North&South - September 1998

 

 


The Hunt For Mr Subtle

 

The British gave him an OBE for services to acting. The Americans inflated a 16-metre replica of him in New York city in April. The Australians list him alongside Mel Gibson and Bryan Brown as one of their favoured sons of the silver screen. Back home in New Zealand, Sam Neill is lucky to raise a "Good on ya mate". Just what you'd expect from family. In a rare interview on home soil, Sam Neill talks to CATE HONORE BRETT about the yin and yang of being a New Zealander, turning 50 and becoming a movie star

The process has been as protracted and exhausting as reeling in a big game fish. And now with my catch, Sam Neill, stranded on the sofa in front of me, gasping for sentences, it seems the only sporting thing to do is throw him straight back into the fast flowing international waters where he belongs.

But after nearly a year of pleading faxes, letters and phone calls, the prospect of letting Sam Neill off the hook proves too much. The progression from a flat "no thank you" to "not at this time" to "maybe next month" had been so excruciating that when his wife, Noriko Watanabe, finally calls from Sydney to say Sam would be available for an interview in Wellington next week, I rush to make my plane bookings.

The euphoria is short lived: Sam will be available for an hour - hour and a half, max.

Stridently I protest - North & South profiles don't write themselves on 60-minute interviews. Noriko explains that Sam has important people to see in Wellington (film director Peter Jackson as it turns out) and gets very restless when he knows people are waiting to see him. Count ourselves lucky.

Lucky? Who does the guy think he is - a goddamn movie star?

Just about anywhere else in the world, yes. In New York city where they recently inflated a 16-metre replica of Neill as the magician "Merlin" in an eponymous NBC mini-series - and Beverly Hills and London and Sydney, Neill's status as a moderately famous star is secure.

For confirmation of this you need only consult the internet. The California-based home page opens with a winsome image of Neill, titled: "Sam Neill, the sexiest man alive". Fans can pass many happy hours reviewing every film Neill has starred in; read a potted biography and learn about Neill's favourite foods and film performances (macaroni cheese and James Woods in Salvador).

Three things stand out in this sea of infotainment: how much work Neill has done in the past 20 years (54 feature and television movies) and how little of it we in New Zealand have seen. And how seldom he has worked in this country, the exceptions being The Sinking Of The Rainbow Warrior (1992), The Piano (1993) and his own documentary, Cinema Of Unease (1995).

Which could explain why Neill has only ever received one solitary fan letter from his home country - and that, he tells me, hardly counts given that it was sent by the mother of one of his best friends.

Buckets of fan letters from Germany, Scandinavia, Britain, the United States and Australia. But zilch from little old New Zealand. Not that he is complaining, you understand.

Other explanations for this shocking indifference could lie in the fact that many New Zealanders do not recognise him as one of their own - partly because he is seldom here and when he is here he guards his privacy as closely as a vestal virgin.

Of course there are the occasional interviews, but almost always as part of promotional work for a film and all carefully executed to minimise personal exposure.

A string of well-worn phrases recur in these interviews: Neill's modesty; his natural reserve; his ordinary-blokishness; his endearing reluctance to dwell on his own rather phenomenal success. And a sardonic insistence from Neill himself that, like the country which spawned him, he is really dull: "I am just Mr Triviality, as shallow as my washbasin."

The implication of course is that only a dumb or desperate journalist would waste their energies pursuing someone so boring. Almost as if Neill is encouraging us to make the mistake of assigning him the same qualities as some of his more famous buttoned-down and emotionally battered and bewildered males like Smith in Sleeping Dogs, Michael Chamberlain in Evil Angels and Stewart in The Piano.

But talk to Neill's friends and this artful media construct begins to fall apart. People like his life-long friend, Christchurch barrister Pip Hall, who describes Neill as the most passionate person he knows; passionate among other things about politics, racism, religion, Central Otago, music and art. A man who during his turbulent student days at Canterbury University was forever in the throes of some grand amour which in its dying stages invariably necessitated a fortnight without eating, sleeping, shaving - or helping his flatmates with the dishes.

