WHAT has surprised Sam Neill more than getting a role in
Steven Spielberg's sensational new hit movie, Jurassic
Park, is that he got the lead. It had been widely expected to go to his
co-star Jeff Goldblum.
In fact, the quietly spoken New Zealander prefers small
films "something my agent complains about from time to time," he
tells me. "But I like playing a lot of different roles."
Despite weeks of high-pressure interviews and Hollywood
hype surrounding his landing the role of fossil expert Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic
Park, Sam has remained as cool as a
winter's day in Wellington.
He arrived in Hollywood fresh from the
Cannes film festival, where another
of his famous "small films" - Jane Campion's The Piano - had taken out the Golden Palm for Best Picture.
And, while his Jurassic
Park role is similar to that which catapulted Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones) from another Spielberg
movie to the heady heights of superstardom, Sam insists it's no big deal.
"It would be nice to think that because of the good run
I've had recently, I have more leverage, but really, it's business as
usual," he says.
It is no secret in this town that Sam got the role after
William Hurt and Tim Robbins turned it down, though it is one of Tinseltown's
unwritten rules of etiquette that no-one admits anyone else has been
However, Jurassic Park
producer and long-time Spielberg associate Kathleen Kennedy does say that
"foreign actors" have a tough time if they don't sound American. She
says Sean Connery is one of the few who hasn't let an accent stand in the way
of success - "and now Sam has a unique opportunity to push into the
The Ulster-born New Zealander has had to modify what
Americans call his "British accent" to "mid-Atlantic tones",
but it is hard to imagine him modifying his personality to "push" in
the way Hollywood understands it.
A scene which typifies his attitude came during the Los
Angeles premiere of My Brilliant Career in 1979.
At the post-premiere party, which was pretty low-key
compared to some of the shindigs thrown in this town, you could have cut the
nervous tension with a butter knife. There was Judy Davis, Gillian Armstrong
and Sam Neill gathered nervously in a corner watching for reaction as the
invited guests arrived.
They certainly need not have worried, because the movie not
only became a box-office hit, but one of the landmark Australian films. The
actors didn't know it then, but My
Brilliant Career would propel them into the Hollywood
Unlike some of the guests who made a beeline for the grog
before speaking to the stars, I went to introduce myself and tell them, for
what it was worth, that I thought it was a winner.
But it was Sam Neill who introduced himself to me and while
I wanted to congratulate him, had some nice things to say about my appearances
It is the rare actor who can deflect the spotlight from
himself - particularly after the premiere of a hit movie, when he or she has
the chance to bask in flattery and attention.
But that small incident gave me an indication of what Sam
was like and despite international acclaim - he has remained level-headed, with
both feet firmly planted on the ground.
For Sam, the work is the main thing, and what comes through
is a nice bloke who likes what he does and who would go anywhere, any time, to
get his talented teeth into a meaty role.
Some years later I watched him charm the staff of a store in
Melbourne's South Yarra
while being fitted with the wardrobe he was to wear as Michael Chamberlain in
Fred Schepisi's Evil Angels. Everyone
thought he was a great bloke who didn't have tickets on himself - which is
probably the best compliment Australians can pay to somebody famous.
Part of Sam's success is that he hasn't been pigeonholed. He
has played everything from villains to heroes, and has steadily worked on the
international movie scene in small films made in countries from Poland
to France, to England,
New Zealand and
One of these films which got him noticed was Phillip Noyce's
thriller, Dead Calm, in which he
co-starred with Nicole Kidman. That film took Phillip to Hollywood,
got Nicole noticed by Tom Cruise and put a spotlight on Sam.
Sam was cast as a Soviet submarine officer in The Hunt for Red October, and played a
villain in Chevy Chase's ill-fated Memoirs of an Invisible Man.
A friend of Sam's says he has been offered villain roles in
big-budget movies but has turned them down to play what he considers more
interesting characters in lesser-known movies.
And he tells me that not even his latest hero role will stop
him playing characters on the darker side of life.
"Some stars won't play bad guys because it's bad for
their image! What do they think they are - dream machines?" he exclaims.
Being a dream machine may not be part of his plan, but the Hollywood
lure is strong and he and his wife, make-up artist Noriko Watanabe, are hunting
for an LA home for themselves and their two children.
"Not that I want to make LA my home," says Sam.
"Does anybody call Los Angeles
home? It is just so that we can lead as normal a family life as possible when
we are here."
Perhaps the amazing impact of what has happened to his career
with Jurassic Park is starting to
have an effect, although the reaction is still modestly underplayed. "I
see a bit of a place for myself here now," he says.