In May 2001, just after I’d left London to go and live in Paris, The Sunday Telegraph (for which I’d been reviewing films throughout most of the 1990s) asked me to pop back to London to talk to Sam Neill, to tie in with the UK release of The Dish.
If Sam Neill were a hotel, he would be the Dorchester, or possibly Brown’s – somewhere discreet, an address cherished by the select few. He would definitely not be the Sanderson, the über-hip London hotspot with blinding white decor designed by Philippe Starck. But it’s here that we meet, and so Neill’s six foot frame is awkwardly perched on a preposterous chair with arms shaped like swans, and neither of us mentions the large white egg that lies on the floor between us, presumably for decorative purposes.
Neill may be one of New Zealand’s best-known exports, but there’s a touch of the traditional English gent about him. He’s courteous, reserved, with a dry, self-deprecating wit and a conspicuous lack of showbiz waffle. And although he speaks slowly, almost hesitantly, there’s no hint of the stutter he had as a child.
It’s not so surprising he comes across as a bit of a country squire. He was born in 1947 in Omagh; his army officer father went to Harrow and Sandhurst; Sam spent his first seven years in County Tyrone before the family returned to New Zealand, where he was packed off to boarding school. A career in films was the last thing his family expected him – or wanted him – to choose.
It seems appropriate that one of the first to spot young Sam’s potential should have been an actor who played a few gents in his time. This was James Mason, who saw Neill in My Brilliant Career, (“I suppose he just liked the cut of my jib”); found him an agent and “sort of took me under his wing. I thought he was a wonderful actor, and I admired the way he moved in the world. So I suppose if I’ve had a model, it would be James.” I tell him that he even sounds a bit like Mason, but he doesn’t agree: “He had one of those voices that people ‘do’, along with Marion Brando and Laurence Olivier. And I’ve never heard of anyone being able to do mine. Or wanting to, I should say.”
These days, Neill must be one of cinema’s hardest-working and most versatile actors. He can move between art film, exploitation flick and blockbuster: he dodged Velociraptors in Jurassic Park and chopped off Holly Hunter’s finger in The Piano. On a sample evening last week I found him on two cable channels simultaneously: tied semi-naked to a bed by Helena Bonham Carter in the Alan Ayckbourn comedy Sweet Revenge, and poking his own eyes out in the sci-fi horror Event Horizon.
He comes over all embarrassed (“oh, good God!”) when I mention another of his horror films, Omen III: The Final Conflict, in which he played Damien the Antichrist. But I’m bringing it up simply to remind him that in the very same year, 1983, he also played the Pope in a TV movie – and you can’t get any less typecast than that.
I’m also exhuming Neill’s satanic past for another, sneakier reason. In one of Omen III’s most memorable scenes, Damien rides to hounds (it’s an unusual sort of hunt – a kamikaze monk gets eaten instead of the fox) and I’m curious to find out how deep the actor’s rural squire persona goes.
Bingo! At the mere mention of hunting, the reserve gives way to unexpected fervour. “I’d always thought that hunting was elitist and brutal, just as protesters would have you believe, and this was always met with hot opposition from my parents, who said that it was the most egalitarian of pursuits and that it brought everyone together in the country. And so, keeping an open mind, I went hunting myself, and I saw that they were absolutely right! I think it is absolutely fundamental to the history and culture of Britain. It would be an absolute crime to stop it, and much as a lot of my views tend to be left-wing, I’m completely pro-hunting.”
The apparent contradiction obviously pleases him: he enjoys confounding expectations on all levels. His acting career, he stresses, has no game plan. “It’s really just making sure that the next thing is as different from the last as it could possibly be.”
In 1991 he was awarded the OBE, and in 1994 – the ultimate accolade – he was a guest star on The Simpsons. “The big bonus is they give you lots of merchandising – T-shirts and golf balls and shampoo and comics – and a leather jacket that has all the characters embroidered on it.” I peer at him sceptically – “No, I can’t bring myself to wear it. But I like it being in my cupboard.”
Twice he’s played opposite Meryl Streep’s formidable accents (English in Plenty, Ocker in A Cry in the Dark) and yet no one ever remarks on Neill’s ability to slip easily from one nationality to another, perhaps because he blends so seamlessly into his characters that it never occurs to anyone to wonder where they’re from. His own natural accent, meanwhile, would not turn heads in a Home Counties pub. “There’s nothing particularly posh about me, but my mother was English and my father spent a lot of his life here, they were very well-spoken, and I suppose that rubs off.”
He was, in fact, christened Nigel. “Sam was a nickname, but one I was happy to encourage, because even in England Nigel’s a bit nerdy, isn’t it?”
It’s his Australian accent that gets a work-out in his new film, The Dish, a comedy inspired by a little known slice of history involving Australia’s role in the first moon walk. Neill plays a pipe-smoking boffin, the leader of a small team of technicians manning a satellite dish in the outback, who in 1969 find themselves entrusted with the task of beaming live TV pictures of Neil Armstrong to 600 million viewers around the world.
“I wasn’t really playing anyone actual. He’s a fictitious character in a real situation. It’s on the page and out of my head. But I’ve had two e-mails from people who knew the man who was running the dish at the time, saying it was quite spooky how accurate my portrayal was of him. Serendipitous, I suppose.”