People like British film actress Helena Bonham-Carter who has known Neill since she was 14 and describes him as one of the acting community's most universally loved members; as an irrepressible gossip and fantastic conversationalist; a man of insatiable curiosity and passion for art and architecture; an actor who fills in time between shoots with a sketch pad and paint box; an exuberant host of wonderfully inventive parties where everybody is expected to perform, and a man with a deeply ironic and self-deprecating brand of humour

Bonham-Carter: "Sam would write his own crap obituary if he was given the chance. But alongside all that self-deprecation he is coming from a place of confidence. He is Mr Subtle; subtle in acting and person too."

 

 

So here we are face to face with "Mr Subtle", hoping that at the grand age of 50 he may finally be ready to bring us a little more into his confidence; to talk about what it means to be an expatriate New Zealander on the international stage; about why he remains so passionate about this land but so reluctant to talk to us; about the highs and lows of the past five decades and his hopes and dreams for the next.

A modest agenda for an hour-long interview. But as it turns out the hour stretches to the best part of a day, taking in coffee and a large Braeburn apple (almost as good as Cox's Orange says he) at Wellington's trendy Caffe l'Affare; a visit to Peter McLeavey's inner-city gallery to arrange shipment of Neill's latest Bill Hammond acquisition and a visit to Te Papa to view the Dream Collectors exhibition of a century of New Zealand art.

He was very moved by the exhibition and by the Maori section of Te Papa, but after a return visit the next night, found himself sharing Denis Dutton's irritation at the "mad" juxtaposition of seminal Colin McCahons and Kelvinator fridges.

We begin the formal interview with Neill's Cinema Of Unease, an astute and superbly crafted documentary tracing the evolution of New Zealand's film industry. Intended for an international audience, it screened on New Zealand television in 1995 and offered us our first glimpse of Neill the "thinking man".

Predictably too, it gave critics an opportunity to have their own poke at this expatriate film star who dared to return fleetingly to his home and play amateur psychiatrist to a film industry he had had little contact with since flying the coop in 1978.

A point which, judging by Neill's reaction, seems to have hit a raw nerve. As did the critics and industry commentators who initiated what Neill describes as "New Zealand's backlash against The Piano".

In both instances Neill sees evidence of New Zealand's preference for knocking rather than praising and, more personally, he detects a reluctance to accept him. He recalls one scathing review of The Piano where the critic complained about Jane Campion's casting so many foreigners - Sam Neill included as he was not a real New Zealander.

"Hah. What do you have to do to be a real New Zealander. Is it because I've been away for a little bit, or because I wasn't born here? You know my family has had its feet in the soil here since 1850-something. When does your real New Zealand thing start kicking in - that's what I want to know."

This rather passionate delivery was followed by the first of many deep-throated chuckles which sometimes ended with a sardonic little hoot and other times swelled to a full-bellied laugh.

For the record, Neill was born in Ulster, Northern Ireland, in 1947, the second of three children born to Major Dermot Neill, a third-generation New Zealander, and his Anglo/Irish bride, Priscilla. At the time of Sam's birth, Dermot, a graduate of Sandhurst Military Academy, was serving with the Irish Guards.

The Neills returned to New Zealand in 1955 when Sam was seven and the family settled in the Christchurch suburb of Cashmere while Dermot was stationed at Burnham Military Camp. On his return to civilian life, Dermot shifted back to Dunedin and joined the family firm Neill and Co (later Wilson and Neill), a liquor and foodstuffs wholesaler established in 1866 by Sam's great-grandfather, P.C. Neill.

All three children, Michael (five years Sam's senior and now Professor of English at the University of Auckland), Sam and his sister Juliet (three years Sam's junior and now a retired teacher who owns a Christchurch book shop), were sent to boarding school. Sam, at eight, to Medbury, a private preparatory school, and then on to Christ's College.

And while it is true that Sam Neill has not lived permanently in New Zealand since the late 70s, it would seem that his itinerant existence has intensified rather than diminished his sense of belonging here. He may have houses in London, Beverly Hills and Sydney but home is Central Otago, New Zealand, where he spends four weeks a year.

"This sense of attachment to a place is very important to me and there's no question whenever I am asked where I come from. I say I am a New Zealander. My kids have been born in different parts of the world but they are all New Zealanders and this is critical to their sense of themselves."

