When I was approached by my editor about receiving fight scene training from Liam Neeson’s body double, I immediately thought of the movie star’s character from Taken, Bryan Mills. As a writer, I don’t have too much in common with a former special agent on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter. But, just as Mills tells the captors in the film’s most quotable line, what I do have is “no money” and “a very particular set of skills” suited for the task ahead of me.
I nonchalantly agreed to the fight scene assignment, doing my best to keep my cool. But beneath the surface excitement was brewing. Little did my editor or the accompanying video team know that I’m a dyed-in-the wool Neeson fan—we call ourselves Neese Nuts—and I would never pass up an opportunity to get closer to my idol and nurture the dormant Neeson spirit that lives inside all of us, just waiting to be set free.
With a career spanning decades and including everything from Oscar-nominated performances to charming romantic leads to a starring role in a film from the biggest franchise in the world, Neeson had already secured a seat in the pantheon of greats by middle age. Bored at the top of the mountain and seeking a new challenge, he decided to mix things up and become an action star in his mid-fifties, his inaugural venture into this unfamiliar archetype in 2009’s Taken. As we all know, the film was a smash hit, netting over nine times its $25 million budget in global box office sales and launching Neeson into a lucrative new chapter of his silver screen story.
I already knew that, towering at 6’4’’, Neeson had literal shoes I’d be unable to fill, but as I poured through his action oeuvre in preparation for my day of stunts, I began to worry about my ability to fill his figurative footwear as well. Though I stay fairly fit and, at 31, am less than half my hero’s age, I nonetheless wondered if I’d be able to meet the grueling physical demands that this three-time Golden Globe nominee deals with every day on set.
My shepherd into the world of geriatric action was Mark Vanselow, a stunt coordinator who’s worked with Neeson on 16 projects, becoming his go-to double in the process. I met up with Vanselow at his California training facility, where a team of stunt professionals were warming up to pretend kick my ass.
It was immediately clear why Vanselow had found such success as Neeson’s double. Despite lacking Neeson’s accent and trademark eye twinkle, Vanselow is nearly a carbon copy of the Irish actor. As we geared up for the interview segment of our encounter, I tried my best to calm my nerves and remember I wasn’t in the presence of the real Liam.
I asked Vanselow some softball questions about his background and industry but those were really just the vegetables I had to eat to get to the meaty questions I wanted to ask about what Liam’s like. Vanselow, to his credit, was a good sport and indulged my not-so-stealthy fanboying. I think I only once crossed the line when I asked if, in the unlikely scenario that he outlived Liam, he’d be performing the eulogy at his funeral.
Once we’d both shaken off the awkwardness of the silence that followed that question, Vanselow and I made our way to the matted floor in the center of the building to begin my training in earnest. After some warm up exercises that, concerningly, left me already kinda winded, we got down to brass tacks.
As you might have guessed, faking or fake taking punches and kicks is a much more complicated process than the on-screen results might have you believe. Keeping a safe buffer of air between your attack and target is paramount and mistakes can result in some grievous injuries. When a few of my punches landed on my sparring partners harder than I’d anticipated, my empathy instinctively kicked into high gear and I scrambled to help up my vanquished foes, apologizing profusely while they laughed and assured me they were fine.
Furthermore, eye contact is an essential element of fight choreography. With a stunt person’s eyes acting as directional indicators and green lights for subsequent moves on top of serving their usual visual input functions, it’s no wonder that breaking this ocular bond with a partner can derail an entire sequence. While prolonged eye contact might come easy for Alphas like Liam and Mark, it took a handful of attempts for a Beta like me to pick up the habit.
The basics explained, Vanselow steered me over to the main event, a cluster of mats and cardboard boxes constructed into a mock train car, an homage to The Commuter, Neeson’s most recent action romp, the release of which was serving as the impetus for the day’s activities. This imaginary coach seater would be the set where I would assume a Neeson-esque role and battle my way through a gang of baddies to save a kidnapped damsel at the back of the car.
Slowly, but surely, we worked our way through the various beats of the fight, adjusting for my incompetence and left-handedness along the way. With the help of my patient instructors and a cast of partners selling each of my love taps as if they’d been hit by the Hulk, the scene gradually began to come together as something resembling an honest-to-goodness movie brawl.
With the sequence finally fully choreographed, we began to do full run-throughs on film, each take ending with me sweatily embracing a rescued character who was meant to be either my daughter or love interest. This perspiration also prevented me from donning the cable-knit sweater—a Neeson wardrobe staple—I’d brought along in case I needed help getting further into character.
But it turns out I didn’t need that extra push. With every new run-through my performance and moves felt tighter. Before long, I was getting cheers, praise, and backslaps from the team after every “cut.”
This must be what Liam feels like every single day, I thought, basking in the fleeting limelight.
After enough slow-mo’s, close ups, and Dutch angles of my battles, Vanselow called a wrap on the project. At that point, it was up to VICE’s video editors to carry me across the goal line into my new life of action stardom.
As I caught my breath and began ordering a meal delivery that would recharge my depleted energy and more than recoup the afternoon’s burned calories, I felt a newfound sense of respect for both Liam and the entire stunt community.
Half of the magic in my (and most other) action scenes is camera trickery and he other is people like Mark and the Action Horizons crew doing everything in their power to make the action star look like a badass. I thought I’d be transitioning from loser to Liam but, in the company of these bona fide action stars, I ended up feeling more like a coddled contest winner.
Fortunately, my self-deprecation abated when I saw the final cut of my fight scene. Everyone’s work had paid off. The inner Liam that I knew was trapped inside me all along had finally come out to kick some ass.
Soaring high from the video, I got to thinking. Maybe, with enough time and training, I could even deliver a stunt performance that would catch the eye of Liam himself. I knew I had a tough, long road ahead, but I drew inspiration in the words of Neeson’s A-Team character, John “Hannibal” Smith.
"Give me a minute, I'm good. I've got an hour, I'm great. You give me six months, I'm unbeatable."
Guess I’ll see you in January, Qui-Gon.
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