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Packed into an elevator with a gaggle of reporters after a press conference and ushered into a room, everything moves so quickly that it takes on a sheen of normalcy. I take a second to look up after getting situated. Oh, I think calmly. I’m sitting next to Liam Neeson.
“Did Ferreira exist?” Neeson says, speaking softly and intentionally. “Yes, he was quite a famous Jesuit, and he was a huge embarrassment to the church when the news filtered back that he had apostatized.”
Liam Neeson was cast in Martin Scorsese’s passion project, Silence, in 2014. He plays Father Ferreira, the Jesuit priest and mentor that young priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) are searching for, who has apostatized (denied Christ to save his own life) after being tortured and gone missing. Upon hearing reports that he now lives like a Japanese man, the two priests travel to Japan to find him and end up witnessing and facing torture and persecution themselves.
Neeson found himself in the Japanese Christians’ shoes when filming torture scenes, including the gruesome anazuri, where victims are hung upside down above a pit while their own blood drips down.
“As I was hanging there – two minutes, whatever, very secure – it did cross my mind that we all have a breaking point. Ferreira apparently lasted five hours, according to my research. These extraordinary Japanese Christians, and some of the friars – they lasted days, days, and I did think maybe there was a side of Ferreira that just thought, ‘I can’t handle any more of this – I’ll kill my own mother, but just get me out of this horrible torture. I did it for two minutes! Five hours? Thirty days?”
I ask about Ferreira’s sacrifice of his own faith. “I think he has confronted a truth that was very, very hard for him to accept, but did accept it,” Neeson says. “Now, there’s another side where you could say, look, he was a coward. There were these people hung for days, you gave up after five hours? But still, for such a learned Jesuit and mentor to many hundreds of novitiates, I think he made a decision – leaving behind the pain he may have felt – and found a deeper faith through doubt and through apostatizing. I would like to think he died clutching some semblance of a crucifix.”
Neeson, as well as Scorsese, looked to the link between faith and doubt, in the film and in his personal life. “When I finished shooting, I found myself reaching for Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, various books like that - science journals, because science is finding out more and more about the human brain, what we can do, how it can trick us, how it has its own opioids... There's people can say yes, that's your faith. And then, I go home and I see my mother, who's 91 in a few months’ time - she's a simple, beautiful, hardworking working-class woman, and she's berating herself because she couldn't walk to mass on Sunday. And that really knocks me for six. So for me, it's a constant journey of doubt and belief and, I guess it will continue until the day I leave this earth. And I'm proud of that feeling, you know? It's genuine, and I don't have any ready answers, I don't think.” Even with the theories that science can explain away faith, Neeson says, “but, I still believe in a God.”
Neeson and the other two actors met with Jesuit James Martin as well as other priests to learn about the practice. One of the major concepts for Jesuits is visualization – putting yourself inside a scene in the Bible to better understand it.
“You’re at the foot of the cross: what do you see?” Neeson asks. “He’s there, Mary’s there, put yourself in that scene, or put yourself with the moneychangers in the Temple. It’s what we do as training for actors, you know.”
The link between faith and acting is one that has clung to Neeson since he was in his early thirties, and this isn’t his first time investigating the lives of the Jesuits (unlike Scorsese, who calls himself “a product of the old street priests”).
“I had done a movie for Roland Joffé called The Mission in 1985 and '86, and that really opened my mind to who they were – the Society of Jesus,” he says. “Father Daniel Barragan – God rest him – we became pals, and I’ll never forget the mass that we shared in a hotel room, sitting around a table – himself, Bob DeNiro, Jeremy Irons, myself – reading the gospel, reading the lessons of the day, talking about how important they were in today’s world, the consecration of the bread… it made religion, and the Catholic faith for me, really, really alive.”
“I felt kind of embarrassed about being an actor, because here I was, hitting the marks, saying the lines, getting paid money for it. The gofers that were working – carrying coffee, errands up the side of the hills – were getting three dollars a day.” But the process of making the film led him to a truer sense of worship in his craft.
“We were talking about Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, and Father Dan said to me, in passing, ‘Did you know that Stanislavsky (who is the first modern theorist of acting, who kind of put a bible of acting together) based his book on Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises?’” And a lightbulb 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 had chosen, and the luck I was having. It had a real profound effect on me.”