This work was compiled from interviews Sam has given in the past to various media: radio, television, and magazine interviews. Sam also graciously personally answered many questions and commented on the writing. Other information was obtained from people close to Sam. Special thanks goes out to Geoffrey Eathorne, Chriss Green and of course, Sam himself. I have personally put many hours into this work and would like persons reading it to remember this and refrain from plagiarising from it. Linking to the page is acceptable.
If you prefer to access one chapter at a time, go to Sam_Neill_Biography.htm
I would like to dedicate this book to the memory of my mother, Dorothy McDowell. She trained me in the ways of true, strong women, with the ability to believe in myself and gain self-confidence without the need to belittle others who are somehow different to myself. Consequently, my opinion of others is based upon what is within rather than what is without. I love you, Mom.
Obligatory disclaimer: Although the contents of this biography have been verified as accurate by Mr. Sam Neill, the information was compiled and written by Lisa Donnelly. In other words, this biography should in no way be construed as an official statement from Mr. Neill.
Chapter 1: Sam's Early Years
Chapter 2: Teen and University Years
Chapter 3: Early Film Career
Chapter 4: Sam Crosses the Atlantic
Chapter 5: The Roaring Nineties
Chapter 6: Jurassic Sam
Chapter 7: Life After Jurassic Park
Chapter 8: Sam Today
When I received word that Sam Neill had agreed to my writing this biography, my first reaction was astonishment. Then, after a few moments reflection, I began to wonder about the man's sanity -- after all, I am by no means an author, or even a decent-grade writer for that matter. Words of Samuel Johnson suddenly came to mind: 'biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance'. After much soul-searching, however, I came to realise that if he had the confidence that I could do the job, then I would trust in his judgement.
The project itself took over a year to become a reality. I had been corresponding with Chriss Green, the president of Sam's Australian fan club, for some time when the topic of the media's lack of interest in Sam Neill arose. At that time, I did not know anything about the actor other than that he played the character of Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. Once I began searching for information on Sam, however, I quickly learnt how frustrating the situation must be for any fan attempting to gain such information. A scenario played itself in my mind:
Shoulders drooping, eyes firmly fixed upon the ground ahead of her, she combed the city from one end to the next. Her quest was a simple one, or so she had thought in the beginning. Now, dripping with sweat after spending hours in the hot summer sun, she felt that perhaps it was a futile quest...a quixotic adventure. She had rummaged through every video store that had an advertisement in the local phone book, and several that she had simply come across while looking for another store, searching for videos starring this certain actor. But all she could garner in her explorations was a single, cutting remark: "Who the hell is Sam Neill?"
Over the next few months, Chriss and I traded ideas back and forth, and the thought developed that a biography on Sam would be a wonderful item for the fan club to have available. The next problem confronting us was the co-operation of the actor himself: evidently the only truly reliable source of information on Sam Neill was Sam Neill. If nothing else, this biography was to prove a significant challenge for a writer-wannabe.
Sam refused to co-operate (without even realising that he was refusing to co-operate), traipsing from country to country, filming film after film, making it impossible for Chriss to catch up with him and hand over my feeble rough draft for his approval.
Finally, one year, four films, and seven countries later, Sam returned home to Australia. He acquiesced to Chriss' request that he read the rough draft and decide whether or not to allow us to do the biography.
Amazingly, he said yes, even without our begging or pleading. And, throughout the course of the writing, he has been more than generous with his time. He has continuously surprised me with his patience, his humour, his kindness, and his willingness to allow me access to his family and friends as well as insights into his most guarded personal life and history. The fact that he has co-operated so willingly is testimony to the high regard he holds for his fans.
The lack of information available on this actor came as a surprise, since he has appeared in some 40-odd films, mini-series, and television productions. In addition to this massive background of work, he has acquired a very loyal following, including an official fan club with its headquarters in Australia. Nonetheless, he remains relatively unknown. Considering this, there was the thought that perhaps a researcher should look at the fans before looking at the actor, to get a feel for who this man is, and the most logical place to begin looking is with the president of his fan club, Chriss Green.
Over his career, which spans nearly twenty years, Sam Neill has amassed a very loyal following, with Chriss being a prime example. Chriss began seriously following Sam's career after seeing the 1979 production of My Brilliant Career. She began combing through magazines, newspapers and other periodicals, searching for more information on Sam. Chriss watched each of the films following My Brilliant Career attentively, and afterwards she was always ready with constructive criticism and advice, which she said probably 'lined many a dustbin.' But ever tenacious, she never slackened in her efforts to search out more information on Sam and his current works. However, as she says, 'I was constantly frustrated by the lack of information available regarding what film Sam was working on and what was due for release in the cinema.' It took eight years after My Brilliant Career before Chriss began searching in earnest for a fan club. 'I knew that an actor as talented and magical as Sam would have to have one. A fan club would be able to give me the information I so desperately wanted. I would no longer be alone in my admiration.' There was to be no joyous ending to her search; there was no such thing as a Sam Neill Fan Club. However, she did discover a fellow Sam Neill fan who happened to live in the United States, Jada C. Watkins, and began corresponding with her. At Jada's suggestion, they concocted the idea of forming a fan club themselves.
Again, it was not easy and took many years, part of the reason being that Sam did not believe that he had enough of a following for a fan club to be necessary. But Chriss persisted, tenaciously researching information about fan clubs, learning the laws that pertain to them, discovering what is expected of a fan club, and joining several to get the feel of what a fan club is all about. Finally in June of 1992, the Club was given the go-ahead and sanctioned by Sam. After Sam agreed to the idea of the fan club, he commented that Chriss would probably not be able to obtain many members and would therefore not have very much work to do. She was able to prove Sam's initial impression of the club's possible popularity wrong by building up a sizeable membership and, even more importantly, a membership made up of loyal, caring and unique individuals.
Uniqueness appears to be the key word in regard to Sam Neill and his fans. The diverseness of his fans compares with the diversity of Sam's characters. His fans are world-wide, of ages ranging from five years old to those in their late sixties. Their life-styles are as different as the characters that Sam portrays on film. His fans have professions such as lawyers, computer programmers, artists, Park Rangers, and Emergency Medical Technicians; meanwhile, Sam has played characters such as a spy, a lawyer, a klutzy chef, a doctor, and a world-renowned paleontologist.
The fans look upon Sam not as a star, but as someone to be admired, someone who could perhaps be a favoured uncle or teacher. Hence, I have chosen to refer to the actor as "Sam" in this biography rather in the traditional manner of "Mr. Neill" or "Nigel Neill", both of which sound far too pretentious for the actor that I have come to know. Many of Sam's admirers go even so far as to detest the label of "fan club" since they do not see themselves as fans. Sam has commented that the modesty of the fan club pleases him. He appreciates the fact that the newsletter can be used as a medium through which he can maintain a dialogue with his fans, either venting his anger at the state of the environment or making a witty, philosophical comment on the absurdity of life. Sam wishes his 'modest' fan club to remain as it is, a place where he can learn about the people in the club as well as the people learning about him.
