Vintage Sam Neill
He's back as the intrepid scientist in the third
instalment of Jurassic Park, but Sam
Neill is that rare breed - a superstar who still has his feet on the ground.
Not unlike a bottle of his finest Two Paddocks red wine, Sam
Neill is enviably improving with age. His finely calibrated film performances
now span quirky little home-grown comedies such as The Dish, to global blockbusters such as the recently unleashed Jurassic Park III.
Personally, one of the world's biggest movie stars is never
happier than when he's behind the wheel of his weather-beaten 1980 Land
Cruiser, trundling around the postcard-perfect South Island of New Zealand that
he's called home for the past 45 years. "Guess who?" quizzes Sam,
turning up the volume as he eases the 4WD around some hairpin turns. Sam hums
along as his passengers look blank. ''They're a very famous New
Zealand band," he chides, unfurling
that infamous enigmatic smile. "No hints." He tousles the head of his
friendly Staffordshire bitch called Fire ("Yes, a bit of a problem when
the kids yell out her name," he winks) and continues steering down into Gibbston
Valley, in the heart of Central
Otago. This is a man in his element. Sam is, literally, a walking almanac
of the area, from local architecture and artists, to native animals and even
the annual rainfall in "Nu Zulnd". "People don't pronounce their
vowels here," says Sam (who, hours later, finally reveals the band to be
The Muttonbirds). He's back home for just a week before he again goes
ricocheting around the world premiering Jurassic
Park III (JP3). Sam chose to reprise his role of palaeontologist Dr Alan
Grant as "I wasn't terribly pleased with the first one. I thought I could
do better." Plus, this instalment is "more of a full-throttle
adrenaline-powered movie than the others." And while he hopes the film
"will make lots of friends", he's nonetheless a tad bemused by the
accompanying action toy. "It doesn't look anything like me," Sam
says, chuckling, motioning over his lean 183cm frame. "It looks as if Alan
Grant has been abusing steroids for the last 10 years, because he's an
absolutely obscene muscular chap with a rather small head."
Gracious and down-to-earth, with the kind of understated
sexual appeal that has made him a pin-up for thinking women everywhere (a
description he genuinely finds difficult to fathom, insisting that his older
brother Michael, a university academic, is better looking), Sam Neill is the
kind of star most of us hope our leading men turn out to be, but rarely do.
Quiet, sophisticated, yet with a charm that can light up a room, he is often
the odd man out in Hollywood, where
he reluctantly spends a lot of time. Though he's held the spotlight in big box
office earners such as Evil Angels
with Meryl Streep and The Hunt for Red
October with Sean Connery, the big business of moviemaking remains an
anathema to Sam, who's much happier in NZ, beside his wife of 12 years, Noriko
Watanabe, a make-up specialist whom he met on the set of 1989's Dead Calm, and their 11-year-old
Sam pulls into the driveway of his home, a sprawling
limestone house set on the top of a hillside with breath-taking mountain views
about 15km north-west of Queenstown, where we are today. The 4WD shudders to a
Our assigned morning chat of an hour stretches into the best
part of a day, then two days: dropping by an out-of-town art gallery to pick up
some framed photos; touring the district where Sam points out
"shortsighted development" in one breath and the wonders of a fantail
in the next; lunching at chic eatery Saffron (where Noriko joins us over a
bottle of Two Paddocks pinot noir and invites us to a rollicking dinner the
The persona of "I'm just an ordinary bloke" is
sharply brought into relief when a group of giggling kids (and their dads)
shadow Sam in the street until he agrees to pose for a photograph. "That's
the first time I've ever been asked to pose for a photograph in
Queenstown," insists Sam.
"One of the reasons I'm comfortable living in New
Zealand, as a matter of fact, is that here
more than anywhere people are indifferent to me and what I do. I'm not a
celebrity here. It's people like Rachel Hunter who are famous in New
Zealand. So I get left alone, which is good."
Later, after Noriko has rustled up some tea back home in the
sunken living room, Sam explains that "the house is to do with the
Irish-New Zealand connection. My family was Irish and we've been here since
1859. The architecture is contemporary, but it echoes Georgian Irish
Around the room are black and white photographs by Peter
Peryer and artwork by his pals Ralph Hotere and Graham Sydney, mingling easily
with family snaps and the flotsam of day-to-day life, such as Elena's music
folder propped on the piano and a just-opened print on Sam's desk.
