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
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
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
"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
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
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."