The club itself is as different from the run-of-the-mill fan club as its members are from one another. The club focuses on the members as much as it does on the actor. Many club members have chosen to write to one another, resulting in new friendships being forged, as well as taking advantage of the unique situation of being able to contact others in many different countries. One trait that nearly all club members seem to share is an interest in other cultures, histories and societies. Sam shares this interest, as can be seen in his choosing to work on projects that deal with history, literature, and current events--projects that take him on an endless trek of globe-trotting; in one four month period he worked on films in India, England, and Indonesia, and he has changed his accent to portray characters with such dissimilar nationalities as Russian, Australian, and American.
Note: Since this biography has been 'completed' a very professional, authorised website has come into being. You can access it via: http://metalab.unc.edu/samneill/
Although his fans obviously are well-educated and intelligent, concerned about various causes such as the environment, education, and civil rights, the fact is that his female fans can also appreciate his handsome appearance. The husbands and significant others of these fans tend to disagree with this judgement, prompting a few fans to write in and describe what their significant others use as retaliation towards this appreciation for Sam's good looks. One husband suggested playing the video game Jurassic Park, putting Dr. Grant into as much danger as possible, while another husband suggested freeze-framing Sam's death scenes in various films. A friend of Sam's even went so far as to assure me that Sam's father was infinitely more good-looking than Sam. Sam took this teasing in his usual good manner, saying that the husbands' behaviour was commendable, and was willing to go even so far as to recommend other death scenes to freeze-frame for the disgruntled anti-fan.
Of course, none of this could put off the true fan who is convinced of Sam's handsomeness. At 5'11" and 157 pounds with olive skin, blue eyes and chestnut-brown hair Sam has been described as 'a heart-throb' or a 'sex-symbol'. One 12-year-old fan commented that 'even though he's like 44 and I'm 12, he's still very cute!' The older members of the fan club tend to go into more detail when describing what they consider to be Sam's best features, from his 'crystalline blue eyes' to his 'bewitching, mischievous, devil-may-care grin'.
Sam responds to all of this attention to his physical features with a shrug and a unbelieving look in his eyes. This characteristic humbleness is expected from Sam, and his fans allow him the indulgence of being a gentleman. The very fact that Sam disregards his status as a heart-throb makes him even more appealing in the eyes of the fans. They consider his behaviour to be a breath of fresh air, when compared to other stars that are considered sex symbols and who act the part.
But surely the members of Sam's fan club are not so shallow as to be attracted to Sam simply because of his distinguished good looks? This is evidently true, since the feature that is most often mentioned by Sam's fans as being the reason they were first attracted to him is his distinctive voice; almost without fail, his fans say that the reason they became 'hooked' on Sam was because of his unique accent and voice. Many professional critics have compared Sam with James Mason, another actor whose wonderful voice is his calling card. Sam's voice has been described as being 'silky smooth,' 'cultured,' 'warm and enveloping, like a downy comforter'. Many fans have written to say that the first, and only, episode of the American animated series The Simpsons that they have watched was the one in which Sam had a guest-starring role as a cat burglar, and that after seeing it the first time they had gone on to watch it several more times on video. Other fans have claimed that 'if Sam were to be the reader for more audio-books, I would definitely become a better-read person'. It appears as if none of the fan club members are immune to the hypnotic effects of Sam's voice.
When his fans were asked to describe Sam in one word, the one most often stated was 'charming'. Even in the above-mentioned Simpsons episode, the town declared the cat burglar (Sam) to be 'charming' and therefore undeserving of arrest. It is undeniable that Sam's personality is infinitely attractive, and is quite often the reason that so many of his fans have become members of his club. Most of the members have stated that 'never before had I even entertained the thought of becoming a member of any fan club, but there is just something different about Sam.' When investigated, this 'something' was found to be his unassuming personality. 'Kind,' 'gentle,' 'good-natured' are all words that fit Sam completely, perhaps not always Sam in the roles that he plays for the camera, but Sam in his everyday role as a human being. It is tempting to complain that all of those descriptive words are saccharin, and the sensitive 80's guy is dead. Not according to the fans! The very fact that they are so enamoured of Sam suggests that the world needs more of the strong, sensitive type.
Loyal, sensitive, devoted, intelligent with a good sense of humour. Dashing, suave, sophisticated, cosmopolitan. Enjoys music, reading, and horseback riding. Tall, dark and handsome. A bit of a rogue. It almost sounds as if someone is describing a medieval knight in shining armour, and they could very well be-- after all, Sam did portray Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert in Ivanhoe! No wonder his fans are so devoted!
The 1940's saw dramatic changes around the world, the event creating the biggest impact occurring in 1945 -- the end of World War II. Technology was on the rise, with new energy-saving gadgets appearing on the market every day. The Western world was making the transition from an industrial society to a technological society. After having had a taste of equality during the war years, women were somewhat pushed back into subservient roles, but later they fought for greater independence. Soldiers who had left Australia, the United States, Great Britain, and other countries, in order to serve in lands which appeared strange in comparison to their own, returned to their homelands with knowledge of different cultures. The world was suddenly not as big as it once had been. The end of World War II meant freedom from oppression for many peoples: Yugoslavs, Jews, Gypsies, and of most consequence to the Neills: the Irish. In 1949 the Republic of Ireland gained its full independence from Great Britain.
People were adjusting to the post-war atmosphere in America, Australia, Britain, Germany and the rest of the world, but in Northern Ireland the fighting continued unrelentingly, not with the Germans or the Japanese, but in a civil war. Technically, the war between the English and the Irish has proceeded from the agreement made between King Henry II of England and Pope Adrian IV in the year 1171. Pope Adrian granted the hereditary possession of Ireland to Henry, and Henry began importing Englishmen into Ireland. This policy of settling foreigners on Irish soil eventually expanded into banning Irish culture, such as speech and dress, in favour of English ways. The major factor in the sectarian violence of today came about in 1690, when Catholic James II warred with Protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary for the throne of England. The deciding battle was fought in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne. William of Orange won, and the Protestants were in complete control. This loss by James II was the beginning of horrendous discrimination against the Irish in general and Catholics in particular: Catholics were barred from public office as well as from the army and navy; they could not vote, and a reward of five pounds sterling was offered for the head of a priest. The victory of William over the Catholic James II is celebrated in Northern Ireland even today.
