THERE'S SOMETHING of the scientist about Sam Neill. Not
unlike his Jurassic Park co-star
Jeff Goldblum, where both played boffins, Neill carries a thoughtful demeanour
about him wherever he goes. Tall and tanned, he looks healthy for his 53 years,
when we meet in London's Sanderson
hotel. All that's missing is the pipe, a vice he has long since quit, and his
intellectual status would be secured.
"I'm sorry to say there are fewer and fewer pipesmokers
around," he says. "It's all about the detail: having the time to
consider things while you stuff the tobacco in the pipe. Take The Fast Show, when Ralph is in full
flight and Ted is mortified, Ted doesn't know what to do or where to look - and
that's the comedy really. If you've got a pipe, you've got something to look at
and nothing can phase you."
It's an implement he put to good use in his most recent
movie, smash Aussie comedy The Dish,
where his character Cliff Buxton, the man charged with the task of beaming
satellite pictures of Neil Armstrong's 1969 moon-walk world-wide, spent much of
the film sucking on one. Rather necessary, when you have NASA breathing down
your neck, it would seem, and good practice for reprising his most famous role,
that of palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant in dinosaur extravaganza Jurassic Park III.
Absent from its predecessor, The Lost World, Neill admits that he relishes the chance to have a
crack at the character for a second time. "I wasn't quite happy with what
I'd done with the character in the first film," he says. "I was so
over-awed by [Jurassic Park director Steven] Spielberg, I
think I didn't quite look after my guy as well as I might have. When the
original film came out, I was rather stung by a New Yorker review. They give a
five-line description of everything that is on, and Jurassic Park lasted about a year in the cinemas, so this bloody thing
wouldn't go away: it said 'The first film in history where the special effects
are more real than the actors.' Hopefully we got it right this time."
Co-starring with newcomers to the franchise William H Macy
("a very, very good actor," says Neill) and Alessandro Nivola, Neill
is remaining "zipped tight" as to the plot details, but welcomed Joe
Johnston (a former effects man for Spielberg) as the director on the third
instalment. "I think that was a good call, to have someone with a fresh
pair of eyes and with the enthusiasm and the sheer sense of mischief that Joe
As for whether or not he thinks it will surpass its
predecessors, Neill is quietly confident. "The emphasis on this film, if
anything, is on the action quota," he says. "That's probably why it
was so time-absorbing. It may be the best of them, I'm not sure. That's what
they seem to think at base-camp."
What it did mean was a gruelling 20-week shoot for Neill,
often acting against nothing in lieu of the to-be-added CGI dinosaurs. His patience
for such painstaking work, it seems, is high. "Nowadays, acting against
something that isn't there is so much a part of the vocabulary of the
contemporary actor, it's something you have to get used to. There are extremes:
poor old Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger
Rabbit. That's as bad as it gets, and I'm amazed he got away with his
Despite wrapping in January, Neill has had to continue
working against the blue screen, this time for a BBC six-part series called Space, which hopes to unravel some
mysteries of the universe. Part-narrator, part-presenter on this, one might
think that Neill has an affinity for the cosmos and all things scientific.
"I knew bugger all about space, prior to this," he says, with a
smile. "And I still know very little, but I have a few nuggets of
information I can bring out at dinner parties. That's about the extent of it. I
just wondered whether or not I could maintain the impression of being brainy
for six half-hours."
Something, of course, Neill has down to a tee. More low-key,
and less fanciful, is the just-completed Balkans-set allegory, The Zookeeper, in which Neill plays the
title role, a man left to look after the animals of a city zoo as civil war
rages around him. It's the type of film, like his work in Jane Campion's The Piano, that one might associate
Neill with more than, say, Jurassic Park.
"That's always been a deliberate ploy of mine, to keep the work as
disparate as possible, and spread it thinly around different countries,"
he says. "I wouldn't want people to get sick of me."
Born in Northern Ireland
but raised in New Zealand,
Neill studied literature at university before beginning his career in the
theatre with the New Zealand Players. He was first noticed in Gillian
Armstrong's 1979 effort My Brilliant
Career by fellow actor James Mason who lobbied for the Kiwi to be cast as
Damien in Omen III: The Final Conflict
two years on. It led to such highprofile Eighties TV work as Reilly: Ace of Spies and Kane & Abel but, ironically, it was
the antipodean all-at-sea thriller Dead
Calm that brought Neill back in the sights of Hollywood.
Since then, his career has fluctuated, films like The Hunt for Red October, Event
Horizon, Restoration, In the Mouth of Madness and Bicentennial Man have seen varied
success, but Neill sees himself in a good position. "I work at pretty good
levels in cinema, but my life is still my own, and I'm not pursued by hounds so
much that I can't leave the house. A lot of my friends are like that, but I can
do what I want."
Still based in New Zealand
where, he informs me, he has just planted his third vineyard, and harvested a
fifth vintage, Neill remains very attached to the country he grew up in. Five
years ago, he stepped behind the camera to document his nation's movie history
in Cinema of Unease, a body of work
he claimed presented "a troubled reflection" of his people. "The
thing about New Zealand
is that it's a troubled paradise," he says now. "We have a lot of
unresolved things that come from our history. There's a lot of blood in the
soil. There was a lot of conflict initially, and we are trying very hard to
come to some sort of accommodation between ourselves. The dark and brooding
ghosts from our past, I think, tend to be present when we're making
Something of a one-off, Neill has no plans to direct again,
particularly feature films. "I'm just not temperamentally suited to
it," he says. "I don't have the 24 hour full-on [demeanour]. One of
the good things about acting on a film is you get to kickback - a lot! As a
director, it's completely relentless. Working in short bursts during the day,
as you do as an actor, is about my speed. It's just sheer sloth, really."