Esquire - February 1992

 

 


Sam Neill

The face is familiar

Despite success with movies such as A Cry in the Dark and The Hunt for Red October, Sam Neill remains something of an unknown. But his latest film will take him centre stage

By Greg Williams

 

IT ALL SEEMED to be going quite well. But suddenly Sam Neill swivels towards me and, arching his eyebrows, says earnestly, "If you find this film remotely funny you are definitely one sick fuck."

Did I say the wrong thing? I panic and go for broke. What about the scene...

"It's an obscene scene, and you should be consulting a doctor, or certainly some sort of specialist, if you find it funny."

I did find it funny. I found it very funny. Had I got it all wrong? Had I got Sam Neill wrong?

AS HE STRIDES to greet me across the marble floor of the hotel lobby, Sam Neill looks famous. Around six feet tall he has an athlete's poise and the countenance of a continental grand prix driver. His brown hair is etched with Antipodean gold. I suspect that he hasn't been awake for long. He smiles without opening his mouth - a long, cheeky movement of the face - and shakes my hand with tanned fingers while introducing me to his wife. There is one blemish, however. Hiding on Neill's neck, a tiny nest of dried blood testifies to a hurried shave.

There is no getting away from it. Sam Neill looks like other people. Lots of them. He looks like Robert Redford, he looks like John Humphries and David McCallum. During his latest project, Death in Brunswick, one of the characters compares Neill's looks to those of Sting.

"In the book from which the film is taken, it's David Bowie," he says. "But I thought this was a bit of a stretch, so the closest we could come to it was Sting. I'd like to think that this was possible." The suggestion in his tone of voice is that it's not.

As we sit and talk in the hotel lobby, Neill errs on the side of the unassuming. He's like this continuously, out of habit. Maybe it's just his way of dodging the irrefutable: there are people out there that he might be mistaken for.

I ask him if he knows that he looks like Jeffrey Archer.

"How cruel!" he laughs. I ask him if he remembers the exact moment of realization, the primal moment.

"I've suppressed the moment of the discovery fairly firmly."

It can't have been easy.

 

 

AS WE START to discuss Death in Brunswick, Neill is still wrapped in sleep. It's as if the crisp winter day has somehow prompted an energy-saving system to override all else. It's a Monday and over the weekend he has been parenting. Visiting London means spending time with his son, Timothy, who lives with Neill's former partner, Lisa Harrow.

Neill was recommended the script for Death in Brunswick by his agent, Bill Shanahan. "He died..." Neill pauses for thought. "This has been a terrible year. An extraordinary year. Too many things have happened this year: my father died, my agent died - he died of AIDS - wars and revolutions... I dunno, it's been one of those years... too bloody vivid to be true." He speaks slowly, pausing regularly as if to sigh. But no sound comes from his mouth. Sam Neill appears at times a little wistful, but the occasional silences that punctuate his conversation are merely the by-products of rumination.

Death in Brunswick is the blackest of comedies and a departure for Neill as it's the first comic role he's taken on. He plays a thirtysomething chef and loser, Carl, who takes a job at a nightclub to satisfy his disapproving mother. There he falls in love with the Greek barmaid, Sophie, who is engaged to the club owner, and they begin an affair. This is all greatly complicated when Carl accidentally murders the kitchen hand. So begins a roller-coaster ride of false accusation and complication.

Pitched somewhere between the deep irony of Mike Leigh and the murky, offbeat irreverence of Michael Lehmann's Heathers, Death in Brunswick is a hilarious and enjoyable debut from director John Ruane which will polarize audiences because of its uncompromisingly wicked comic vision. If ever there was laughter in the dark this is it.

Neill talks about the character of Carl with extreme fondness, with a familiarity that suggests Carl is someone he knows, maybe someone he's been. "Carl's the closest I've got to playing myself really... a muddling fool, you know, the hapless innocent that he is."

Also released this Spring is Until the End of the World, the latest epic from the German director, Wim Wenders. Set in 1999, it's the story of a woman's global pursuit of a man she falls in love with. In turn the couple are followed by an assortment of characters, including the girl's lover, Eugene, played by Neill.

"To me, it's two movies. It's a love story - the amour fou of pursuing a man around the world - and it's also this sci-fi thing that happens in the bowels of central Australia. The thing I think that Wim does best is something that pervades the film. It's a sort of sense of loss or grief. It permeates a lot of different things. It was a strange time for me. Wim's father had died of cancer not long before that. My father got cancer as we were making that film. He subsequently recovered, but then had a relapse and died. And I'm not sure if I'm confusing those things with the film itself, but I have the feeling..." His voice trails off and he takes a sip of water.

 

 

SAM NEILL WAS BORN in September 1947, in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, where his father, a New Zealander, was a colonel in the British army. Together with his English mother, the family returned to New Zealand when he was eight. His real name is Nigel; Sam is a family nickname (this may be the luckiest break of his life). "I had quite a happy childhood. I spent a lot of time at boarding school and left with a lifelong dislike for exercise, which we were forced to do a lot of. I started acting at school because it was one of the few things I could do with any confidence.