Twenty-six of the thirty-two counties that make up the island of Ireland gained complete freedom from Great Britain after World War II, calling their new nation the Republic of Ireland. However, six of the thirty-two Irish counties decided to remain within the United Kingdom, making up what is now known as Northern Ireland. In this small section of Ireland there are two distinctive factions, the Protestant side who wish to be known as British and the Catholics who consider themselves Irish. These two divisions of Northern Ireland are each very passionate about their respective religions, cultures and politics. The Northern Irish Protestants have close ties to Great Britain and are determined to remain within the United Kingdom. The Northern Irish Catholics, who even today feel that the British are an invading army in their land, formed an illegal army to carry out attacks against the British influences in Northern Ireland. This army, the Irish Republican Army, is still active today, and has no qualms about using whatever force is necessary in order to cause the British to give up possession of Northern Ireland, thereby allowing the six counties to rejoin with the other 26 in the Republic. One of the six counties of Northern Ireland is County Tyrone, the birthplace of Nigel 'Sam' Neill.
Today, County Tyrone's appearance conforms to the idealised vision of Ireland: a bucolic scene of rolling hills of green and cottages with thatched roofs. Placid cows graze peacefully in their fields while their owners sip pints of Guinness at the local pub. Situated on the North/South border, the county is made up of small villages and family farms, creating an ambience of close-knit community. Neighbour knows neighbour from generations past, even from well before Northern Ireland was separated from the other 26 Irish counties. Unfortunately, County Tyrone's idyllic appearance is a facade, as it has always been a stronghold for the Irish Republican Army, and most of the farmers are supportive of the idea of Northern Ireland becoming part of the Republic of Ireland. Most of these people sympathised with the Republic of Ireland's desire to secede from the United Kingdom, and therefore they resent the British military involvement in Irish affairs. Slogans such as "The only good British soldier is a dead British soldier" is a common sight on roads and walls around the county.
In the face of all this antagonism, Sam is rather proud of his family's military history, as well he should be. Sam elaborates on this: 'My mother's family have been more military than my father's. Several generals, some VC's and DSO's.' (A VC is a Victoria Cross and DSO is the acronym for Distinguished Service Order, both of which are quite impressive honours to receive from the British Military.)
The Neill family's first contact with the United States was in a military manner, during what is known as the War of 1812. This war was fought between the United States and Britain; the United States declaring war in response to British harassment of American ships. Lasting from June 1812 to the spring of 1815, most of the fighting occurred along the Canadian border. Sam relates the family story during an interview with American talk show host, Jay Leno:
My great-great grandfather, who was a very young man at the time, was involved in a small war between Britain and America...and there was an expedition coming out from Canada. He was on that expedition; they put Washington to the torch and burned down the White House.
Although this could be a negative factor in Sam's relationship with American audiences, he points out that it was not entirely a bad occurrence:
It's probably just as well, otherwise Bill Clinton would be living in a small, brown, wooden house rather than the nice, big White House.
However, there is only so far that Sam will go to appear conciliatory to the American public. When Jay Leno points out that the British did not completely destroy the president's home, Sam felt that he must defend the family honour: 'I don't know; I thought they put it to the ground. That's the family legend, anyway.'
Historical references appear to agree more strongly with Leno than with Sam on this matter. On August 14, 1814, all public buildings of the capital were deliberately burned, which would seem to agree with Sam's accounting of the event. British General Ross personally superintended the piling up of furniture in the White House before it was given to the flames, and Admiral Sir George Cockburn gave orders to burn the department buildings. However, Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison, managed to save many historical artefacts and artwork before the President's house was torched. The walls of the president's home were left standing, however, which is more in line with Leno's accounting of the burning. James Hoban, who designed the original house, rebuilt it. The original grey sandstone walls were painted white to cover the stains left by the smoke, hence the name 'White House'.
The British troops which put Washington to the torch, were under good discipline and were not allowed to indulge in looting or destruction of private property. Evidently Sam's good manners and proper demeanour are the result of a long lineage of gentlemen.
Sam's father, Dermot Neill, was an officer in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and although he may not have been involved in an event as well known as Sam's great-great grandfather's burning of Washington, he served his country, New Zealand, honourably. Dermot Neill was stationed in Northern Ireland, a land known for its years of terrible civil war, when Sam was born.
Before Sam was even born he was an outsider. The British were not welcomed by all Irish citizens and Sam's mother, Priscilla, was English, and a Captain in the Women's Army Corp (WACs), at that. Born Priscilla Ingham, her mother was left a young widow when Priscilla's father was killed at the Front in the First World War. The Inghams were related to much of the Anglo-Irish gentry, including Edith Somerville, one of the co-authors of the Irish R.M. series. With Priscilla's help, Mrs. Ingham ran a riding school in the years between the First and Second World Wars. While in the WACs, Priscilla was posted mostly around Milford Haven and Pembroke, where there was a lot of bombing due to the close proximity of the docks. When the Neills lived in Northern Ireland, she became very much a wife / mother figure. Priscilla's military career ended when Sam's older brother, Michael, was born.
Even though Sam's father was not an Englishman but a New Zealander, the fact that he was serving in the British army was close enough to actually being from England, from the perspectives of many Irish villagers. Oddly enough, Sam's great grandfather was Irish and immigrated to New Zealand in the mid-1800s. 'Just in time for the gold rush', Sam elaborates, referring to the fact that Otago, New Zealand prospered due to the demand created for its agricultural products by the Australian gold-rushes of the 1850s. Central Otago, near the Neills' home near Dunedin, also experienced a gold rush of its own in the 1860s and early 1870s.
When asked how Sam felt about his heritage, and whether or not he considered himself to be Irish, English, Australian, or a mixed breed, he responded:
I am Irish by disposition, inclination, and genetic imperative. I would never consider living there again. I am absolutely a New Zealander. But, of course, there is confusion, and I am also interested in my English/Norman/Anglo-Irish antecedents. Equally, now my wider family includes Maori and Japanese, and this is immediately more interesting.
If Sam believes there to be some confusion, then there can be little hope for the typical fan who tries to get a grip on his nationality. The New Zealand Embassy in Washington, D.C. even commented on this quirk of Sam's life, saying that 'Australia continually attempts to claim him as one of their own, but he is definitely a New Zealander.'
Whether or not the world considers him to be an Australian or a New Zealander, the fact is that Sam was born in Northern Ireland. Fortunately, in 1947, Northern Ireland was not as violent as become in the early 1970's. At the time of the Neill's presence in Northern Ireland, its citizens were beginning to re-establish peace following the end of World War II. The war industry had raised the economic status of Ireland 84%, resulting in a sense of optimism and well-being. Sam recalls his early years in Ireland as being very pleasant ones.
As pleasant and as peaceful as Northern Ireland may have been during Sam's childhood, there were moments when it was also rather chaotic, such as during the actual birth of Sam. Sam describes the scene:
I was born in a farmhouse which my parents were renting near Omagh. The midwife was apparently somewhat distracted by having to shoo out some pigs that invaded the house about the time I was born. (I was, incidentally, born in the Year of the Pig.)
