The Australian Women's Weekly - September 2001

 

 


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 daughter, Elena.

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 halt.

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 next night).

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 houses."

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 balance.

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 University.

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 enjoys it."

 

 

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 himself."

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 Toni Collette.

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 not.

"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 entitlement."

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 to it."

- SHELLI ANNE COUCH

 

                       

 

 

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