I went to university, got a degree in philosophy. After that I joined a documentary film company, trained as an editor and then moved into writing and directing. From there, I drifted back into acting.

Neill's first movie in the UK was the third part of the Omen trilogy, The Final Conflict, in which he played the Antichrist, Damien Thorn, now grown up and the head of a globally powerful corporation. As he deftly swallows his oysters at lunch, I ask him the most stupid question of his life.

"Sam, tell me how you researched the part of the Antichrist."

Neill fixes me one of his Damien Thorn looks, done almost entirely by freezing the eyes. It's a face that threatens, a visage of intent, pray to coarse and ugly impulses.

"It's hard to research, because there aren't a lot of them around... When I read the script I thought, 'What a lonely job', because you can't go around telling anyone what you do for a living. It's much easier to be the Messiah because your job is to go round telling everyone. But if you're the Antichrist you've got to keep pretty quiet about it."

The Final Conflict was followed by television work here, in Australia and the US. Following his performances as Sidney Reilly in Reilly: Ace of Spies and Kane in the TV adaption of Kane and Abel, Neill became the subject of much tabloid delirium: HOW THEY TURNED SHY SAM INTO A SEXY SUPERSPY, KANE & VERY ABLE, etc.

Roles in Fred Schepisi's Plenty and Ken Cameron's The Good Wife were followed by starring roles in Dead Calm and the Oscar-winning A Cry in the Dark.

THE DAY WE talk is a good one for the southern hemisphere, coming shortly after the Australian rugby team have notched up a deserved victory against England. "When sides come to New Zealand, I tend to support them because they're invariably the underdogs," says Neill. "My friends regard this as turpitude in the extreme."

Then suddenly he changes tone, as if using a TV channel zapper. "But the one side I will never support are the Springboks. It looks like we're going to have to play them again." Pause. "If you have to play them. If you have to play them, at least cream them."

I ask him which words he would chose to describe the New Zealand character.

"Phlegmatic is how I would describe it. Stolid is another. Decent is a good one. The slightly Calvinist thing with which we were founded does have some kind of residual effect."

 

 

FOR NO APPARENT reason Neill starts to talk about the actor Ian Charleson, who died of AIDS in 1990. "He was a lovely man. I knew him a little bit. They put this book out... twelve or fourteen people had written little bits about him. He was a very good film actor, but he never really... got the work that he wanted. And I keep wondering why. He was a very, very affecting guy... I like what he did on film. I like actors who can do different things, things that I can't do."

Neill becomes more blithe, more animated. "He could dance... I saw him in something and he did a bit of soft shoe and he could sing, the son of a bitch!"

I ask him what has made him think of Charleson and the deferential, the self-effacing, Sam Neill steps forward again.

"I was thinking that I was lucky. And I was thinking about bad luck. And I was thinking that it was the most terrible thing of all... unfair things, I was reading this book and thinking, 'I've got this interview tomorrow.' How can one possibly account for one's life... I don't know. What is there to say about it?"

In demand for work here, in Australia and the United States, Neill lives a frenetic life. This year alone he has made four movies, most recently Memoirs of an Invisible Man, a comedy with Chevy Chase, and No Place to Hide, a contemporary spy thriller set in Buenos Aries directed by GBHs Robin Young.

"I got on well with Robin Young and he came up to me afterwards and said..." He catches himself, reticence being the alarm bell which indicates that he's aware he could say something immodest. "'It's been such a pleasure working with you.' I thought, well, of course you want to do good work and produce good stuff. Life's too bloody short to go through it having miserable experiences on film and being shitty to people because you think it's going to make the work better. This is the temptation in America. A great number of American actors feel that it's important to behave badly because they feel that's what 'stars' do... I think that's shameful."

"Are you a 'star', Sam?"

"Not remotely. I see myself as a... as a... as a... serviceable actor. I don't think I'm bad."

Significantly, Neill thinks that there's room for improvement. None of his projects stand out as favourites, except for Dead Calm on which he met his wife, the make-up artist Noriko Watambe, with whom he has a one-year-old daughter (Neill videoed the birth). He is "constantly dissatisfied" with his work. "Could do better. Can try harder... Next term maybe," he says tapping his cigarette in the ash tray.

"I think that every actor has a monitor, a little five per cent of themselves which means that, even in the worst of circumstances, they are still observing themselves. That same monitor is working when you're playing a scene and feeding on your own experiences to fuel what you're doing. When my father died this year..." He pauses. "... This was an enormous experience that I haven't quite come to terms with yet. When he died I found myself having to leave the house, and this tremendous grief surged out of me, these terrible sounds were coming out of me. I was absolutely distraught and bereft. But the terrible thing was that there was this little monitor saying, 'My God! Where is this coming from?' It's a slightly suspect thing about an actor."

AS WE LEAVE the restaurant we shake hands and I thank Neill. He slips across the road to the idling chauffeur-driven limo that the film company has hired for the day. It trumpets the airtight, vacuum-packed world of celebrity from the chrome of the bumper to the leather of the interior. It's so blatant, so ostentatious, so film star. And so unlike Sam Neill.

 

 

 

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