By Allison Adato
November 22, 2004 12:00 PM

Liam Neeson typically has great onscreen chemistry with costars like Julia Roberts (Michael Collins), Jessica Lange (Rob Roy) and real-life wife Natasha Richardson (Nell). But his latest love interest just doesn’t get what the others see in the guy. During their kissing scene, “he pretty much tried to stuff my head down his throat,” gripes Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Neeson’s assistant and sometime lover in Kinsey, a biopic of the 1940s sex researcher. Laura Linney, cast as Kinsey’s wife, had no complaints. And Sarsgaard adds that, smooching aside, “he’s easy to work with. Liam is not an actor who needs to curl up in the corner and rock himself into the scene.”

Audiences, however, may need time to adjust to seeing the 52-year-old Neeson—best known for playing heroic figures in Schindler’s List (which earned him an Oscar nod) and Star Wars: Episode I—play Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the nerdy but frank talking former zoologist who briefly towered over American culture when he published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 (see box). The film’s writer-director Bill Condon describes Kinsey as “a hectoring, lecturing, social misfit” who he worried could turn audiences off, until he got Neeson in the bow tie. His “commanding and very funny performance,” said the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “will place him at the head of the Best Actor Oscar pack.”

In preparation, Neeson masked his Irish brogue in flat midwestern tones and slimmed down his 6’4″ frame to look “more vulnerable.” Why was he so eager to play Kinsey? “I love pioneers. I love people who burn up their day with their quest for what they’re after… and Kinsey’s quest was really for us all to be tolerant and accepting of each other,” says Neeson, who was starring with Linney on Broadway in The Crucible when the script was first circulating. (They later joked that the sexually adventurous Kinseys are the puritan Proctors reincarnated.) “He was bisexual and suffered greatly, I think,” says Neeson of Kinsey. “He’d been brought up in a strict Methodist high school, where there was on mention of sex. He never wanted people to suffer the way he did.”

The son of a custodian and a school cook raised Catholic in Protestant Ballymena, Northern Ireland, the star could relate. “I grew up in the ’50s, and religion had a very tight, iron-gloved fist. There were terrible feelings of guilt and ignorance,” says Neeson, who once weighed the more macho career of boxing over acting. “I learned my facts of life on toilet walls with my schoolmates—crude drawings of figures engaged in sex.”

Though he appears perfectly comfortable discussing the mechanics of human sexuality onscreen, he wasn’t at all when sons Micheal, 9, and Daniel, 8, recently fired off some birds-and-bees queries. “I thought I’d be the pipe-smoking, roaring-fire, cardigan-wearing dad, and I became totally frozen,” he admits. “I looked at my wife with pleading eyes: ‘You go first!’ She went first.”

Though Neeson once said of marriage, “I never believed I could do it, ever,” he’s now a family guy who got Kinsey’s shoot moved to New York City from Toronto in order to stay close to home. Richardson, 41, is a serious cook and, says Neeson, “sitting down to eat in our house, talking about the day, is very important.” His wife is equally committed. “This business is rough,” she has said. “You get used to doing your own thing and not having to make the compromises you do as a couple.”

Since nearly losing his life in the 2000 motorcycle accident that broke his pelvis, Neeson says he hasn’t touched a bike since, “and I never will. You have one life to live and you have to look after yourself.” He now prefers to unwind by fly-fishing—salmon in Ireland are a particular obsession. But work has kept him ashore lately. He has shot three films since completing Kinsey: a drama for Michael Collins director Neil Jordan, a Batman sequel and Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, in Which he plays Orlando Bloom‘s father. Yes, the “father of” roles are upon him—he was Leonardo DiCaprio‘s dad in Gangs of New York—but Neeson seems prepared to make room for a younger generation. Hey, he even has a kind word or two for young Peter Sarsgaard: “He’s not bad. Needs to shave a bit more.”

Allison Adato. Sona Charaipotra, Briana Haas, Amy Longsdorf and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City and Sara Hammel in London