Wednesday, June 23, 2021

‘The Commuter’s’ Colin McFarlane on How the Action Thriller ‘Plays On Our Social Fears’ [EUR Exclusive]

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*65-year-old Liam Neeson has starred in everything from memorable dramas to superhero flicks, but it’s the action roles that we’ve come to associate most with the actor.

When it comes to his latest blockbuster “The Commuter,” his co-star Colin McFarlane (“Patient Zero,” “The Dark Knight,” “Torchwood”) tells EUR/Electronic Urban Report that Neeson is “Like a dancer — you give them a bit of choreography once and they get it. He’s like that with fight scenes.”

The fight-scene-heavy film centers on insurance salesman Michael (Neeson), who is on his daily commute home when it quickly becomes anything but routine. After being contacted by a mysterious stranger (Vera Farmiga), Michael is forced to uncover the identity of a hidden passenger on the train before the last stop. As he works against the clock to solve the puzzle, he realizes a deadly plan is unfolding, and he is unwittingly caught up in a criminal conspiracy that carries life and death stakes for everyone on the train.

McFarlane plays Sam the conductor, who the actor describes as “the captain of the ship.”

“This is his vessel,” he says, “so when this drama starts to unfold and Michael’s life is at risk and the passengers’ lives are at risk, it’s going to fall to me to try to do something because this is my responsibility. This is my ship, and because Michael is one of my favorite regulars, I have to try and help him.” 

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the film also stars Patrick WilsonJonathan BanksElizabeth McGovern, and Sam Neill. Critics say it’s familiar to Neeson and Collet-Serra’s previous film, “Non-Stop,” but praise Liam for repping “older men” with his thrilling performance.

“Liam said to me at the beginning of the process, during the read-through we sat next to each other and I was saying “Congratulations on becoming such a wonderful action hero at the age of 64.” He’s so good at it and what was incredible was we’d start the day at 5 in the morning and we’d finish at 7, 8 in the evening and most of us just want to go home and sleep. Liam was often then going on to do fight rehearsals…. at 64. And when I said to him, “How do you do that?” He said, “I kinda look forward to that at the end of the day. That’s one of the reasons I do this.”

Jaume Collet-Serra “is a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock and you can see it on the screen,” McFarlane states. “The way he plays with the suspense and the way he keeps you on the edge of your seat right to the end — ‘cause you don’t know quite what this is all about until you get to the last five minutes and that’s so clever,” he adds. 

“You’ve got this incredible proposition that then leads to this twisty-turny, edge of your seat suspenseful thriller that, for me as a big fan of action thrillers, this is one of the best action thrillers I’ve seen since one of my favorites, “Die Hard.” For me, it’s on that level of just… edge-of-year seat, twist and turns, but unlike “Die Hard,” has those key moments of humor that runs through it too. It’s brilliant.”

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What was it in the role of conductor Sam that made you think this would be a fun character to play around with?

Colin: That opening premise for me was the hook that made me go, “This could be really exciting.” I read the script and was completely hooked because I loved the whole premise behind it. I love the fact that it plays with your head and I think everybody watching this film will kinda put themselves in the situation that Liam Neeson has to put himself in. (He’s) given this proposition of,“Find this person before he gets to the end of the line. You don’t know what the consequences are going to be but if you find the person, you get $75,000. Would you do it?”

Let’s imagine you were given that same proposition in real life, would you do it?

Colin: Well, the thing is and what’s clever about the film is she doesn’t say what the consequences would be, that’s what’s clever. In fact, she starts off by saying, “This is a hypothetical question.” So that’s the hook that allows him to listen and get involved, and some of that to me, in the way that it’s said to Michael in the film, I’d listen but I probably, being more cautious, would insist on knowing what’s the consequences of this. Of course, she doesn’t leave it as clean as that, she kinda leaves him hanging and thinking about if she’s just being hypothetical or is this real and that involves him going to look in the bathroom on the train for something, to see if what she’s saying is real and it’s from that moment that he is then sucked into this criminal conspiracy and that’s what’s clever about it. If it was me in that situation that he’s in, I probably would do that same. You’d be curious and you’d probably go and take a look. And that’s why you end up rooting for him ‘cause you’d go, “I’d probably do the same thing.” And then, as you see, the next steps he takes, again, I think is what we’d do but it’s almost too late. He’s sucked in and almost against his will.