Neill has three children: Tim, 15, with New Zealand-born, London-based actor Lisa Harrow, whom he met in 1981 while the pair were playing leading roles in Omen III, and Elena, seven, with his wife, Noriko Watanabe, a Japanese make-up artist whom he married in 1989. He is stepfather to Noriko's 16-year-old daughter, Maiko.

"With my youngest I was very disturbed that she wasn't actually a New Zealander as of right because she had not been born here so I had to go and knock on some doors in the Beehive and say this upsets me, would you please do something about it."

The door Neill knocked on was then Prime Minister Jim Bolger's whom Neill describes as a "very nice fellow".

Flattering as this allegiance to home and country might be, it is only, ever, part of the story: the other part being the necessity to leave.

And it was this ambivalence towards New Zealand which saturated the script of Cinema Of Unease (and irritated the locals) with phrases like "suffocatingly dull", "lonely and indifferent", "comatose".

In the documentary Neill spoke about the great fear of madness which seemed to infect society and the fact that paradoxically for many, madness offered "the only way out". And he spoke of a cultural milieu that was "less than encouraging" for budding young film directors like himself, beavering away at the National Film Unit during the 1970s.

But Neill's sweeping sociological statements give us no hint of the much more personal battles he faced growing up with a father who was ardently opposed to his son pursuing an acting career and in a boarding school culture that regarded with deep suspicion anything vaguely artistic or intellectual.

Neill once claimed that his life as an actor began at seven when he stepped off the Rangitikei: "I do remember consciously, at a very early age, assuming the mannerisms of a New Zealander. I arrived in this country as this sensitive little English boy who stuttered and had a very plummy voice and was rather nervous. Where I went to school there was no room for people like that, so one had to learn to cover up and present an acceptable exterior in order not to get your head kicked in. I think that's when I learned to act well, just going to school every day and surviving."

Neill's strategy for survival even extended to changing his name. At the age of 11, while still at Medbury, the boy who had been christened Nigel John Dermot Neill decided to become plain Sam Neill.

Over the years Neill has offered various explanations for this including the fact that he had a close friend at Medbury, Nigel Nutt, who shared the same initials, and both grew sick of being confused so one became Bill and the other Sam. More tellingly though, he felt Nigel was much too effete a name for a boy growing up in the playgrounds of New Zealand in the 1950s.

From this distance it is hard to imagine just how hostile an environment those playgrounds may have been for a stuttering little boy whose heart was already set on acting and the arts, but Neill assures me that even at primary school it was made abundantly clear who were New Zealand's heroes: "Each year at Medbury the music master would produce a Gilbert and Sullivan which was wonderful except I could never get a decent part. I would always end up playing a bridesmaid because all the speaking parts were reserved for boys in the First XV or First XI. As a metaphor for the dominance of sport in the New Zealand psyche that's about as good as it gets. The same went for prefects. Swotty kids like me didn't stand a bloody chance!"

Although Christ's College was rooted in precisely the same agrarian squattocracy as Medbury, Neill - in his senior years at least - appears to have found an acceptable niche for himself.

Brother Michael, an extremely bright student, had already graduated from Christ's, leaving a wake of high academic expectations for younger brother Nigel, aka Sam. (When Sam was in his sixth form year at Christ's Michael was awarded an English Commonwealth Scholarship to Trinity College, London.)

According to his old school friend Pip Hall, Sam was every bit as intelligent as Michael but a great deal less motivated - except when it came to subjects which interested him: English and drama.

Hall: "Sam absolutely excelled at English. He used to write the most fantastic essays and prose which were frequently read out in class. "

And although Sam didn't excel at sport, he made an early name for himself acting in and directing school productions and had a firm group of friends, many of whom remain close to this day. (Including Nigel Nutt, or "Bill", who was Neill's comedic foil in numerous school productions at Christ's College. Tragically Nutt suffered severe head injuries in a car crash at 19 and has spent much of his adult life in institutions. Against all odds Sam has maintained their friendship for 30 years, writing and visiting when in Christchurch.)

Hall says Sam was popular but was also regarded as a nonconformist, not because he was in any way outrageous but simply because his interests were determinedly counter-culture.

