Premiere - August 1995

 

 


Play it again sam

 

He headlined the biggest film of all time, Jurassic Park, but Sam Neill is still an enigma, an actor who has made inscrutability into an art form with his performances in everything from The Hunt For Red October to this month's Country Life. "I like to fly under the radar," he tells Shireen Jilla in London. Photography by Rankin

THE UNION CLUB, LONDON. SAM Neill - all starched white cotton shirt and neatly pressed flannels, incongruously sockless, hairy feet peeping out of his tan deck shoes - is here at the members-only Soho club to publicise his latest film, Michael Blakemore's Country Life. Neill has been here before; he made an earlier visit to discuss the making of a documentary to mark the forthcoming Centenary of Film. The organisers wanted Neill to direct a segment on New Zealand, where he grew up; others taking part included Martin Scorsese, who was doing America, and Stephen Frears, flying the flag for the UK. "So the company was rather daunting," says Neill. It would have been the first time the 47-year-old actor had stepped behind the camera in 15 years, and Neill - personally acquainted with much of the New Zealand film community and worried that he might end up alienating a few friends - was not altogether inclined to accept. "But I got drunk," he smiles gently, "and after two bottles of wine, I agreed to do it - though I don't actually remember saying yes."

Something of an enigma to the outside world, Sam Neill on film has made inscrutability into an art form. In the Australian outback drama Country Life he plays Dr Askey, a man hopelessly in lust with a married woman (Greta Scacchi) and hopelessly adored by an old friend's daughter (Kerry Fox). "He's a man who eludes people," explains Neill, "one of those blokes who's never going to get married and will be a perennial bachelor. The 'affair' [climaxing in Scacchi's surprisingly minimalist undressing in a hay barn] is something rather poignant, but he knows it's impossible. But it's the impossible relationships that always seem the most exciting. He's slightly vulnerable. He's the new Australian."

It is one of the most polished of Neill's poker-faced performances. But then he has had plenty of practice. He got his first international acting brownie points when he played the impenetrable, pin-striped smoothie, Kane, in the Jeffrey Archer TV series Kane And Abel, and carried off his mini-series stardom on Reilly: Ace Of Spies with something approaching Don Juan prowess.

A succession of movie roles followed which capitalised on his earlier success with characters combining an innate intelligence with a more earthy sex appeal: as Meryl Streep's wartime lover in Plenty, again as her God-fearing husband in A Cry In The Dark, and even in The Hunt For Red October as a Russian submarine officer. Nonetheless it was Jurassic Park that firmly established Neill not only as a sound character actor but as a bankable international name, whose next three films - Jane Campion's The Piano, John Duigan's Sirens and the forthcoming Restoration - all provide further proof of his versatility.

Even now, however, with his name gracing the credits of over 30 films to date, Neill seems refreshingly untouched by success - "I like to fly under the radar a bit," he muses. "I stay out of the public eye" - something which may or may not be attributed to his ever-so-slightly circuitous rise into the ranks of the over-40 big star names. A late developer, Neill started out in the industry as a documentary film editor, then director, with the New Zealand Film Unit, before beginning a full-time acting career in his 30s. He made his debut in Roger Donaldson's 1977 New Zealand film Sleeping Dogs, but immediately returned to directing, occasionally doing a few "acting bits and pieces for friends". It wasn't until he played Judy Davis's elusive sweetheart in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, however, that Neill realised his potential to work as a professional actor beyond the small time spotlight of New Zealand.

"It was the first time anyone had ever told me I was any good," he admits. "The revelation made it obvious to me that I should be pursuing acting. But acting didn't come easily, it just came as a surprise. I hadn't been to drama school, which most people I was working with had, so I felt rather unskilled and untutored. For quite a while, it made me feel rather like a knife painter: working things out for myself and relying on my instincts. Which, I then realised, is what everyone does. There's really no school for film acting."

Neill has never taken his acting career for granted and, even after so many films, continues to enjoy the acting process more and more. "It is the one thing I am prepared to admit I am really good at - and I am not good at anything else," he laughs.

His most memorable working moments have been with Meryl Streep, to whom he says he owes an early debt of learning. "What helped about working with Meryl was that she told me that every time she starts a film she's in a state of sheer terror and realises she has no idea what acting is, or what you do," he says. "That was an enormous comfort to me, I can tell you." Clearly not one to get carried away with his art, Neill, on the subject of Jurassic Park, his first shot at a major Hollywood blockbuster, simply deadpans, "It was great. I had a bigger trailer."

