Sam Neill may be a big name in the movie world, but he'd rather be entertained by Hollywood from a safe distance.
SAM Neill has a recurring nightmare. He's on an American talk show, live, in front of millions of people, smoothly relaying the anecdotes from his latest movie project, when something goes wrong. It's the onset of Tourette's syndrome, the affliction that can cause its sufferers to suddenly bark out the kind of obscenities best not heard in polite company, let alone live television.
Neill, 49, leans back in his chair and shudders in horror after giving a demonstration of what he might say - three harsh four-letter words in quick succession. He then jokingly recalls how this nightmare almost came true recently when he was talking about his role in The Horse Whisperer on a US show.
Incorrectly introduced as the movie's lead (that honour is taken by Robert Redford, also its producer and director), Neill suddenly blurted he wasn't the star, but more "the horse's arse". Immediately shocked, he pictured jaws dropping all across the heartland of conservative America.
Which just goes to show that, despite a notable career with acclaimed roles in films like The Piano, Evil Angels, Plenty, My Brilliant Career and Jurassic Park, Sam Neill is about as far from the image of the consummate movie star as you could get.
"I consider myself a successful working actor, I don't consider myself a film star," he says in a measured, decidedly actorly tone. "I'm rather pleased that I'm not.
"I have a number of friends who are film stars and I think you know you're a film star when your life ceases to become your own, you become a commodity and everyone wants a piece of you. Robert Redford is decidedly a film star and this explains why he's so reclusive, as a sort of defence mechanism."
Other stars need different defence mechanisms, like Robert Downey Junior, who starred alongside Neill in the period piece Restoration. From Academy Award nominee (for his role in Chaplin) to drug addict and convicted criminal, Downey's spiral has been extraordinary. You could never imagine a similar fate befalling Neill, even in his younger days, but he has followed Downey's progress with concern.
"Downey is out (of jail) and he's in rehab," he says. "I haven't seen him in a while.
"There are two things; one is that I love him, I think he's just a marvellous fellow and an incredibly brave and talented actor and so I worry about him. But the second thing is that he's very resilient. He'll overcome any of his difficulties."
From a distance, Neill has developed a realistic take on Hollywood and its decidedly arcane workings. He has resisted all lures to leave his home base in Sydney (where he lives with his wife, Noriko Watanabe, and their children) and relocate there, although he has spent much of the past two years living and working in England.
He is especially aware of the cosmetics factor; the focus on youth and beauty above talent and performance that has dogged stars like Redford (a strong critic of the beauty ethos) throughout their careers.
"Well, I was never beautiful like Bob was, or Bob is, so it's never been an issue for me," he says. "But there's certainly an emphasis on gorgeousness when it comes to Hollywood film stars, which you don't find elsewhere.
"There was an amusing article in one of the papers here a few weeks ago about how plain Australian film stars are and how they make the rest of us look pretty good, and what a great service they do to the community as a result, which I thought was pretty funny.
"Certainly, if you look at French film stars, for instance - my God, they're plain! (Gerard) Depardieu was once described as the thinking woman's truck driver. He's what passes as a sex symbol in France, and why not?
"I think Redford has a point. In the reviews [for The Horse Whisperer] in the States someone said 'he's too old for the job', and someone else would say 'he looks as comfortably lined as a beautiful armchair'. I mean, what the f---? It's ridiculous, who cares? It's the performance."
Still, Neill adds, he doesn't get too cynical about those Hollywood machinations. "I enjoy it, but that's because we're really not a part of it. It entertains me. I find it amusing. Some of it's a lot of fun."
Similarly, he doesn't tear himself up about the increasing prevalence of movies designed to sell just as many T-shirts, posters and toys as tickets. After all, he did appear in Jurassic Park, one of the great marketing movies of all time.
"Selling mugs to mugs," Neill laughs. "I don't really care as long as other films are still made and I think The Horse Whisperer is one of those other films that deals in more substantial things, like love. It's not a dumb film.
"That's true of a lot of those films - they are dumb - but what the hell? It's showbusiness. None of these films pretend to be Tolstoy, although I thought in Titanic there were certain pretentions, and really it's just entertainment, that's all it is. It's a ripping yarn. That's all it is and there's nothing wrong with that, but it ain't Tolstoy."
Neill is full of praise for the local film industry, citing movies like The Well, Love Serenade and Love And Other Catastrophes as examples of a burgeoning creative period. He wants to do a movie in Australia this year, but seems surprised when he recalls he's only done two local movies this decade.
"It doesn't seem enough," he mutters.
Does he think the local industry views him as a predominantly Hollywood-based star, like Mel Gibson or Nicole Kidman?
"I don't know how they regard me, really, if they regard me at all," he says. "I'd like to think they have me in some kind of regard, but I don't know how they see me.
"I'm always looking for interesting scripts and if they're from this part of the world, I'm very happy. If they're not, if they're from somewhere else, then so be it. That's just the way it goes."
Indeed, Neill's eclecticism has probably been the biggest constant in a career that first began in New Zealand, where he emigrated with his parents from Northern Ireland in 1956. An actor who is constantly on the look-out for new challenges, he is just as likely to choose a role because of the film's genre than for any other reason.
Thus, he's featured in drama (The Piano), comedy (Death in Brunswick), romance (Plenty), horror (In the Mouth of Madness), science fiction (Event Horizon), action (The Hunt for Red October) and fantasy (the upcoming telemovie Merlin).
"I never wanted to box myself into anything particularly," he says. "So I have been deliberately eclectic and made sure whatever I do next is different from the one I did last. It keeps me awake."
"There's quite a few still left to do," he adds. "I've always said I wanted to do a western and there's a lot of directors I'd like to work with. I'd like to do a Stanley Kubrick film, if it didn't take three years. There's a lot of things that are left undone.
The Horse Whisperer, in which Neill stars as a mild-mannered chap whose wife falls for the charms of a Marlboro Man like Redford while she attempts to heal her relationship with her horse-loving daughter, could be described as a classic "chick's flick", adding yet another facet to his career. But Neill isn't so sure.
"What about blokes?" he asks of its appeal. "Is it because it's sensitive-feely?" He pauses and then adds hopefully: "There's a car crash."