Sunday Magazine (Sunday Telegraph) - August 27, 2000

 

 


The serious business of being Sam


DESPITE HUGE COMMERCIAL SUCCESS IN
JURASSIC PARK AND OMEN 3, SAM NEILL STILL RETURNS TO SYDNEY TO DO SMALL-BUDGET THOUGHTFUL FILMS THAT RAISE CONSCIOUSNESS RATHER THAN DOLLARS.  HE IS A ONE-TIME LABOR CAMPAIGNER, A SUPPORTER OF GREENPEACE AND ANTI-WHALING CRUSADES. AS CLAUDIA SAMMUT DISCOVERS, SAM NEILL MAY HAVE MADE HIS NAME PLAYING SON OF SATAN, BUT HE NEVER SOLD HIS SOUL

 

A funny thing happens when I meet Sam Neill. He is sitting on a garden bench smiling wonderfully for the camera, a picture of suavity in his chocolate suede loafers and navy sports jacket, when two dogs from next door start a bit of ruckus.

"Rrrf, rrrf, rrrf," they bark vigorously through the fence.

"Grrrrrr, grrrrrrr, grrrrrr," comes the response from Neill, bracing his teeth in an amusing growl.

"Rrrf, rrrf, rrrf," the chorus replies.

"Grrrrr, grrrr, grrrr," Neill continues. "Rrrf, rrrf, rrrf."

It's a bizarre vignette for one as composed as Neill. The New Zealand-raised actor-sex symbol of more than 40 feature films is renowned for his reluctance to show emotion, to discuss personal relationships, to reveal a scratch beneath the perfectly controlled exterior.

Throughout our meeting, Neill guards his territory like a fieldsman at first slip, eyes a ball.

Even the interchanges with his wife Noriko Watanabe, a specialist make-up artist who accompanies him for hair and face styling, are conducted strictly in private in a small, whitewalled room tucked away in an upstairs corner of his Sydney agent's Woolloomooloo office.

Sam Neill turns 53 next month. Depending on the role, he can sometimes look his age on screen. Meeting him in the flesh, you are struck by the timelessness of his looks - the wide, tanned forehead, straight nose and devilish cheek-to-cheek grin that seems to transcend the years. The hair may have thinned a little, there may be a pair of reading glasses peeking from his shirt pocket, but Sam Neill still has that ability to woo audiences at a twinkle. When I allude to his rather large female following, he breaks out in a peal of laughter: "Oh, oh," he chuffs. "How nice of you to say that."

His career has veered from Hollywood blockbusters such as Jurassic Park (1993) and The Horse Whisperer ('97), to quieter dramatic performances such as Evil Angels ('89) in which he portrayed the stoic pastor Michael Chamberlain, and Jane Campion's acclaimed The Piano ('93) where he played a repressed pioneer battling the rigors of an untamed land and a mute bride. In Britain he has been honored with an OBE for services to acting.

And yet, while he is a star, it is hard to picture Neill as a true celebrity. Perhaps it is because he deliberately sidesteps excessive media attention, and welcomes opportunities to return to his southern-hemisphere roots to make low-budget independent movies such as Death in Brunswick ('90) and the black comedy Children of the Revolution ('95).

Or perhaps it is his grassroots origins in the industry: six years as a documentary film director with New Zealand's National Film Unit in the early '70s (he returned in '95 to direct Cinema of Unease, a documentary of New Zealand cinematic history for the British Film Institute), a year in a mini-bus touring with a drama quartet, fringe theatre and short film work.

"I like movies with heart," Neill reflects on his mixed bag of credits. "They are not small films, they are independent films."

In his current endeavor, My Mother Frank, he plays cranky, beige-jacketed university lecturer Professor Mortlock, a man whose rigid ways come head to head with feisty 51-year-old student Frances "Frank" Kennedy (Sinead Cusack). It's a mid-sized film made on a budget of less than $6 million and a likely audience pull of half a million. A long way from the juggernaut of Jurassic Park, and the third instalment of the dinosaur blockbuster he is currently filming in Hawaii and LA.

But that's what separates Neill from other stars. Commercial success and exposure are not his priorities. What draws him to roles like Prof. Mortlock is the character's complexity. An outwardly antagonistic man, Mortlock ultimately becomes likable. "I like dark characters ... I'm not afraid to be seen in a poor light," he says. "I don't think he (Mortlock) is really a bad guy, he just goes about things the wrong way."

Like many of his characters, Neill's own persona remains something of an enigma. He is a man of multiple passions: a protective, devoted husband and father of three, a collector of New Zealand art, and one-time campaigner for the Australian Labor Party.

A supporter of Greenpeace, he petitioned the shipment of plutonium through the Tasman Sea during the '90s and has been an active voice against whale slaughter. In '93 he showcased both his talent and politics in a film on the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. Yet few people know these things.