"I work on films where I understand the people I'm dealing with," he continues, "the characters and the people making the film. It may sound trite, but if the film sounds fun, that will do for me. I've done very few films where I haven't formed really good friendships and relationships. Judy Davis and I have a rather monosyllabic relationship, but even we have an understanding."

Likewise director John Carpenter (who previously worked with Neill on Memoirs Of An Invisible Man) says he chose the actor to play the role of insurance investigator John Trent in his new film, In The Mouth Of Madness, because he is such fun on set. Neill- who regards his role as "the director's interpreter" - returns Carpenter's compliment. "I think it is John's return to form," he observes. "It is also one of my best performances. I am very fond of it. It is very funny. Yet in Cannes, I had the French critics grilling me on the existentialist blah, blah, blah. . ." Sam Neill is not overly fond of the members of the press. "They crowbar me out to do these interviews once in a while," he grumbles later, "which I do purely out of a sense of obligation and loyalty, but it's not a process I'm either good at, or enjoy."

It's not altogether surprising that journalists occasionally get confused. Neill's taste in films, as he himself readily admits, is "rather eclectic, as you can see from my films . . ."

"Some films are unashamedly populist," he notes, "others are so arty they can't see the light of day, they are so far up their own bums." Indeed, currently on the brink of filming Children Of The Revolution, another arthouse Australian film with Judy Davis, Neill is in danger of making three "non-commercial" - "I don't mean that in a pejorative sense" - films in a row (the others being Country Life and the forthcoming Victory, based on the Joseph Conrad novel and co-starring Willem Dafoe, Rufus Sewell and Irene Jacob). Now he's ready to do something, well, bigger.

"There are lots of parts I'd like to do," blusters Neill (among them the hotly tipped The English Patient, based on Michael Ondaatje's award-winning novel, which ended up with Ralph Fiennes in the lead role), "but regrettably I won't be offered them. But I think every actor feels that."

Is he rejected because he's become typecast?

"I don't feel I'm remotely typecast any more," he protests. "I wasn't as Charles II in Restoration, a film I have the highest regard for. Nor with the bloke - a misogynist, schizophrenic, homosexual old Harrovian - in Victory. Then, of course, there was the old buffer in The Jungle Book, who was largely based on members of my own family."

Neill's father, a New Zealander, was a British military man who moved with his English wife to Ulster, where one Nigel Neill was born. It was only when the family moved back to New Zealand and Nigel was sent to boarding school that this only child nicknamed himself Sam in an effort to lose the Pommie image and ingratiate himself with the locals. So Sam stuck, as has Neill's allegiance to New Zealand and his house in Otago on the South Island, though nowadays he is rarely to "be found at home. The rootlessness of an ex-pat childhood haunts him ("I envy Maori people because they know that they come from a particular place") but, as he says with a smooth, rather familiar smile, "On my more benign days, I feel part of the international community."

Still, there is something inescapably close to home about Neill's own measured character. "New Zealand, one of the tiniest countries in the world, beat one of the greatest yachting powers in the America Cup," says Neill, at one point contemplating the essential nature of the Kiwi personality.

"But when they were crossing the finishing line in San Diego, they were not kissing, or high-fiving, as the Americans would do, but shaking hands."

"I am a New Zealander, no question about it," he tells me later. And perhaps herein lies the enigmatic quality which so characterises Sam Neill's work. Just when you think he's one thing, he throws you a loop and becomes quite another. Despite playing countless carefully controlled men, the screen character Neill most relates to is Carl in John Ruane's bitter black comedy Death In Brunswick, an Antipodean Withnail & I which - as that film did for Richard E. Grant - made Neill a local cult hero.

Carl is 40 going on 14, a sad old rocker complete with leather jacket, RayBans and overblown beer-belly who is intensely but disastrously in love with a 19-year-old; a man who has simply let life pass him by. Can there possibly be a connection?

Well, Neill certainly acts decades younger than his 47 years; he first fell madly in love in his 30s, when he had an intense, stormy relationship (and a son) with New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow, and eventually got married just five years ago to Japanese make-up artist Noriko Watanabe. And as Neill himself once said, no doubt trying to make sense of the mystery of it all: "I'm not very good in bed. Most of us bumble and fumble about in bed - as we do in the rest of our lives."

 

 

 

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