What few people know is the extent to which the then headmaster of Christ's College, Nigel Creese, a drama enthusiast, nurtured and protected Sam Neill - not from callow school mates, but from the autocratic unbending will of his father, Major Dermot Neill.

Major Neill had made it abundantly clear he expected Creese to oversee his son's induction into manly pursuits like boxing, rowing and rugby. Creese gave the impression of acceding to these wishes but instead did everything he could to encourage Sam's budding stage career.

In his old age Major Neill became an amusingly eccentric man whose chief obsession was equestrian dressage. He constructed a full size dressage arena complete with white picket fence at the family's estate on the Taieri plains and happily spent his days prancing around the ring in dressage pants and black knee-length boots to the accompaniment of martial music blasting from speakers mounted at the back of his Citroen station wagon. In certain wind conditions the music could be heard 16 kilometres away in Mosgiel. Or so the story goes.

In a stunningly lovely prologue to the book Timeless Land, a collection of his friend Grahame Sydney's Central Otago paintings, Neill writes with great affection and nostalgia of the father who used to drag his wife and children off on wild holidays to remote parts of Central, refusing to pitch the family's ex-army tent until they were miles from any human habitation: "Eventually though we'd end up somewhere brilliant, and aside from the occasional spot of rain which always made Dad unutterably miserable, these were easily the best days of our young lives. Here I learned the incomparable pleasures of fishing. One of the dreadful boats was just fast enough to waterski behind if the lake was mirror calm, which it often was. I learned how to stay downwind of the aromatic manuka-fuelled thermette to avoid the sandflies.

"But more than all of this I learnt directly from my Dad an intense love for this part of the world, this very particular landscape. And still today I am filled with a longing to be back there. And I am always aware of the sad irony of the impossibility of living where you feel most at home."

He also admits his father was a "scary" figure for him as a child; a man who only had to say "behave" and everybody snapped to attention.

And it is also true that it was only when clearing his father's belongings after his death in 1991, that Sam found concrete evidence of his father's pride in what his son had achieved. Scrapbooks full of press clippings and mementoes.

Sam has a great affection for his mother, Priscilla, now in her 80s and living in a Christchurch resthome and describes his brother Michael as the most influential person in his life, introducing him to literature, drama and music. But he gives the impression that among family at least, Sam is forever cast as little brother Nigel. Even today Sam says his family rarely if ever comment on his work or achievements: "Indeed why should they?" he asks rhetorically with one of those ironic little smiles.

 

 

The answer, as he well knows, is because our Nigel John Dermot Neill has done astoundingly well in the brutish, fickle and fiercely competitive world of international cinema.

In the past 20 years he has worked almost without pause, mixing high profile commercial work with low budget experimental projects, few of which have been screened in New Zealand.

He has been a constant presence in and strong advocate for the Australian film industry, starring in a string of acclaimed movies including Evil Angels with Meryl Streep (1988), Dead Calm with Nicole Kidman (1989), Death In Brunswick with New Zealand's John Clarke (1990), Country Life with Kerry Fox and Greta Scacchi (1994) and the black comedy Children Of The Revolution with Judy Davis (1996).

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s Neill's profile in Hollywood grew as he appeared alongside the likes of Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin in box office hits like Vassily Borodin's The Hunt For Red October, but it was his casting in 1993 as Dr Alan Grant in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park that lifted Neill finally onto the international stage.

In the same year, as a nice counterpoint, Neill also appeared as Stewart in Jane Campion's The Piano which was awarded the Palme d'Or in Cannes.

His performance as Stewart, a straight-jacketed colonialist, was watched with intense interest and admiration by Elric Hooper, director of Christchurch's Court Theatre, who first saw Neill on stage during his student days at Canterbury University in the late '60s.

Hooper had been called back from London by Ngaio Marsh to play Puck in a university production of A Midsummer's Night Dream and to help with voice coaching the young cast. He remembers the first time he laid eyes on Sam: "The thing which stood out of course when you walked into the rehearsal was this 'looker'. He really was a very good-looking young man with amazing bright clear eyes and he didn't have to do much at all on stage to attract attention."

