Follow Me Gentlemen - February 1989

 

 


KNIGHT ERRANT

It looks as though Sam Neill could pick up an Oscar for Best Actor this year. Helen Greenwood took him to lunch.

 

"John Clarke and I joke that when we come out of Trellini, our clothes look as though we've slept in them. Sam wears a garbage bag and it looks good on him."
                                                                                                                  Patrick Cook

"You're not famous, you're very very famous. You don't even know. All the women around here are asking about you."
                                                                                                                  Waitress in restaurant


Sam Neill is blushing. His usually healthy skin has taken on an embarrassed glow. As the waitress in the noisy, powerlunch restaurant retreats after her confiding comment (wearing a huge smile), Sam is even cringing. "Do you want that eggplant?", he says, fork poised, and in the next breath says in a low voice: "We'll pretend that never happened." It's one of those ghastly moments that must be the bane of every well-known person's life, and I'm blushing, partly at the ridiculousness of the situation, and partly in sympathy with Sam.

"Of course, it's embarrassing," he says out of the corner of his mouth. "Why do you think I'm red?" He looks vulnerable and gentle, not asking for any sympathy but very much evoking it and suddenly I understand why so many women find him desperately attractive. Through the polished surface of reticent charm and good manners, a small boy appears fleetingly and, with it, a careful fragility which makes you tend to handle him like a piece of cut crystal. Then it disappears and once again you're looking at a perfectly formed specimen through the wrong end of a telescope.

He is closely in control of what he says and does. So watchful is he, that he seems always on the edge. So cautious is he, that he seems to screen out anything intrusive or irrelevant.

There is a coolness, a distance to Sam Neill, as if he were politely communicating to you via a glass enclosure. 'Polite' is an important word here. Sam Neill places a lot on good manners and prides himself on being a gentleman.

"The one thing about my parents is my father is a gentleman and my mother is the equivalent, what would you call it? a gentlewoman?, so they're nice to each other, they're well mannered to each other. We don't bother as much about manners as we used to. And manners are just as important with people who are close to you as they are with strangers."

Almost in the English mould, Sam Neill is restrained and reserved; in fact, if he weren't Sam Neill, I would suspect him of being a man shy of people and more at home with animals. It's almost too much of a coincidence that, tense and rather uptight, he relaxes when he talks about his labrador (and does a very good dog impersonation).

The English heritage is dominant in Sam Neill. It's in the way he talks, the values he admires, the cultural influences he feels. "My family is very English: my mother was English and my father was educated in England and [was] in the British army and all that.

"I was thinking the other day, what one forgets is to what extent we were culturally English-influenced in those days. All the cinema tended to be mainstream English films. Actors like Kenneth Moore and John Mills and Dirk Bogarde, they were the big stars. The American equivalents, which I suppose were Bill Holden, Brando, Humphrey Bogart - I didn't know who the hell Humphrey Bogart was till much later on.

"Now we're very much more . . . we have been for 20 years. . . American-dominated than we were then. There wasn't any Coca-Cola when I grew up; it came in very late, about 1960 and I was almost at secondary school. A lot of that really good '50s and '60s American music completely escaped us; we only really heard it when the Beatles and the Stones started reviving that sort of stuff.

"When I was a kid, we wanted to be RAF pilots; we didn't want to be James Dean we didn't know who he was. We were reading Biggles and Roy of the Rovers. As a result I feel much more at home in England than in America. I think the opposite is generally true of the Australians I know because Sydney has much more in common with California than it does with Surry."

Sam Neill was born in Northern Ireland and came to New Zealand at the age of seven, living in the small South Island town of Dunedin; he says self-deprecatingly that he was "sort of' educated in Christchurch. "That's a comment more on me really. I'm lazy." It was a break in the family tradition of sending its sons to England to be educated.

"I was lucky enough to have some good teachers, including one who was really interested in drama and who produced good plays. We did Shakespeare every year, all that sort of stuff. I wasn't really a footballer or anything like that so . . . you've got to do something. It was much more desirable to be a footballer, of course. That was where the kudos was."

As a boy, Sam was always reading a lot, he remembers, "a lot of serious stuff, books that were way too serious for my age." They were the books his brother, five years older, was reading.

