South China Morning Post - August 8, 2001

 

 

From Hicksville to Hollywood

 

NOT MUCH SEEMS to faze actor Sam Neill these days. In his latest film, Jurassic Park III, he maintains an air of calm and control while madness and mayhem - and the odd dinosaur - rant and rave around him.

But it wasn't always so. When the Northern Ireland-born, New Zealand-raised Neill started out in the business in the early 1970s, fresh from the University of Canterbury, he was crippled by stage fright. And it wasn't the kind brought on by facing the world's toughest critics and audiences on opening night on Broadway. No, this stage fright came on when he donned pantaloons and ponced about in front of schoolchildren in the wilds of the New Zealand countryside.

"I sort of came into acting by default, I guess," says the 54-year-old, relaxing in a Tokyo conference room. "When I was at the age when you think, 'Well what am I going to do as a career?' I acted for a year - taking Shakespeare to schools, to unwilling kids in the countryside.

"It was a thankless task trying to sell them on Henry V. And I used to get terrible, quivering stage fright. I would feel sick until I got on stage and it wasn't much fun. I thought at first I couldn't really cut it as an actor. But I guess in a sense I discovered it was just one of the few things I could actually do."

Terrified by theatre work, Neill turned his attention to film. He signed up with the New Zealand National Film Unit and trained as an editor before moving on to directing documentaries. By chance, he landed a role in a low-budget production put together by director Roger Donaldson. It was a career- and life -changing move. Sleeping Dogs (1977) - in which Neill played a cuckolded husband who joins a band of freedom fighters - became the first New Zealand film to open in the United States.

Neill was then lured across the Tasman Sea to Australia where he was cast opposite Judy Davis in director Gillian Armstrong's breakthrough film, My Brilliant Career (1979). The film screened at the Cannes Film Festival the following year, and Neill's performance caught the eye of screen legend James Mason, who brought him over to England.

Neill has gone on to be an actor in constant demand. He has filled an eclectic CV with parts in everything from TV's Reilly: Ace Of Spies, the third effort in The Omen series ("The one role I'd like to erase," he says. "I think the 666 has just about faded from the back of my skull!"), and on to blockbusters like Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), and low-budget surprise packages like Jane Campion's critically acclaimed The Piano (1993). It has been a long and winding road - one which has seen Neill make the most of his chiselled, earthy looks, complete with steely, blued-eyed stare and deliberate, careful mannerisms.

Talking in Tokyo as part of a worldwide publicity blitz that accompanies such big-budget summer fare as Jurassic Park III, Neill chooses his words carefully with long silences preceding many of his answers. And he has that look - the one where he tilts his head slightly to one side, fringe falling across his forehead as he sizes you up. He uses it to as much effect when encountering a hungry dinosaur as he does facing the flash bulbs at the mad Tokyo media conference held earlier that day.

Such mannerisms made him perfect for the role of Dr Alan Grant, the palaeontologist and voice of reason in the first Jurassic Park which grossed more than US$ 350 million (HK$ 2.72 billion) in the US alone. He missed the Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), which made around US$ 230 million in the US - but was called upon again by director/producer Steven Spielberg for the third instalment. And Jurassic Park III has continued the astonishing success of its predecessors, raking in US$ 150 million in its first two weeks of screening in the US.

Grant returns, older and more gnarled, but times have changed. The budget for research into dinosaurs has been cut, and money is fast running out. Enter rich couple Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H Macy and Tea Leoni), who draw Grant back to the dinosaur's playground, Isla Sorna, with the promise that they'll fund his work if he plays tour guide for them on a flyover of the island. Needless to say, things aren't what they seem, and the good doctor soon finds himself matching wits with a new enemy: the frightening spinosaurus (a beast that would give any self-respecting T-Rex nightmares), the flying menace of the pteranodons and, making a welcome return to the big screen, his old friends, the velociraptors.

"When I was first approached . . . all they had come up with was the idea that I should return to the series. They had no story to speak of," says Neill. He wanted to have another crack at the role - the first time in his career that he has revived a character - as he felt he "didn't really nail it" the first time, and wanted to see how he could develop the character.