Hooper says he was enormously impressed by Neill's intelligence, wit and modesty. "La Rochefoucauld, the great maxim writer, talks about the modesty of pride - a modesty which arises from a total assurance - and I suspect Sam's modesty may have been, at base, a deep assurance first of all in his looks, and in his intelligence and the patrician nature of his being."

On stage Hooper says this "modesty" created a charisma which shines out in his screen work: "Sam has a central stillness which draws the eye - it's an infuriating thing for actors who rush about trying to draw the audience's attention, while someone like Sam just has it."

Hooper says Neill's performance in The Piano is a perfect example of the "negative energy" he brings to his characters: "He is the film actor par excellence in that he trusts the director and the editor not to do too much. He is enormously skilled in showing the sort of restraint which, in the right circumstances, allows the audience to do the work themselves - to feel for the character."

Interestingly, British film director Steve Barron, who chose Neill to play the lead role in his four-hour television mini-series Merlin (which will screen in here on Sky 1 on August 28 and 29, at 7.30 pm), uses many of the exact same phrases to describe Neill's acting qualities.

In casting Neill as Merlin, the central character in this adaptation of the Arthurian legend, Barron says he was looking for a performer with a magnetic screen presence: "Rather than the traditional manic Merlin, this Merlin had to be somebody very calm, wise and solid and there are very few actors that can take on a role like that and yet remain interesting and magnetic. Sam is one of those rare actors who by doing less, does so much more."

Hooper believes Neill's best work may still be to come as his intelligence and comedic potential take over from his looks: "I always say actors are either sexy or mad and at 50 Sam is moving from sexy to mad, as one must as one grows older when one can no longer expect the testosterone to do the work and the thinking must take over."

Neill himself seems keenly aware that not everybody "gets" his performances in the way that Barron and Hooper do: aware that some see him typecast as the antipodean equivalent of Harrison Ford with an emotional range of about two notes: worried or wounded.

And it's true that directors have frequently cast him as the cinema's "man of middle feeling"; the husband who is passed over for an intense lover, and the guy who gets passed over on awards night while the leading lady carries off the trophies.

His latest role as Robert Maclean, in The Horse Whisperer, released here July 31, is a case in point. Neill's performance received appreciative reviews but the limelight goes of course to the leads, Robert Redford (who directs the film and plays Tom Booker, the horse whisperer) and Kristin Scott Thomas, Neill's screen wife and Tom's lover.

There have been a number of notable exceptions to this typecasting of Neill, including the lavish 1994 Mirimax production Restoration set in 17th century England where Neill gives a superb performance as an expansive King Charles II.

Neill explains that while this part might look like a great piece of acting, it is actually 10 times easier to play a showy "character" part than it is to turn in a convincing performance for a much more understated character - such as "Merlin".

Neill tells me he personally persuaded his co-stars, Miranda Richardson and Helena Bonham-Carter, to accept colourful character roles as Queen Mab and Morgan Le Fey, because he knew these roles would bring them critical acclaim in the United States. "I talked to them both on the phone and said, look, just bloody well do it, you'll get fantastic reviews. Nobody is going to notice me, I will just be the guy in the green coat up the back, but you will get reviews like you've never seen in your life."

He was right about the rave reviews with the mini-series attracting a phenomenal 32 per cent of all television viewers when it screened in the States in April, but wrong about being ignored himself.

Variety magazine had this to say about Neill's interpretation of Merlin: "The backbone of Merlin is a deep and measured performance by Sam Neill as the wizard of the title, fuming the story as narrator while taking Merlin from reluctant young magic man through seasoned old-timer. Neill's Merlin is as tragic as he is heroic, as ambivalent as he is confident."

Bonham-Carter has interesting comments to make about working with Neill as an actor and what distinguishes him from many others in their industry: "Sam has a huge amount of experience - he's probably lived more of his life on camera than off-and he really knows the craft. He's incredibly responsible as an actor. A lot of us are just like narcissists, caring only about our own parts, but Sam always has an eye for the whole.

"I think this comes from his own experience as a documentary film maker, and he will offer advice. But equally when it comes to acting he is Mr Humble and will ask for notes... or perhaps he didn't, maybe I just gave them to him!