Sam and his family remained in Omagh, County Tyrone, for only a year, moving from there to the eastern coast of Ireland, Tyrella, County Down.
My parents bought a house called "The Watchhouse" near a tiny place called Tyrella, where we lived for a couple of years while my father was stationed nearby. This was a two storey whitewashed 18th century house right on the rocks, surrounded by sea and beaches on both sides. We used to holiday there when we were living in Omagh. I have been back there, subsequently, and it's just as I remember. An absolutely idyllic place for a child and we were all very happy there.
Sam's family moved to Armagh in 1951. During the late 1940's and early 1950's, Armagh remained 'the holy city of Ireland', containing the famous cathedral which was founded by St. Patrick himself. The city was abundant with 18th century beauty and elegance, a truly distinguished town. It seems fitting that it was into this decorous atmosphere that Nigel 'Sam' Neill began his formal education.
My first school, at 4 or 5, was Armagh Girls' High School (A.G.H.S.). They had a co-ed part. However, my parents lied that the initials stood for General High School -- there being no way I would have gone to a girls' school.
Sam describes himself at this age as being 'a blond, rather skinny boy. Probably a bit shy.'
When he was seven, Sam's family returned to his father's homeland, New Zealand. First the Neills lived at Macandrew Bay on the Otago Peninsula, about 8 miles from Dunedin, and then on a farm on the North Taieri plain.
Looking back on Northern Ireland, Sam comments that
Northern Ireland is a great place to go and visit. Perhaps a rather sad place to live. The sectarian business seems to me futile and ghastly. I still have certain relatives in England / Ireland. They corrode in a rather genteel way.
When asked what he thought about the trip to New Zealand as a young boy, Sam pauses:
I don't remember. Excited, I think. The ship was a great adventure. Panama was especially exciting, because being a small boy, the wild engineering involved in the locks had to be seen to be believed. I was surrounded by jungle for the first time in my life, and it made a wildly different day or two's travel from the two weeks previous on the open sea.
Before heading on the open sea, Sam lived with his grandmother:
I lived for some months with my grandmother in Wales, in Tenby, in the transition period before we left for New Zealand. My grandmother was the kindest person I ever knew, and is still remembered with affection in Tenby. She had been widowed in the first war, and although she was, I suppose, not by any means well off, she spoiled me rotten, and I spent a wonderful week or two with her in London prior to catching the ship with the rest of the family.
After an exciting sea voyage, the Neill family arrived in their new home of New Zealand.
Dunedin is a port city on the east coast of New Zealand's south island. Standing at the head of Otago Harbour, protectively nestled beneath steep hills, it has a rugged, sharp landscape, shaped partly by outpouring of volcanic lava. Here Sam's father retired from the military and joined the family firm, one of New Zealand's largest liquor wholesalers: Wilson Neill. This family business was founded by Sam's paternal great-grandfather. Dunedin is a very conservative, very Scottish small town -- the name 'Dunedin' is Gaelic for 'Edinburgh'-- founded in 1848 as a Scottish Free Church settlement. It was quite different from what Sam was used to seeing from day to day in Northern Ireland. The apparent conservativeness of the town matched his parents' own apparent conservativeness.
In a 1989 interview, Sam described his parents' example of good manners and politeness:
The one thing about my parents is my father is a gentleman and my mother is the equivalent, what would you call it? a gentlewoman?, so they're nice to each other; they're well-mannered to each other. We [society] don't bother as much about manners as we used to. And manners are just as important with people who are close to you as they are with strangers.
This politeness would fit in well in British society, and it fit in well in New Zealand, where the citizens have retained much of their English heritage. Christchurch, where Sam went to boarding school, is said to be 'the most English city outside England'. The city itself was designed in Britain in the mid-1800s as a model Anglican settlement. Referring to the tenacious grip by the New Zealanders on the British way of life, Sam says 'My family is very English: my mother was English and my father was educated in England and served in the British army and all that.' Sam's father left New Zealand at a young age to attend Harrow, one of the most prestigious schools in England. From there he went to Sandhurst and on to the British Army.
However, Sam's mother, Priscilla, is not as conservative as her demeanour would suggest. She tempers her politeness and perception of propriety with a strong sense of humour. Family stories abound concerning her humorous, slightly irreverent side, an example being the description of the occurrences of one Christmas Day in the late 1970's:
Priscilla was driving a pony cart containing Father Christmas through a local New Zealand town, Mosgiel. Their destination was an aerodrome where children awaited with high expectations. The scene caused quite a sensation as they went clip-clopping through the town with Priscilla holding the reins in one hand and a hunting horn in the other, blowing it as they passed the corners. To add to the scene, Father Christmas was quite drunk and wobbly. When the cart finally appeared at the aerodrome, it was a bit much for some of the children who burst into tears.
Sam's basis for preserving the environment becomes apparent when another story concerning Priscilla's tenacity is related:
Priscilla raised native parrots in an aviary outside Dermot's and her bedroom window. These birds were dying as a species, but she was able to bring them back from the brink of extinction. Once they were hatched and raised to maturity, they were liberated into the nearby woods. The birds would often come back for a splash in the bird bath in the aviary. Apparently, however, raising them contravened some law, and Priscilla was threatened with prosecution. "Prosecute," she said, and they backed down.
Another story illustrates her sense of priorities:
Dermot was Honorary French Consul in Dunedin, and the French Ambassador was coming to stay with them. Just before his arrival one of the Neill ponies wandered off and fell through some wooden planks covering a cesspool. Priscilla spent hours hanging over the edge, feeding the pony grass and keeping its spirits up. It managed to keep its head above the sewage until a crane finally arrived to get it out. (The pony survived, by the way.) Priscilla returned to the house where the Ambassador was waiting. He advanced to kiss her hand, in typical Gallic fashion, but was knocked back by the scent wafting from her.
Both Dermot and Priscilla are known for their sense of humour, although it has been said that Dermot could be irascible in an Army way at times. However, Priscilla had a knack for jollying him out of such moods, and Sam's refusal to take himself seriously can be traced directly to his mother's influence. A family friend has noted that while Dermot and Priscilla were similar in many ways, their characters were very different, much in the same way that Northern Ireland and New Zealand are alike yet different. Sam's is an appealing mix of both of his parent's characters and one can detect the influence of a mixture of both environments in which he was reared.
Sam describes his introduction to his father's homeland:
I remember my first day in New Zealand quite clearly because it was a shock, and it continued to be a shock--the harsh, bright light after that soft Irish light. And the school playground was devoted to a barbarity to which I was completely unsuited.
This new land was a dramatic contrast to the elegance of Northern Ireland's Armagh.