"He's not really an action hero, he's just the leader of the pack in an action film," says Neill. "And this is decidedly an action film. It's a specialised type of role and it's been led before by people like Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. I was really thinking about them when it came to this part."

Working with a new director, Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji), also helped. Although it's definitely a Spielberg "production", Jurassic Park III lends itself to an era when summer flicks were short, sharp (the film is only 92 minutes) and gave audiences plenty of shocks.

"It occurred to me today, being in Japan," says Neill. "If this film belongs to a genre, it comes directly out of that sort of Godzilla monster movie which came from Japanese cinema. Once you get to number three in a series (of films), people don't really have any particular expectations. So Joe went in a different direction. There's (no) navel-gazing this time.

"It's clearly still a Spielberg production; a roller-coaster ride in the Indiana Jones fashion. But he (Johnston) did warn me this was going to be an action film, so I'd better be fit. And he's a totally different director from Steven; Steven is more mayhem and Joe is more Zen.

"One of the things I have tried to do throughout my career is work with as many different people as possible, in as many different places. And that's been about the extent of my career plan." Neill is quite unique - and lucky - in this regard, as he has been able to find a home among Hollywood's brightest stars while making constant forays back home to Australasia to work on much smaller, quirky productions.

He keeps a house in Australia, and one in New Zealand with his wife, make-up artist Noriko Watanabe (they met on the set of the thriller Dead Calm in 1989), and their two daughters (he has a son from a previous relationship). And the house sits close to his pride and joy: the vineyards of his Two Paddocks winery, makers of well-received pinot noir.

"The problem with LA is it's very much a company town - who's hot this week, who's making money at the box office - and that's not very interesting to me," says Neill.

"I don't think it's a very healthy way to be for me. There are other things in life that are of consequence. For instance I have three little vineyards and I find that very compelling. What's happening with the weather and soil and all that sort of stuff, I just find so much more interesting than, say, what's in The Hollywood Reporter this week."

An example of the diversity of Neill's work comes with the publicity rounds he has been doing this year. There's been Jurassic Park III ... and The Dish, a small Australian production from the Working Dog production team that had previously put out The Castle (1997). From Hollywood to Hicksville, it may seem to some, but The Dish is the kind of film Neill relishes tackling (plus he has a friendship with its director, Australian Rob Sitch, formed on "fishing, wine and bad jokes").

"There is a muddled view in Australasia about people who go away," Neill says. "They are to an extent resented, but then it's harder to go back again because they all say 'Well, if he's so bloody good, what's he doing back here?' So you are caught between a number of different things.

"Wherever you are, Hollywood has such a tremendous force of gravity that it pulls in all the talent. And that can be to the detriment of wherever it is you're from. That has happened to Australia with its directors in particular. Plus there's some, like Mel Gibson, who have never gone back to work.

"But I've always gone back to do films in Australia and New Zealand, mainly because that's where I really feel comfortable. I like going to LA and I like working there, but I don't want to live there. When you get the chance to do a big blockbuster like this, it's great fun," he laughs.

Neill sees Asian cinema going down the same road as its Australasian counterpart, with the talent drain set to continue as more and more Asian directors and stars make their way to Tinseltown. But that is not always a bad thing - especially for the people in LA who get to work with the Asian talent.

"I think Chinese cinema is the most interesting thing happening in cinema today," he says. "What's been coming out over the past 10 years is breath -taking. Unfortunately, there's not many parts for gweilos like me in these fabulous films!

"Zhang Yimou, for example, deals so extraordinarily with the place, the culture, the people he is from. And Ang Lee jumping from one genre to another is simply amazing. So if someone like Zhang has to go to the West to further his career or reach a bigger audience, tell him 'I'm your man!' "

Jurassic Park III opens tomorrow

 

BYLINE: Sam Neill is back as Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park III. He talks to Mathew Scott about stage fright, making wine and Asian cinema

 

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