The Advertiser - August 21, 1993

 

 

BEAUTY and the BEASTS

 

MY cab driver is a pretty good judge of character. "Sam Neill?" he said. "You're interviewing Sam Neill? I've picked him up a couple of times. He's a good bloke. He doesn't carry his ego around on his shoulders." After meeting Neill, one can only conclude this driver is a pretty good judge of character.

Neill is much more than a man of modesty, however. He's erudite, thoughtful, possessed of a sly, dry wit and - as far as the international film industry is concerned - he's a talent in great demand.

How many actors in one year can boast leading roles in the shared Palme d'Or winner at Cannes (The Piano) and what looms as the most commercially successful movie in Hollywood history, Jurassic Park? Such achievements would suggest a ruthlessly ambitious man determined to stake out a high-profile career. But the pattern of Neill's career, after gaining widespread recognition for My Brilliant Career 14 years ago, is one almost of indifference to fame.

Instead of diving head first into Hollywood, he resisted, dabbling only occasionally in blockbusters like The Hunt for Red October.

Rather than moving to Los Angeles, he settled in London. And, while others would have sought out big-paying studio roles, he returned to Australia regularly to appear in such modest ventures as Death In Brunswick.

It was probably inevitable that fame would catch up with Neill - and 1993 seems to be the year.

Life for this 45-year-old father of three, now based largely in Los Angeles, will never be the same.

"It's getting very difficult to go shopping at the mall now," Neill concedes. "Nothing comes without a price and to find one's life constricted like that is not my idea of a good time." Neill isn't especially bitter about all this. He was paid well to play the role of palaeontologist Dr Allan Grant in Jurassic Park and has received due credit for his fine portrayal of a tormented New Zealand pioneer in The Piano. In addition, he seems to have enjoyed being an observer, as much as a participant, in the publicity frenzy surrounding the movies, especially Jurassic Park, which opens here on September 2.

"I can't say I really understand the immense momentum Jurassic Park has built up," he says.

"There's something about the film, the dinosaurs and about Spielberg that has created this fever. It's weird." Neill and his Japanese wife, Noriko, wanted to judge the Jurassic Park phenomenon first-hand so they attended a public screening in Manhattan, where audiences are not known for their silence or subtlety. They turned up incognito and found queues stretching around the block. "They saved us a couple of seats on the aisle and sneaked us in when it went dark," he says. "But then they foolishly showed about 10 trailers for other films coming up and each one that came on got more and more roundly abused by the audience. It became clear they really wanted to see Jurassic Park.

"Then when it started, they were yelling things at the dinosaurs like 'eat the lawyer'.

"At the Japanese premiere, the film began and there was polite applause. And then it was absolutely deadly silent from the beginning to the end.

"It seemed that the more tense it got the more silent they were. And I was sitting there thinking, 'This film is going to be a turkey in Japan'.

"It ended and all the credits rolled and we got up and walked out and suddenly we were mobbed. It was frightening. In Japan, they are going ape about it now."

This week, Neill was in Sydney where he was based earlier in the year making Sirens, a film inspired by the life of Norman Lindsay, in which he plays the Australian artist.

But pinning Neill down to where he considers home these days is difficult. He was born in Northern Ireland and raised in New Zealand before moving to Australia, then England and now California.

For six years, he lived with British actress Lisa Harrow and raised a son, Tim.

When he and his make-up artist wife of four years, Noriko, travel with their combined brood of three children, they carry passports from five countries - NZ, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

"I feel like we're kind of a little United Nations," he says with a grin.

Needless to say, the two eldest children like the idea of their father starring in a movie so close to their dinosaur-loving hearts.

"At the moment, it seems pretty cool to have Dad in a film that kids know about," says Neill. "Dad's a toy they can sort of throw around." Neill made his fist foray into Hollywood in The Final Conflict, the third of the Omen movies, but has been ambivalent about the place until recently.

He says he kept coming back to Australia and NZ to make films like Dead Calm and Evil Angels because he felt a loyalty to the local industry and because he felt more relaxed here.

"I feel I am part of things here, as opposed to Los Angeles where one always feels like a bit of an outsider who's making it in spite of it all," he says.

"It's true that I did resist Los Angeles for a while. I refused to live there. At that stage, I was much more interested in Britain.

"In a way, I grew up thinking that if you were going to be serious about acting, then England was the place where you had to prove yourself. I suppose it's some sort of colonial reflex, which is kind of ridiculous when you think about it.

"I spent quite some years working in England and ignoring the fact that there wasn't really a film industry there anyway.

"I quite like Los Angeles now. But I've never really been a great one for planning or being strategic. I've been fairly happy-go-lucky about what happens next. When someone rings up and says, 'What about doing a film in Mongolia?' I'd say 'Mongolia? Fantastic. I've never been there'. That's the haphazard, rather random factor in my work." As if to underline this statement, Neill's next picture is a low-budget affair with horror maestro John Carpenter. But there is still something of a contradiction between the calm, unfussed and wry presence of Neill and his own view of himself.

Our interview is conducted with Neill on his feet, wandering back and forth, yet approaching the task with a sort of humorous serenity. But he protests that he's never calm leading up to a new film.

"On the contrary," he confesses. "I'm always in a state of fear and anxiety before I start shooting something. And although the fear goes pretty quickly, the anxiety never disappears.

"I do work hard at making it look easy, though. Never be caught acting, as they say. That's the trick." It's Neill's carefree air as much as his physical appeal which seems to have sustained talk of him being "the thinking woman's sex symbol" into his 40s.

The image appears to have been cemented by Jurassic Park in which he plays a quiet, heroic scientist saving children from hungry velociraptors.

But in The Piano he's cast against type as Stewart, a pioneering farmer as oblivious to the emotions of his mail-order wife (Holly Hunter) as he is to the unforgiving land in New Zealand.

Neill agrees that if he has a romantic image, then this role will punctuate it.

"I suppose there is something subversive about it," he admits.

"I see Stewart as being a very complex character. That's true of all Jane's (Campion) work. She refuses to be categorised into black and white. I think she has a very humane vision.

"When I went to work every day I always felt, as an actor, that I was very much loved by Jane. She would envelop you in a hug every morning." Steven Spielberg, as one might imagine, operates quite differently.

The king of action-adventure films kept coming back to Neill with renewed offers to play the Jurassic Park role, despite all sorts of possibles, including Tim Robbins and William Hurt.

In the end, Spielberg even pushed his movie back a couple of weeks to allow Neill to complete Family Pictures, with Anjelica Huston, in Toronto.

Neill says one of the things he appreciates most about two films as disparate as Jurassic Park and The Piano, is that they attempted something different.

Jurassic Park has taken special effects to a new height. The Piano is an unlikely romance amid bleakness.

"You can't quite gauge what it is that The Piano does to you," Neill says. "It works on an emotional level that I've never really experienced in another film."

 

BYLINE: DAN MCDONNELL

 

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