"He's a professor of English, so literature has always been his field. And I've always been strongly influenced by my brother. It happened coincidentally that the things I was good at at school also happened to be things that he tended to be good at - like English and History and French and stuff like that. And it took me a long time to work out that a) I didn't have to be as good as him and b) I didn't necessarily have to be as obsessive about the sort of things he was obsessive about."

Boarding at a boys-only school, says Sam, "was sort of insane, really. We didn't really know any better."

"So women were, well girls particularly, extremely exotic sort of creatures and we really had very distorted ideas of what things were about. Everyone had girlfriends. . . we wrote letters; it was quite romantic in a way.

"In the school holidays, you'd go beserk. Kids would have parties and dances at which a lot of extreme behaviour was in evidence. During the term, we were totally cloistered really apart from anything else, it's hard not seeing your parents for 13 weeks.

"It wasn't really until I had a year or two at university that I realised that women could be friends too. You can't get used enough to girls to just treat them like mates; you're always in pursuit of something you don't understand. . ."

At this point, Sam, who speaks in slow, measured tones, trails off into a smiling memory for quite a few minutes. He starts to speak but can only smile to himself. It's only after some none-too-subtle probing that he opens up his train of thought, and then circumspectly.

"Time was so short you see; you knew you were going back to school. Let me put it this way: you had to make as many gains as you could in the shortest possible time because time was always just about up - we're going back to school any day now or any minute now. It's like those Eric Rohmer films. . ."

Like most university students, Sam went off to explore Europe; and, like most New Zealanders, he says, he left New Zealand thinking it the greatest country in the world. "Bullshit. It's got some beautiful things about it, it's delightful and I come from there but it's not the greatest country in the world. "

Now he describes himself as a person who doesn't feel entirely at home anywhere in the world because "my life has become so completely peripatetic. There's no one place I could actually say I have any enormous loyalties to. And rather than be depressed by that, I think it's a very optimistic thing.

"We're increasingly becoming part of a world culture, part of a world ecoculture too. The more we lose our grip on absurd notions like nationalism, the more we begin to see ourselves as part of the human race, part of the wider system rather than a little bit of it which we call our own. I think nationalism is the most dangerous thing in the world.

"There are a lot of losses that go with this, there are cultural losses and one must do everything one can to make sure things that are valuable survive. And there are lots of things that are boring about it. We all wear the same clothes whether we're in Tokyo or Sydney or Buenos Aires, we all wear the same shit. We're all basically going to be speaking English or Brazilian [sic] eventually. And we'll all catch the same diseases.

"On the other hand, that horrible provincial thing that you actually see coming out like John Howard's immigration policy, I mean, how insane is that in '88?"

It's not hard to understand that a childhood spent in Northern Ireland, then growing up in the isolation of small New Zealand and a wandering actor's life have evolved a sense of rootlessness. At the same time, there is in Sam Neill a conflicting desire to put down roots while exulting in the freedom of movement.

"I'm mad about architecture and we just built this house in Central Otago in New Zealand and it's a beautiful place. I've been involved in architecture one way or another all the time. I made a couple of documentaries about architecture. It's something I find very involving. It is diametrically opposite to what an actor does. A good performance is totally ephemeral. It's something that evaporates, even performance on film has very temporary life. Whereas in architecture, you build something that you're stuck with forever, good or bad. It's standing, it doesn't move - an actor moves; a building is totally inanimate.

"But what fascinates me about someone like an architect is you can study architecture for 50 years but if you haven't got creative impulse, you'll never be a good architect. The only good architects are the people who have studied and have the creative impulse. And that spirit is totally mysterious.

"Once in a while you do feel, if you're lucky, just in a millisecond, that something you've done is creative, there are all sorts of ways to be creative. But if you do get that flash. . . and often it's not something that you can particularly control, it just happens."

When he says he "made" a documentary, Sam means as a director, not as an actor. He began while studying at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. Then, in 1971, he became a director for the New Zealand National Film Unit and made several documentaries. He went back to acting and appeared in three features in New Zealand, Ashes and Landfall, (both 1975) and Sleeping Dogs (1977).

It was Sleeping Dogs that attracted the attention of Gillian Armstrong and Margaret Fink, who were looking for someone to play the gentleman farmer, Harry in My Brilliant Career. Which leads to the obvious question of why Sam gave up directing and returned to acting.

