He stars in Hollywood blockbusters and lives on a vineyard in New Zealand. What attracted Sam Neill to a period drama set in Birmingham? The 'Peaky Blinders' star talks to Craig McLean
The actor Sam Neill, sporting a moustache and sipping tea, is reclining in the panelled library of a Fitzrovia hotel in central London. As an Irish-born New Zealander he is a son of Empire - well, Commonwealth - and a man who, with his smart suit and bon vivant charm, seems very much at home in these surroundings.
Yes, the 67-year-old nods slowly, his PR handlers have him trapped here for much of the day, selling the returning Peaky Blinders. The period drama, set in Birmingham in the Twenties, returns to BBC Two next month for a second series. First time around critics may have carped at a couple of dodgy Birmingham accents but praised the "mesmeric conviction" and "powerful performances" of the actors in this stylish and stylised gangster drama. Chief among these were Neill as Det Insp Chester Campbell, and Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, the leader of the hoods Campbell is determined to destroy. Both return for series two.
Neill likes to chat. Plus, he has bartered a nice lunch out of his obligations to promote the series. So, after our interview he's allowed some time off for good behaviour and is escaping the hotel.
"And the quid pro quo," he begins in his Antipodean drawl, "is you can nominate your own restaurant. I'm going to St John."
Ah, Fergus Henderson's east London homage to all things - and the chef means all things - carnivorous. Is Neill, oenophile and gastronome, a meaty man? "Absolutely," he says.
Nose to tail? "Probably not the nose. And maybe not the tail. But pretty much everything in between."
Ask him to account for the success of the BBC's six-parter about Birmingham razor gangs - an odd but winning mix of industrial grime, street violence, catwalk-friendly fashion and cutting-edge haircuts - and Neil toes the party line with purring conviction.
"Oh, I think [it's] the quality of the writing. There's something very.." he begins. "People like outlaws, you know? And there's a terrible sense in which Campbell is right - the Peaky Blinders are scum!" he declares with a grin. "Also, the other end of the scale is Downton Abbey. Now who do you identify with in Downton Abbey?"
Dame Maggie Smith's character, obviously.
"Maggie Smith's character!" he hoots disbelievingly. He shakes his head sympathetically. "But we can all identify with working-class crims."
Critics and audiences certainly could, but Bafta voters didn't. Earlier this year Peaky Blinders was entirely shut out of nominations in the major categories, which was a different kind of criminal act. It was a "snub" that O'Neill mischievously referenced ("I'm actually crying inside, underneath this bluff exterior") at May's ceremony, before giving the most entertaining speech of the night as he presented the leading actress award.
"Sam is a natural comic," says series creator Steven Knight. If he ever writes a comedy, he'd love to cast Neill, which would certainly add a fresh dimension to a long and busy, big and small-screen CV that features everything from the blockbusters Jurassic Park (I and III) to the art house Oscar-winner The Piano, and television shows ranging from Merlin to The Tudors.
Knight also highlights the glint in Neill's eye as key to his gripping portrayal of Campbell, a fish-out-of-water in the Birmingham slums as a Belfast man sent over to clean up the Midlands city.
"You can see the self-assurance - but you can see through it," says Knight. "Campbell is constantly certain about everything: he's definite, he knows he's right But somehow the way that Sam does it, there's a flicker in his eyes that shows doubt and self-loathing. He captures that puritanical Protestant hypocrisy, I think. Some part of him knows he's corrupted. He won't admit it to himself but you can see the conflict - and in the second series that really does become a big issue for him."
Campbell's a man with issues aplenty to begin with. As well as shouldering the stigma of not having served in the First World War, he has a young Winston Churchill - as Minister for Air and War - breathing down his neck. His background is in Ulster politics and policing, which then, as now, had baggage aplenty. And he has a curious, semi-paternalistic attitude to the home-town friend's daughter he dispatched to get under mortal enemy Shelby's skin - only to learn she got under more than his skin.
"Oh, yeah, he's very damaged," says Neill. "I don't think it's possible to like him. But I kind of empathise with him. You have to have some empathy; you can't despise the people you play. And every dog has his reason, don't they?" he smiles.
"I just visualise a house where he grew up that was grim. I don't think there's a mother there. He's beaten. I don't think there's alcohol. It's dour, loveless, and everyone's damaged. And they spend too much time in the chapel."
Loath to spoil the surprises, neither actor nor writer wants to say much about the new plot lines. But judging by the opening episode, it's safe to say that two years on from the events of the first season's cliffhanger, both Campbell and Shelby are in very different places. Literally in the case of Campbell, who is now in London, attached to the Irish desk at the Secret Intelligence Service.
"His time's divided; he's got a bigger job," explains Neill. "So he's a more important man. His remit is wider. And his view of the world is considerably expanded. And that is true for Tommy too - his eyes are now turning to London. They're beginning to have aspirations, both of them."
Yes, he still has Churchill's ear. "Churchill will always be Campbell's man-crush. You'll never kill that." And to be sure, he's still obsessed with wiping out these Brum crims. "He's Irish," Neill smiles again. "He'll never forget."
As for the new cast member, tyro muscle-bound film actor Tom Hardy (Bronson, Locke), all he will say is that he's "another adversary for Tommy. He doesn't concern my character at all." Campbell and Hardy's characters seemingly don't appear in any scenes together, "but he may well be part of my grand plan. Campbell has a big plan. A big, big plan," chuckles Neill.
Where Campbell is a barking (in both senses) Ulster Protestant copper preaching hellfire, brimstone and damnation for Shelby's Peaky Blinders, Neill is slow and reflective. But the actor's familiarity with the role runs deep.