"He's a mixture of real competence and knowledge and humility and he's much loved. You meet a lot of people in this industry many of whom gain an instant reputation, but there's not one person who has a bad word to say about Sam. Everybody adores him."

One of the reasons they adore him, of course, is because Sam Neill is not "up himself"; he's the kind of star New Zealand can tolerate: unassuming, low key, reticent.

Neill says this reticence and distaste for the showy is very much part of his New Zealand conditioning. In the first flush of his success he once bought a late-model Porsche but it embarrassed him so much he had to park it in another street and after two weeks sold it, unable to overcome the conviction that only "flash pricks" drive sports cars.

But more importantly Neill says this reticence is about protecting his soul - and his family - from the ravages of the media.

He recounts how he was once invited to be a panellist at an Australian Film Institute seminar for young Australian actors trying to break into the cut-throat American movie industry and one of the topics being addressed was how to "package and sell yourself' to the media.

An experienced "celebrity" interviewer from the United States explained how he regarded himself like a shrink who would get his subjects to lie back and reveal their inner souls to the world.

At which point Sam Neill interrupted his fellow panellist: "I said: 'I don't like to sound too contrary about this but I see what you are saying as being totally wrong. Just because you are an actor it doesn't mean anybody has any right to expect to know any more about you, or your family, or the things that matter to you than if you were a plumber.'

"People in show business have been rail-roaded into this position so they become the New Idea or TV Guide product of the week and I think it is terribly undesirable."

Ok, say I, glad to have finally got this out in the open, let's not talk about the public's right to know about Sam Neill's innermost thoughts and feelings, let's talk instead about how encouraging and enlightening and enriching it might be for a little nation of 3.5 million people to be allowed to get a little closer to him.

Let's recall how crushing it was for the young Sam Neill to find he had no New Zealand role models on the silver screen and how important it might be for future generations of actors to have access to one such as him.

And how inspiring it might be for the few small "l" liberals out there and the environmentalists to know that this multimillionaire (worth $12 million according to the latest NBR Rich List) is an ardent supporter of Greenpeace and a one-time Australian Labor Party campaigner.

A man who despite the world of privilege and extravagant wealth in which he moves has somehow held on to a vision of social justice and an egalitarian society. A man who has zero tolerance of racism.

And for the struggling New Zealand artists and musicians to know that Neill is an avid patron of New Zealand painting and that the walls of his houses are laden with their work.

And that when he and Australian actor Bryan Brown held a combined 50th birthday bash at Sydney's Darling Harbour last July, who did Sam Neill ask to represent the New Zealand contingent but a magnificent Maori concert party and his good friends Neil and Tim Finn.

And perhaps most encouraging of all, in an industry full of fakes pricks, Neill has managed to make his mark but retain his integrity. To remain the sort of man who values his old friends as much as any of the important international stars he knows so well; the sort of man who keeps faith with a brain-injured mate for 30 years; who himself recovered from a childhood stutter only to become a patron of the Australians Stutterer's Association and who has a reputation for being hugely supportive of aspiring young New Zealand talent whether it be through his patronage of Christchurch's National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art or reading film scripts for aspiring film makers like Robin Judkins, or just "being there" for rising stars like Kerry Fox.

Neill sighs (he only hears a tiny fraction of this, the stuff I'm brave enough to say out loud) and reluctantly agrees there might be a point hidden in here somewhere. That part about the importance of role models and New Zealanders learning to celebrate success. Maybe.

"There is something terribly stultifying about that inability to celebrate. The truth is I'm in two minds really. I find it difficult to talk about myself because I am conditioned - I come from here. So it's very difficult for me to say, 'Look I'm a bloody good actor' because it sounds in this context - I mean we are sitting in the middle of Wellington - it sounds as if you are up yourself.  Whereas if you say, 'Well I'm not that bad', people are prepared to take that on board."

But what if we were to transpose ourselves to New York's Rockefeller Centre with that 16-metre high inflatable "Merlin" bobbing away in the wind, what would that Sam Neill say of his achievements in that context?

Long pause.

"In my brighter moments it gives me some pride that I have actually... you know... I've done all right."

