Who Weekly (New Zealand Edition) - August 23, 1993

 

 


NEILL APPEAL

Our Sexiest Man lights up the screen in The Piano and Jurassic Park, but why he incites burning desire is a mystery to him

 

By Kirsty Cameron

 

SAM NEILL IS ON HIS BELLY, HIS peachy bum and lower back exposed. Leaning over him, Holly Hunter strokes his skin with long, sensuous movements. It's an exquisitely erotic piece of cinema and probably not a single fan will care that, in this role in The Piano, Neill's character is not altogether sympathetic. Good, bad-never ugly-Neill's appeal within any character cannot be hidden. And, in this Season of Sam at the cinema, there's ample opportunity for fanciers to savour him from every angle, even if the man himself insists he's as good-looking as haggis.

For starters, he's the unhappy, uptight husband to Holly Hunter's mail-order bride in the Cannes Palme D'Or-winner, The Piano, a dinosaur master in the megalosaurus hit Jurassic Park (opening Sept. 2) and the scandalous artist Norman Lindsay in Sirens (due in early '94). Also coming up is a good-cop role in The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, a telemovie made in New Zealand last year and bought by the Nine Network. He's about to fly off to Canada to begin work on John Carpenter's thriller In the Mouth of Madness and his unmistakable Australian-Kiwi-Irish tones will even be heard on an episode of The Simpsons next year.

He claims to be especially proud of this last accomplishment, not least because, like Jurassic Park, it gives his children a chance to appreciate dad's work. "I'm not famous for children's films so it's a bit of a relief for them," Neill says dryly. "I think The Simpsons is the high point of my career: It can only go down from there." And the part? "I'm a suave cat burglar." But of course. Suave, like sexy, is another synonym for Sam.

We've known that for some time. Now it's the rest of the world's turn to learn all about Neill, mainly via the monster success of Jurassic Park ($390 million and counting in US ticket sales). Some US media have even asked just "who the hell is Sam Neill?" But which incarnation of the blue-eyed, 45-year-old actor would they prefer? The moleskinned, squattocratic Harry Beecham of My Brilliant Career, cool in the saddle and hot on the lips of Judy Davis? Or the smooth and lecherous Sidney Reilly, raciest of spies? Moustached ladies' man Neville Gifford in The Umbrella Woman perhaps, or even the put-upon Michael Chamberlain in Evil Angels, sexed-up by Sam, his floppy brown hair dyed blond? Or perhaps they'd like best to know the non-cinematic side of the Irish-born, New Zealand-raised actor who inspired Archibald Prize-winning Queensland artist Davida Allen to create a series of paintings about him, and moved the readers of New Zealand's Listener magazine to vote him "sexiest male New Zealand person".

Not that he sees himself as a sex symbol even for a minute. "I remember Harrison Ford describing himself as being not particularly distinguished looking," says Neill. "He described himself as an Idaho potato. And he's actually rather a good-looking guy, unlike myself. Have you ever seen what a haggis looks like? It's a pretty unappealing, round, pasty-looking thing and that's pretty much how I see myself." Lest anyone has forgotten, haggis is the infamous Scottish dish of a sheep's stomach stuffed with organs and oatmeal. So surely that is false modesty, Sam. He cannot be totally unaware of what US Elle magazine refers to as his ability to incite in women a "full-fledged hormonal bliss-out". "I, I don't really think it's true," he protests. Oh come on, Sam. "All right," he says with a laugh. "It's very flattering. It's better than people saying, 'He looks like a potato.' But I don't really believe it. Look," he deadpans, "I'm from New Zealand. We don't go in for that kind of thing."

 

                 

 

Personally, he thinks he's closer to hapless, bumbling and nervous Carl Fitzgerald of Death in Brunswick than any of the others. "Of all the characters I've played I think I have more in common with that guy than certainly with Reilly, Ace of Spies," he says on a bright winter afternoon in Sydney recently. Empathising with Carl got him into trouble, though, when he told a British newspaper last year that he connected with Carl's pre-sex nerves. The next day a bold quote greeted him: "Sam Neill: I am not very good in bed". "You have to be so careful what you say because it's not what I meant at all," he says, then laughs at what he's just said. "What I was trying to say was that, y'know, sex is kind of funnier and more ridiculous than what you see onscreen, which is why I liked those scenes in Brunswick."

Understood. Sam Neill is not lousy in bed. Well, onscreen anyway. "He's a good kisser," says Zoe Carides, his co-star in that film. "His wife [makeup artist Noriko Watanabe] was on set, and love scenes are always strange, but I never felt too inhibited."

For many women, if sighing for Sam didn't set in when he lay back, sated from a pillow-fighting romp in the long grass in My Brilliant Career, it was when he schmoozed across the small screen as the debonair star of Reilly, Ace of Spies. "I saw Reilly when I was about 10 and I adored him in that," says Sydney model Kate Fischer, 19, who worked with Neill recently in her first acting role in Sirens. While protesting that he is "too old" for her, Fischer understands Neill's sex appeal. "Oh it's easy to see why women think he's sexy," she says, adding that her mother, ABC Radio National Daybreak host Pru Goward, sat beside Neill at a dinner in late March and was locked in conversation with him all evening. "He's the sexiest thing I've ever seen onscreen," says Goward. "And he's a very endearing man. He bends his head in a gentlemanly manner over you. He makes you feel like he's intently interested in what you're saying and feeling and thinking. It's very flattering."

"I acted like I was cool but I was in awe," says Zoe Carides of her audition with Neill for Brunswick. "In the screen test I did with him I was pretty nervous but he was wonderful and put me at my ease pretty much immediately. But it still didn't change the fact that I thought, 'God, here was this amazing guy.''' As well as admiring Neill's acting, Carides thought her leading man "beautiful and very charming". And sexy. "Oh yeah, and he's very warm too. I think a lot of the time people who are regarded as sexy put up a bit of a front after a while. I found. . . he was always very warm, very down-to-earth and normal."

