The Australian Women's Weekly - March 1984



FOR SAM NEILL.Being in the spotlight is the hardest act of all!

His star has never shone brighter, but Sam Neill still hides from the glare of public scrutiny


Sam Neill is mysterious, enigmatic, handsome - and in demand.

He is also almost painfully shy, an intelligent actor who apparently finds it easier to express great emotion on film than to talk about himself.

In Australia to sign for his role as the glamorous Captain Starlight in the $7 million feature film and television mini-series "Robbery Under Arms", being made by the South Australian Film Corporation, the New Zealand-bred actor could be pardoned if he were flushed with success.

Apart from winning the role of Starlight, Sam Neill portrays the master of espionage in "Reilly - Ace of Spies", a 12-part series from Thames Television which begins on ABC this month.

But Sam, who looks like an English gentleman, was born in Northern Ireland, raised in New Zealand, and moved to Australia in his late 20s to star in "My Brilliant Career" opposite Judy Davis, is far from acting the "star", even though he now leads an international life.

He has agents on three continents, his family in New Zealand, a house in Sydney's eastern suburbs, and a son, by New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow (star of "Nancy Astor" and "Under Capricorn"), in London.

Following his acclaimed performance in "Career", he went on to star in "Omen III - The Final Conflict"; "Enigma", a Polish film; "Ivanhoe", as a baddie who becomes a goodie in the end (opposite Anthony Andrews); and, more recently, "The Country Girls" (from Edna O'Brien's story), made in Ireland, and "The Blood of Others" (from Simone de Beauvoir's novel), in France.

Sam Neill, until now, has mostly played period roles. Chris Burt, his producer in "Reilly", said he has a good period face.

Simply stated, this means Sam Neill looks like men used to look - tall, capable, broad-shouldered and slightly dangerous.

Sam puts it slightly differently. "I've been trapped in period roles (which means a lot of Brylcreem), but the parts have all been very different."

Playing the bigamous Reilly, a man who claimed hearts across Europe, was a high-profile job for Sam Neill.

"I had done a lot of work before, and got good reviews for 'Enigma', but not many people saw it. Everyone watched 'Reilly' in England. . . it was good to have my work seen by a lot of people for a change." (He was recently voted Britains most popular TV actor for his Reilly portrayal.)

"Reilly wasn't particularly likeable," added the eminently likeable Sam Neill, settled a trifle uneasily in his kitchen.

"His story was that he was born the illegitimate child of a Russian upperclass, military family. At 16, he had discovered the reality of his birth - his mother had had an affair. . . his father was actually Jewish, and he had been raised in an anti-Semitic household. So at 16 he faked his own suicide and ran away.

"He ended up in South America where he was recruited by the English Secret Service. There was a school of thought that he was a double agent, also working for the Russians," said Sam, warming to his subject.

"He seems to have been a man who loved meddling with history. That was his great kick. He was this far" (his forefinger and thumb make a small space) "away from deposing Lenin. An accident stopped him. He was lethal, manipulative - it's a great role."




Sam is willing to talk about his work, his house, anything (almost), rather than himself.

He talked about the wisteria which had threatened a large gum at the bottom of his postage stamp garden. (There, on the line, were his socks, hung bachelor-style over the line; no pegs).

A tree surgeon had cut down the strangling vine, but this exposed the densely-built neighbourhood previously hidden.

He sifted through his diary, full of odd scraps of paper with telephone numbers on them, looking for the name of a Paris restaurant that he wanted to recommend.

Sifting, deciphering, in what was an unconscious attempt to avoid being the subject of an interview.

This shyness reached a peak during the promotional press conference for "Robbery Under Arms".

Behind a beard grown during his holidays, and a glassy gaze, Sam Neill clearly wished himself elsewhere when forced to face three gatherings to launch what was described by its producer, Jock Blair, as the most expensive and ambitious project in Australian film-making to date.

Clearly, in the five years since "My Brilliant Career", he has not found public scrutiny any easier to bear.

Playing the lead in "Reilly", and now in "Robbery", involves a responsibility of which Sam Neill is keenly aware.

"It's one thing to have a part in something. It's another to play the lead. You have to set the tone of the whole thing - a lot of energy has to be directed towards making everyone feel involved."

The relatively anonymous interior of his house reflects the absence of its owner for much of the year. The untouched kitchen indicates that its owner doesn't care to cook. "I can't cook. It just makes me extremely bad-tempered. I go out to eat. . . a lot."

For relaxation, he enjoys skiing and horse-riding. On holidays, he enjoys reading.

"I'm a sucker for science fiction. . . but I wouldn't particularly like to be in a sci-fi film. They're mostly about technology, not about acting."

The newest and most important thing in his life is his 10-month-old son.

"He has made an enormous difference to my life. It has expanded in a way which I would never have expected. I've gone soppy about him. He is an extremely well-behaved fellow. . . very amusing.

"When the first child has been such a triumph, there is always a temptation to have another. You never know your luck, but my schedule makes it difficult for me to see him often."

Talking of his son, Sam Neill warmed up, becoming animated. His broad, strong face creased into unselfconscious smiles. Suddenly the enigma seemed himself.






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