Ark" by Thomas Keneally, and it earned Neeson his only Academy Award nomination to date for his role as Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved 1,200 Jewish lives during the Holocaust by putting them to work in his factories. Neeson was further nominated for a BAFTA and Golden Globe Award, but despite the accolades, he is not a fan of his performance in "Schindler's List." In an interview on the Irish talk show "The Late Late Show," Neeson told host Ryan Tubridy:

"I think it's a wonderful film, I think Steven has done a really extraordinary film. I'm not happy with my performance at all. Because I don't see any of me in it. Just me, Liam Neeson, you know? Steven directed me very, very, very, very minutely. There were times — like there's a shot there of me with a cigarette ... I was a smoker at the time, he'd be telling me when to smoke. He'd be telling me when to breathe. I remember saying, 'I can't handle this. I'm not a puppet,' you know? Anyway there's a lot of scenes so when I see it I'm aware of Steven directing me on exactly how to hold the cigarette, and when to breathe, and when to look here and when to look there. So I'm not happy with my performance, even though I think the film is masterful."

Neeson and Spielberg almost reunited on Lincoln

Although Liam Neeson acknowledges the greatness of "Schindler's List," it seems the actual experience of watching it is too closely intertwined with memories of his director micromanaging aspects of his performance. Maybe part of the reason Stephen Spielberg was so hands-on with "Schindler's List" is that it was such a deeply personal project for him as a Jewish filmmaker tackling the Holocaust.

At one point, Neeson and Spielberg were set to reunite on Spielberg's presidential biopic "Lincoln." Neeson was cast in the film as far back as 2005 and remained attached to it for years while it was in development. However, at a script reading for the film circa 2009, Neeson told GQ he had a "thunderbolt moment" when he realized he was no longer right for the part of the 16th U.S. president. He attributed it partly to grief over the recent death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, and the role eventually went to his "Gangs of New York" and "The Bounty" costar Daniel Day-Lewis.

Neeson has been critical of some of his other performances. In our own 2022 interview with him, he talked about how he thinks he was "miscast" in Steve McQueen's "Widows," even though he regards it as an "excellent film." It may just be that it's hard for Neeson to watch his own acting and be objective about it. Whatever the case, "Schindler's List" represents an earlier phase in his career where he was still known primarily for his dramatic work. From the late 2000s onward, Neeson would build on the success of "Taken" and ramp up the number of action films he was making, to the point where moviegoers may now associate him more with those kinds of films than even "Schindler's List."