SAM NEILL is respectably demure when we meet in Cannes,
clad in dark and light blue, hairline slipping slightly but still one of those actors
whose good looks and deep measured voice are the stuff of leading men.
He's in Cannes
to talk about Country life, an
Australian adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle
Vanya, and his own 54-minute film, a personal journey through New
Zealand called Cinema of Unease, which is part of the British Film Institute's
Century of Cinema series.
A controversial documentary on a quest for the country's
soul, it is engagingly honest and bitingly witty but often gives a less than
sunny view of God's own country.
"If it irritates the government and gets up their nose,
that's great," Neill says with a laugh. 'It's not a personal attack and
I'm definitely not a buff or a critic. I just put into the film what I found.
It's a sort of self-styled road movie of my thoughts on architecture, Empire,
sheep, education, madness, myself, everything and especially the country's film
Neill, 45, whose career had gone from directing
documentaries for the New Zealand Film Unit to starring in two of the decade's
most successful films, Jurassic Park
and The Piano, until recently made a
career of stealing scenes from those billed above him. Now he's the one who
gets top billing and is savouring every second of it.
While on one hand he says casually that he's lazy and
hopeless in business, on the other, with an air of relief bordering on
disbelief, he admits to feeling he's sort of done OK. His sane but vulnerable
realization is quite an appalling trait to observe in one who makes a living
"I love my job and finally I reckon I've earned some
respect so I don't have to take any shit no more," says Neill. "Less
and less do I panic and feel the background fear that the last film may be the
last job ever."
But, given the choice of being leading man or villain, he's
quick to say he'd choose the latter any day. "The job of the leading man
is the hardest of all. The easiest job is to play the villain because you have
things to hang your various hats on, or you've got a limp or a squint or a bad
back like Richard III. My mother always sighs and her eyes roll to the ceiling
and she says: 'I know you will be another baddie'. But it's underrated how much
fun you can have playing bad characters. It's great to play one of those really
Born in Northern Ireland where his New Zealander,
Sandhurst-trained father was serving with the British army, Sam Neill,
christened Nigel (Sam was his family nickname), lived in a lighthouse keeper's
cottage in County Down until he was eight. They emigrated to New
Zealand. He sees himself as a Pacific
Rim dweller and calls home a house in an unnamed part of NZ.
"I'm not about to buy a place in Los
Angeles. I'd rather commute there. I feel Hollywood
is a necessary evil, rather than an enticing magnet. It's a factory town where
it's rather like living on site."
His career break came in 1979 in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, a film he did on
his first trip to Australia
for a salary of less than £4,000, and one which impressed the great James Mason
so much that he paid for Neill's airfare over to England
for an Elstree screen test. Since then there have been more than two dozen
films and at least a dozen TV series (notably Reilly, Ace of Spies and Kane
Now, sixteen years later, he's back with his Brilliant Career co-star Judy Davis,
making Children of the Revolution,
playing a double agent for Australian intelligence to Ms Davis's 1950s'
"There were very few communists from that part of the
world so it'll be fairly new ground for most of us to cover," he remarks.
Neill recently finished Victory,
a film based on Joseph Conrad's novel set in the Malaccas, in which he plays an
English opium addict, "a gay psychopath in an Old Harrovian tie".
Just before that he made Restoration,
playing King Charles II wearing massive wigs he could barely stand up in, with
co-stars Meg Ryan, Robert Downey Junior and Hugh Grant.
"I'm very pleased with all of them but I particularly
enjoyed working for Michael Blakemore on Country
Life with buddies Greta Scacchi, Kerry Fox and John Hargreaves. We shot the
film in New South Wales on a
sheep station set against a post World War One background. I play the local
doctor who's loved by the plain daughter Sally [Fox], but loves the beautiful
young wife [Scacchi] of Sally's feckless father [Blakemore, who also directs].
"It was a lovely film to make and I feel we really hit
the mark in terms of feel and style. My character, Dr Max Askey, is a pacifist
and a bit of a leftie at a time when such beliefs were very unfashionable. He
also has a secret- well, not so secret-drinking problem.
"I have always enjoyed working with friends and
particularly like to work with women filmmakers [like Jane Campion on The Piano and Antonia Fraser on Restoration]. But generally speaking,
I'm pretty happy doing whatever project I'm part of. I even like special
effects and computer-generated images. I don't think I'll be sidelined by
thirty androids really.
"I have no career plan. My motives can be seen as
either an adroit set of moves across a chessboard or just a blind lurch from
one thing to another. I guess things happen because of my life-time career of
brilliance!" He chortles boyishly. "I'm sure the only reason I get work is
usually because I'm the only actor available!"