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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.