Fewer still know of the special relationship he shared with his father, the late Major Dermot Neill, a World War II officer and graduate of Britain's Sandhurst Military Academy, a man who wore khaki shirts and "excruciatingly baggy shorts" which exposed a pair of nobbly knees (a feature Neill admits to sharing). Major Neill was strict and autocratic, dissuading his son from artistic pursuits despite contrary advice from the school headmaster that he showed early signs of theatrical talent. Instead, be pushed the boy towards rugby and rowing.

Interestingly, both of Neill's siblings also found their calling in the arts. Elder brother Michael is the head of English at Auckland University and his younger sister Juliet is a sometime teacher of drama, sometime puppeteer who also dabbles in acting. "Something in our DNA," Neill suggests by way of explanation.

If the famous middle son holds any resentment towards his father, who died in '91, he does not show it. "He seemed quite stem to a lot of people when in fact he was rather a warm, soft person even though he had this military kind of presence;' Neill says. "He mellowed more and more with age and his political views softened too. He was rather right-wing but he got nicer with age. Increasing wisdom, I suspect. Some people get more conservative. He got less conservative."

Neill's eyes are lowered as he speaks and his body language is uncomfortable: clasped hands, rubbing knuckles, long pauses between direct questions. Where I imagined he would be crisp, even glib, he is ponderous and philosophical. Often during the interview, I lift my head from notetaking, only to find his eyes gazing at the wall, deep in thought.

And while the detail of his personal life is for the most part locked away - "I can't talk about my children for security reasons" - he does, every now and then, reveal insights into a character which is genuinely warm and reflective. "My children mean everything. I get far more from my children than they get from me," he says frankly, then falls into silence.

In the conservative, privileged household in which he was raised, emotional discourse was frowned upon. "I wouldn't characterise it as an intimate family. My mother (Priscilla) was very brisk and British and determinedly cheerful. You never heard a complaint about anything. She always looked on the bright side of life. Adversity was never discussed." He pauses, and his voice lilts with faint melancholy. "She died last year."

If the disciplined upbringing at times made for a difficult childhood, it also instilled in Neill a refinement. Talk to people who know him and you will hear words like "gracious" and "gentlemanly".

"I think I was well brought up," he reflects. "(My parents) taught me manners, consideration for others. They taught me about ethics, a thousand things. An appreciation of landscape, how to fish. A certain work ethic. I think people of that generation were hard working. They'd been through the Depression. They never took anything for granted."

Christened Nigel John Dermot, Neill was born in Ulster, Northern Ireland, in 1947. Major Neill was a third-generation New Zealander who had been sent to Harrow, England, for his early education and later attended military college. The family came to New Zealand by sea when Neill was seven, settling in Dunedin where his father joined the family liquor business, a venture established generations earlier by Sam's paternal greatgrandfather and which became one of the country's largest liquor sellers.

Yet the privileged existence did not translate to a velvet-lined youth. Sam, Michael and Juliet were placed in boarding schools, Sam at age nine. Being separated from his parents was a traumatic experience - "There's nothing life can ever really throw you after that," he admits with an embarrassed huff,"... but I got over it."

In the playground, his English voice and sensitive demeanor were out of kilter with his more robust peers. He developed a stutter, and at age 11 changed his name to Sam, which was less "effete" amid a classroom of several Nigels. Today he is a patron of the Australian Speak Easy Association, a support group for people with speech difficulties.

Neill now speaks with a voice that is decidedly polished, with more than a trace of British influence. He projects a distinct air of sophistication, something which has endeared him not only to his fans, but also has caught the attention of industry spotters.

In 1978 Sydney casting director Margaret Fink spied him in the New Zealand political feature film Sleeping Dogs and lured him to Australia for the part of grazier Harry Beecham in My Brilliant Career.

The film triggered Neill's own brilliant career. Veteran British actor James Mason saw the piece during a sojourn in LA, and immediately seized upon his eye-catching looks and acting ability. He recommended the New Zealander to producers of The Final Conflict Omen III, who were casting for the part of Damien Thorn, Satan's son. Shortly after, Neill moved to London, making a series of television and cinema dramas: Reilly - Ace of Spies (1983-84) which earned him the accolade of Britain's best actor award, The Blood of Others ('84, with Jodie Foster), and Kane and Abel ('85) for American television.

Today, he lives an elusive existence, divided between homes in Sydney's Double Bay, a marigold and lavender-fielded property in Central Otago on New Zealand's South Island, a pinot noir vineyard in the district's Gibbston Valley - "My label (Two Paddocks) is doing spectacularly and is utterly delicious," he informs me cheerily - and acting assignments that take him abroad for up to 10 months a year.

International travel still gives him an electric buzz, yet the Otago of his childhood remains his first love. "I learned directly from my Dad an intense love for this particular part of the world," he says. "And still today, when I am away from it, I am filled with a longing to be back there ... I am always aware of the sad irony of the impossibility of living where you feel most at home."

