Belfast News Letter - May 8, 2001

 

 

DISHY SAM'S GOT SPACE ASPIRATIONS

 

Based on a true story, the Dish tells of how a tiny Australian town called Parkes was responsible for Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon being broadcast to the world.

The town, in New South Wales, had a satellite station which ensured the first television pictures of the ground-breaking Apollo XI Mission went out live.

Neill, who plays the pipe-smoking boss of the station, says the role brought back golden memories of that historic era.

"It was a wonderful period," he smiles. "I really don't think we live in such heroic times now as we did then. It's such an unlikely thing to do, to put a man on the moon, for no good reason.

"They didn't bring any particular knowledge back that they didn't have already. But what a wild and crazy thing to do," he adds excitedly.

The 53-year old star, who was a student at the time of the momentous event, says he would be first in the queue to buy a ticket to the moon.

"I'd love to go. I think it would be a completely brilliant thing to do. But I'm not entirely sure what I'd do when I got there," he says. "I've always been fascinated by space travel.

The mission that electrified me was Apollo 8. They were the first people to see the other side of the moon, that was absolutely fantastic. But I guess it's Apollo 11 that really got it. "

The film, which opens this week, not only allowed Neill to indulge some of his space fantasies, it also provided a welcome chance to film down under. Although he's a big star in Hollywood and highly regarded in Britain - so much so he was awarded the OBE for services to acting - he remains fiercely loyal to his New Zealand home.

"I always say I'm a New Zealander," he says. "Although my kids have been born in a different parts of the world but they are all New Zealanders too."

In fact, the actor was born Nigel John Dermot Neill in Omagh in Northern Ireland where his father, an Army officer, was serving with the Irish Guards. The family moved to New Zealand in 1955 when Neill was a schoolboy. He believes being uprooted to the other side of the globe as a child marked the beginning of his acting ambitions.

"I arrived in New Zealand as a sensitive little English boy who stuttered and had a very plummy voice," he recalls. "I was rather nervous and went to a school where there was no room for people like that. I saw how you had to learn to cover up and present an acceptable exterior in order not to have your head kicked in," he adds with a laugh.

Despite his shyness, his career flourished with a diversity of films from arthouse through to Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Hunt for Red October and Jurassic Park. But of all his roles the one he is most proud of is the New Zealand Oscar-winning drama, The Piano.

"That film was an enormous cultural milestone for New Zealand," he states. The star now leads a blissful existence in New Zealand with his wife, Japanese make -up artist Noriko Watanabe. The pair on the set of the thriller Dead Calm and he recalls the moment he first laid eyes on her.

"I remember I opened the door and there she was. I thought she was the most marvellous thing I'd ever seen in my life. I fell in love with her on that day and I continue to be enthralled with her in exactly the same way," he says with a warm smile.

The couple share their home with Neill's teenage son Tim, from his relationship with actress Lisa Harrow, as well as their own daughter Elena and Noriko's 16 -year old daughter Mariko.

"I have a lot of fun with my kids," says Neill, "They're good people to hang out with."

He is a reluctant celebrity, preferring to tend the crops at his New Zealand vineyard than be part of the Hollywood scene. But he was lured away to star in one of the year's most anticipated blockbusters, Jurassic Park III.

The movie once again sees Neill taking on the might of the dinosaurs with the help of his glamorous assistant played by Laura Dern.

Although the pair appeared in the first movie they were absent for the second, The Lost World Jurassic Park.

"My character wasn't in the book in the second one," explains Neill. "Then they wrote him in for the third one and I thought it sounded like fun. It's all new, the only characters that come back are Laura Dern, myself and the T-Rex."

After Jurassic Park there are plenty more projects in the pipeline for the prolific star, but there's one role he's happy to have passed by even though it's one of the most sought after in the movie world.

"My agent fancied James Bond for me but it wasn't something I fancied," he shrugs.

"Having said that I'd love to play a villain in a Bond movie," he adds with a grin. "That is one of my unfulfilled ambitions."

The Dish opens in UK cinemas on May 11.

 

BYLINE: Eileen Condon

 

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