It could be a horrible nightmare, one that wakes the victim in the dead of night. Sweating and shuddering, he tries to repress them, but to no avail; the memories come rushing back. Alone, with no supporters to take his side, the small boy trembles, surrounded by tormentors. His blue eyes, stinging from threatening tears, dart fearfully from one persecutor to the next. Taunting, jeering, they show no mercy as they shout out insults and ridicule the newcomer, the foreigner. He is on their territory now; he is no more than an unwelcome outsider. The tormentors' eyes demand that he answer their questions: 'How dare he come into their school? This proper little gentleman! Too good for them, is he? With his posh accent, and upper-class airs. They will show him where he belongs, and it isn't here; it isn't in New Zealand.' The small child finds himself silently agreeing with his tormentors; he doesn't belong here in this strange land where summer is winter and winter is summer. Their accents are as strange to his ears as his is to theirs. But they are the majority, and this is their land. His only hope is to become one of them.
Sam was an outsider in Northern Ireland, and now, here in his father's homeland, he was once again an outsider. Sam began to contemplate how he should handle his situation, and he concluded that 'to avoid being knocked around I wanted to become a radically different person very quickly...that is to say, an instant New Zealander.' 'Nigel' began to exclusively use 'Sam' as his primary name.
"Sam" was from when I was perhaps 10--there were too many Nigels in my class and we allotted each other names that had a Western sound to them. I encouraged my name.
He was more than willing to do so because he felt it sounded much less 'prissy' than Nigel, even though his mother dislikes the name. She refuses to call her son 'Sam'. A friend of Sam's, Geoffrey Eathorne, adds that Sam is still called Nigel by the family as well as several of his friends from his youth. However, Geoffrey says that he is 'at long last beginning to think of him as Sam as well,' while pointing out that two of Sam's close school friends were also Nigels.
Although this change in his first name undoubtedly prevented some teasing, 'Sam' was still having trouble with his schoolmates due to his 'posh' accent. He suffered with being teased and taunted mercilessly because of his speech, the resulting stress causing him to develop a pronounced stutter. The stutter served to give the tormentors more ammunition, and therefore little Sam's early schooldays were not very happy ones. The fact that he attended a boarding school made the stress and anxiety even worse, since there was no family to come home to each evening for comfort.
A close family friend of the Neills elaborates on the early days of their arrival in New Zealand:
Sam's elder brother, Michael, was already a figure who stood out. He has a great wit and at Christ's College he stood out as intellectually brilliant. People even then tended to be a bit in awe of him and looked up to him. By the time he got to university, he also tended to have stunningly attractive girlfriends. It was not easy for Sam to have to have such a brother. He followed in his footsteps and at Christ's there were inevitable comparisons. My memory is that Sam, whether consciously or not, made a greater effort to meld into the New Zealander's world. He was more sporty, more conventionally good looking, less remote in manner.
Although one may jump to conclusions and guess at sibling rivalry, evidently this was not necessarily the case:
I would add that there never seemed resentment about Michael's position as the favoured one. Michael is one of the kindest of people, and wisest. Nigel tended more, I think, to admire him deeply. Today they are very close.
Michael, five years older than Sam, was his chosen hero. Sam once commented that 'A lot of people do things in order to get the approval of their parents. I think that I have always done things to get the approval of my brother.'
Sam began boarding school at the age of nine, attending two private schools, both connected to the Church of England. From age nine until age thirteen, he attended Medbury, a primary school in Dunedin. From age thirteen until eighteen, Sam attended Christ's College in Christchurch. Sam elaborates on his primary boarding years:
Medbury was not a happy time -- (I was) too young and (it was) a primitive school. I saw my family 3 holidays per annum and I missed them very much, particularly the first 2 or 3 years. You get used to these things. Christ's College was much better. Good drama, some very good teachers that encouraged me.
There must have been a very fine line between success and failure for a child with these obstacles of isolation, speech impediments and subsequent lack of self-confidence. However, Sam's basic constitution was a strong one. It may have taken Sam years to develop his self-confidence; but the strength necessary to do so was within him. It seems ironic that considering how he suffered with stuttering and with being ridiculed about his unbearably proper accent, it is Sam's voice that is now his most recognisable feature.
Although his stressful childhood could have laid the foundation for feelings of insecurity and low self-confidence, it instead laid the foundation for his acting career. Sam felt that it was a matter of self-preservation for him to lose his 'proper' British accent and adopt the New Zealand one. He also adapted to the New Zealand way of life, as opposed to the British military lifestyle. By transforming himself into someone that he was not, he found that he had a talent for 'becoming' other people. Acting was a natural outlet for this new-found talent.
The fact that Sam looked up to Michael may have fostered this drive to be an actor, as well. It was commented that Michael had a 'deep interest in acting and was a marvellous actor in Christ's productions and at the University of Otago. Certainly Sam's interest must have been stirred by him.'
As a small boy, however, Sam preferred to dream about becoming a Royal Air Force pilot rather than a flashy Hollywood movie star such as James Dean. 'We didn't even know who he was', he explains. 'We were reading Biggles and Roy of the Rovers.' Sam was an introspective child, preferring reading to sports. He remembers reading 'a lot of serious stuff, books that were way too serious for my age.' These 'serious books' were the books that his brother, Michael, was reading.
The first few years of Sam's life created the pattern that his next years would follow. Being uprooted several times, to move from one country to the next, has undoubtedly made it easier for Sam to travel world-wide in his acting career. The fact that he felt impelled to 'become' a different person to fit into his surrounding society was a strong foundation for a professional actor. Even his most recognisable feature, his unique voice, was created during this time period. As stressful as it may have been to a small boy, what transpired during these early years provided the groundwork for the adult, the successful actor.
The decades of the fifties and the sixties were a extremely tense time for the world. The United States' heavy involvement in the Korean War in 1950 is considered the first phase of the then-quickly escalating Cold War between the United States and Russia. In 1959 Cyprus gained its independence from Great Britain, which had annexed Cyprus in 1914, but the Greeks and Turks continued to fight against one another on the island. The British defended Kuwait's proclamation of independence against Iraq's claim of control. In August of 1961, Communist East Germany cut off access to West Berlin by erecting a fence of barbed wire, which was gradually replaced with concrete slabs, the Berlin Wall. Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off over the Cuban Missile Crisis. In April 1965, sharp fighting broke out between India and Pakistan, who were warring over borders; though a cease-fire led to an agreement in January of 1966, another round of fighting began in 1971, resulting in the secession of East Pakistan and creation of the independent state of Bangladesh. Israelis and Arabs fought the six-day war in 1967. The Vietnam Conflict, which began in the mid-1950s, continued until the mid 1970s.
To a young man living during this turbulent period, it would certainly appear that the entire world order was in upheaval. Could there possibly be a worse time for a young boy to begin entering adulthood? He must surely ask himself: what could be the point of studying and going through university, or getting involved in a relationship, if there is so much strife and stress going on? The teen years are confusing and frightening enough, but the violence that erupted during the 1950s through the 1970s only served to add more confusion and frustration.