One of the strongest features in the room is an unusual
183cm-long sculpture, called Tumatakuru, carved in relief above the living room
fireplace: an amalgam of the head of a salmon, a thorny branch, and a spirit
level. The salmon not only represents the Neill family's passion for fishing,
but that "we're sort of migratory people, too." The branch is from a
native plant known as Wild Irishman, and the spirit level is to do with
Nearby, hung above his grandmother's sideboard which
displays her china, and gazing gently down upon all comings and goings, are
portraits of Sam's parents, the English-born Priscilla and Dermot, a third
generation New Zealander who served in the British Army. Dermot, who died in
1991, had been sent by his father to be educated in England
at the exclusive Harrow School
before he entered Sandhurst Military
Academy. It was at a military ball
where Dermot met Priscilla.
Sam, who has a younger sister, Juliet, was born during a
posting in Omagh, Northern
Ireland, and his real name is Nigel.
"But Sam was a nickname which started at primary school," he says in
his measured, mellifluous tones, "and it just stuck to me. Besides, Nigel
wasn't the sort of name that would've suited the rough and tumble of playground
life in New Zealand."
Which was where Dermot, Priscilla and their family headed
after Dermot retired from the army. Sam's first memories are of Dunedin,
where the family settled in 1955, when he was aged seven.
"It was quite startling," he recalls. "As a
country, it seemed awfully empty, stark and rather beautiful. It was the '50s,
so things were probably a bit duller than they are now. But then," he adds
chuckling, "the' 50s were pretty dull anywhere in the world, no matter
what the rock 'n' roll historians tell you. At least things were good for kids
in those days. You could just sort of say, 'Bye, Mum' after breakfast and then
maybe turn up at dinner time. John Clarke [actor, friend and fellow Kiwi]
reckons the reason we all have skin problems now is that we weren't allowed
back in the house until it got dark. You were expected to bowl legbreaks at the
garage until dinner."
Acting "probably started at school," recalls Sam,
who was a prefect at Christ's College in Christchurch
and got his BA in English at Canterbury
Following his father into the military "was an option
at one point, but five years in the Cadets put the seal on that." After
school he joined the New Zealand National Film Unit, where he directed
documentaries and acted in short films.
Six years later, he landed the lead role in 1977's Sleeping Dogs, the first NZ feature to
be released in the US.
Directed by Australian-born Roger Donaldson, Dogs caught the eye of Gillian Armstrong, who cast him in My Brilliant Career, the film which
launched him onto the international stage.
Since then, Sam has tallied almost 70 productions, earning AFI
awards, Golden Globe nominations and an OBE; dodged plaudits such as the
World's Sexiest Man, after the wildly popular UK series Reilly: Ace of Spies; tackled the leading man bravura of such
adrenaline-thumpers as Dead Calm; and
loaned his sonorous voice to documentaries and animated treats such as The Magic Pudding.
Roger Donaldson decribes his longtime friend as
"laconic, determined, ambitious". But "ultimately a good guy.
"I respect him because he is really an excellent actor
and he's managed to do with his career what few actors do keep himself in big
blockbuster movies, but also do stuff that's more low-key and more what
acting's really about. That speaks of his own determination not to get
pigeon-holed. Not to go out just for the money, but to go out because he really
Another of Sam's passions is winemaking, namely the boutique
label Two Paddocks, which he founded in 1993 with Roger, who has since branched
off on his own. The foray is familial: Sam's greatgrandfather founded the
former Neill and Co wine distributors in 1860, hence "I was brought up to
drink wine," says Sam. "It also helps that I happen to live in an
area which produces wonderful pinot noir."
Two Paddocks winery comprises three different properties,
the original being two hectares in the Gibbston Valley and sporting the
corrugated iron and wooden structure dubbed Chateau Deux Paddeaux, "which
is basically a shelter and a longdrop dunny", Sam explains, grinning. He
added a second six-hectare property in nearby Alexandra in 1997, and last year,
a third, in the Earnscleugh Valley
- at 24ha, their most ambitious project yet. "Getting bigger all the time
- in a small way," he nods.
