MEETING SAM Neill in the muzak-filled foyer of his motel, I
was struck by how unassuming he looks in person. On screen he has the
traditional film idol's dark good looks - a lean face, good bone structure, an
intense blue-grey gaze under brooding eyebrows. He projects the sort of male
sexuality that a film fan magazine might call "smouldering", so much
so that I was feeling quite daunted at the prospect of having to interview him.
It was still quite early on one of those bleak grey afternoons that Melbourne
does so well, and I wasn't feeling up to facing anything even remotely
It was quite a relief to find him so determinedly normal,
but perhaps at the same time there was just a small tinge of disappointment. I
had arrived burdened with plenty of preconceptions, having heard him and Judy
Davis described as a possible Australian equivalent of the romantic
Trying not to be too obvious, I scrutinised him carefully,
searching for discrepancies between his rather glamorous image on screen and
the reality of the good looking but seemingly shy man facing me in the blandly
furnished motel room. Yes, the blue-grey eyes were still there, along with the
bone structure. Objectively, he looks just the same as he does on film. . . but
somehow there's a difference. It's the excitement generated by screen presence
- impossible to define but instantly apprehended.
We talk about it, and Sam recalls his own feelings of
surprise on seeing film actors in real life. "People always seem so much
bigger on the screen. They look huge, but really they're very much
smaller." Sam himself looks as tall as he does on film - unlike the Hollywood
film star who had to film his love scenes standing on a box.
So far nobody has ever recognised Sam from the stage or a
film. Back in New Zealand,
for example, he played the lead in Sleeping Dogs, which was a considerable box
office success. Yet not once did anybody approach him in the street and ask
"Aren't you the man in . . . ?"
It may very well be different in Australia
in a few months, after the respective releases of The Journalist (in which Sam
appears with Jack Thompson and Elizabeth Alexander) and My Brilliant Career,
and especially when he starts appearing as the New Zealander Ben Dawson
in the top-rating TV series The Sullivans. But somehow I suspect that even if
his name becomes a household word Sam will still be wandering around completely
unnoticed. He certainly has no desire to be recognised.
For a start Sam just doesn't act like the sort of person who
has any kind of expectations of people looking at him. Everything about his
appearance is low-key. His dress is conservatively casual, while he speaks
quietly and slowly, with very little gesturing.
When he does gesture it is really to show you something,
rather than to show himself off. Talking about how he feels like a different
sort of person when he puts on a certain costume, he mentions how much time he
spent in an evening suit during the filming of My Brilliant Career. "It
really does something to you. . . it makes you feel important . . . "
Mid-sentence he leaps to his feet and conveys the idea of a stuffed-shirt in
mime. Or while waiting for a tram we get into a detailed discussion of
football, and he acts out foot and hand movements in an attempt to communicate the
mysteries of Rugby League to someone brought up on Australian Rules. For
someone who has spent so much of his life performing on stage or in films, Sam
seems determined to keep that side of himself that enjoys an audience firmly
confined to working hours.
He is adamant about the need to make a distinction between
acting and living, and doesn't like to spend too much time with the kind of
actors who perform constantly off-stage, although he admits to finding
extrovert people fun "for short bouts". Doing radio drama in Wellington,
Sam enjoyed the novelty of acting to a microphone, but found the tea-breaks a
kind of torture-by-witticism.
"Everybody was always still performing, cracking
oneliners; it was so gay and boring. I'd sit in the corner and glower. . . I felt
so hostile to the whole thing. A number of those people are my friends, but in
that environment they felt compelled to act like that."
Sam enjoys deeper, more thorough eccentricity, which often
has little to do with fashionably weird clothes or behaviour. He misses the
delightfully bizarre atmosphere of Ireland,
where he lived for the first eight years of his life, before returning with his
family to New Zealand.
Sam's distaste for surface theatricality and glamour is
shown in his preference for film over stage acting. There are few things less
"exciting" in a traditional sense than the long gruelling hours of
filmmaking, when eight or nine hours of filming may produce two minutes of
And the adrenalin that gives a stage performance that vital
spark is a hindrance in film acting. "Acting in films you consciously have
to avoid tension. The more relaxed you are, the better it is, as opposed to the
stage where the tension makes you go."
People who work in film are more to Sam's taste. "There's
no bullshit about them. . . not the theatrical stuff."
The way that he talks about his attitude to film suggests
that he somehow finds it a more sincere medium than the stage. Because the
camera comes so close there is no place for the exaggerations and larger than
life movements that are appropriate to the stage. "Film is totally
intimate; anything less than the real thing sticks out like a sore thumb.
"It's more to do with internalising than externalising. The nice thing
about it is that the lines are the least important thing; It's what's not being
said that counts."
