THE UNREELING OF SAM NEILL
He broke our feminist
hearts in 'My Brilliant Career.' Now he's back to break the mold as Hollywood's leading man
You have to sympathize with Sam Neill. It wasn't enough that
he had to hold his own against Meryl Streep in Plenty. Now he has to act with Tyrannosaurus rex. His latest film
is Jurassic Park, an adventure in science
directed by Steven Spielberg, in which Neill stars as a world famous
paleontologist. The key word is "stars."
Jurassic Park marks the first time Neill will
be certifiably stellar in a big-budget, truly commercial Hollywood
Among other things, this means that his earnest-scientist
character will turn up as a plastic doll, a marketing tie-in available on
toy-store shelves. At long last, his three children, whom Neill refers to often
and with obvious warmth, will be provided with their long-denied bragging
rights. "It's horrible to have a father that you say is an actor but has
never been in a film your friends have heard of," Neill says. "It comes as a
great relief to my kids that they finally have dinosaurs to talk about."
To the delight of his children, many of Neill's costars were
full-size, live-action dinosaurs. The Velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus rexes
were so eerily realistic cast "developed a dialogue with them between
shots," the actor says. "They didn't seem mechanical. We named them
all because they seemed to have personalities."
Neill's personality in the film is that of an utterly
self-contained man of science, who is caught up in a DNA cloning experiment
gone berserk. In some ways, we might not find it a huge departure from the
tightly wrapped gentlemen he's created before.
As Dr. Alan Grant-and in real life-Neill has perfect
carriage, glossy manners, and seems to choose his words carefully. Laura Dern,
who plays Neill's egghead colleague, regrets that moviegoers never get to see
Neill's loopier side. "I think people perceive him as very serious and
respond to him in that way," she says. "But actually Sam has the best
sense of humor. You know, very dry, and at times so cynical that you think, 'Is
he putting me down?' Then you get the gist of it, and it's hilarious."
(Neill's opinion of Dern is adoring in an armpunching way: "She's a funny
broad," he says. "We have a number of terms of abuse for each other,
that one being one of the milder.")
(where some of his films have been made) and New
Zealand (where the actor lives), Neill is
capable of inciting a full-fledged never hormonal bliss-out, but he has not yet
achieved that level of audience adoration in the United
States. Director Gillian Armstrong, who cast
Neill as the courtly Harry Beecham-opposite Judy Davis's headstrong heroine-in My Brilliant Career (1980), describes
him as "a wonderful, sexy, virile, handsome, intelligent man who has great
strength." But that's nothing compared to the tender feelings he inspires
in the antipodean female journalistic community, where one writer rhapsodized
about Neill's "tantalizing sensuality'- his "lazy smile, the eyes
that flicker and flirt, his sinewy body resting on the soft grey sofa."
Perhaps more Americans need to see him as Lazar, the World
War II undercover agent who has a fling with Meryl Streep's English freedom
fighter in Plenty (1985). Or as
Sidney Reilly, one of the shiftier members of the British Secret Service, in Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983), the PBS
12-parter. His performance won him a Golden Globe nomination in 1983 and an
award for Best Actor on British Television. "[Reilly] was a bad bastard, a
terrible seducer of women, and positively immoral," says Neill. "But
people like that kind of complexity."
For his role in Jurassic Park, Neill managed to transform his
hybridized New Zealand-English speech pattern into an "effectively
American accent," one which he won't perform upon request. "I could show
you," he explains, "but I'd be mortified," and his horror seems
His real name is Nigel Neill. "When I was nine, there
were three Nigels at my prep school," says Neill, who was born in Northern
Ireland and raised in New
Zealand. "So just to avoid confusion,
we gave each other names. 'Sam' isn't a name I would discourage. 'Nigel' sounds
to me like Little Lord Fauntleroy." It also seems too airy for a son
raised in the relative rigidity of a military household.
Neill's father, a career colonel in the British army, didn't
go so far as to make his family "line up for breakfast with our boots
cleaned," says the actor, "but he was very nontactile with his
children; when we went away to boarding school, he'd shake our hands. But one
of the great things about him was that he changed. He grew able to express
affection. Which is remarkable, really."
Neill's own career began as a documentary film director for
the New Zealand National Film Unit. His occupational switch occurred abruptly,
when director Gillian Armstrong spotted the part-time actor in director Roger
Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs, and found
her leading man for My Brilliant Career.
His co-star Judy Davis has complained that the film was
lacking in "intellectual content." Neill, sounding mildly rankled,
responds, "There's a slight element of ingrate there," because for
both actors the tiny film was a breakthrough.
Legendary actor James Mason was so impressed with Neill's
screen presence that he paid his plane fare to England
and lent him his show-biz connections. Through Mason, Neill landed the starring
role of Damien Thorn, the Antichrist, in The
Final Conflict (1981), the third and most dismal of The Omen series. "Not my greatest work," Neill concedes,
"but it took me to Europe and I stayed there for
Neill's finest moments so far have been in Fred Schepisi's A Cry in the Dark, a 1988 movie that
reunited him with his Plenty co-star
Meryl Streep. "Playing the lead opposite Meryl has its own daunting air
about it," says Neill. In the true story of Australian Michael
Chamberlain, a Seventh Day Adventist minister, and his wife, Lindy, whose
infant daughter vanishes, Neill communicated an astonishingly thorough understanding
of this father's helplessness and misery, and showed what humanity he could
bring to more sympathetic characters (before that, he had specialized in prigs,
stoics, and heartless louts).
It will be interesting to see what Neill comes up with in
director Jane Campion's latest film, which finished shooting in the New
Zealand bush this spring. The Piano is the story of a mirthless New
Zealand landowner who enters into an
arranged marriage with a willfully silent woman, played by Holly Hunter.
"My character is dour, single-minded, and repressed," says Neill.
"The fact that he falls in love causes him so much pain. When he becomes
vulnerable to her, it's like he loses his epidermis. Just the touch of the wind
or the water on him makes him feel like his nerve endings are exposed. It'll be
beautiful," he promises, "and very ugly, too."