Vogue (Australian Edition) - March 1998




Name the film genre and you can bet that Sam Neill has been there. Maggie Alderson talks with a laid-back gentleman of the Antipodes


Sam Neill is slow. Not slow as in stupid, and definitely not boring, but gorgeously slow, like a game of chess, or a cassoulet. In this frenzied world, he is one of the few people who still lives fully each moment, rather than straining constantly towards the next. Whether it is making a pot of tea (he likes it as weak as rainwater), or talking about his time as a documentary filmmaker, that is what he is doing. It would be hard to imagine him channel-surfing, or talking on the phone while driving. In short, he has something very rare in the nineties - an attention span. The concept of "call waiting" would be meaningless to him.


Possibly the slowest talker in the history of conversation, Neill gives each question serious consideration before answering. Just when you are beginning to wonder if he actually heard you, he begins to deliver an elaborate, interesting reply, punctuated by pauses as wide as the Nullarbor Plain. And by the end of an hour with him you find that you have slowed down too, and are even remembering to breathe out occasionally.


Constantly going back to edit and revise his own speech, until he is entirely happy with the way he has expressed his thoughts, Neill has a slightly "nutty professor" air. It is no coincidence that his older brother is an academic (he has the chair in English at the University of Auckland). Clearly, this is a man who reads his daily newspaper. Slowly. Unlike his army officer/family-business owner father, he wasn't sent from Auckland to Harrow and Sandhurst to be educated (because his English mother didn't want him to go), but he sounds as if he might have been: very English both in intonation and in his self-deprecating line of humour.


Take, for example, his explanation of how this true-blue colonial, Kiwi private-school boy came to be an internationally acclaimed movie star. "You have to find something you're good at. I was poor to average at anything of a remotely sporting nature, and acting was one of the few things to do where you actually got to meet girls. We did plays with one of the girls' schools...and that's how I've met girls ever since, including my wife." (Noriko was a make-up artist on one of his films.) Neill is so very goodlooking - and much more than that, attractive - that you know he would only have to go out to get the paper to "meet girls", but while he is, of course, a very good actor, his modesty seems sincere.


Although he sounds like Michael Palin and is dressed like a US east-coast preppy (Gap chinos and chambray shirt, wireframed Armani spectacles), Sam Neill's heart is pure Pacific rim. He is passionate about Australia and New Zealand and has homes in both. He just wishes he could spend more time in them. "We've just come back here after a year in England and we're leaving next week - I wish it [Sydney] was our base, truthfully. I first came here in the late seventies without meaning to. It was an accident, I always meant to go to Europe or America...But I was sent over here to promote a film that no-one wanted to see anyway, and when I was here I was offered a part...It was the biggest surprise in my life to find what an extraordinary place Australia is."


He held his joint 50th-birthday bash with great friend Bryan Brown in Sydney on a break from filming The Horse Whisperer (due for release here in May) with Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas ("I play 'Mr East Coast', the cuckolded husband...it's becoming something of a theme..."). The party was a strictly no paparazzi, mates and dates, dancing 'til dawn hooley at the overseas passenger terminal [at Circular Quay]; it had a high-profile guest list and a very strong New Zealand flavour. "We had a big Maori concert party. They did the haka - it was really very moving... There is something about that sort of passionate commitment and pride that really affects me. Then we had the Finn boys and Jenny Morris, and of course they are all New Zealanders. "I like the symbiosis between Australia and New Zealand. I think it's good for both places. Australia is a very good place for New Zealanders, because culturally it is possible to plug yourself straight in, without any apparent..." (sentences in "Neillese" sometimes end abruptly in this way, but you get used to it). "It is bigger, and it's an incredibly stimulating place to come to."


But like so many people who love this country - and have the perspective of living elsewhere from which to view it - Neill finds there is something currently awry in the state of Australia. "I don't think Australia is in particularly good heart at the moment...There is something malign going on politically. It is something very reactionary and the Government, I think, wants to do anything but lead. Then there is this scary kind of unpleasant right-wing thing, which has erupted out of nowhere...When you start letting loose those kind of forces, who knows where it might lead. Things can go backwards so quickly. Five years ago, this felt like a kind of epicentre of Pacific-rim culture. The place was outward-looking, tolerant, culturally vibrant, and now it seems to be lurching backwards...Hopefully, there is enough goodwill and intelligence to counteract [that]."


