In an exclusive London
restaurant, where the cut glass and silver glint expensively on white linen
cloths, actor Sam Neill ordered fresh grilled salmon and French wine and talked
Not real-life depravity, but the celluloid sort, dreamed up
for the cinema, that sends an audience home happy by first scaring it half to
He talked intently, selecting his words carefully, pausing
before stabbing fish with fork. Even so, he had a hard time looking menacing.
With his fresh good looks, Sam Neill seems more like the boy next door than a
man about to bring "infinite evil" to the movie screen in his latest
Sam Neill is about to star in a big budget creepy - the
third film in a trilogy that began with "The Omen" and was followed
by "Omen II."
Both movies were about an innocent-looking child called
Damien Thorn who is in some way responsible for a number of exceptionally
gruesome deaths. His victims were sliced in two, crushed by train carriages or
decapitated by sheets of glass, sending suitable shudders through the audience.
But the more their flesh was made to creep, the more the
cinema-going public responded. "Omen" was a box office smash and
"Omen II" did even better. Now the American producers of the third
and final film in the series are hoping it will be the greatest money-spinner
of them all.
Called "The Final Conflict," it has the New
Zealand actor playing the part of Damien
Thorn grown up, now the head of a giant corporation, internationally respected
and friend to Presidents.
But he has, to quote the production notes: "a soul as
cold as ice and the most innocent stare you will ever see."
It's a film about money, misery and power with a generous
dollop of nastiness thrown in for good measure.
Over the salad he talked about the fascination of fear, the
excitement of suspense.
"Good horror films are commercially successful because
they are good entertainment - and there's nothing wrong with that," he
"The late, great Alfred Hitchcock understood very well
indeed our love of being frightened. He said it all starts when you lean over a
baby's cot and say 'boo!' First the baby is startled and then he laughs because
he thinks it is fun.
"It's the same with suspense movies. People get a
thrill out of being terrified."
After his romantic performance as the turn-of-the-century
lover of Sybylla in the award-winning Australian film "My Brilliant
Career," and as the loquacious young man in the ABC's television series "Lucinda Brayford," which goes to air on
June 15 at 8.30pm, he seems a
strange choice to play the lead in a horror film. But Sam Neill is enjoying
every minute of filming in the rugged and beautiful countryside of Yorkshire
"It's true I'm often cast as a kind of bland young
man," he said, "but the romantic roles are often dull to play.
"This part gives me the chance to stretch myself
because Damien Thorn is a nice combination of hero and villain. He's both man
and beast, angel and devil, repulsive and attractive.
"It's very seldom that one gets the opportunity to play
this sort of multifaceted character. He has so many contradictions that
audiences will hate him and love him at the same time."
The film is due for release in April next year. Playing
opposite Sam is, by coincidence, a fellow New Zealander Lisa Harrow,
a Royal Shakespearean actress who plays the part of a television reporter sent
to interview Thorn. Rossano Brazzi is also in the cast.
Yet had it not been for the intervention of a fairy
godfather in the shape of the eminent British actor James Mason, Sam Neill
might never have been given the role in "The Final Conflict."
When Mason, with his wife, the Sydney-born actress Clarissa
Kaye, saw "My Brilliant Career" in Los Angeles,
he had never met nor heard of 32-year-old Sam Neill.
But something about his performance made such an impression
that he immediately sat down and wrote to leading film producers recommending
the young actor.
Producer Harvey Bernhard, who had been testing hundreds of
actors in a search for the right one to play Damien Thorn, decided to test the
virtually unknown actor. At the last minute, he reneged - partly because of the
cost of flying him across to Britain
just on the off-chance he might be suitable.
Sam Neill was told about the cancellation and shrugged his
shoulders, thinking it would be best to forget the whole thing. James Mason,
however, was not going to let it rest.
Phoning Sam in Sydney,
he told him he would pay his fares and to take the next plane to London.
Sam did just that, stepping off in Switzerland
to stay with the Masons at their home near Montreux before going on to London
for the test.
According to Harvey Bernhard, the screen test Neill did with
Lisa Harrow was "electric." Sam got the part.
"It was an incredible thing for James Mason to
do," Sam said. "When we finally met I found him to be the most
delightful man. As an actor, I've always admired him tremendously, so I regard
it as a great honour to have his patronage."
Born in Northern Ireland,
Sam emigrated to New Zealand
with his family as a child.
After university, he worked in the New
Zealand film industry as actor and director,
coming to Australia
in 1978 for "My Brilliant Career." He has been based in Sydney
ever since, with a house in Paddington.
If "The Final Conflict" is as successful
internationally as its two predecessors, Sam Neill's career could be about to
take off in a big way. But he's not going to plan his future on its outcome.
"I regard myself as committed to the Australian
cinema," he says. "I enjoy working with the people and I feel part of the
scene. Sydney combines a lot of the
things I love with a reasonable life-style. You can live comfortably there, you
can go to the beach when it's hot - all those things count for an awful lot
when you don't have them."