Elle (Australian Edition) - September 1993

 

 


FOR ART'S SAKE

 

SAM NEILL HAS HIT DIZZYING HEIGHTS IN HOLLYWOOD. ON THE SET OF HIS LATEST LOCAL FILM, SIRENS, HE CLIMBS DOWN TO TALK TO ANDREW L. URBAN.

A light drizzle is falling through the mist in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, covering the late painter Norman Lindsay's old stone home in gentle mystery. The naked women scattered throughout the gardens glisten with the rain, their stone breasts pointing eagerly toward the low clouds.

A small film crew is fussing inside while the lone figure of Sam Neill crosses the lawn in front of the house, on the way to the make-up caravan a hundred metres away behind the trees. He is in the fawn linen suit and white shirt he will wear for the next scene, a dinner at Lindsay's table, in the upcoming John Duigan film, Sirens.

Neill is playing Lindsay, the iconoclast, the provocative painter who shocked a morally straitlaced Australian establishment in the Twenties and Thirties with his libido-pleasing pictures of nudes in varying compositions, configurations and contexts.

Halfway across the lawn, Neill stoops down to the wet grass, trying carefully to lift a small butterfly in his cupped hands, its wings laden with moisture. He follows the flapping thing but fails to liberate it, and eventually walks on in quiet resignation.

This is the same Sam Neill who tells me an hour later that in his work he has become quite "firm" these days - "I don't take any shit from anybody."

After 15 years - 22 films and a dozen television series - he feels he's earned a certain amount of professional respect. The remark comes in the context of a discussion about acting in general. "Actors are craven people," he says in a slow, deliberate, almost hesitant manner, perhaps a result of thinking carefully about what he says. "They demand applause, beg for approval and need stroking - particularly by directors, and some directors tend to forget that."

Physically, Neill is smaller than you expect; and there is an air of neatness about him, or is it control? He is at once friendly yet private, his intelligence showing in the thoughtful interview mode.

Now arguably at the peak of his career, or at least one peak of it, Neill looks relaxed, clear-eyed - steel blue - and happy. His work is as varied as any actor could want - and as visible. He was in New Zealand late last year filming The Piano for Jane Campion, the film which shared the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year.

"I think it is the most arresting film made in these parts for years," he says with enthusiasm. "It's real cinema... a triangular love story... it's about men and women and all the beautiful bits and slimy bits that happen between them," Neill explains with a faint smile.

Full of admiration for Campion, Neill says, "she shoots everything contrary to the way you expect. And, invariably, better." Filming The Piano, he says, was "bloody hard, but I enjoyed it immensely".

Not long before that, Neill was in Hollywood, making Jurassic Park, his latest big-budget film, for Steven Spielberg, with costars Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern and Richard Attenborough.

"I play a palaentologist, Alan Grant... he's an average sort of guy, which is harder ... the straighter the part, the harder it is. The easiest characters to play are baddies."

A year or so earlier, he made two films in Australia, as different as silk and soil. For German wunderkind director Wim Wenders, Sam Neill played a character called Eugene, a sad lover chasing his unfaithful girlfriend around the globe, in Until The End Of The World, co-starring with Max van Sydow, John Hurt and Jeanne Moreau.

In that same year, 1990, he costarred with John Clarice in John Ruane's black, low-budget comedy, Death In Brunswick, shot in Melbourne. He did that one for a pittance, simply because he loved the script, which gave him a crack at comedy, something rare for Neill.

Even this short cross-section of his career demonstrates Neill's versatility and the ease with which he fits into movies vastly different in scope.

For all his busy schedule and versatility, though, it is only now, through the maximum profile of Jurassic Park, the film that could produce the mother of all box office takings and the mother of all global merchandising campaigns, that Sam Neill is a major name in Hollywood.

But there never was, and still isn't, a career plan. "I never charted a career course. I just sort of bumbled about," he confides, "from one job to the next, and I got a lot of satisfaction from it all, partly, I think, because I turn down a lot of things I'd find boring but my agent would consider lucrative and career enhancing."

