The Gazette - August 11, 1995

 

 

After Jurassic Park, Sam Neill is content

with quiet Country Life

 

The first thing you notice about Sam Neill is his shyness and reserve.

It's not that he's hostile to the interview process. Rather, he gives the impression of being a loyal trooper, anxious to do his duty - which in this instance means joining a table of reporters to discuss his new movie, Country Life.

So he is gracious and attentive. But a lot of his answers - particularly at the beginning - come out slowly and haltingly. It's partly that Neill needs to think about what he wants to say. And it's partly modesty.

"There's not a single performance of mine where I couldn't have done better," he says at one point, and you sense that he really means it.

Yet these days Neill is one of the busiest actors in the industry. Only a few months ago, he was winning plaudits for In the Mouth of Madness, the John Carpenter shocker in which he played a man driven to insanity when the plot of a horror novel begins merging with the real world.

Country Life, being released this month, is a total contrast. Inspired by Anton Chekhov's classic Russian play Uncle Vanya, it features Neill as a rural Australian doctor. Coming up this fall and winter are three other diverse assignments - Restoration, in which he plays King Charles II; a new film version of the Joseph Conrad suspense classic, Victory; and Children of the Revolution, which he describes as "definitely" different.

None of these films can be described as mainstream - which might seem surprising when you consider that Neill starred in Jurassic Park, one of the most successful movies of all time, and is slated for the sequel if Steven Spielberg ever gets around to it.

But Neill has never really considered himself a mainstream star - despite the fact that he made his first international impact more than a decade ago with his charismatic title performance in the superb British series Reilly Ace of Spies.

For example, Neill always expected Jurassic Park to do blockbuster business at the box-office, but he didn't do the film to advance his own profile. "I've never been particularly interested in engineering a career," he explains. "I've always kind of zig-zagged between commercial and non-commercial films."

Neill definitely didn't earn a Jurassic Park salary for Country Life. Neither did co-star Greta Scacchi, writer-director Michael Blakemore, or anyone else connected with this period piece about emotional turmoil on an Australian sheep farm in the wake of World War I. It took Blakemore nearly 10 years to raise the money for the film.

"It's one of those things we all wanted to do," Neill says. "In fact, 10 years ago it was cast pretty much identically. When Michael finally got the money I said, 'Aren't we all too old now?' and he said, 'No, you were too damn young before!' "

Chekhov's play deals with the inhabitants of a remote country manor. Country Life transports their emotions and yearnings to the Australian frontier. Blakemore himself plays a pretentious literary fraud who returns to his New South Wales home after years in London. He's accompanied by a young and beautiful wife (Scacchi) who becomes emotionally involved with an idealistic doctor (Neill).

The cast also includes John Hargreaves, as the aging pedant's brother, an embittered man who has spent most of his adult life keeping the sheep farm going. (He's the stand-in for the Uncle Vanya character of the original play.) Kerry Fox plays his practical-minded niece, who nurses a secret love for the doctor.

"Chekhov happens to be my favorite playwright," Neill says. "He has a universality that seems to translate into so many different cultures." His character, Dr. Ashley, is based on the character of the enigmatic Astrov in the original play. Neill found him fascinating to play. "He's curiously modern in his environmental and political concerns - yet he's very close to what Chekhov wrote. We like to think that the environment is a contemporary concern, that it started around 1968, but that isn't so.

"But I was also attracted to the film because it's an ensemble piece. Everybody has a good role. Nobody has to carry the film."

Neill also likes Country Life because it contrasts European sensibilities with the rawer, less inhibited society of Australia. In so doing, he says, it highlights the conflict between two opposing cultures - a topic of burning concern in Australia these days.

"With the whole republican debate going on in Australia right now, it becomes curiously relevant. This film has much to do with those residual and not very productive ties with Britain - and the importance of actually going our own way."

Neill, who supports the abolition of the monarchy in Australia, is a nationalist, both politically and culturally. Although born in Northern Ireland, his father was a New Zealander who moved back to his homeland when Neill was still a child. Today, Neill lives in Sydney, but maintains a fervent allegiance to both Pacific countries.

That's why he recently found time to make a documentary about the New Zealand film industry. It's one of several documentaries commissioned by the British Film Institute to commemorate 100 years of movie-making. Other film-makers involved in the project include Martin Scorsese (the U.S.), George Miller (Australia) and Stephen Frears (Britain).

"My documentary deals with the same concerns that Country Life has - which is the importance of nurturing your own culture in the face of dominant cultures from overseas," Neill says.

He believes countries like Canada, New Zealand and Australia have every right to safeguard their culture against the American entertainment juggernaut.

"All countries, particularly anglophone countries, face the daunting fact of American cinema. Stephen Frears says at the end of the documentary he's just made that the one thing he's learned is that people like going to American films.

"Yet, a little place like New Zealand has managed to achieve a national cinema, no matter how small and vulnerable it may be. It's very important to see your own stories on the screen and to be able to listen to actors who have accents that are not unlike your own."

 

BYLINE: JAMIE PORTMAN; SOUTHAM NEWS

 

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