Unfortunately, no one can choose when to be born or when to grow up; nature handles that process from conception. In 1961, in the midst of all the world's chaos, Sam began his journey from childhood towards adult life by entering secondary school at Christ's College, an elite Anglican boys' boarding school in Christchurch, New Zealand. During these years, from age 13 through 18, Sam was fortunate enough to be insulated somewhat from all of the world's problems, since he was not exposed to television and he did not have to worry, as many American teens did, about being drafted.
In primary and secondary school, Sam was not very keen on sports or outdoor activities. This fact, he says, did nothing to enrich his social life, since footballers seem to always garner all the glory, as well as the girls. 'Generally, I hated sports at school', he confesses. 'It was compulsory then. Now that I can choose, I actually like it and am keen on golf, skiing, tennis, and fishing.' Modesty prevails, and Sam adds, 'I'm still no good.'
At the age of fourteen, Sam began participating in outdoor sports such as mountain climbing, canoeing, and assault courses with his family. These physical sports gave Sam self-confidence, and this confidence in turn helped him to rid himself of his much-hated stutter while building him physically. Both of these--a clear voice and a strong body-- are necessities for any busy actor, but especially for an actor whose calling card is his voice and whose schedule is as hectic as Sam's.
Both Sam's primary school at Medbury in Dunedin, New Zealand, and his secondary school at Christ's College in Christchurch, were all-boys schools; therefore his experience with the female half of the population was very limited. He did not have what could be called a true girlfriend until he was sixteen: 'My schools were single-sexed so meeting girls was difficult. As for me being popular--I don't know!' Sam admits that his first love interest was a girl whom he met when he was seven years old and attending a school in South Wales; however, his first real 'crush' occurred during his fifth form years, which is the equivalent of American secondary school 11th grade. Sam was about 15 years old, and his beloved was a girl named Louise. Sam recalls the incident as being 'wonderful' and looks back upon it 'with the greatest affection -- and we're still very good friends.' Sam has kept in touch with Louise over the years, even to the point of being a godfather to one of her children. He makes a point to visit her family when he is able to return home to New Zealand.
Sam describes his boarding-school experience at Christ's College as being 'sort of insane, really. We didn't really know any better.' Since the students at the all-male school had virtually no contact with the opposite sex, females were surrounded with a mystique, an exotic aura. Although Sam says that 'we really had very distorted ideas of what things were about', the boys did pursue relationships with their girlfriends through letters. Perhaps this is shown in the courtliness and romantic idealism that Sam maintains today. Nevertheless, if his fans think of Sam as being very suave and gentlemanly, evidently this was not always the case. He remembers that:
In the school holidays, you'd go berserk. Kids would have parties and dances at which a lot of extreme behaviour was in evidence. During the term, we were totally cloistered really -- apart from anything else, it's hard not seeing your parents for 13 weeks.
Sam Neill, wild? 'Extreme behaviour?' A party animal? Can this be so? He continues:
Time was so short you see: you knew you were going back to school. You had to make as many gains as you could in the shortest possible time because time was always just about up -- we're going back to school any day now or any minute now.
The behaviour sounds a bit like that of a certain Neville Gifford from Sam's Australian film The Umbrella Woman. Sam continues in his attempt to explain such ungentlemanly behaviour by saying that it wasn't until he had been attending university for a couple of years that he realised that women could actually be friends with men. 'You can't get used enough to girls to treat them like mates; you're always in pursuit of something you don't understand.' Sam explains that his relationships with women are aspects of his life which he is still somewhat in awe of; perhaps they are aspects that he will never quite understand.
Nigel Creese was headmaster of the school during Sam's years as a boarder in Richard's House at Christ's College. 'I suspect that at school his (Sam's) main outlet and source of satisfaction was acting in plays, and he was very good at it.' Creese said. He continues, describing the atmosphere in which Sam stretched his wings as an actor:
Christ's College was a place in the 1960's when music and drama and debating counted for something, but there was, of course, more status and prestige if you were in Rugby Football.
Creese worked with Sam on several plays during this period, Sam's first appearance on stage at Christ's College being Private Willie Maltravers in The Amorous Prawn. The December 1962 edition of Christ's College's magazine, The Register states that in this production, 'N. J. D. Neill was an enthusiastic chef.' In the Register review for the production of Dry Rot, John Chapman writes that Sam was 'top of the trio of track twisters and the most talented of all the cast.' Chapman continues in his review of Sam, saying that
loud-suited, wide-smiled and smooth-voiced, he was the master of the double and triple take, manipulating the others out of trouble as surely as he did his black Homburg. His timing was masterly and one recalls, in this his last year, the pleasure he has given audiences in College productions.
The December 1964 edition of The Register commented on Sam's portrayal of George Hastings in the Oliver Goldsmith play, She Stoops to Conquer. The reviewer says that 'Hasting's part is one which in the hands of a lesser actor could have been relegated to a position of insignificance, but which in Neill's hands became a good foil to the hesitant, unconfident Marlow.' On November 8, 1994, Don Hamilton, who produced several of the Christ's College productions in which Sam acted, presented Sam with a Senior Honours Tie. In part, Hamilton's address reads:
By the time he (Sam) left in 1965 he had appeared in eight plays in four years under five differentproducers. Had School Honours Ties been awarded then he must have qualified several times over; today we are in some way repairing that omission.
Sam's roles at College revealed a very considerable range: from the polished and humorous lecturer in Ross to the rustic carpenter Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream, to the subtle first tempter in Murder in the Cathedral to the unobtrusively intelligent Stage Manager in Our Town.
He had, and has, masterly timing and a very wide acting range; he also has a very good sense of humour, absolute dependability and the quality of encouraging those less experienced than himself.
Creese remembers Sam as being a
gentlemanly and courteous person, qualities that he has retained in the midst of all his subsequent successes and fame. He was a modest, friendly person, and I have no reason to think he was not happy at school, but I suspect he would have been considerably less so if he had not had his acting, and a number of opportunities to practice it. I had no idea that Sam was going to become an actor -- from time to time one finds in school plays actors of great promise, but by no means all of them go on to make a career of it -- but I was not really surprised to spot him in My Brilliant Career. Sam seems to have retained the innate breeding, bearing, integrity, and genuineness that he displayed as a schoolboy.
At school, Sam began to notice that the subjects in which he seemed to excel were the same subjects in which his older brother Michael was proficient. Looking back on his school days, Sam contemplates this phenomenon, and remarks that he excelled in 'English and History and French and stuff like that'. He continues:
It took me a long time to work out that: a) I didn't have to be as good as him [Michael] and b) I didn't necessarily have to be as obsessive about the sort of things that he was obsessive about. My brother and I are quite close. He is five years older than I, and much brighter. We were never at school at the same time, so there was no question of competing or anything like that.
