New Woman - August 1997

 

 


GRAND SAM

Sam Neill talks to New Woman about life and his latest role as a Hollywood bad guy.

 

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 neither.

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.

NW: Audiences 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 Australia; it 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, America still 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 industry?
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 well.

By Bob Spitz

 

 

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