Film Review - August 2001





James Mottram discovers that Sam Neill couldn't be happier returning to Monster Island to battle the new breed of dinosaurs

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 has."

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 sanity."

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 cinema."

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."



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