His marriage in 1989 to Tokyo-born Watanabe - they met on the set of Dead Calm the previous year - delivered a new cultural injection. "An amazing place," he remarks of his wife's home country. "All sorts of strange things - how chaotic it is, how organised. Odd paradoxes. It can be so demure and so wild. I love the rush of Tokyo, but not for too long. My mother-in-law lives in the hot spring town of Atami. Tranquillity - it's hard to find it now (in Japan), but when you do ..."

Neill is a closet family man. He has a son. Tim, 17, from a six-year relationship with New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow (his Omen III costar) and is stepfather to Noriko's daughter Maiko, now 18. The couple have a daughter of their own, Elena, who is now nine.

"Families end up being blended or they don't," he says of the union. "Diversity is a wonderful thing. I actually think one of the things that makes Australia an interesting place is that there are so many different cultures rubbing up against each other and blending, learning from each other. I was reading in the paper a couple of weeks ago that something like 50 per cent of Australians are married to Australians which I think is terrific. A cosmopolitan country is a much more interesting one than a monoculture."

The subject of Neill's former relationship with Harrow is one of acute sensitivity. "Don't go there," I am warned by his personal assistant prior to the interview. I don't "go there" directly, but I do put to Neill his oft-reported declaration that "marriage is not necessary", something he didn't feel he needed to do. Now, a married man, how does he feel about that?

"I don't remember saying that, but it (marriage) probably wasn't (important) at that point," he says skirting around the question. Then, a little jostled, "It might have been a journalist misquoting me. I've been very misquoted.

"I don't have any real views on marriage and families," he says finally. "I think people should be tolerant, but also realise these things are not for everybody.

"There's no hard and fast formula that works any more but if you think a nuclear family is what you want and that's what you can make work, then more power to you. But a lot of people are realising now that for them it's better to be single and that's fair enough."

While Neill has not exactly adopted the family package kit and caboodle - last year he spent 10 months overseas - he views his children as absolute equals.

"It's horrible to think there are people who see children as second-rate citizens or undesirable. I don't subscribe to this 'No kids zone' sort of thing. (Like) if you said no Italian zone or no Aboriginal zone - you can't discriminate like that."

Children are so important, he implores. "A society with no children is a society which is rooted, has no future, no hope. We should prize them, value them."

This is the serious Sam talking. Reflective Sam, the Sam who loves his own children so much he is paralysed to talk of them. The subject of women is more to his liking. On screen Neill has partnered some of acting's most sought-after female properties, including Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Angelica Huston, Isabella Rossellini, Jodie Foster and Sigourney Weaver. So what does Sam Neill think about women?

"Oh, they're wonderful," he exclaims, launching into high praise. "And in almost every way superior to men. More sensible, more practical, easier on the eye. They're kinder, smarter." Smarter? I ask and he chuckles: "I think they have bigger brains probably.

"You only have to look at how (women) multi-task. They can be writing something on the computer, talking on the telephone, cooking a meal, administering piano lessons with one child and homework with another, all at the same time. And a knuckle-dragger like me is only capable of doing one of the above. I hasten to add," he smiles, "I can do all of those things, but only one at a time."

That's not to say he thinks women carry an unfair load. "It's up to them. Everybody takes on what (they're capable of). They just have to say no. It's as simple as that. If they are taking on more than they should, they should be telling the knuckle-dragger they live with to pull (his) weight. Even if he can only do things one at a time."

So with the domestic situation all sorted, does that make the Neill family a happy one?

"Happy, I think so. (But) there's no such thing as perfection. As long as there's not too many tears, or doors being slammed..."

He breathes a whisper of a sigh. Even star-studded households are not immune from everyday stresses.

There is something I read once about Neill's ideal of happiness that I am dying to clarify. Reported in a now-yellowed newspaper article from 1985, he said the only type of happiness is "the odd thing you can achieve in a personal sense. That is to say, if you actually find yourself in love or, more importantly, loving. I think loving is different from being in love".

I wonder if it might be one of those "misquoted" statements, something he said once long ago when celebrity was not such a delicate game. But Neill responds: "It's intoxicating being in love, but it's not the same thing as being a loving person," he says quietly. "It's an ongoing work of a lifetime to learn to be a loving person."

Are you a loving person? I venture gently.

"I hope so," he replies.

Sam Neill has a great soul. He doesn't like us to see it off screen, but it's there ticking strong, being moved every day by people and places. His final words to me as we retire outdoors for photographs are spoken with sincerity and wisdom. And, for a moment, the room is filled with nothing but the quietness of his thoughts.

Being a loving person, he says, is something you have to work at. You have to make a conscious effort. He pauses and looks at me with the patient eyes of someone sharing an inner truth. "It's not just like breathing... Like the Beatles said: 'The love you take is equal to the love you make.'"

 

 

 

 

 

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