The Dish is a charmingly old-fashioned, rather Ealingesque small town fable full of lovable characters, the kind of film that leaves you, in Neill’s words, “with your faith in humanity restored, rather than preyed upon”.
In the sort of double whammy that seems to come naturally to him, he has also just reprised his role as the palaeontologist Dr. Alan Grant in the second Jurassic Park sequel, rumoured to feature Pterodactyls and a crunchy killer species called Spinosaurus.
You wonder how he manages to find time for life outside films, but find it he does, even if it was a film set – that of the thriller Dead Calm – where he first met his second wife, make-up artist Noriko Watanabe. They have one daughter, Elena, who was born in 1990. Home is in the beautiful central Otago area of New Zealand, where their vineyards yield a nifty Pinot Noir, marketed under the name Two Paddocks. He has also become increasingly involved in local politics, fighting a spirited battle to save the landscape he loves from developers.
His green leanings were in evidence 10 years ago, when he took part in a TV movie about the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship that exploded in Auckland harbour in 1985. Since then, he has gone greener still. For the enormously popular NBC mini-series Merlin, he researched the title role by talking to Welsh druids.
“And I most say, if there, was a local druid church I’d probably go to it. Because it’s all about the things we really should be doing these days, that’s to say respecting the land and being good to each other.” But didn’t the ancient druids go in for human sacrifices? It must be Neill’s inner Antichrist that makes him reply so cheerily, “Oh, they were cannibals.”
There’s a significant pause before he lets his gentleman persona have the last word. “That’s probably not something we should be reverting to in the 21st century.”
This piece was originally published in The Sunday Telegraph in May, 2001.
According to this 2019 interview in Swedish, Neill and Watanabe are now divorced. (I couldn’t care less about actors’ private lives; just putting this here for the record.) https://www.expressen.se/noje/ivanhoe-stjarnan-avslojar-hemligheten-i-klassikern/
Looking back at this interview now, I find it capable enough as a character portrait, dismally inadequate as a career summary. Space in print publications being at a premium, however, it would probably require an entire book to do Neill’s career justice, especially if you were to add all the films he has made since 2001; he’s very prolific. I also have to remind myself that I was writing for The Sunday Telegraph, which, while it wasn’t then as right-wing as it is now, did tend to cleave towards the traditional hunting and shooting, country squire side of life. If I’d been writing for, say, The Guardian, this piece would have had an entirely different slant, and I probably would have eliminated the part about riding to hounds.
Films I’m surprised I left out, because they’re among my favourites, include Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), in which Neill’s performance is every bit as bonkers as his co-star Isabelle Adjani’s, and two directed by John Carpenter: Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) and the gloriously insane In the Mouth of Madness (1994). I still like Memoirs of an Invisible Man, even though it’s one of Carpenter’s least personal films – and despite Chevy Chase’s inadequacy in the sort of leading man role that really needed an actor of the calibre of Cary Grant to do justice to the subtle tonal shifts between comedy and tragedy. In the villain role, though, Neill really does seem to be channelling his mentor, James Mason, in North By Northwest, and it’s a delight to watch.
I’m also surprised I didn’t mention Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs (1977), which provided Neill with his breakthrough role; John Ruane’s black comedy Death in Brunswick (1990); Sirens (1994), in which he plays real-life Australian artist Norman Lindsay (also author of Age of Consent, filmed by Michael Powell in 1969 and banned in Australia until 1962); the Thames Television/Euston Films mini-series Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983), which could almost have served as Neill’s audition for the role of James Bond; his performance as Brian de Bois-Guilbert in TV movie of Ivanhoe (1982), traditionally screened on Swedish TV every New Year’s Day, and the only time Neill ever appeared on screen with James Mason, who plays Isaac of York.
If I were interviewing Neill now, among the films I would try to find room for would be Toa Fraser’s Dean Spanley (2008), in which he plays the eponymous Edwardian clergyman who, when under the influence of Tokay, describes his past life as a dog; the Spierig brothers’ vampire movie Daybreakers (2009), in which he plays the CEO vampire villain; Taika Waititi’s disarming Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017). He also played Cardinal Wolsey in the first season of The Tudors (2007-2010); Chester Campbell, Tommy Shelby’s main antagonist in the first two seasons of Peaky Blinders (2013-); and General John MacArthur in Sarah Phelps’s fabulously bleak adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (2015). He has also found time to pop up as the fake Odin in Loki’s play in Thor: Ragnorak (2017).
Neill’s extraordinarily long and varied CV shows a willingness to take on small roles as well as big ones, play heroes as well as villains, blend into ensemble casts or carry an entire film on his shoulders, and a readiness to either ham it up or underplay, as the material demands. His versatility means he’s one of those useful actors whose mere appearance is worth a dozen pages of dialogue in, say, in a thriller like The Commuter (2018), where it’s impossible to guess whether or not he’s a red herring. He also possesses the enviable talent of looking as at home in period costume (The Tudors, Snow White: A Tale of Terror) as in a Russian submariner’s uniform (The Hunt for Red October), medieval armour (Ivanhoe), or a tuxedo (Reilly, Ace of Spies) as in contemporary clothing.
If I were interviewing him now, I would probably also mention that in 1980, when I worked as a cashier at a cinema that was showing My Brilliant Career, we all thought the poster made it look as though Judy Davis was eating his bogey.