WHO'S AFRAID OF SAM NEILL?
After portraying Damien, the actor took a break from
bad-guy roles, but "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" puts him back on the side of
By ANTHONY C.
It's not easy being mean, but for actor Sam Neill, getting a
chance to explore his dark side on screen provides a delicious sort of satisfaction.
"Good guys get paid a lot of money to just stand around and be good,"
muses Neill. "Bad guys get paid less money but have a great time. It's
much more fun playing bad guys."
The New Zealand-born actor has a captivating presence.
Sitting on a Warner Bros. soundstage, he displays a commanding voice and casual
charm most recently put to use for heroic purposes in the Aussie thriller Dead Calm and Paramount's
hit submarine adventure The Hunt For Red
October. But with his latest role in John Carpenter's action-fantasy Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he gets to
wallow in villainy once again, the type of role he hasn't experienced since
playing Damien Thorn in 1981's third Omen film, The Final Conflict.
In Memoirs, based
on the H.F. Saint novel, Neill plays Colonel Jenkins, a determined CIA
operative in pursuit of Nick Halloway (Chevy Chase),
who's been rendered invisible by a freak accident. Though Jenkins sympathizes
with Halloway, he'll stop at nothing to bring him into CIA custody.
"He's a bright man who believes in his job and that the
gathering of intelligence is all that matters," explains Neill. "The
danger that is inherent with intelligence agencies is that in trying to
preserve freedom, they're often guilty of destroying freedom in the process. He
is one of those people who ignores the wider morality of his actions. He's a
shit. He certainly has no qualms about destroying Chevy's character if it comes
to that, but he'd much rather have him alive if he can. He's a complex man in
Much of the film's FX are being executed by Industrial Light
& Magic, utilizing the same techniques applied to Terminator 2 and The Abyss,
in which a computer digitally alters the images on screen. Neill offers that
working with this system wasn't as difficult as he expected. "It's not
like doing The Empire Strikes Back,
where you can't see anything and you're basically sitting in a chair and they
draw everything in later," he comments. "We can see what we have to
Neill does admit, however, that acting with someone who is
supposed to be invisible did prove to be something of a challenge. "I'm
used to looking someone in the eye when I talk to them," he elaborates,
"but there isn't an eye to look into or a body to look at most of the time
when I'm working with the invisible man."
marks John Carpenter's return to a major studio film, Neill notes that the
director's independent past makes him pleasing and efficient to work with.
"He knows exactly what he wants, when he wants it," the actor
praises. "I imagine that's because he did quite a lot of work earlier with
less than megabudgets, which meant he had to work with tremendous economy. He
still works very economically, and knows exactly where things will cut
Neill's eclectic motion picture career began shortly after
he gained his bachelor's degree in English from the University
of Canterbury in New
Zealand. He alternated between acting and
documentary films before his feature film debut in Roger Donaldson's 1977
political thriller Sleeping Dogs.
This was followed by the well-received period drama My Brilliant Career. "And I haven't stopped working since," he
Neill found himself in acting's darker corners a couple of
years later with two back-to-back horror efforts: The Final Conflict and Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. He admits, though, that he's only a casual fan of the
"I like these films when they are about true horror,
rather than a lot of blood and splatter and things which they seem to be about
now just find that to be horrible," he frowns. "I used to like the
old Hammer horror films, which were spooky and fun and thrilling."
The Final Conflict
marked Neill's American film debut, casting him as the White House-bound Damien
Thorn. Behaving in a devilish manner for the part was nothing compared to
putting on an American accent. Though he feels his voice has been homogenized
from working internationally over the years, he was nervous then as to whether
he could pull it off.
"It was a difficult film for me, because it was the first
time I played an American," he confirms. "It was the first time I had
worked on a big film overseas and, for that matter, the first time I had been
out of Australia/New Zealand.
"Now people tend to want to know if you're able to do
an American accent or not. I'm not sure I can do an average middle American
accent again. I'm very happy to do a Russian or Polish or Chilean accent if
necessary, but there are 250 million people who can do American accents better
Besides having to assimilate the American way, portraying
the angel of darkness was quite fun for Neill. "I felt sorry for
him," he reveals. "I kept thinking of that Mick Jagger song,
'Sympathy for the Devil.' I felt for him, because he must be the loneliest man
in the word-being the Antichrist and nobody knows, and you have this mission to
do horrible things to people and nobody is going to like you for it."
Despite the satisfaction of playing the epitome of evil,
Neill did have problems with the release version of The Final Conflict. For one, he felt the ending was weak and
ultimately didn't work because it never resolved the story. Secondly, his
affection for the first film made him realize how the third installment paled
"Things weren't done with as much panache as they were
in the first one," he opines. "The other problem was that there is
something more basically frightening about a child who is evil than a grown-up.
