Empire (Australian edition) - November 2001

 

 


Dinosaurs. Making wine, and a clear understanding of the difference between screwing and intimacy. So, SAM NEILL, the thinking man's Antichrist, do you want to talk about it?

WORDS CHRIS MURRAY
PORTRAIT BRADLEY PATRICK

 

Sam Neill is an enigma. The first thing you notice when meeting this fit 54 year-old veteran of over 50 feature films and numerous mini-series and TV appearances is that he's much taller and imposing than you'd expect. He's been the silent enforcer from the Southern Hemisphere for over 20 years since breaking the international barrier with a stand-out performance in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career. So much so that James Mason insisted the quiet-spoken thesp be cast as Damien Thorn in the third Omen chapter, The Final Conflict. Spending time in the UK thus introduced Neill into British homes with his regular spot on the small tube as Reilly: The Ace Of Spies. The Poms loved him so much, Neill was voted the best actor on British television. Today, proudly Kiwi and projecting the confident aura of a man who's just casually worked out the meaning of life rather than just appeared alongside CGI dinosaurs in Hollywood for Jurassic Park III, Neill greets Empire warmly. Settling himself in the dinosaur room of the Australian Museum, and after the publicist is out of earshot, he grins. "Jurassic III's gonna be a little too late for your next issue, isn't it?" Taking this as a green light to probe the mind of this accomplished actor, rather than merely play the publicity machine, it's obvious this rather mysterious elder-statesman of international repute (who normally dislikes the interviewing process) is ready for a candid chat.

Why accept the role in the third instalment of the Jurassic series, and not the second?

To be perfectly frank, I never rated myself in the first film. I kind of thought, Steven [Spielberg] does these films all the time, he'll show me the way on how to play this sort of character in this type of film, cos it's a real departure for me. But of course, inevitably, Steven had a lot of things to think about and nothing escapes him. I really felt I hadn't looked after the character enough. So when I was asked to do the third one, I thought, this is my chance to get it right and think about what it required to be an action hero. I did a bit of research and thought a bit about people like Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood and those sort of action actors that I like. It is a genre of acting that's not to be underestimated - how difficult it is, and how much effort is required.

You've done such diverse roles as a voice for The Simpsons to playing the Antichrist. What are your criteria for choosing roles?

Yeah, it is pretty diverse. There's a lot to be said for diversity. It would be a mistake to find yourself channelled into one kind of role, plus people would get sick of watching you do the same bloody thing all the time. The other thing is, it simply makes it more interesting for me to go to work. Just to think about a different way of going about things.

So you choose things simply for the reason of never having done it before?

Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. That's the actor's job, really. It's too easy to get lazy on film.

There were huge films that rocketed your career, yet there's one performance that really stood against the grain and that was in The Umbrella Woman with Rachel Ward.

Yeah, [laughing] that was Neville! Ooh that's a while ago, isn't it? What was I doing in that again? Oh yeah, he was ultimately a sad character. One of those big shaggers... who was desperately lonely - cos screwing is not the same thing as actually being intimate. That's all Neville knew, was screwing. Ultimately he was a sort of misogynist. I've known people like that who were great so-called "ladies' men" but actually there's something about them, that you know innately, in fact, they hate women. If I was to meet him, I know I'd despise him. But he was fun to play.

 

 

You've been lucky enough to work with actors ranging from Max von Sydow to Peter O'Toole, Robert Redford and James Mason. How do you handle the pressure of performing alongside such people?

There's part of me that was, is and will continue to be a fan. It's one of the hidden bonuses in what I do that not only do I get to meet and hang out with these people, but I actually play with them too - cos that's what you're really doing. Actors aren't called players for nothing.

Ever met any idols who have shattered your perceptions?

I've worked with hundreds, if not thousands of actors over the years. In all that time I've only worked with two people I have honestly grown to dislike, to my surprise with both of them. I think, by and large, actors are over-celebrated and underrated... both at the same time. We make too much fuss about actors and it's absurd this cult of celebrity that goes with acting. At the same time, actors aren't really supposed to have brains or opinions or personalities even. I've met and worked with so many actors who I've not only found very entertaining and likable, but are fully fledged human beings. Believe me, I do know how that sounds, but I genuinely like actors.

Can we ask who those two undesirables are?

No, no, I couldn't possibly tell you that [laughs], yet I will certainly never work with them again. But telling would be... ungentlemanly.

Was there ever a moment when you were in a film and the heavens parted, revealing this was your chosen field?

I don't think I've had a "road to Damascus" moment on film, I think, but probably the films I've done that give me the most pleasure are the odd little things you have to be a buff to have seen, I'd say. Death In Brunswick I'm very fond of. The Dish I like immensely and In The Mouth Of Madness.

What keeps your motor running when it's obvious you're the most unlikely person to be involved in this movie business" circus"?

I'm not terribly "circus" -involved, really. I put my head above the trenches when we need to promote a film like this, and I'm happy to do so cos I like Jurassic Park. Plus you also should, as a matter of moral obligation, support your work. So I do get out and do interviews. I'm not very comfortable with it, but it's a part of the patch. I'm not really seen "out on the town", so the circus aspects of showbiz I'm not really part of, I don't think.

Not to blow wind up your arse, but it seems the real" actors" of this world all have a similar approach.

The other reason is... some of them actually shouldn't. Robert De Niro, who I would say that most actors accept, is the best actor on celluloid today and has been pre-eminent for years. But he's hopeless in interviews. I saw him on Letterman once, and you just hoped that the stage would open up and swallow him and that would be it. Sometimes it's better people just don't, you know. Keep the mystique, mate. Also, TV things are the toughest, cos you're obliged to entertain, and actors aren't trained to do that. They're supposed to remember lines and follow scripts, not be a stand-up comic.

I've heard you're starting a production company?

Yeah. It's early days, and we haven't produced anything yet [laughs], but we'd like to think we're developing things.

It's such a trend now with actors at a younger age - it's surprising that it's taken you so long.

It has come late. That's in part because I'm becoming increasingly New Zealand orientated, I suppose, and I wanted to be able to generate more work there. Not just for myself but for others too. There's about three projects in the works. The first off the blocks is supposed to be a film by Gaylene Preston called Perfect Stranger. It's as New Zealand films tend to be, a rather dark and twisted love story.

What is it about New Zealand films and their illusion of "surprises behind the curtain"? [Laughing] They tend to have certain Gothic dimensions, don't they. It's curious, cos I don't think we're any darker in ourselves than anyone else particularly. It just seems to be the way they turn out. It may be one of those things that New Zealand cinema is going through, like Australian cinema goes through phases. Our next phase may be quirky comedies. The Dish is a great example of a film that couldn't be made anywhere else but here [Australia]. If these things are told truthfully, they can work on an international level. Although it disappointed me that The Dish didn't do well in the States. I think Warner Bros. threw it away, because every journalist I've spoken to in the States loved it. I hope it will have an afterlife on video and people will rediscover it. I really didn't need any persuasion to be on that project, and Rob [Sitch, director] was needlessly very persuasive. I'm very fond of what Working Dog produce.

So what's this Two Paddocks winery gig you're involved in all about?

Well, it's Pinot Noir. It's very good Pinot Noir from one of the world's premier Pinot areas, Central Otago, New Zealand. We're on our fifth vintage, and I'm as surprised as anyone as to how good it is.

What compelled you to do it in the first place?

Oh, I just thought it would be fun. I have a couple of friends who were making and growing wine and I like doing things with the land, yet I'm not personally interested in sheep. But wine, that's different. It's been completely fascinating and I've learnt a lot about all sorts of things, not least myself.

 

 

 

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