US - December 12, 1988

 

 


NEILL OF FORTUNE

DASHING SAM NEILL PREFERS KEEPING A LOW PROFILE, BUT COSTARRING WITH STREEP COULD BLOW HIS COVER

 

BY ANN HORNADAY

 

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.

"[Australia's] 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 moviemaking process."

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 guilty."

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."

Dark's director 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 and Australia, 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 some laughs."

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 performance."

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."

 

      

 

 

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