Cleo (New Zealand) - August 1979




This man is HOT!

A plum movie role brought this tall, dark and handsome New Zealander to Australia only 10 months ago. Now he is set firmly on the path to stardom.

Story, Liz Porter


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 smouldering.

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 Bogart-Bergman combination.

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 usable film.

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 words.

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 "mellow" things.

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 film industry.



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