Screen violence, a hot topic in Hollywood and elsewhere, has never appealed to Neill.  In Jurassic Park, the violence is of a new kind: dinosaurs munching on people. Or maybe that is not so new. Godzilla did some damage in his day. In any case, it is not the sort of violence that unstable people could copy. Not easily, anyway.

"But there is a moment of violence in The Piano, for instance, miniscule by Hollywood standards, which is so shocking all the same, I feel physically ill after it. But it's contextual.those big-action films inure you to the grotesqueness of physical violence," says Neill.

 

 

Brought up in Dunedin, New Zealand, Sam Neill felt drawn to acting form the start. "I remember clearly as a child, recognizing the impetus to act, but it never occurred to me to be an actor. There were no role models of New Zealand actors who had made big names for themselves on the screen, and it was always film acting that appealed to me."

He was directing documentaries in the Seventies, when Roger Donaldson offered him the lead role in Sleeping Dogs, the first feature film to be made in New Zealand for some 15 years. "It wasn't great and I was worse, but it led to everything else," he says ruefully.

These days, Neill feels he can be less critical of his work: "There isn't an actor alive who doesn't have a sense of insecurity-I don't object to that. But while I've never done anything to perfection, my work now has more texture. It's richer, and I seriously think I'm getting better."

At work, Neill exudes a calm confidence, and Sirens producer Sue Milliken remarks on his capacity for stillness, an element directors seek in all great actors. In the dinner scene, he sits at the head of the table surrounded by ex-model Mark Gerber as the darkly handsome, enigmatic horseman, Devlin; a triumvirate of models turned actresses: Elle Macpherson, Kate Fischer and Portia De Rossi, who play Lindsay's buxom models; Pamela Rabe who plays his wife Rose; and two of England's acclaimed young actors, Hugh Grant and Tara Fitzgerald, who play a young English minister and his wife, sent by the Bishop of Sydney to try and persuade Lindsay to withdraw his painting, Crucified Venus, from an exhibition.

The painting shows a voluptuous nude, crucified; it manages to enrage the establishment, both on sensual and Christian grounds.

Neill has only one line in the scene, but his presence is the focal point; something in his body language - or lack of it, that stillness - draws attention to the character.

The film is not based on a factual incident and, if anything, Lindsay himself is portrayed in very broad strokes, as Neill points out.

"I'm trying to be true to him in spirit," he says, "and it's a bit larger than life rather like Lindsay, who considered himself something of an Olympian, up here in the mountains."

Lindsay was seen as an eccentric by some people, "but only those lesser, mediocre lot who confuse individuality for eccentricity. It is curious how homogenised we get as a society," he adds reflectively.

"The film presents a strong argument and addresses some philosophical issues. It's about a lot of things but among them is the battle between sesuality and denial, religion versus agnosticism, prejudice versus open-mindedness."

Both writer/director John Duigan and Neill are keen - and well-informed - art collectors. Neill favours the contemporary Australian landscapes: "I like landscapes themselves, and how they are reinterpreted. I'm fond of Arthur Boyd, early Nolan and the New Zealand painter, Colin McCahan, who is "one of the greatest painters of this century," he declares with obvious conviction.

But where to hang them? Neill still has a house in New Zealand, which he occasionally visits. But his base is in Los Angeles, where he has rented a house in Beverly Hills: "It would be too radical a step to buy one. . . "

He lives and often travels with his wife, Noriko, and three young children. Culturally, he feels "Antipodean; New Zealand is too limiting. I think of myself as a Pacific Rim dweller."

We sit in director's chairs on a timber verandah. The drizzle continues, as Neill talks about acting and religion, prompted by the themes that run through Sirens.

"I always act better at night... until midnight or so. I think most performance is better in the dark. It goes way back, like story-telling by the fire, to the primitive. Acting is as old as culture itself. It's a primal thing. And this is where it is linked in a way to religion," he muses.

"I'm not religious at all, but if I were, I would be a Quaker. They took all the performance out of it. No costumes, no slogans, no performance with the audience responding . . . I'm very suspicious of performance used for anything but entertainment. That's why I distrust evangelists the most."

 

 

 

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