In real life as well Sam values genuine closeness, while he
detests the false immediate intimacy that is often masqueraded as spontaneity
and closeness. He is critical of the instant friendship that is part of the
mood of Americans: he seems to have a basic mistrust for words that is
understandable in someone who has spent so many hours acting out other people's
emotions on the stage.
He is the very last person to spill out personal confessions
to a stranger. In fact it is clear that he prefers the more sincere silence of
someone who feels emotions but can't express them. Anything rather than false
He obviously identifies with the silent but sensitive
Australian male role of Harry Beecham that he plays in My Brilliant Career; his
sympathy for this type of man comes out as he describes the role played by his
friend John Hargreaves in the film Little Boy Lost.
"Jacko comes home to his wife; their little boy has
been missing for two days. The guy's distraught, he hasn't slept for two days
and he's exhausted. He's on the verge of tears and badly wants to say something
meaningful to his wife. But all he can say is 'Mum, it's a fair bastard.'
Obviously Sam is not all silence and self-effacing modesty;
nobody who has been acting since an appearance as St George at the age of five
could be. At primary school, for example, he remembers feelings of acute
frustration at being relegated to chorus roles in the school's annual Gilbert
and Sullivan production.
MOREOVER THERE appear to be various factors involved in
Sam's transition from stage to film, first as a director with NZ's National
Film Unit, where he spent six years, and then as a film actor. Sam certainly
found all the rampant egos in the theatre world off-putting, but an equally
important element was a natural dislike for being under anyone else's control.
"Most of the life that revolved around the theatre was
undesirable. It was a closed, cliquey, bitchy and introverted existence that
seemed to do funny things to people, and I couldn't bear the idea of sucking up
to directors for parts."
Similarly he left the experimental theatre group Amamus when
it started becoming like an encounter group with too much power vested in the
bloke that led the group."
Looking back on my notes from our first meeting I said to
Sam that he was sounding a little bit too perfect. . . a gentle understanding
man with all the "right" views on feminism, an actor who wasn't
interested in being a star and who only wanted to get on with the job, an
attractive man who seemed totally detached from the idea of himself as an
on-screen sex object. Not only didn't he kick his pet cat, but he professed
fondness for cats, dogs, and even children.
But at that point the only dreadful thing about him as far
as I could observe was the fact that he ordered brains for lunch, and confesses
to a love for the whole horrendous range of offal dishes.
Sam was appropriately horrified at the idea of being
portrayed as the Australian film industry's Mr Goody-Two-Shoes, and we
concentrated on unearthing the darker aspects of his personality.
Apologising for being over serious in the interview, he
cited the Melbourne autumn days in
his defence. Down in Melbourne to
film The Sullivans and knowing only a few people, he'd been spending a lot of
time walking around, kicking his way through the piles of autumn leaves in the
Botanical Gardens and thinking.
Hate seemed like a good place to start demolishing the
supremely rational and tolerant image that he had projected at our first
meeting. He's most definitely not keen on the right-wing New
Zealand government, while "disco
crap" and muzak headed the list as far as music was concerned. "I
really hate the way things get watered down. Disco music is just watered-down
rock 'n' roll."
He also loathes California-style raving about
"meaningful relationships," "consciousness" (raised or
otherwise) and "far-out", "heavy", "laid-back" or
Music that he likes has a very powerful effect on him,
especially when it's rock, jazz or the blues. But, in line with his penchant
for keeping himself in check, Sam feels a little uncomfortable with the way
that music can trigger off strong nostalgic responses. "It really works
and it usually involves feelings of regret like 'she was the only lady I really
loved' . . . and that stuff."
Initially he expresses amazement at the idea of film
audiences having any interest in the details of his private life, but on
thinking about it he admits to being a mine of information about the trivia of
rock stars' private lives.
With people, the qualities of affectation and showiness are
his pet hates, along with blatantly demonstrated wealth. And whenever he feels
the slightest symptoms of theatricality coming on in himself, he hurries down
to walk in Sydney's Double
Bay to reassure himself that things
could be worse, and "to feel real again". I suggest Melbourne's
Toorak Road as the local
antidote - a piece of information which he duly notes.
He pays a lot of attention to his physical surroundings,
delighting in the garish seaside resort architecture of St Kilda, swooping
joyfully on a shop window crammed with the most imaginative variety of kitsch
jewellery and souvenir monstrosities. Architecture has always been a passion
for him; it remains along with playing piano in a rock 'n' roll band, his
favourite alternative career fantasy.
But films seem to be keeping him too busy at the moment for
anything more than fantasies of other occupations. His role in Linda Blagg's
Portrait of a Diarist makes his third Australian film role since he left New
Zealand last October.
And although he describes himself as "just a new
boy" in the world of Australian films, it seems certain that Sam Neill
will be playing an important role in the continuing story of the Australian