An adult who is evil is banal and everyday. We're surrounded by these people
all the time. But you don't see many evil 6-year-olds."
Oddly enough, some audience members felt differently,
resulting in a small deluge of strange fan mail shortly after the film's
release. "There were a few very odd, satanic kinds of things that unsettled me
for about five minutes," he recalls. "A couple of them thought I did the
role just the way the Antichrist should be."
Though his character in 1983's Possession didn't have the same apocalyptic intentions, Neill did
get trapped in Polish director Zulawski's feverish allegory of the
disintegration of a marriage. "The cinema there is a lot different from
the West's," says Neill of the director's home country. "They make a
lot of strange stuff, but it doesn't seem that strange to them."
ultimately a euphoric yet oftentimes muddled psychothriller, starring Isabelle
Adjani as a disgruntled wife who manifests a monster from her mind. Neill's
frustrated husband character becomes increasingly involved in the weird
goings-on, which leads to a violent climax.
"It's a pretty wild film that I'm actually rather fond
of," Neill admits. "You can read it a number of different ways, but
to me it seems to be about the breakdown of a marriage, and the strange things
that happen are really an extension of the wife's imagination. She's going
bats. These monsters are not real. People die-that's real, but the stranger
things are not.
"It's a genre film placed within a number of different
genres," he continues. "It also works on a sort of metaphysical and
allegorical level too. It's an intelligent movie, but I was horrified when I
saw it prepackaged on video in Australia
as a horror film. There's a terrible shot of me emerging from an elevator with
a dead body-I'm carrying this stiff that's absolutely covered in blood. It was
not really truthful advertising-there was more to the film than that."
may have gotten a misleading ad campaign, but when the movie hit American
theaters it was cut down from its original 127minute running time to 81
minutes, which could explain the U.S.
version's confusing storyline. Though Neill hasn't seen this edition, he
believes that it would probably be completely incomprehensible to viewers with
over a third of the film missing, and speculates the lost footage to be
dialogue scenes and some trimming of the more graphic horror moments.
"I'm sure it makes no sense at all," he remarks.
"It's outrageous when people start cutting other people's films. I mean,
you don't go around cutting up paintings. It may be a bad painting or a good
painting, but you don't go chopping bits out of it because it's too big or it's
kind of offensive to some people."
With the rest of the '80s pretty much filled with roles in
espionage adventures like Reilly: Ace of
Spies and Australian dramas such as A
Cry in the Dark, Neill didn't return to genre duty until 1989's taut
suspense thriller Dead Calm. In the
film, he and Nicole Kidman played a couple terrorized by an unstable nutcase
(Billy Zane) who is also sailing the unpredictable seas.
"It sort of became a hit on video," Neill affirms.
"It's interesting that so many people have seen Dead Calm, since the studio didn't really quite know what to do
with it. It really took word of mouth, and that came too late to make it a
success in the cinema."
Dead Calm actually
proved to be the most grueling film he's toiled on, as he spent most of the
film fending for his life in the bowels of a sinking ship. "It got pretty
claustrophobic a couple of times, breathing through a little pipe since there
was no way out of there," he remembers. In addition, lensing on the
production ran late and over budget, so to catch up, producer George Miller shot
2nd-unit work for most of Neill's isolated scenes.
"We got seriously behind on the film," he recalls.
"It's an axiom in this business that anything you shoot on or near water
is going to go over schedule. The weather would change and we'd have to switch
to another sequence, and then the sun would come out again and so on. It was
very, very hard. George had just finished Witches
of Eastwick and arrived on set, and it was clear that we were going to have
to do a lot of 2nd unit. The easiest way to do it was for George to do the
stuff on the boat with me."
According to Neill, there was much more footage shot of his
character's battle for survival on the sinking ship, including a subplot
involving a hungry shark, but the final version pared his dilemmas down
"You can see the vestiges of it in the film," he
hints. "The boat becomes a sort of horror vessel for me. In the original
cut. you wanted to cheer when I burnt the boat at the end. It was pretty
extreme stuff, and they decided it all didn't quite mesh into the tenor of the
rest of the film."
Even though Neill is exploring the genre once again with Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he doesn't
feel he's picking roles any differently than he has before. He claims that he
chooses projects he feels will be different, especially if the roles, as with Memoirs, tend toward the villainous.
"Whatever I'm doing I treat seriously, and try to have fun
at the same time." he concludes. "I don't limit myself to any area of the
cinema. I'm not a particular fan of any type. I just like good movies."