Do you feel this film plays on any social fears we may have?

Colin: That’s a very good point and I think that also ties into the line that he has to some of the characters, “What do you really know about somebody?” And that’s the thing that we all have if we’re commuting on the bus or the train. You look at someone and you go, “Is that the terrorist?” A good friend of mine, Mila, an Indian actress, who’s on the train and she’s one of the people who you’re thinking, “Is it her? Who is she?” Then you got an Eastern European guy, and again you’re thinking, “Is he some kind of terrorist?” I think that by having a diverse cast and having these very different looks and different backgrounds, there’s also a Spanish actress and I have a moment with her but again, you don’t know. At one point Liam’s character asks me to go and find out if a certain person has something in her bag, which plays right into what you’re saying. Is this going to be a bomb, but I don’t know as the conductor what I’m looking for. I just know that I trust Liam’s character because I’ve seen him on the train for ten years and he’s a lovely guy and if he’s asking me to do something I’m going to kinda go with it because I instinctively trust him.

I met somebody in London years ago who was involved with what we call 7/7 when the tube got blown up in London and she survived and she’s always said to me, “I still can remember the people sat in the carriage with me. But when the bomb happened, some of them didn’t make it.” The point is, I think we all are aware in this age of terrorism of kind of looking around us and kinda going, “Is this the day that something weird is going to happen to me?” or “Is this the day that the bomb is going to go off?” So I think the writers have played into that and that’s why we all find ourselves on the edge of our seat for this movie. 

You’re joining the “Outlander” season 4 cast in a key supporting role, and from what I’ve read about it so far, fans seems pretty excited about it. What can you tell us about your character?

Colin: I can’t say a lot but I can say that the character is called Ulysses and he has some of the traits of the Greek character Ulysses, in that he’s very loyal and trustworthy. There’s a very interesting backstory. His father was born free so Ulysses was born free. His mother wants to ensure that he remains free and doesn’t become a slave and does a deal with a carpenter to sell herself into slavery, gives him the money so that I can then be free. But that’s not quite what happens and that’s the backstory that we may dip in and out of, but where you find him in Outlander, he’s basically a loyal servant to Jocasta Cameron, who is Jamie’s aunt and she runs a plantation called River Run, which is in North Carolina. We’re shooting in Scotland, even though the whole season is based in America.

And then “Torchwood,” if it’s recommissioned, the character is in the books. This particular book is called “The Drums of Autumn,” so Ulysses is in the book and in further books. So if all goes well, it’s something I could be doing for a while, which would be great because I’m a fan of the show. He’s a wonderful character. It’s done at a time when the first settlers of Europe first come to America, kinda at the birth of America. Which makes it fascinating from a historical point of view. And of course, dealing with slavery as a black actor from today… and I think that’s clever about the series because our heroine has time travelled so she knows this is not the world we are now in 2018, but we are in that world back then so there are things that are clearly going to challenge what I don’t know because my character is from that time but she of course if from a different time. It’s a brilliant, complex character to play.

“Doctor Who” and it’s spinoff “Torchwood” are two of my favorite shows. How exciting that you have experienced both worlds!

Colin: I’m a big fan of “Doctor Who” too and I played the caption of a ship who then turns into a zombie. It was four and a half hours in the make up chair, every day for about 4 weeks, and then another hour and a half at the end of the day to get out of it. Peter Capaldi was my Doctor Who and he’s a wonderful actor and a lovely guy. So it again, it was like working with Liam Neeson — like working with one of your heroes. It’s just that bucket list where you go, “Wow… that’s another one ticked.” I always wanted to do “Doctor Who”… and James Bond. That’s the other one I’d love to do. Not to BE James Bond, but to be in a Bond movie. It’s one of those ambitions. Working with actors you love and admire, like Liam Neeson and Jonathan Banks on The Commuter… That’s what I became an actor for.

“The Commuter” opened in theaters January 12.

Ny MaGee
Ny MaGee is a screenwriter and freelance reporter from Chicago -- currently living in Los Angeles and covering A-list entertainment for various outlets, including Emmys.com. She has worked for: Miramax, MTV & VH1, The Jim Henson Company, Hallmark Channel, Paramount Pictures, and for iconic indie film producer Roger Corman.

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