IN his latest role, Sam Neill plays the date from hell, a lonely stalker in the back blocks of New Zealand who takes his love-object to an island surrounded by treacherous seas, gives her roses and kisses and pretty dresses, and thinks he has it made. Then, of course, everything goes horribly wrong.
Neill plays it with the easy naturalness audiences have come to expect over the past 20-odd years, plus a chilling hint of his dark side. This is all the more powerful for his reticence in setting it loose. You can rely on Neill never to chew the scenery.
On this cool and blustery winter day, as Sydney's August winds pick up leaves and slash them at the windows, Neill is feeling mellow after a long lunch at Longrain, a fashionable Surry Hills restaurant.
With his amiable expression and discreet dark blazer, leaning back in a wood and velvet chair in his publicist's office, he could be your favourite uncle, relaxed and cracking tongue-in-cheek jokes. Except, of course, he's Sam Neill, OBE, actor, and one of Who magazine's sexiest men alive (along with the likes of Brad Pitt and Pierce Brosnan). "Me and Brad ...," he muses, then guffaws loudly and protestingly. "No, no, they normally get me to play the boring husband that some woman wants to give the flick for something better."
Neill may well laugh at the sillier side of fame. At 56 he is a veteran of "50 movies and 20 or 30 television roles", and he didn't begin full-time acting until he was 30. He moves comfortably from Hollywood blockbusters and telemovies to art-house hits and local productions. "Death in Brunswick is one of my favourites. I'm terribly fond of that film," he says.
Perfect Strangers, in which he co-stars with Rachael Blake and Joel Tobeck, took him back to New Zealand, where he hadn't made a feature for 10 years. The shoot on the notoriously wild west coast of the South Island was not without drama. Although rain held off during filming, some crew members were almost lost.
"The sea is a very potent image in New Zealand films," says director and old friend Gaylene Preston, who grew up in the Westport location. "It's a very scary shoreline there -- treacherously beautiful. They had the worst storm in 10 years and that little boat was out in the middle of it, trying to get to us, with 8m waves topping ... one of the seamen stepped ashore and hasn't been to sea since."
Preston, multi-award winning film-maker (Ruby and Rata, Bread and Roses) and NZ's first film-maker laureate, says her film possibly wouldn't have been made without Neill, not least because of his audience pull for the cash-strapped New Zealand industry.
"I was looking for someone who could be scarily alluring," she says. "Whatever he's doing, he manages to make it truthful. The audience has to forgive that character. I don't know what I would have done if Sam had said no, actually. I may not have made the film, because I can't think of many people who can do that."
For his part, Neill says he enjoys working with women directors. "I've just done a film with Sally Potter, director of Orlando. I think I get on pretty well with women." The film is Yes, set in London, with Joan Allen as an American scientist and Simon Abkarian as her lover, a Lebanese cook. And yes, Neill is the soon-to-be-given-the-flick husband.
On set, Preston says, Neill is not your usual ego-driven actor: "He's really thoughtful -- a lot of the women who've worked with him have done their best performances. I've seen how Sam does that. He really goes out of his way to make sure his leading lady is well supported. It's an unusual talent."
Preston and Neill go way back. They met during the 1970s in Wellington when Neill was on the cusp of fame.
"Sam was working down the road at the National Film Unit and I was working a suburb away at Pacific Films, and we used to drop in on one another a bit," she says.
"He had already played the lead in Sleeping Dogs, and when that film came out he came and found me ... he wanted me to photograph him for his portfolio because these two women had asked him to come and be in a film. That was Gillian Armstrong and Margaret Fink [director and producer of My Brilliant Career]."
A self-taught actor, Neill calls himself "a primitive -- I'm absolutely free of any NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Art] dogma".
His seven years as a jack-of-all-trades documentary-maker in New Zealand gave him insight into the practicalities of film-making, enabling him to be very patient on set, although he is beset with the usual performance anxieties.
"It always feels at the beginning of a job like you are starting again," he says. "I was much heartened when Meryl Streep told me that every time she starts a film, she can't remember what it is that you need to do to act ... so it's not just me. It's just me and Meryl!"
The fourth-generation New Zealander, who grew up in the chilly but beautiful countryside near Dunedin, says he is "extremely privileged to go to work that's a kick, and not something that I'm waiting for 5 o'clock". It has made him a rich man, owner of three or four homes in different parts of the world and a vineyard in central Otago; he is also actively committed to environmental causes and an avid collector of New Zealand and Australian painting.
"When I was growing up, we used to work during school holidays and then I more or less paid my way through university by working in the summer holidays," he says. "I did a lot of awful jobs -- abattoirs, cake shops." He leans forward and narrows his eyes: "There's nothing I haven't put my hand to. But those jobs are really good for you [as an actor]. You learn how the rest of the world lives and you think there has to be something better than this. Turns out there was."
He puts a lot of thought into his technique-free acting style: "I really enjoyed doing a miniseries [in a rare slip into Kiwi-speak he pronounced it "muny" series] here earlier this year called Jessica, based on the Bryce Courtenay novel. I played a drunken clapped-out barrister with a nose like a tomato. That was a bit of a leap, that part. I don't know where the character came from. I suppose I dredged up some residual memories of drunks in the Groucho Club."
Conversely, he never has any trouble getting out of character. "Imagine taking those people home! It's crowded enough at my house," he says. "My wife thinks that I do, but I think she's being controversial. I don't believe it for a minute -- I can't wait to get home and have a glass of wine."
As well as Jessica and the Potter movie, another forthcoming role he enthuses over is in Giacomo Campiotti's Dr Zhivago. "It's not a remake of David Lean's movie, it's a readaptation of the book with Keira Knightly [Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates of the Caribbean]. I play Victor Komarovsky, a dirty old villain, seducer of young women. It was hell."
The indefatigable Neill has now headed off to London to play tennis dad to Kirsten Dunst in Wimbledon. In January he will direct his first drama with David Wenham in a telemovie for Channel 7 based on Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan novels. This prospect fills Neill with "a mixture of elation, dread and terror". It's a delicious terror, though.
"There are elements of danger in being an actor," he insists. "The potential of failure and the awful spectre of unemployment, which haunts every actor." Even such a successful, affluent, prolific, hard-working one wonders if around the next corner "may be the yawning abyss of terrifying unemployment".
Perfect Strangers opens on October 9.