"In a shipwreck he'd hand you the last life-preserver," says English actor Jeananne Crowley, who played one of Reilly's wives. "Sam is kindly, modest and unassuming. He's not given to a good deal of chat. He's not a hellraiser. He's not one to go out to the boozer and get really pissed. I think he is a very sound individual."

 

          

 

"My father thought Sam would make a perfect James Bond," says writer Portland Mason of her late father, British actor James Mason, an early champion of Neill's career. "He just rang me up out of the blue one day," Neill recalls. "I was working in Melbourne doing [the 1980 ABC-TV series] Lucinda Brayford. I got called to the phone and it was someone calling himself James Mason." Once he'd established it wasn't a friend playing a joke, he learned that Mason, impressed by Neill's performance in My Brilliant Career, wanted to help him achieve international fame. He shouted Neill a ticket to London, where he would be based for the next seven years, making films such as The Final Conflict (1981) and Plenty (1985, and co-starring Meryl Streep) and TV series Reilly (1984) and Kane and Abel (1985). "He gave me a belief in myself. That was his main gift to me," says Neill of Mason. "We're so proud of Jurassic Sam," says Portland Mason, who says the Masons are still "huge fans". "He's so gracious to remember my father's support. He deserves all the success."

Gracious, sexy, unassuming, down-to-earth. Hollywood may have taken to Sam but the man's heart and soul remain with his family and the southern hemisphere. Dividing themselves between homes in Sydney, Los Angeles and a windswept retreat near Queenstown, NZ, Sam and Noriko, whom he met on the set of Dead Calm and married in October 1989, have a 2-year-old daughter, Elena. Noriko's elder daughter, Maiko, 11, lives with them and during holidays they're joined by Sam's son, Tim, 10, who lives in London with his mother, Kiwi actor Lisa (The Final Conflict, Come in Spinner) Harrow. "He always tries to find time to see his sister and the friends he has here in Christchurch," says old schoolmate Pip Hall, a NZ lawyer. Neill sometimes stays with Hall, his wife, Anna, and their daughter, Harriet, 11 (to whom Sam is a conscientious godfather), before travelling to his holiday house. "When he's there he does a lot of riding," says Pip Hall. "He also gets heavily into gardening."

Back in Australia during this year's federal election lead-up, Neill found time to campaign with other actors, addressing a Melbourne rally as part of Arts for Labor and handing out leaflets for the ALP in Sydney's Double Bay, the heart of Coalition leader John Hewson's electorate. "I don't regard myself as political at all. I'm not affiliated to any party, but if I see something I think is wrong then I think it's my duty to say so," he says. "All three children, considering they came from conservative parents, are Left in their views," says his aunt, True Elworthy, of Neill and his siblings. "Sam has always been, I don't mean bolshie, but very liberal in his views, very much for the underdog."

 

 

The Neill family comes from New Zealand's establishment. Sam's paternal great-grandfather founded a business in the gold-rush days that eventually became Wilson Neill, one of the country's largest liquor wholesalers. Sam's father Dermot, who died in 1991, was sent from New Zealand to be educated at upper-class Harrow, in England, and later attended Sandhurst Military Academy, where he met his wife, Priscilla, at a ball. Their elder son, Michael, 50, an English lecturer at Auckland University, was born in England, while Sam and his sister, Juliet, 43, a part-time English and drama teacher, were born in Ireland, where Dermot was posted with his regiment. In 1954, when Sam was 7, Dermot, by then a major, returned to Dunedin in New Zealand and joined the family firm. In 1961 Sam began his secondary schooling as a boarder at Christchurch's Christ College, an elite Anglican boys' school. Though christened Nigel, at primary school he was dubbed Sam to separate him from other Nigels, and he didn't object. "Nigel was a little effete for the rigours of a New Zealand playground," he says. "We were the dunces in the maths class," Pip Hall recalls. "We were in the top stream in school but maths was a complete mystery to us both. So we sat in the back of the class and did bugger-all."

Neill went on to Canterbury University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts and an interest in acting that started in high school and developed in university productions of Shakespeare. "He did no work at university but he was an absolutely brilliant actor," says old friend Louise Deans. After university, Neill continued to act in fringe productions and short films while directing documentaries for the NZ National Film Unit in Wellington.

There was little encouragement from home for a theatrical career. "No son of mine will ever go onstage," Aunt True recalls her brother Dermot saying. But the die was cast when, on leave from his job, Neill took the lead in director Roger (The Bounty, Cocktail) Donaldson's first feature, Sleeping Dogs. Then a young Australian director, Gillian Armstrong, asked him to audition in Sydney for her debut feature, My Brilliant Career. He took a week off and landed the part. "I came back to New Zealand and all in the same day resigned my job, put my house on the market. I left about two weeks later and never looked back."

And despite a gap of 14 years until Neill worked again in NZ (on Rainbow Warrior), he's a favoured son. Told of the poll that voted him sexiest male Kiwi, Neill laughs heartily and suggests the poll must have been "done in Mosgiel", a provincial town. "Well, knock me down with a feather," he says. "I was once named on Cleo's most-eligible bachelor list, but I think I went past my expiry date and didn't make it the next year." But isn't the poll proof that his sexiness is more than, as he suspects, a figment of media imagination? "Go figure," he says with a dry chuckle. "Go figure."

PAUL SMITH in Auckland
BRONWYN COSGRAVE in London and
KAREN G. JACKOVICH in Los Angeles

 

 

 

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