7 Days (The Sunday Mail) - November 17, 2002



The more horrible I am the more fun I have.

Sam loves being Zhivago's evil rival in 8.5m TV remake

By John Millar

Sam Neill - 7 Days

SAM NEILL, chuckles as he says that he is having what he calls a "bad rash".

But the Jurassic Park star won't be reaching for the calamine lotion - he just means he's had a series of roles in which he's been cast as utterly loathsome characters.

He's soon to be seen as a crooked cop in Australian movie Dirty Deeds and then in Perfect Strangers he's a weirdo who kidnaps a woman he meets in a pub.

But evil roles are water off a duck's back to the man who shot to fame playing the devil himself as the adult Damien in The Final Conflict, the last part of The Omen trilogy.

And next Sunday he'll be seen as yet another baddie, playing despicable lawyer Victor Komarovsky in Zhivago, ITV's 8.5million remake of the 1965 Oscar-winning movie, Dr Zhivago, which starred Julie Christie and Omar Sharif.

In this three-part TV epic, which stars 19-year-old Keira Knightley and Scots newcomer Hans Matheson, 27, as the doomed lovers Lara and Zhivago.

Komarovsky was originally played by Rod Steiger in David Lean's story of doomed love spanning the Bolshevik Revolution.

The film won five Oscars despite lasting a bum-numbing three hours.

Sam, 54, had no hang-ups about playing the rotten Russian who seduces and corrupts the teenage Lara, having already bedded her mother.

Normally, he tries to find something to like about his characters, no matter how wicked they appear. This time, though, Komarovsky had him beaten.

"It's hard to put your finger on any redeeming qualities," he said "Komarovsky clearly has a very unhealthy relationship with Lara.

"He becomes utterly obsessed by this girl. It's not good for him - and it's much worse for her."

But Sam admits that it's fun to play a villain, even when he's as thoroughly hateful as Komarovsky. "The more horrible, the more fun they are to do," he said, laughing.

The real Sam Neill, who lives with his make-up artist wife Noriko Watanabe and their family at their homes in Beverly Hills, Sydney and New Zealand, is a quiet-spoken, unassuming man who blushes when I point out he's something of a sex symbol.

''I hope I am a gentle person," he said "It would be hard to sleep at night if I thought that I had anything in common with Victor."

Sam has been a fan of Dr Zhivago since he first read Boris Pasternak's novel as a student.

"It's one of the great books of the 20th century,' he said. ''It's an extraordinary story set against some of the greatest events of recent times."

He also adored the David Lean film but isn't at all concerned about the TV version being compared unfavourably with the big-screen classic.

"If we were making another movie, that would be something else," he said. "But television is different.

"In addition, people of my age probably have Julie Christie indelibly stamped on their central lobes.

"And it's probably fair to say that there are a great many people who have never seen the movie because it's more than 30 years old. So there is a whole new audience.

"There is a lot more of the story that has never been told and it's one of those books that lends itself terribly well to television."

The actor also reveals that he first thought the time was right to return to the story of Dr Zhivago and create a TV version 12 years ago.

He said: "It was after the Iron Curtain blew to pieces and it seemed to me that there were great opportunities to have a look at all these great Russian novels - and the first one that came to mind was Dr Zhivago."

He got in touch with a producer and pitched his idea but nothing happened and the plan fizzled out.

But when the makers of Zhivago came along, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

He said: "I thought, 'it's not just me, let's do this.'''

Sam was very impressed with his two young co-stars in Zhivago.

He said: ''It's the first time I have done something where the two leading characters are young enough to be my grandchildren, but I am not fazed by that. I am very fond of both of them. Keira and Hans are both great. We got on really well."

Of the sex scenes that he and Keira had to act out, he added: "That could have been potentially awkward if she wasn't a mature, sensible and humorous person. It's really been a pleasure to work with her."

The role of Lara also led to embarrassment for teenage star Keira - but it had nothing to do with the sex scenes.

Her dad was so proud of her that he'd hum the famous Zhivago theme every time she came into the room.

The haunting Lara's Theme brought the balalaika to the masses. The role is the latest stage of a soaring success story for Keira, whose mum is Scots writer Sharman Macdonald.

Since starring in the hit movie Bend It Like Beckham, she has been in big demand and she's set to star with Johnny Depp in The Pirates Of The Caribbean.

One of her biggest challenges in Zhivago was playing Lara as she ages from a teenager to her 30s.

"That was quite a stretch for me and I was quite petrified but so excited," she said "But I stopped watching the David Lean movie because I was falling into the trap of doing Julie Christie instead of playing Lara."

The stars recreated the sweeping, dramatic world of Zhivago in Prague which has become something of a home from home for Stomoway-bom Hans Matheson, 27, who plays the title role.

"In the last five years, I have spent a year filming different roles in Prague, which I have enjoyed very much," he said. And he hopes that viewers won't make unfair comparisons between the TV series and the David Lean movie.

"I would say this version is more daring emotionally," said Hans. "Films have moved on since Lean's version. There is something more real about this production."

After Prague, filming moved to Slovakia for the snow-filled scenes that are so vital to create the atmosphere of Dr Zhivago.

The winter chills were certainly a far cry from Sam's native New Zealand, where he has his own vineyard and wine business.

He said: "The wine we produce is Pinot Noir. Initially I just planned to grow wine for the family and to give away to friends and have plenty to lavish on myself. But it turned out to be much better wine than expected and we now produce about 1000 cases a year and hope to increase it to 3000."

Interestingly, wine buff Sam was once in line to play Martini-swigging secret agent James Bond.

He said: ''My agent fancied it for me at the time but it wasn't something I wanted

"Having said that, I'd love to play a villain in a Bond movie - that is one of my unfulfilled ambitions."

So who knows, maybe Sam Neill's "bad rash" of baddies is set to continue.


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