Elle - March 1990

 

 


THE SUM OF SAM

FINDING THE ROLE OF INTERVIEWEE HIS TOUGHEST YET, SAM NEILL CROSSES THE FLOOR AND LENDS HELEN GREENWOOD A HAND IN THE WRITING OF HIS OWN STORY. THE MAN BEHIND THE SCREEN PERSONA IS THUS REVEALED.

 

Sam Neill was unhappy, not with the interview but with his own responses, and insisted that we meet again. Instead, some notes he'd written about himself while on a flight back from Los Angeles arrived a week later. They were observations he felt might fill out the story.

"Notes from 35,000 feet, QF102.

"Okay, I admit it, I was boring. So boring I could feel my eyes glaze over with the tedium of listening to myself. Restaurant was fine, food excellent, but Helen seemed ... well, comatose may be overstating it, but you get my drift. No such thing as a free lunch these days, and in these interview things, the deal is you have to be interesting in return for a decent feed. So, in penance, high above the Pacific, it occurs maybe I could write something interesting?

"Mmm ... Tough trying to be interesting.

"Someone once said the difference between a good actor and a bad one was eight hours sleep. Hey - that's interesting, wish I'd said that myself. Pithy, witty and half true. Most actors I know are a bit like me, more boring than you'd think. (Amazing how much is written about them.) Me, I like to go home, sleep. A few friends, bit of a family. What more could you want?

"Yeah, it's hard to be interesting. And in a magazine...?

There is certainly no big ego here. Sam Neill is constantly on the look out to quash any sign of that. His perspective is one of analytical and restrained scepticism, tinged with a naive, little boy's curiosity. Self-deprecating, slow to smile but with a sense of humour even he describes as obscure, Sam Neill is a hard man to get to know.

He has been in Los Angeles, recording voice-overs for his most recent film, The Hunt for Red October, due out here in April. He found time there to meet up with his old friend, Bryan Brown, who was cutting his latest project, Confidence, and they got drunk together.

It's hard to imagine Sam drunk (he'd probably take umbrage at this). But it's not hard to imagine the camaraderie between two such different men. Before he met up with him in LA, says Sam jokingly, Bryan was one of the people he thought he'd like to be; now, he says just as jokingly, he's not so sure.

"There are actually quite a lot of people I'd like to be. I preface this by saying that I'm quite happy being myself, really.

"John Clarke is the most amusing man I know. And he is also the person I admire most in the world. John is the sort of person I would like to be. He's got a bloody good brain, he's very perceptive, and he's completely independent of everybody and everything, apart from his immediate family. He doesn't work for anybody, he doesn't owe anybody anything; he's his own man. And he is a Renaissance man. He performs, he acts, there's nothing he can't do - but, above all, he is funny.

"Bryan is another person whom I admire; he just manages his life so well. He's certain of what he wants and where he wants to go. And so focused. I've never traditionally had a very well-managed life. Apart from my agent, who has been one of the most important people in my life."

Sam Neill's life, as he has said before, has never been a planned one; things have taken a course and he has decided whether or not to follow them. Life brought him from Northern Ireland to the small New Zealand town of Dunedin at the age of seven. It then took him to boarding school in Christchurch and university where he acted in plays, but when he left university it was to pursue a career as a director of documentaries for New Zealand's National Film Unit.

"It's not that I didn't want to be an actor, it was that no one had ever thought to tell me it was possible. No-one actually thought to say to me - though it was stupid of me not to work it out for myself - 'Look, this is actually the only thing you're going to be able to do and make it half way decent so you might as well do that'.

"I was 29 when I started acting seriously. Until then, even though I was doing some acting, I was still working for the National Film Unit doing documentaries, which was fine, and I was reasonably confident and did some films that were okay, but I wasn't an innovator of the documentary form."

In the mid-Seventies, Sam returned to acting and appeared in three features, one of which caught the eye of Gillian Armstrong and Margaret Fink who were casting for the male lead of My Brilliant Career. The rest is movie history.

 

               

 

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 that. "

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. Multicultural Australia 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 and large.

"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.

"Japan 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 charm?

"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."

 

      

 

Back on the plane, high above the ocean, Sam Neill is articulating a lot more. His reflections on an interview continue:

"More notes from 35,000 feet, QF102.

"Helen said she wanted to get to the real Sam Neill. It's possible the unreal Sam Neill was having lunch that day.

"The real Sam Neill? Tough one to answer. It occurred to me I could make a LIST. Surrounded as we are by a virtual industry of LISTS ("Best of the Eighties", etc - mostly fraudulent, and anyway, who wants to remember the bloody Eighties), I thought maybe a list of some things I like at the moment, and some things I don't, might give an insight or two into me. Might interest me, anyway.

Here goes:

RECOMMENDED

BOOKS

The two best novels I read last year were Beloved by Toni Morrison and Perfume by Patrick Suskind. Perfume is very bizarre and disturbing. I liked Robert Drewe's Bay of Contented Men, his short story collection I launched in November.

MERYL STREEP

Not just because she says nice things about me. I heard Jack Nicholson quoted as saying, 'there's Brando, there's Streep.. .and then there's all the rest of us.' Not bad.

GIORGIO ARMANI, YOHJI YAMAMOTO

A jacket by either costs more than a second-hand Holden, but will look better in five years time. Buy on sale.

K D LANG

Incredible performer. Country and Western music at its best without the silly hair. Gave the best concert I saw in 1989. I see a lot of music and am a hopelessly addicted record buyer. The two best albums I've heard lately are Lou Rawls' At Last and Eric Clapton's Journeyman.

GREENPEACE

I like Greenpeace. I see no point in being polite about survival.

WORK

I do like to work, if only because it makes going home such a pleasure. But what luck to be doing the work I do. Even if at times it can get pretty boring and repetitive like anything else, it has to be more fun than most jobs.

BEING MARRIED

To the right woman.

JEFFREY BERNARD

The funniest writer in The Spectator. I read The Spectator every week and disagree with almost everything in it. Ditto to The Guardian Weekly.

ARTHUR BOYD

With Sidney Nolan, he is still the best painter from Australia, and my favourite. Colin McCahon was New Zealand's equivalent, and perhaps the only true visionary from this part of the world.

LISTENING TO BRAZILIAN MUSIC

In a German car, on a Japanese stereo, on an American freeway. More than simple, irresponsible pleasure, but emblematic of the world we live in. The consumer end anyway.

NOT RECOMMENDED:

CHILDREN

To be avoided. While my own, and most of my friends' children, are perfectly charming, this in no way disproves this rule. Children are by and large poisonous; the smaller, the more odious. Good thing for mankind we are programmed to love these dictatorial and demanding bundles. American kids are the worst, avoid having one of them if you can.

NEW AGE MUSIC

Strikes me as premature.

That's about it. To be perfectly honest, I find other people and things of a great deal more interest than myself. But it would be interesting to be interesting, wouldn't it? To have people say after you leave the room, 'What an interesting person!'"

AUTHOR'S NOTE: To be honest Sam, I don't think you have a problem.

 

 

 

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