Horrified, he leaps up from the table and starts pacing around the room. And then falls to reminiscing about that first rather miraculous break when Roger Donaldson cast him in the lead role in Sleeping Dogs.

"I remember when we met Warren Oates [the American actor who appeared in Sleeping Dogs] we were in total awe of him - partly because he smoked more marijuana than anyone had ever known possible, even on the Coromandel- but mostly because this was a real actor, someone we had seen on the movie screen.

"It was very long odds to think that I would actually one day foot it in that world - no one was more surprised than me."

Oates however would not have been surprised at all. His parting shot to Sam after filming Sleeping Dogs was: "See ya in the movies, Sam."

 

 

And now at 50 it seems Sam Neill is coming full circle - back in Wellington where it all began, exploring the possibility of a return to directing. Here, in New Zealand.

The details are rather sketchy at this stage, but Neill confirms his trip to Wellington was to discuss a collaborative project with Peter Jackson and his partner and screen writer Fran Walsh.

Neill says it's too early to say whether this proposal will firm up into a viable project but the idea of combining some directing work with his acting career does appeal: "I've been tip-toeing around the prospect for a while and it's really time I bit the bullet and directed something... and bossed around a few actors. But more than anything I'd like to do something here in New Zealand and that's partly what I'm doing here with Fran and Peter."

Not that Neill intends to retire from acting at this point - quite the contrary, he hopes to combine the two as have a number of prominent members of his community including his friend Mel Gibson.

And what does he think of Elric Hooper's musings about the prospect of Neill getting better and better the less he can rely on his looks? (Not that he's bad looking you understand - in fact it could be argued that his face is improving with the patina of age.)

"Well I haven't had any looks for years and years but it's very nice of him to say so. Will I get more interesting roles as I grow older? Realistically, once you get to 50 you're certainly not playing the juv any more. Leonardo DiCaprio and I aren't exactly up for the same roles. So yes the parts do tend to be more character roles and that can be good - a disparity of roles is good."

As for the prospect of growing old and losing his hair, Neill seems totally unperturbed. "To those people who say it's all downhill after 50, I say stick it up your bum. I don't think we should put up with that."

Neill says he is looking forward to his 50s because it seems, with hindsight, that each decade has been better than the one before. "My teens were 'teeny' and mixed. My 20s as a documentary maker were better. I really enjoyed my 30s when I realised I was going to have a crack at working in the cinema and my 40s were the best yet so I have no reason but to believe my 50s will be better still."

And, forgetting himself for an instant, Neill confesses that one of the primary events illuminating his 40s was his marriage to Noriko: "I met my wife when I was 40 and she has been the principal feature on my landscape for the last 10 years."

Noriko, who had been working as a makeup artist in Sydney for some years, had arrived at Neill's house to discuss the make-up requirements for the film Dead Calm on which they were both working.

"I remember I opened the door and there she was. I thought she was the most marvellous thing I had ever seen in my life and I fell in love with her on that day and I continue to be enthralled with her in exactly the same way."

After which came Elena, their daughter, and although Neill is not about to start invading his children's privacy by talking about them in an interview, he will talk about how much he revels in fatherhood: "I'm a lot more tactile with my children than my parents were... they were rather English, that's all. I don't feel obligated to be that way, I just enjoy it. I have a lot of fun with my kids, they are good people to hang out with."

And whenever he possibly can he gathers them up and he and Noriko take a direct flight from Sydney to Queenstown and within a matter of a few hours he is back in the landscape of his own childhood.

And like his father who would drive for miles and miles to avoid pitching the family tent within earshot of a camping ground full of people, Neill has moved heaven and earth to hold on to that sense of isolation and anonymity which is such an essential component of Central's magic.

Major Dermot would have been impressed when Sam responded to a distant neighbour's erecting a second storey by bringing in 60 truckloads of dirt to form a small hill to shield the neighbour's chimney pots from his line of sight.

So if by chance you see a man in scruffy jeans with a few days growth on his chin prowling the aisles of the Frankton supermarket and you suspect it might be him, just smile politely or say "Gidday" and pass on by.

Because you wouldn't want to be so crass as to let him know you know who he is. It wouldn't do for him to start thinking he's somebody special.

 

 

 

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