"The acting thing sort of took over. It didn't mean to. Margaret Fink and Gillian Armstrong asked me to come here to do that film. And one film sort of led to another and I never got back to directing. I've never really made decisions about those things anyway. I just kind of bumble into things.

"It sounds more dilettante than it is. I mean I'm actually very committed and serious about what  I do. I'm not driven or ambitious. I care about my craft very much but. . . it's a self-protective mechanism really, I don't see any point in ..."

At this stage, Sam's voice trails off in mid-sentence, something he does often when he starts to think seriously about what he is saying. He seems to be avoiding the question but, as you discover talking to him, he formulates his ideas methodically, and slowly, and is usually looking for another way to illustrate the point he is trying to make. He doesn't enjoy talking; it's as if, as someone whose profession is words, he is wary of their power. He prefers to use concrete examples rather than abstract concepts, to tell a story rather than debate an idea.

". . . I saw a doco on highschool children in America. There were a lot of alarming things about it and I'm sure these kids have a lot in common with kids in Australia. But all of them wanted to be a success. And that in itself struck me as being a bit sad because how many people can be a success? Half a per cent of us? What is a 'success' anyway? Nobody said 'I want to be happy'. I would have thought that was a much more realistic and indeed much more worthwhile thing to want to be. They want to be a success and what they meant by being successful was making a lot of money. The phrase is 'they wanted to make it'. Make what?

"I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't say I enjoyed material things. But they're not crucial to my existence at all. I think my family, they're crucial to my existence, and enjoying what I do. As long as I'm happy with what I do. I'm not driven to be the best."

Not driven to be the best but still a perfectionist. Which may explain why most of his films (Plenty, My Brilliant Career and Sleeping Dogs are the exceptions) have been, to put it kindly, forgettable. And while the films floundered around him, Sam Neill has usually managed to shine in them.

He shrugs and agrees that he hasn't liked a lot of the films he's been in. It doesn't bother him too much. I mention The Blood of Others, a terrible film made by revered French director Claude Chabrol, in which Sam Neill plays an unlikeable but pitiable German in occupied Paris during World War II. It is a complex performance that manages to turn a rather silly character into a human being struggling with himself and history.

"It was a disastrous film," says Sam. "All that was apparent from the day I arrived. You can tell whether you like a script. With the Chabrol thing, I didn't like the script very much but I thought Chabrol! - that's going to be great.

"You're sitting in London, you've got nothing to do, why not go to Paris and be paid a good wage and go to a lot of good restaurants with Claude Chabrol? And that was the best thing about that job - he knows the best restaurants in Paris. It was excessive. And Stephane Audran was in it and I had a few days with her. I saw Babette's Feast the other day - for me it was pornography; I just adored it."

The pornographic aspect to which Sam is alluding is not just his admiration of actress Stephane Audran ("She's about four foot nothing but once she gets the eyelashes and the heels on, you can't keep your eyes off her.") but also his passion for food. He doesn't cook but he loves to eat.

"That's one thing that's very attractive about Italians, they see nothing wrong with one's appetite. There's nothing profane about appetite, whether it's sexual or eating. And what's marvellous about Babette's Feast is the marriage between the sacred and the profane.

"It's a film from the Calvinist culture in which we have been brought up to believe that sex is something we do in the dark and we certainly don't talk about it, and eating is something we do quickly and, if we could actually eat with the lights off, we would.

"All these things are nonsense - there are so many things to enjoy in life and to suppress these things is anti-life, negative and to be abhorred. To me eating is one of the great pleasures. I love going to places like China or France where eating is one of the great pleasures. The Chinese are like the French: they live to eat they don't eat to live like we do. We throw a hamburger down in order to keep going until the next hamburger. That's awful. That's obscene.

"Yes, my appetites are strong, everyone's appetites are strong. But the thing is to recognise them for what they are, and enjoy it, rather than be guilty about them.

"That's what Puritanism is about: anything physical is to be frowned upon and unworthy of an enlightened human being. To me that's absolute bullshit and the worst thing about Protestantism. God knows there's enough wrong with Catholicism but at least Catholic cultures don't deny you the right to enjoy your food. It's no accident that all the European cultures that are the most Protestant have the worst food."

Though not a religious person, Sam had no problem playing Michael Chamberlain in Evil Angels. "I had to be perfectly honest with Michael and say 'no, I'm not in any way religious' when he asked me'". That's not to say I'm an unspiritual person. I think all of us are spiritual to a greater or lesser extent."

