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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
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?
"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