SAM Neill, the handsome leading man of The Hunt For Red October, Dead Calm and My Brilliant Career, mightn't be doing pratfalls or cracking saucy one-liners, but he is demonstrating his flair for the funnier side of life in his new movie, Death In Brunswick.
"It's different from anything I've done before," said Neill, on the phone from Los Angeles where he is currently working with Daryl Hannah and Chevy Chase on a film for Big Trouble In Little China director John Carpenter.
To say that Neill is thrilled with the recently released Death In Brunswick is an understatement. Despite the fact that he is working nights on the Carpenter film, and spending his days dubbing in a voice-over for the epic Until The End Of The World, the 43-year-old star immediately made time for an interview to talk about his new Australian film.
Death In Brunswick is based on the book of the same name by Boyd Oxlade about his experiences as a cook in an inner city Melbourne rock'n'roll club and his stint as a grave-digger at a local cemetery.
Neill plays Carl, the put-upon, nice guy drop-out, whose mid-life crisis is exacerbated when he falls for a much younger waitress (Zoe Carides).
"He's an everyman," noted Neill. "Most people I know are like Carl, they muddle along, they live in a state of horror. All actors bring something of themselves to their roles-I'm not different in that respect. I loved playing Carl, I'm inordinately fond of him."
Scriptwriter/director John Ruane firmly categorises the film as "black comedy: some drama as well as humour of a bent nature". Neill is extremely wary of calling the film simply a comedy, noting that: "Nothing is guaranteed to kill a work than if an audience goes in expecting all comedy. I would call this film odd on its own, peculiar, delicate. I hope they put it out gradually, like Jane Campion's film (An Angel At My Table)."
For the role of Carl, Ruane was initially considering English actor Gary Oldman (Prick Up Your Ears) and Paul McGann (TV's The Monocled Mutineer).
When his partner suggested Neill, Ruane felt that "after big films like Evil Angels, I thought he wouldn't do it. As soon as we announced that Sam Neill was doing it, people thought of the film as different, it became elevated".
"I read the script," said Neill, "and I wanted to meet them to say, Why me?I don't know exactly what my type is, but, assuming they were casting against type, that they had the imagination to cast me, then I was interested."
"Sam is usually cast as the cold spy, the sleazy lover or the evil devil,"said Ruane. "But he has a real sense of comedy timing.
"I think it was a challenge for him and I think he enjoyed making it. I asked him about coming to see the rushes and he said that he usually comes for a few days, then stops, because he doesn't really enjoy it. But on this he was coming everyday, because it was enjoyable, everyone laughed."
On the big screen, Neill is most often cast as cool, calm, collected. Off it, he is quiet and extremely reserved. However, as any interviewer has found, Neill's dead-pan sense of humour, spiked with that controlled metallic voice, courtesy of an Irish childhood, New Zealand coming-of-age and an adult Australian base, is extremely amusing.
Neill himself alters his image further by noting that, "most of what I do I see the funny side in, even if it is only me that finds it amusing.
"In Evil Angels, in the Darwin trial scene where her character is so upset at him, me and Meryl would crack up, not because it was funny but because it was so painful, one of those painful scenes that come with marriage."
Neill's private life is anything but painful at the present. After marrying Evil Angels' make-up artist Noriko Watanabe in 1989, he became the proud father to baby daughter Elena this year. (Neill already has one child, eight-year-old Tim from his relationship with Come In Spinner actress and his The Omen III co-star, Lisa Harrow.)
Apart from completing the smash Dead Calm, the European epic The French Revolution (with Klaus Maria Brandauer) and a US-made-for-TV thriller, Fever (with Armande Assante), Neill also made The Hunt For Red October with Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin.
That movie's huge success has given Neill an even higher profile in America. Producer Mace Newfield told The Sun-Herald last year that "audiences would literally stand on their feet in horror when Neill's character was shot, they liked him so much".
"I try not to think about it (acting) too much," said Neill. "It's like Pandora's Box, the possibilities are limitless. Experience is important. I'm building a solid background of experience. I know what to do more, that's encouraging.
"The idea of working with certain people used to daunt me. Now I find that some people seem daunted by me. That's strange.
"The best moments in acting are the moments of satisfaction when you get it right. It's like, on a stretch of river, placing the fly exactly on the right spot or, in cricket, sending the ball exactly where you want it to go."
Just as Red October was opening in Australia, Neill was beginning 21 weeks of work on Until The End Of The World for German director Wim Wenders (Wings Of Desire) and Australian author/scriptwriter Peter Carey.
In an international cast which includes William Hurt, Ernie Dingo and Max Von Sydow, Neill plays "a writer in love with a girl. She doesn't want me but I follow her around the world".
He also narrates the film which "was filmed in ten or 11 different countries, was six and a half hours long and now, I think, is three and a half hours long".
He's now working on Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, directed by John Carpenter: "Lots of special effects, a thriller with a certain amount of comedy and a romance between Chevy and Daryl. I'm a spook, the worst you can imagine. I like playing bad guys-once in a while."
After that, he plans to "sit on a beach" while wife Noriko works on a film for director John Duigan (The Year My Voice Broke) in Jamaica.
The benefits of being an actor with chunks of time to spend with the family are obvious, said Neill-although he does wonder: "Sometimes when I leave, I swear I can hear a cheer coming from inside the house."