Sam's recent movie history is about to appear on Australian
screens. He spent last May in Paris,
acting in the $40-million, six-hour officially-sanctioned epic The French Revolution. Sam donned wig
and culottes to play the Marquis de Lafayette, the aristocratic democrat famous
for his white horse and the rare distinction of defending royalty while
befriending the people.
"He also brought a number of ideas back home from the
States, including being nice to your wife, and he actually believed in family
life which was something unheard of in aristocratic circles," Sam says.
"It was interesting doing that film because I was
forced to read again about the revolution - I hadn't read or thought about it
for 20 years. The whole revolution was really an embittering experience. There
have been around 100 film projects made on or about the revolution but this was
the biggest of them all and officially sanctioned. As a result, we had access
to all kinds of places. We shot at Versailles,
which you're never allowed to do and certainly not inside, and I went to see a
ball in the Hall of Mirrors which was fantastic."
Sam's co-players in this mammoth rendition of history are a
fascinating mix of European stage and film faces. They include Klaus Maria
Brandauer as Danton, Peter Ustinov, and Jane Seymour as Marie-Antoinette.
Sam shifts at this point into story-telling mode: "He's
an extraordinarily dynamic personality, Brandauer: charismatic and with an
amazing energy. You know, as far back as when he was doing Out of Africa, and while he was doing The French Revolution, he has played Hamlet in the National Theatre
in Vienna every Saturday night. So
wherever he is in the world, he flies back on Friday night - imagine what it's
like flying from Nairobi to Rome
and then to Vienna, getting up and
playing Hamlet, getting back on the plane and flying back to Africa.
"He has also been cutting a film he's just directed.
He's always doing three or four things at a time. I'm much more linear than
Sam's next project also boasts an allstar cast, but this
time of Hollywood knowns. The Hunt for Red October stars Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, James
Earl Jones and Scott Glenn. Says Sam drily, "I spent the whole time in the
submarine. Up periscope, up periscope, up periscope. There was one woman but I
never saw her. It's a real boy's picture. Good director, a fellow called John
McTiernan who did Diehard I play a
Russian, Connery's 2-I-C. It's not a dumb Cold War movie. This Russian
submarine is defecting but it's not anti-Communist bullshit. It's more boy's
adventure, ripping yarn stuff.
"The only problem was that it was all boys. I
particularly like working with girls. I prefer it. There are more interesting
dynamics between men and women. I think men have more interesting relationships
with women; whether it's platonic or even sexual, it's much more interesting than
what's between men. Working with men, you feel like you're working alongside
them, as if you're going along parallel lines; working with women, you're
working opposite them and that's much more interesting.
"I very much like seeing things reversed though. I
thought Gorillas in the Mist was a
good picture, not a great picture, but what I loved about it was that Sigourney
Weaver was the dominant, central character and Bryan, my friend Bryan, comes in
as the love interest. He's got the sort of part that women usually have. They
look decorative - and Bryan looked
great with his shirt off - provide sex and comfort and then disappear once it
gets exciting. And with the greatest deference to Bryan,
he made that character; he made that part three-dimensional."
"I really do sympathise with men when they get those
parts because they are very thankless. I also really enjoy it when you can fill
out those parts that are underwritten."
It remains to be seen what Sam will make of his next role. A
more major departure from the lavish, mega-buck production with which he has
usually been associated could not be imagined than Death in Brunswick. Immediately identifiable by the place name in the
title as a Melbourne film, Death in Brunswick is low-budget, fringe
feature with a cast of unknowns and a first-time feature director. What is Sam
Neill doing in a film like this?
"It's a while since I've done anything that low-budget.
The character is, low-life is overstating it but he's not on the top of the
heap. He's probably taken a bit of speed in his time, but not at the moment.
Bit of a dubious past. It's a good story. It's sexy, too, but dangerous sexy.
He gets involved with a Greek girl and she's from a strict family - this is
dangerous - and he's cooking fish and chips and pizzas in this sleazy place.
But it's not a boy's film.
"It's changed from the book quite a bit; the book only
takes the story half-way. Boyd Oxlade [the author of the novel] has co-written
the script. And John Ruane is directing.
"I like what is coming out of Melbourne
now. There's a different sensibility down there and the films are more quirky,
funnier. I hated it when I first went there and did three months on The Sullivans for Crawfords. But Melbourne
is a much more interesting place than it used to be - in many ways, it's much
more interesting than Sydney.
