There's a saying about ambition in Australia:
tall poppies are quickly cut down. In other words, know thy place, mate, and don't bloom too far above
the rest of the field. "It's very dangerous, the business of being a
celebrity in Australia,"
vouches Sam Neill, who ignored the risks of notoriety nine years ago by
starring with Judy Davis in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career.
He's continued to brave the perils with such projects as the American
miniseries Amerika and Kane & Abel, the PBS series Reilly - Ace of Spies and his current
film, A Cry in the Dark.
quite different from America,"
continues Neill, sitting in his New York
hotel suite. "People like stars here." The actor, who is an
Australian by way of New Zealand
by way of Northern Ireland,
claims that his own countrymen "don't like you to get too smart, or do too
well. I think that explains why a lot of Antipodeans are sort of
self-deprecating. It's a self-defense mechanism." So, does he purposely
keep his head out of scythe's reach? "Yeah," he says, laughing,
"but I think that's my style, anyway."
Neill's low-key, even-keeled temperament makes him a
favorite on the movie set. As his Cry in
the Dark costar Meryl Streep enthuses, "He's one of the most enjoyable
people to be with when the camera is off, which is most of the time in the
The shy, unprepossessing 41-year-old rarely speaks above the
lowest and most civilized of tones. He chooses his words carefully and
occasionally grabs his ankles for conversational ballast as he discusses A Cry in the Dark. The movie depicts the
true story of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, an Australian couple who claimed to have lost
their baby daughter Azaria to a dingo (a wild dog) while camping in the outback
in 1980. The tragedy became a media debacle when Lindy was accused of murdering
the infant, and Australia
was seized in a paroxysm of collective hysteria, misogyny and religious
jingoism (the Chamberlains, Seventh-day Adventists, were at one point accused
of sacrificing Azaria as part of a bizarre sectarian ritual).
Although Lindy was convicted and sent to prison for murder,
she was released in 1986 when key evidence of her innocence emerged. The
Chamberlains were fully exonerated only last September. "The nation's been
mesmerized by this case for eight years, and it's divided public opinion
extremely sharply," says Neill. "Even now, all these years later,
there are people who still very strongly subscribe to the view that they're
At its heart, says Neill, the movie "is a story of
perseverance, and. that the truth does prevail. And that relationships can
survive the most extraordinary ordeals."
As the Chamberlains, Neill and Streep had to portray victims
of circumstance. That, says Neill, is not as simple as it sounds. "The
easiest parts are the villains. The more bravura the villain, the simpler your
task. It's the least obvious parts that one ultimately gets the most
satisfaction out of. I got a lot of satisfaction out of this."
Fred Schepisi, who also directed Neill and Streep in 1985's Plenty, says the role is an unusual one
for Neill: "He's a bit of a romantic hero in England
so they're going to be surprised to see the depth of his acting."
The unrelenting dark mood of the film took its toll on the
cast and crew. "There was tension," admits Schepisi. "When
you're immersing yourself in such highly emotional scenes for 10 hours a day,
it's pretty tough. Everyone looks for humor to lighten the atmosphere - we had
Streep is especially beholden to her costar for those
lighter moments. "The time we had together onscreen was so intense,"
Streep says, "that I was grateful it was someone as witty and droll as Sam
that I was spending time with in the off screen moments, to relieve the
tension. He has a great barking laugh that you won't hear in this film, but
that I hear whenever I think about him."
Neill asked to spend a few days with the Chamberlain family
so he could better understand his role. When he arrived at the country train
station north of Sydney, Michael wasn't there to meet him as planned; Neill was
left standing on the empty platform in the middle of nowhere. "Five
minutes later, [Michael] walked out of the doorway and came walking along the
platform toward me," Neill recounts. "And it was then that I realized
that actually I was under observation. Somehow the tables had been turned here
- the observer was being observed." What he found in Michael was not the
man who, eight years ago, was "somewhat naive, extremely trusting, a sort
of simple man, in the best sense. . . . He's now much more cagey, much less
inclined to trust.
"In the course of that time I got to like [the
Chamberlains] very much," Neill says. "That in itself is slightly
problematic, because you feel sort of duty bound to get it right. And to sort
of do him justice, I suppose. But having said that, I think it's an objective
Neill took a diametrically opposed approach when preparing
to play Oscar Ogg in Leap of Faith on
CBS last October. Although Ogg - the husband of cancer-survivor Debby Ogg - is
another real-life character, Neill didn't meet him, didn't research him and
didn't hide his own New Zealand
accent to play him. "The Oscar in the film is sort of a work of
fiction," he concedes. Anne Archer, who portrayed Debby Ogg, agrees with
Streep about her costar's ability to create laughter on the set: "He likes
to pull little, gentle jokes, but nothing that would hurt anybody. Sam is very
huggable. There's a quiet gentleness about him. He has the characteristics of
someone who lives in a simpler world."
That world includes London,
Sydney and New
Zealand, where, on quick retreats, Neill
spends time with his longtime companion, Noriko Watanabe, and his stepdaughter
and son. "I've become a bit of a family man, I guess," he says.
In what must be a relief from the weighty subject matter of A Cry in the Dark, Neill will appear
next year in Dead Calm, a thriller
set on the high seas. Fielding so many good roles may make it difficult for him
to blend in with all the other poppies. "I do get stopped in the street a
lot," Neill says. "It drives them crazy because they know me well,
but they don't know my name. . . . I quite like that in a way." He pauses,
considering the relative merits of fame and anonymity, then quietly and
apologetically adds, "It gives me sort of savage pleasure."