By the time Sam entered the University of Canterbury in Christchurch after completing his secondary years at Christ's College, he no longer felt pressured to live up to Michael's reputation; however, he did continue pursuing some of the same activities that Michael enjoyed, such as acting. Michael, although he was good at acting and enjoyed it, never aspired to become an actor in the terms of a possible career. He rejected the possibility of a actor's life to instead become a professor of English at Auckland University; Sam, however, continued to follow on the path of acting as a possible profession. 'I suspect that he [Michael] considers what I do for a living to be vulgar', Sam laughs. 'Neither my brother or sister ever refer to my work, but I think they take some interest. Maybe not.'
Coming from a rather conservative background, Sam seemed intent on leaning towards the left as much as possible. His boarding school education, first at Medbury and then at Christ's College, broke with the family tradition of sending their sons away to England. Nonetheless, Sam's family had hoped that he would follow somewhat in his father's footsteps -- Dermot Neill has been described as being 'very much a product of Harrow and Sandhurst', both of which are prestigious institutions in England. Sam did not see himself as being a mirror of his father, however, and refused to join the family import/export business as well as shunning a military career, opting instead for a profession in acting. Sam elaborates on his decision to not join the military:
My father and his sons were rather at odds about Vietnam and the military in general while growing up and there was no question of either of us joining the army. Towards the end of his life Dad tended to soften his views, and I think we tended to also.
In response to this radical decision of choosing acting as a profession, Sam's father declared that 'no son of mine will ever go onstage.' A friend of the Neills added that Dermot was 'very against Sam being an actor, and in the early days would talk of him as "my son, the strolling player."' These types of statements are perhaps predictable when considering that there is a bit of a skeleton in the Neill closet. Sam relates the family story:
It was an absurd idea that one should be interested in the acting profession. The only previous contact we had with acting, as far as I know, was when my father's great-uncle, who had got a double-first at Oxford and was heading toward a brilliant career, ran off with an actress and subsequently died of blood poisoning in a gutter in Saskatchewan.
Any parent could understand Dermot Neill's fears for his son's security if the child insisted upon choosing such an unacceptable, unstable career as acting, especially when the career was to begin in New Zealand. Dermot was not the only one sceptical about Sam's decision to become an actor. John O. Rymer was Principal of Christchurch College, a college within the University of Canterbury, during Sam's years as a student there. He relates the story of his reaction to Sam's decision:
The most memorable event of his time with me was when he asked for an appointment with me at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and announced that he wanted to cease reading for a science degree and leave both the University and the College. I asked him what he intended to do. His reply was that he wanted to be an Actor. On reflection, I asked him why he thought that he could possibly break in to such a world and make a living. When I think back on what I said, he has made such a "retort courteous" that I would never respond in such a way to any other student again!
Even Sam, who had no doubts that he wished to become a professional actor, was also sceptical of his chances in achieving such a goal:
It's not that I didn't want to be an actor, it was that no one had ever thought to tell me it was possible. No one actually thought to say to me-- though it was stupid of me not to work it out for myself -- 'look, this is actually the only thing you're going to be able to do and make it half way decent so you might as well do that.'
New Zealand was not a particularly good backdrop for someone dreaming of a career in acting, and that impediment plus the negative attitude of his family towards his choice tended to make acting somewhat of a dodgy choice for Sam. He describes the cultural atmosphere of New Zealand at the time:
All the cinema tended to be mainstream English films. Actors like Kenneth Moore and John Mills and Dirk Bogarde, they were the big stars. The American equivalents, which I suppose were Bill Holden, Brando, Humphrey Bogart -- I didn't know who the hell Humphrey Bogart was till much later on.
Sam continues, explaining that New Zealand has much more in common with England than with America:
We're much more -- we have been for years -- American- dominated than we were then. There wasn't any Coca-Cola when I grew up; it came in very late, about 1960, and I was almost at secondary school. A lot of that really good '50s and '60s American music completely escaped us; we only really heard it when the Beatles and the Stones started reviving that sort of stuff.
As far as cinema or pop music, New Zealand did not have a strong culture of its own; instead it patterned itself after England. Because it relied on England rather than America for its pop culture, there was not a heavy Hollywood influence. Above all, there was no national role model to provide a pattern for a young man interested in the film industry.
However, Sam continued following his acting, performing in plays during secondary school and then Shakespeare productions at University.
'He did no work at university but he was an absolutely brilliant actor', explains an old friend Louise Deans.
Sam expands on this:
At university I did a bit of stuff on the stage to kind of subsidise my life, such as it was, at university. The acting sort of took over a bit and I lost interest in university. I was never conscientious at school. I rather regret this. I was always an A-stream student and did the minimum possible. What I mean by A-stream is that I was always in the top class all the way through school, but was by no means famous for my application. I am not a good example, I fear.
As if he is afraid that he may lay the blame at the wrong doorstep, Sam continues, explaining that 'I had some really good teachers. Both schools were private schools, and my parents really sacrificed a lot to send us there.'
Their sacrifice was not a futile one, as Sam did take advantage of his opportunities at school.
My favourite classes were Drama, of course, and Debating, which I loved. University was by and large great fun. Bear in mind this was the 60's and a time of great change for people my age. Didn't do nearly enough work, but I did get involved in politics, student business, drama and so on. Not too radical, but certainly involved. I had some interesting drama producers at the time, including Dame Ngaio Marsh.
J. O. Rymer remembers Sam as being
always reserved and somewhat reticent. He was popular among the students at the College, but I don't think that he ever infringed the College rules to the extent that he was involved in disciplinary action!
Sam describes his university years as being rather ordinary:
My first two years were in a college, not unlike the colleges you find at English universities. I have a BA from the University of Canterbury, which I finished at Victoria University. My major subject was English Literature. I graduated by getting a piece of paper in the mail, and certainly didn't go to any kind of ceremony. Such things, at that time, were considered extremely uncool. Early on at university I suspect that I was rather conservative, entirely unpolitical, and I didn't even do any acting. More of a jock, I suppose. Later on I became more politicised, and remain so to this day.
The difference in American English and Australian English is extremely obvious in this statement, since in American English, the label of 'jock' is quite negative, bringing to mind visions of brain-dead, muscle-bound American football players or wrestlers. When questioned about this, Sam replied
No, not that sort of jock. More a Philistine, I suppose -- no interest in drama or anything remotely cultural. But very interested in parties, outdoor stuff, etc.
The parties must have been within close proximity to his living quarters, however, because Sam pointed out that he did not always have access to private transportation: 'I only had a car for one brief period, perhaps 12 weeks, while I was at university. It was a 1928 Plymouth which I bought for $25., and it was as reliable as the price would indicate.'