"There is some sense of a cultural life there.
has really had an impression down there in a way it never has in Sydney.
The Italians, for instance, have had a huge effect on restaurants, clothes, and
Melbourne is a more stylish place
because of them. They haven't had that effect in Sydney.
"Another thing I like about Melbourne
is that there is a readiness to make a film just because it is a good story,
because it is funny and odd and peculiar, and it's not been done before. In the
end, I think that is the only reason I make a film."
The mention of television triggers a thought in Sam Neill; he
has the disturbing ability to concentrate so completely on his thoughts that he
often seems not to hear what is being said. At the ELLE photo session, he gazed
out the window and suddenly spoke about the sounds and sights of the massive
thunderstorms the previous night - with sound effects. Later, at the interview,
the television thought resurfaces.
"It's peculiar, isn't it, that Australian television
has become so dominant all over the world, yet it has never been in so much
trouble at home? All those soaps I don't even know what they are called anymore
- but they are just mega, to use an Eighties word.
"My son was over staying not so long ago and he and my
stepdaughter were outboasting each other over breakfast as kids do. My
stepdaughter said, 'My friend Emily, her father met Kylie Minogue and got
Kylie's signature' and Tim said, 'That's nothing. My cousin Paul knows Jason
Donovan.' This went on and on, so eventually I said 'Look kids, you tell your
cousin and you tell your friend that your Dad has worked with Meryl Streep.'
And they looked at me, completely blank, and Tim said, 'Who's Meryl Streep?' So
that's where the power is, in a soap packet."
Sam acquired a step-daughter and a new set of family
responsibilities last year when he married Noriko whom he had met on a film set
three years ago. He is understandably more sensitive than most about racism;
his first question about a recent American war film was how did they portray
the Vietnamese? "My wife is Japanese and I think that Asian women, particularly,
are treated very badly in films - they are portrayed as simpering hookers by
"Obviously, there are great cultural differences but
we've never seen them as barriers. I think barriers are extremely interesting.
I don't think, however, you can ever underestimate how different the Japanese
are from us culturally. But I don't think that is anything to fear. It's a
culture from which we can learn a tremendous amount - what's more, it's one we
have to learn from and we have to start learning pretty smartly.
looks very Westem, because they've adopted, tremendously successfully,
everything they thought was of any use to them from Western society, and done
it better than us. But these things are exterior to the core of the society,
which is Japanese. That has never really changed. It's curious that though they
were isolated for 300 years until the Americans opened it up in the 1870s, they
are such a dynamic and adaptable society."
Sam is currently gearing up for controversial German director
Wim Wender's film Till the End of the
World, being shot in Tokyo, Moscow, London and Australia, and starring
William Hurt. Sam plays a writer and computer whiz. "He's a saint."
More than that, Sam, in his usual discreet way, is reluctant to reveal.
We talked more; about the events in Eastern Europe; about
history - Sam majored in history at university - and people becoming forgetful
or staying ignorant of history; undervaluing education in our society; the
dismantling of the welfare state and the disadvantaged; the privatisation and
rationalisation of New Zealand; and his disappointment in the labour movement
both in Australia and New Zealand. His views are succinct and considered. At
times, he tends towards being overcautious but you sense the heart of a
left-leaning politico beating beneath the exterior of gentlemanly detachment.
And what about his persona? The cool, always proper,
slow-to-smile, blue-eyed melting effect that he has on women? Has he ever tried
to understand or analyse the phenomenon of screen charisma or of personal
"I think I've been a very fortunate man in lots of
ways. I've had a very stimulating life. I have many more good friends than I
deserve. Women have been by and large nicer to me than I have been to
them." Sam breaks off and says, with a laugh, "It is all sounding
portentous, like a summing up. I've worked in all sorts of marvellous places
and I've been damn lucky. It's not all luck but you can't do anything without a
certain amount of luck.
"If I thought that that was true [that women fall over
him] I couldn't live with myself, I would be an insufferable egotist, so I
don't believe that. What I do finally believe in is that I have some sort of
talent. I can cross the room without tripping over the furniture and I can memorise
my lines and usually get them out without a fluff.
"Was it James Mason who said there was only one thing
he ever learned about acting, and it was that if you walk through a door, you
should look at the door before you walk through it? And that's probably about
the only thing I've learned, too; the only thing I could articulate."