The Herald - July 21, 2001



Profile: Sam Neill


THE first problem with Sam Neill is that the first problem with Sam Neill is not really a problem at all. Confused? Then let me explain. The first problem with Sam Neill is the fact that he can't seem to content himself with being a major bankable Hollywood film star. For some curious reason, he wants to be a not-so-major bankable television mini-series star as well. This is, well, not a problem. After all, there is no law which states that he can only be one or the other. It's just that, given the kind of movie success which the 53-year-old actor has achieved during his career, you'd think that he'd be inclined to give the telly stuff a body-swerve by now. It's not as if he can be short of a bob or two.

So why does he do it? Well, perhaps it's down to the attention deficit disorder which, he believes, he suffered from as a child. "I'm in completely the right job for someone with that," he admitted recently. "You do a lot of things for a short period of time and then you have to move on to the next thing to be stimulated on another level."

This surely explains why, over the space of just the past few months, he's been seen as the Aussie scientist responsible for broadcasting the first TV pictures of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon (in The Dish); as a wartime submarine commander (in the US telemovie Submerged); and, for the second time, as the intrepid paleontologist Dr Alan Grant (in Jurassic Park III).

As if that were not enough, tomorrow night he pops up yet again, this time fronting BBC1's new six-part documentary series, Space, which, as its title so cunningly suggests, is all about the planets, the stars, the universe, and the whole darned thing.

Now to the second problem with Sam Neill. And the second problem with Sam Neill is not a problem for Sam Neill. It is a problem for the journalist who has to write a profile about Sam Neill. And it is this: the life and times of Sam Neill are spectacularly unspectacular. He doesn't have a drink problem. He's not had to battle with drugs. He's no gambler, inveterate or otherwise. He is entirely secure in his (hetero) sexuality. He's never had to triumph over tragedy. His is not a rags-to-riches story. He's not a hellraiser. Nor is he a womaniser. And he eschews the celebrity lifestyle which he considers somewhat distasteful.

He is, in fact, a very nice man who comes from a stable middle-class background. He is reasonably wealthy (though not in any vulgar fashion) and happily married. He has children, but even they give him no real cause for concern. In short, Mr Neill is Mr Normality; all the way down to his given name which isn't Sam, it's Nigel. And don't take my word for it. Listen to what the man said about himself. "I'm just Mr Triviality, as shallow as my washbasin. No deep glacial lakes of profundity here," he remarked, in his typically self-deprecating style, in an interview. Self--effacing to the point of diffidence.

But hold on, dear reader. Don't give up on this profile just yet. It's about to get . . . interesting. More than that, it might just become riveting. When Sam Neill was young he suffered from a nasty stammer! And, yes, acting helped him to conquer the impediment.

Okay, maybe not riveting. Still, he is a roguishly handsome fellow. A dashing hero of the silver screen, with the style, the sophisticated mannerisms, and the silky tones of, say, a latter-day James Mason. This may not be entirely unconnected with the fact that the late Mr Mason had a direct influence upon Neill's early career.

The great English actor took an interest in the young Kiwi after seeing his performance opposite Judy Davis in Gillian Armstrong's 1979 Australian drama, My Brilliant Career. He effectively took Neill under his wing, found him an agent in London, and persuaded him to come to the UK to seek his thespian fortune. "I thought he was a wonderful actor and I admired the way he moved in the world," recalled Neill. "I suppose if I've had a role model then it must have been James."

Though he grew up in New Zealand - and considers it his home - Sam Neill was born in Omagh, in Northern Ireland, in 1947. His father was an army officer, a Kiwi who was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, and his mother was home counties English. When the family returned to the South Island of New Zealand in 1954, the young Neill was dispatched, at the tender age of seven, to "a very English" boarding school in Christchurch. It was there that his name was changed to Sam by his schoolmates. "Odd kind of place," he observed later. "Not a place where you'd find too many Nigels."

Understandably perhaps for a man with a military background, Neill's father was indifferent about his son's desire to enter the acting profession. "He never spoke about it much," he recalled. "He'd say things like, 'What are you up to?' and I'd say, 'Well, I'm doing a film in France.' And he'd say, "Oh, raining here again'."

And yet, when his father died, Neill was touched to discover in a drawer in the study of the family home two large scrapbooks containing cuttings of reviews and interviews which his father had collected over the years. "I had no idea he was interested," he said.

After graduating from university with a BA in English, he took his first tentative steps towards an acting career working with the New Zealand Players and several other theatre groups. He then became a director, editor, and scriptwriter for the New Zealand Film Unit for six years.

One of his earliest television roles was in the 1940s-set soap opera, The Sullivans (which, for those too young to remember, served a similar purpose in Australia as does Taggart in Scotland in that it offered sporadic employment for just about every actor in the nation, good, bad, or indifferent).

Neill's feature film debut came in 1977 with an appearance in Roger Donaldson's police-state thriller Sleeping Dogs. The unaggressive masculinity which has accompanied his best performances first came to the fore in 1979 when he played the liberal-minded character who feminist author Judy Davis lets slip through her fingers in My Brilliant Career.

The following year he moved to the UK, where, at the suggestion of his mentor, James Mason, he was chosen for the lead role of Damien Thorn (aka the devil, Satan, the Antichrist) in The Omen III. Hedging his bets, perhaps for the sake of his soul in the afterlife, the same year he also played the Pope in the TV movie From Another Country: Pope John Paul II.

Neill started his life-long association with television mini-series in the mid-eighties playing the suave, sophisticate brother in the US adaptation of Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel. Then came ITV's highly successful period spy drama series Reilly: Ace of Spies.

Though Neill may not be in the A-list of Hollywood stars, his body of work for the big screen has certainly placed him at the very top of the B-list. Not once but twice has he been courted by the James Bond people to take over the role of 007. But the approaches left him neither shaken nor stirred. He turned them down on both occasions. Had he succumbed to the temptation he would undoubtedly be up there on the A-list by now.

His most successful films have included Phillip Noyce's nautical suspense thriller Dead Calm (1989); John McTiernan's submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October (1990); and Spielberg's dinosaur epic Jurassic Park (1993).

However, the actor's finest performances to date are probably to be found in two less successful movies. In Fred Schepisi's A Cry in the Dark (1988), a film based on the infamous "dingo baby" case, Neill all but eclipses his co-star Meryl Streep with a heart-rendering display of stoicism as the deeply religious husband defending his wife against a frenzied media attack. In Jane Campion's strangely engrossing period love story The Piano (1993) his performance as the bewildered farmer who finds it difficult to express his feelings towards his mute bride-to-be (Holly Hunter) is a triumph of deliberate understatement.

In personal terms, Neill's first marriage ended in divorce. He met his second wife, Noriko, while she was working as a make-up artist on Dead Calm. They have three children, one each from previous marriages, and a 10-year-old between them. Though the actor, through necessity, spends a great deal of his time in Hollywood, he has homes in New Zealand's South Island and in Sydney. He also owns a vineyard and winery near Queenstown, New Zealand, called Two Paddocks. It specialises in Pinot Noir, a grape renowned for producing wine of elegance, power, and intensity. And there's a prile of words which rather neatly sums up Sam Neill himself.


BYLINE: Allan Laing


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