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
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
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
"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
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.