He's blessed with a kind of no-fault celebrity. Not exactly
a household name, his image is more hands-on than hunk, and his star quotient
is not so much off-the-chart as not even within striking distance of it. And
yet despite all this, Sam Neill is an actor's actor, working constantly in
movies that shimmer with intelligence and respect, in a medium that requires
Women melt over Neill. He has that boyish, professor
quality; he's handsome in a lean, ropy way and slightly befuddled, giving the
impression he's in need of TLC. He's also got a virtue rare among movie actors:
he actually looks like himself. Shuffling into London's
Dorchester Hotel, he's as tall as you might think (a little over 180cm), with
the cool outward presence of a movie star, but as his conversation with New Woman suggests, there is more to
fame than meets the eye.
NW: I was looking
over your credits. You either have the most diverse career I've seen, or the
most unstable. It seesaws wildly from small, artistic, well-crafted films to
grotesquely commercial ones.
SN: Well, that's
deliberate, although it does seem shambolic. Most of it, of course, is against
the wishes of my advisers who believe I should be concentrating on doing big
commercial films. But I think one feeds the other. For me, the objective was
always finding something different and intriguing to do next. And I've always
been interested in balance. I'm playing a bad guy in my latest film Event Horizon with Laurence Fishburne -
so I want to play someone on the right side of the law next time around.
think you bring an elegant, charming presence to a role. How would you describe
your screen persona?
SN: It's pretty
different from film to film. I just saw, for the first time, a film called Victory that I did a couple of years ago
with Willem Dafoe and Irene Jacob. I play what may be best described as a
psychopathic, aristocratic, very unpleasant villain. A wonderful character. I
think it's my best work.
NW: Is the
Australian film community a very small, tight-knit gang?
SN: It's a little
too small. Everybody knows each other. And, of course, some get on better than
others. But there's still a kind of camaraderie that exists. I was very lucky.
I moved to Australia
in the late Seventies from New Zealand
and was fortunate to land as this tidal wave of cinema started gushing. The
week before I left for Australia
I saw The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith
and Don's Party. When I got there, Picnic at Hanging Rock was playing. The
second week I was there, we started shooting My Brilliant Career. Everything happened at once. Unfortunately,
that dissipated fairly quickly - in a matter of a few years.
NW: What was the
reason for that?
SN: Quite a few
people went to Hollywood, so a lot
of the energy was lost.
NW: Was that the
accepted strategy: once you caught fire in Australia
you'd be on the next plane to Hollywood?
SN: I don't think
anyone intends to do that, but it happens in spite of everything. It's not just
happens anywhere cinema is made in the English speaking world. Hollywood
has such gravity that people are pulled into its orbit very easily and quickly.
I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. There's a lot to be said for film
being an international enterprise. But at the same time it becomes a struggle
for certain indigenous cinemas.
NW: Despite that,
looks to Australia
for those little films that would never see the light of day in Hollywood.
SN: To some
extent that's true. But there's a tremendous wave of independent filmmaking in
the States now, especially after their success at the Oscars this year.
Distribution remains problematic. It's odd: there are thousands of screens
around the States, but it's so difficult to get a good small film on one of
them. It's sad.
NW: Is the
Australian film community like a Hollywood service
SN: I don't think
so. The distance eliminates that sort of thing. Plus, the Australian culture is
sufficiently vigorous to resist those kinds of fears. I really like Australia;
I think it's one of the great parts of the world. There are few great cities in
the world, and from my perspective, Sydney
is probably the best. It's a reasonably safe place to live; the climate is
equitable; there's sufficient culture to keep you stimulated; the pollution
ain't bad; you can go to the beach and swim in terrific surf and you can eat
By Bob Spitz