On one level, he feels at home in Britain. Having spent his twenties in the New Zealand and Australian television and film industries, his leading role in Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981), saw the start of an international career. And his many UK jobs since have resulted in several close actor friendships. Timothy Spall is one of his oldest pals in the business, a connection that dates back to the early Eighties, when they were both making films on adjacent lots at Pinewood.
"And I saw him in The Cherry Orchard at the Donmar around 1981. He was straight out of Rada and I thought, 'This kid is f------ amazing."
Neill was born Nigel John Dermot Neill in Omagh, County Tyrone, to an English mother and third-generation New Zealander father of Northern Irish stock. Dermot Neill was a Sandhurst-educated officer in the Irish Fusiliers.
"A lot of relations had been through that regiment. I don't know why," he shrugs. "I don't know what started that."
His father served in the Second World War, battling up through Italy for two years.
Did Neill base any of Campbell's quasi-military demeanour on his father?
"I think there's a leakage of my father into pretty much everything I do," he replies. With his in-character moustache - he's just completed the eight-week shoot in various Midlands and northern English locations - he admits that "it's getting quite scary" how much he resembles Neill senior.
"I think so much of your energy when you're growing up is about becoming independent of your parents," he reflects. "And the older you get, the more you realise you're actually so much part and parcel of the same kind of material."
That said, Campbell isn't the character who most closely resembles his old man. Neill's deep back catalogue of roles features "a couple of other military blokes" who were more akin to his father.
"And my father was a rather nice man. But this character Campbell is a f------ psychopath," he laughs.
A clubbable chap to his core, Neill had help with the accent from some of those British acting friends. Jimmy Nesbitt and Liam Neeson, Northern Irishmen both, gave him tips.
He had left Northern Ireland aged seven, "and I don't think I ever had an Ulster accent. My mother was English and my father was English-educated. They'd never had any accent, so what I had was what I had at home. But both Liam and Jimmy were very helpful, not least because they have entirely different accents themselves, which kind of liberated me. I'm sure there are people who will say, 'That's a crap accent.' To which my answer is: 'I'm sure there's someone in Northern Ireland who speaks like that'"
When Neill slips into Campbell's accent today, the transformation is remarkable. Whereas his speaking voice is mellifluous and honeyed and suits his horizontally laid-back demeanour, the character's back-of-the-throat growl is instantly transformative.
"It's amazing what I realised this time back [filming] - once you wrap your mouth around it, and you've given conviction to the words, I found myself speaking at three times my normal volume. Just this huge, huge thing - your voice turns into this instrument. You know, we've all heard [the Rev Ian] Paisley and people like that - it's a voice that's very well-suited for standing on a street corner and giving it hell."
Neill talks a good talk, and is as charismatic in person as he is on screen. But he's equally comfortable toiling the soil.
Back home on New Zealand's South Island he has a farm- cum-vineyard in the Central Otago region, where he lives with his wife, Noriko Watanabe, a movie make-up artist. They have a daughter together, Elena, born in 1991, and each has a child from previous marriages. He's owned Two Paddocks for 21 years, and at May's International Wine Challenge he won two gold medals for his First Paddock Pinot Nair 2010 and Last Chance Pinot Noir 2010. So he has grapes in abundance as well as animals aplenty on his 190 acres. Does he slaughter his own livestock?
"I do not myself, no," he replies, somewhat hesitantly. "Um, it's an awkward question, because my wife is kind of semi-Buddhist"
Semi? "Yeah. She's not terribly practising. But she's by birth and persuasion Buddhist," he says of his Japanese partner. "So she does not approve of the idea of anything dying on the farm. But you know, we do have an excess of lambs..."
Any tactical (and discrete) livestock slaughtering might have to wait. His next project is a sci-fi film, DxM, which he's shooting in Budapest He's clearly tickled at the prospect of sinking his actorly teeth into playing "a big, know-it-all, blowhard, master of the universe". He's also starring in The Daughter, an adaptation of an Ibsen-inspired stage play that's currently shooting in Australia.
But no, he will not be popping up in Jurassic World the fourth film in the franchise. "Oh, that's not gonna happen. Everyone asks me this. But they're doing something else so forget about it," he says cheerfully.
Does he see himself doing another big Hollywood production? "Yeah, I never say no to anything," comes his sanguine reply. "Whatever [script] comes through my letterbox, I'm always happy to look at I'm always pleased when I'm going somewhere new, and working with new people or with people I know already. I feel very privileged working with other actors. Actors tend to be the best company I know.
"I like to be busy," he shrugs. "And I'm always busy. Because if I'm not working, I'm doing wine. So I'm very engaged in life one way or another.
"Doing wine" is a passion with deep roots for Sam Neill. His great-grandfather founded Neill & Co in Dunedin in 1861. They were New Zealand's largest importers of spirits.
So this is the stuff - the booze business - that's in his DNA, not this acting lark?
"I think that's true," he says. "And more than that: my father, many years before anyone planted a vine in Central Otago, when we'd go on holiday there, he would always say: 'I don't know why no one's growing grapes here.'"
Now his son has followed through on the old man's vision. Neill can - and does - talk at length about the arcana of growing grapes: the temperature, UV light, the schist (something to do with soil). It sounds like it's quite the operation he has at Two Paddocks. What's his annual production in volume? "Oh it's tiny. But I've just bought my fourth vineyard, which I've called The Fusilier after my father. That will take us from about six or 7,000 cases... to about 11 or 12."
What proportion does he keep for personal consumption? "About 11 of those 12," Neill winks.
‘Peaky Blinders’ returns to BBC Two on October 2