This year, Two Paddocks produced 800 cases and is aiming at
3000, which is "still very small," notes Sam, who is a partner in the
Central Otago Wine Company, which makes wine for other labels.
Every year, the Two Paddocks label features a flower with a Central
Otago connection, whether a native or from Sam's garden. The 1998
vintage, for instance, with its sprig of rosemary for remembrance, commemorates
the passing of Sam's mother and also his friend and winemaker Mike Wolter.
"The only 'problem' with winemaking," adds Sam,
"is that I'm responsible for a tremendous amount of the consumption of Two
Paddocks. It doesn't seem to have done me an awful lot of damage, though,
except I'm a little bit slower in interviews."
And it certainly hasn't hindered his musical prowess. Not
only can the man act and make wine but, as friends attest, he holds a fine note
and can playa "mean ukulele," reveals actor Alessandro Nivola.
During the JP3
shoot in Hawaii, Nivola, who plays
Sam's protege in the film, recalls them walking down a street "and
suddenly Sam would disappear and after searching for half an hour, I'd find him
snooping around some little uke shop."
He and Sam bonded, adds Nivola, over Brian Wilson and the
Beach Boys. "It started in the trailers as we were trying to eke out
terrible harmonies to Surfer Girl,
and continued on to the Hollywood Bowl, where he took me to see the man
Many a night in the Neills' home - or indeed anywhere in the
world where the Neills set up camp and invite all and sundry to share their
table - has seen impromptu jam sessions with friends such as Tim and Neil Finn.
Close friend Bryan Brown calls these nights "Sing Along with Sam",
who is really "a dag that gets away with being sophisticated."
Almost 20 years after they first worked together, Bryan and
Sam, who turns 54 this month, are teaming up again: Sam is voicing a series of
animated Michael Leunig cartoons and starring in Bryan's crime caper Dirty Deeds, alongside John Goodman and
Sam also has his own production company, Huntaway Films,
formed 18 months ago over John Clarke's kitchen table. That night "was one
of those sort of free-ranging conversations," says Sam's co-producing
partner and childhood friend Jay Cassells, "with lots of cups of tea and
long silences, at which Sam is, of course, an Olympic champion."
Huntaway's projects include Perfect
Stranger - "a strange, dark love story", as well as a documentary
on golf course architecture. ''The surprising thing about Sam is his depth of
knowledge about a number of things. He's got a lot going on in his life."
Of late, that's included pulling in mates such as Tim Finn
and Dave Dobbyn to perform at the charity premiere of JP3 in Dunedin on
August 23. Sam is, notes Jay, "a great one for reaching back and giving
someone the great pull-up. He's got a great sense of human dignity."
But he's also very worried, and angry, about the future of New
Zealand, from the dismantling of the welfare
state, to the lack of artistic considerations for local painters through to
development in the Wakatipu Basin
(where suburban tracts encroach on iconic Lake
Hayes). "I kept my lip
buttoned for some years," says Sam, shaking his head, "then last year
I said, enough is enough - these people are out of control. So I got a more
vocal than usual"
Sam has no real 10-point plans for his life. He's happiest
when time is spent "hanging out with the family": Elena, Noriko, and
Noriko's daughter, Maiko, 19, a regular visitor from Sydney
where she's studying music. Sam also has a son Tim, 18, who has just graduated
in the US,
where he lives with his mother, Australian actress Lisa Harrow (Sam and Lisa
had a long-standing relationship after meeting on the set of The Omen in the early '80s). "Tim
and I are very close," says Sam of his teenage son, "and we see each
other when we can." He smiles. "He's good value."
As for his film choices, "I just take it as it
comes," he says. "And I'm always pathetically grateful to be working
at all. I don't have any particular pretensions about what's worthy and what's
"Like in any job, there are 10,000 people who could do
it just as well, if not better. If you do get to have a break in this business,
you're very bloody lucky. Very lucky indeed. It does somewhat amuse me when I
see people who've done two or three films and feel that they're entitled to
everything." He chuckles. "No, I've never felt any sense of
While Bryan Brown reckons Sam will be "acting until
he's 80 - he'll be bloody John Gielgud," Sam is not so sure. "Well,
there'll be fewer offers coming in, but I've got plenty here to occupy my
hands, and ..." he pauses, gazing over Lake
Wakatipu, "I'm looking forward
- SHELLI ANNE COUCH