As debate continues to rage over Liam Neeson’s racially-charged remarks, many in Hollywood are wondering anxiously what the fallout might mean for his upcoming films and the future of his career. Some observers even think the interview could permanently damage his career.
After he shared this week that, decades ago, a close friend revealed she was raped by a man of color and he considered committing violence against black men in revenge, Neeson attempted a quick rebound before the opening of his Lionsgate film “Cold Pursuit.” The explanation of his remarks weren’t enough to neutralize the impact, many felt, and social media users and industry players continued to call him a racist after he explained that he would have had the same reaction if his friend had said her rapist was a white man.
“You are no hero for your admission. You are a representative of racial terror,” wrote New York Times columnist Charles Blow.
Director Ava DuVernay tweeted that Neeson’s comments were textbook white privilege, saying, “When people ask me what white privilege is. Imagine if this was Will Smith.”
Although Neeson clarified his remarks on “Good Morning America” after they were published on the U.K. site the Independent, Lionsgate canceled the red carpet premiere of “Cold Pursuit” for fear of perpetuating the ugliness of the story, individuals familiar with the event told Variety. That caution may extend to Neeson’s goodwill in the business and with consumers moving forward, industry insiders said.
“It’s a perfect storm of circumstances,” said Evan Nierman, founder of the New York-based crisis management firm Red Banyan. “It’s indicative of a couple of things, like the degree to which race continues to be a lightning-rod issue in our country, accusations of racism directed toward the president and directly on the heels of race-oriented scandals among lawmakers in Virginia. [Neeson] really put his foot in his mouth at a particularly bad time.”
One top manager who handles sports and acting talent, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Neeson “is kind of done right now. There were so many different opportunities to handle this in a better way. It’s been a carousel of thoughtlessness.”
Another agent who works in film and endorsements said a break is in order, “He will work again without question. He needs to disappear for a while.”
Several projects remain on the line, including the high-profile Sony Pictures summer release “Men in Black: International.” A group of film fans called for Neeson’s removal from the film, as was done with another Sony release, “All the Money in the World,” which reshot the entire role filmed by actor Kevin Spacey following accusations of sexual assault against him.
Conversations have not been had about Neeson’s role in the “Men in Black” sequel, nor about his presence in subsequent marketing material for the July release, starring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, said an individual close to the project. Neeson’s role rates above a cameo, said the insider of the script, as one of the foreign bureau chiefs for the fictional intergalactic police force in the film. A role of his size would not factor significantly in the promotion, the source added. Neeson has enjoyed a pop cultural renaissance since launching the “Taken” franchise, becoming an unlikely action hero well into his sixties.
Neeson has two other undated feature films in the can: the ensemble romance “Normal People” with Lesley Manville, and a star vehicle in “Honest Thief,” from “Ozark” creator Mark Williams.
“Normal People” was picked up for U.S. distribution by Bleecker Street, though an insider familiar with the company said the film has not yet been delivered or dated. Williams did not respond to requests for comment on the “Honest Thief’s” release plans.
“He can have critics online, but anyone who looks at facts, chronology, and the context of what he said — there’s no reason to hold this against him long term,” Nierman concluded.
Representatives for Neeson did not respond to Variety‘s requests for comment.
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