Which, in turn, leads to the inevitable discussion of the woman who has done for fish-and-chip shops what Sweeney Todd did for barber shops. Naturally, a man with a Japanese wife and half-Japanese children is bound to feel particularly strongly about P. Hanson, but Neill's concerns are broader. "I think reconciliation is absolutely critical for the future health of the place. It takes a big man to say sorry and that's the absolute least they [the Government] should be doing. Hanson says that too much has been done for the Aboriginal people already. Too much has been done to the Aboriginal people! To me the idea that Australian culture is white is abhorrent... Whatever way you look at it, Australia is part of the Pacific; there's no umbilical cord between here and Europe...One of the things that gives me, personally, satisfaction and pride is that my own family are Pacific rim...I think it's marvellous. And they are no less Australian or New Zealander than anyone else. Who cares?"


It is telling that, for at least half of our conversation, Neill talks generally in this way, about serious issues and not about himself. Not to be precious about his privacy, but because he finds bigger ideas more interesting and does not subscribe to the cult of celebrity generally. "I don't think an actor should be any more popular than an architect, really. It is a curious thing. But, at the same time, I think actors are often over-trivialised, they are seen as being flakes and airheads. I don't think that is reasonable, either: I think that it requires a certain amount of intelligence to be a good actor and they are generally pretty entertaining people to be around. I'm all for actors. One of the things that was held against Ronald Reagan, who, admittedly, was a prick, was that he was an actor and, even worse, a movie actor. It was 'proof' that the man had no substance at all."


No such accusation could be made about Neill. Before he started acting full time (and before Reilly Ace of Spies made him an international womb trembler), he was a documentary director, his best-known film being Cinema of Unease, a history of New Zealand filmmaking. "Before I was an actor full time, which wasn't until the end of the seventies, I directed around 10 documentaries. It's something that is very difficult to do now, because it's very hard to raise money for them. It was wonderful- the idea of being given a subject or talking them into allowing you to do something that you wanted to do. Then you would just go away and make it and if you were still making it a year later, no-one seemed to worry... "


But while this shows that fundamentally Neill has an examining mind (however free and easy things were in the seventies, they rarely gave twits money to make docos), what remains so refreshingly Antipodean about him, even after the years in Hollywood, is that he doesn't take himself seriously. Take, for example, his attitude to choosing his roles - surely the most important part of building a reputation. Neill makes it sound as if he trips over the scripts. "In the course of a career, to what extent you can actually choose and not choose comes and goes a bit. Sometimes I've done things because there has been nothing else to do, to be honest. Occasionally, I've been spoiled for choice and made the wrong decision and other times things have just come right...The random factor is something that is scary, but also enjoyable."


On one of his more serious mistakes, The Final Conflict (the third part of The Omen trilogy) he confides, "When I was asked to do a film overseas, it never crossed my mind that it might be less than terrific. It was a Hollywood film! I read the script and thought, well, they obviously know what they are doing, it's got to be good, don't worry about what I think. So that was incredibly useful." As for movies he has been pleased with, he's equally casual. Perhaps because as a rule he sees his films only once. "I don't know whether they stand up to any kind of second viewing at all." An exception was The Piano. "I like The Piano for obvious reasons and I actually saw that about three times because I did the film festivals. I also particularly liked In the Mouth of Madness, a film I did for John Carpenter about four years ago. It is not a masterpiece, but it's quirky and funny and odd...Death in Brunswick is another one that's kind of odd and off the wall and I like that a lot, too. I think I have been better in some things than others. I think I was quite good in Evil Angels. I'm trying to think if there are any others I've been good in..."


Such modesty! Can you imagine the kind of self-obsessed replies you would get if you asked the average American film star the same question? AI Pacino would need six months' therapy before he could even talk about it. No wonder Neill loathes the Method - he is strictly in the Olivier camp of acting: don't have a nervous breakdown about it - act, my dear boy. He is also first to admit that his ultra-relaxed attitude is what has led to the bizarre spectrum of movie styles in which he has been involved - from a work of art, such as The Piano, to such brain-dead blockbusters as Jurassic Park, to low-budget actors' specials such as Victory, based on the Conrad novel, with Willem Dafoe and Rufus Sewell ("I play a terrible Mr Jones who is a wonderful baddie, an opium-addicted homosexual psychopath; I gave him an old Harrovian tie. . . "), to the horror flick (his description), Event Horizon. It is practically schizophrenic.


Not surprisingly, Neill finds these contradictions interesting (not to mention amusing). "It's very odd and disparate when you look at the body of work; there doesn't seem to be any kind of pattern there at all. It's like some kind of drunk has pointed randomly at a whole raft of genres of films, so that is kind of odd. I suppose it's quite good in a way, because you can work a lot, but people only like certain sorts of films, so they're not going to see you too often and get sick to death of you."


Oh, Sam, no. With your attitude, that could never happen.




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