Apart from the story and the character which attracted him to the film, it was the chance to work again with Fred Schepisi and Meryl Streep that clinched it for him. "It was a very short time [together) in Plenty but I liked it. It was like two weeks work, no big deal. But obviously, I was fascinated by the idea of doing a couple of weeks with Meryl Streep, who wouldn't be?

"And that's one of the things about Evil Angels: there's a very high calibre of acting. Very very good people doing just one or two lines, doing a walkon, just to come along and do a day with Meryl Streep. I mean it's pretty interesting stuff, if you're an actor."

One of the hardest questions to ask an actor is why he or she is an actor; hard because they are usually at a loss for words. Sam Neill is no different. "I don't really know", is the response. He seizes on an idea we've discussed about the way he brings out the good and bad side in the characters he plays, the contrasts and the duality.

"I don't believe anyone is entirely good or bad. I think even the best of us is capable of evil and even the worst of us, the worst criminals, are capable of doing good things. Human beings are flawed.

"I think the best work I've done in some ways - that's assuming I've ever done any good work and that's debatable - and it's not necessarily the best context, was a couple of years ago in a 15-hour mini-series called Amerika.

"I played a KGB colonel, very smart, who loves power and loves manipulating power. I hate that sort of thing. He's a very complex man and sees, for instance, that in some circumstances, in order to achieve a wider good, you have to do things that are bad in the short run. I actually don't think that's defensible at all. He's totally committed to the Soviet system but on the other hand, is obsessively attacted to things that are Western and decadent. I think it's a complex performance."

How then does he tune in to a sensibility that is so foreign to him? There's a long long pause, then a slow smile. "You just have to make it up, I guess."

My guess is that Sam Neill doesn't have to make it up. That he is a man who is conscious of the light and the dark sides to his psyche and delves into them when he practises his craft and to explore himself. He is impatient with the conventional notions of beauty and image; not certain what women find attractive in men; and very much aware of inner strength and conviction.

"I do strongly subscribe to the idea of balance within a personality. You have to balance out your intellect against your physical. I think balance is something you have to work towards, particularly in relationships. I watched The Fly last night and this unfortunate creature towards the end of it is getting really ugly and he wants to fuse with the woman he's in love with so he throws her into a teleporter. You can't expect that to happen, you can't expect to be 'fused' with somebody.

"I think I'm best. . . I'm trying to generalise this so it's not so personal. . . I'm actually better off with a strong personality. Relationships don't work if one person is dominant and one person is not; dominant is the wrong word: if one person is a forceful personality and one person is not. It's got to balance out. If you've got two strong personalities, the only way you're going to make that work is by a succession of compromises and agreements and balancing. And then, it's never going to be entirely balanced forever."

There's a longing in the voice, a yearning for a romantic ideal where life wouldn't have to be a series of balances and levels - despite the pragmatic realisation that life is not like that.

The romantic streak in Sam Neill has an old-fashioned turn about it: words such as honour and respect and codes of ethics spring to mind. It's no happy coincidence that he tends to get cast in similar roles. This is a man for whom it is less important who wins the game, and more important how you play the game, be it life, acting or football.

"I would always back the Australians against the All-Blacks because the All-Blacks are so dominant. When I lived in Melbourne for a winter, I was backing St Kilda because they were the bottom of the ladder and that would be my team every time.

"Who needs winners? Winners are the worst. There's nothing romantic about winner' All these bloody Hollywood films are about winning now, about 'making it'. The worst thing is to be a loser. It's about the worst thing you could say about someone, [American accent) 'He's a loser', in Los Angeles, in America - it's death."

Cautious about the work he does ("Working in theatre is always leaping into the unknown. Film is to an extent too but it's more easily controlled. I understand film.) and fatalistic about his career moves ("I would like to go back to directing but if I'm supposed to, someone will come along and ask me to,"), Sam Neill seems more than happy and a little overwhelmed with his current screen status:

"I've always loved films. In Dunedin, there were three cinemas and there weren't that many films showing and then you could only go and see them in the holidays anyway. There was no television. I suppose it all seems very new to me still, and I suppose films are in a historical sense.

"I was talking to a young actress the other day who said, 'you know, some of these really early Australian films you did'. I was part of Australian film history, you know" - Sam give a half chortle - "I was baffled that. "

 

 

 

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