John Clarke, who later co-starred with Sam in Death in Brunswick, was a mate of Sam's during his university years. Sam credited John with tutoring him, staying up two nights in a row poring over philosophy. Sam said that
John taught me logic over two days. I'm stupid. It should have only taken one day. John Clarke is the most amusing man I know. And he is also the person I admire most in the world. John is the sort of person that I would like to be. He's got a bloody good brain; he's very perceptive; and he's completely independent of everybody and everything, apart from his immediate family. He doesn't work for anybody; he doesn't owe anybody anything. He's his own man. And he is a Renaissance man. He performs; he acts; there's nothing he can't do -- but, above all, he is funny.
While at University, Sam did not give much serious thought to becoming a professional actor. He explains:
I never intended to act for a living. I had one year in New Zealand Players Drama Quartet, travelling around New Zealand doing drama for schools, Shakespeare, etc. While I was working out what to do, I got a job with New Zealand National Film Unit and thought for some years that would be my career, but acting just popped up again. I was thirty by the time I decided, "I may as well admit it, come out of the closet and admit that I'm a fully-fledged actor."
Although Sam may not have begun his University days with a career in acting as a goal, the profession seems to have naturally flowed throughout his life. From his days as a student in the primary grades when he chose to change his accent on to his University years and stage acting, his interest in acting culminated in a professional career, beginning in New Zealand film.
After finishing with a Bachelor's degree from the University of Canterbury, Sam went to work for the New Zealand Film Unit in Wellington. He describes the manner in which he obtained this position:
I got a job for the New Zealand Film Unit by lying, basically. I could not think of anything else to do, and there was insufficient work to be had as an actor. I had some friends, notably John Laing, working for the Film Unit and it looked like an interesting option, so I did an evening's homework on my favourite films, etc., and developed an interesting, but entirely dishonest, spiel about how I had always wanted to make films all my life. In fact, this had only occurred to me the week before. I went in and was extremely persuasive in the interview, and got the job. After two or three years I became one of the more interesting directors there, but this was really because so many people had left.
While at the New Zealand Film Unit, Sam proceeded to direct nine documentaries on such subjects as theatre and architecture and to act in small productions and short films. When asked if he was as competent a director as he is an actor, Sam answered, 'I haven't seen any of them [the documentaries] since I left the film unit. I suspect they were embarrassing, though there were one or two I thought were reasonable at the time.' Sam stayed with the Film Unit for six years, after which he was offered a starring role in a feature film, Sleeping Dogs. Sam describes his surprise at the unexpected offer:
I got a letter from Roger Donaldson, from Hong Kong, which said "I'm making a picture called Sleeping Dogs based on Karl Stead's book. I'd like you to read it. We're going to shoot this early next year, and we want you to do it." I was astonished.
This film, sort of an New Zealand/Australian 1984, was the first feature film for director Roger Donaldson as well as Sam's first feature film, although Sam had acted in two small films, Ashes and Landfall, with the New Zealand Film Unit before Sleeping Dogs. Both Ashes and Landfall were completed in 1975, and Sleeping Dogs was made in 1977.
In Ashes, Sam plays a priest who questions his faith. This film's storyline has its origin in T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday". Landfall is the story of a back-to-earth commune's disintegration. Local police discover the commune to be using illegal drugs. The boundaries between reality and fantasy become blurred after members of the commune murder a policeman and bury him in their garden.
Sleeping Dogs was a decided step up from Sam's first two films, although the film crew and cast of Sleeping Dogs lacked experience. Their inexperience was representative of Australia's film industry as a whole. Until the late 1970's Australian films were rarely ever seen outside the home country. However, in 1971, the Australian government began promoting the domestic film industry with the Australian Film Commission. This governmental support for producers in the form of tax incentives and promotional campaigns resulted in international attention paid to several local talents. During this time, Australia saw the emergence of world-class directors and actors. One of the top Australian directors was Gillian Armstrong, and Sam Neill became one of the best-known actors.
Sam describes the film industry in Australia and New Zealand at this time of rapid growth as a trial-and-error sort of business, without the modern gadgets that are taken for granted in today's Hollywood movie business:
We didn't have storyboards or any sort of tremendous organisation. We would load up the crew in trucks and drive until we saw a spot that looked as if it would make a good shot. We'd get out, film, and hop back in the trucks until we found another spot. We were completely at sea really.
Though the New Zealand and Australian film industries were in their infancies at the time, the films produced were far from inconsequential. Just as an infant must learn to crawl before he or she can walk, an actor must also begin at the primary stage:
I hadn't seen this film [Sleeping Dogs] for about fifteen years or something, and I remember looking at it and thinking that there's a lot of this film that I find deeply embarrassing, but there's three or four little scenes which I wasn't too bad at, and that's enough to want to go on and get better at it.
Sleeping Dogs was certainly no blockbuster, but the simple film did manage to catch the attention of young Australian director, Gillian Armstrong. Sam had come to Australia in order to promote Sleeping Dogs:
I landed in Melbourne. We had a press conference, which was a disaster. Only one reporter turned up, and he was from the sports pages. He wasn't interested in the film, and so we just got drunk. But while I was [in Melbourne] I was approached by Gillian Armstrong to do a screen test for My Brilliant Career.
Armstrong asked Sam to audition in Sydney for the part of Harry Beecham in her debut feature film based on Miles Franklin's classic novel, My Brilliant Career. The movies which tended to be best accepted through the new Australian Film Commission were period films, films which dealt with Australia's history, literature or heritage. A perfect example of the trend, My Brilliant Career is set in the Australian outback of 1890's.
Sam took a week from his job with the New Zealand Film Unit and won the part of Beecham. This was his introduction to the landscape of his neighbouring country:
I caught the train from Melbourne, and I travelled on through this astonishing country. It was much more beautiful than I ever expected. I was immediately riveted by it. When you are used to the New Zealand landscape, it is startlingly different and very beautiful.
Armstrong said that the screen test was 'no contest'. After winning the part, Sam remarked that he went back to New Zealand and, all in the same day, resigned his job with the Film Unit and put his house on the market. He also said that he left New Zealand 'about two weeks later and never looked back.'
It is a bit of an overstatement to say that Sam never looked back, since he still considers New Zealand his true home. However, it did take him fourteen years before he actually worked in New Zealand once again. Once in Australia, he found that he liked it a great deal and decided to stay:
I found an agent, Bill Shanahan, a marvellous and witty bloke who became a great friend and advisor. Bill died of AIDS a couple of years ago  and I miss him very much as a friend and as a most trusted ally.
In My Brilliant Career Sam plays a rich landowner attracted to a young girl, played by Australian actress Judy Davis. Davis' character is Sybylla, a young girl who dreams of becoming independent as a writer, a lofty goal indeed considering the era and locale in which the novel is set. Sam's superb acting as Sybylla's pursuer, Harry Beecham, was the springboard for his own internationally brilliant career. When the film was shown in America, female directors, managers and executives--women who are usually powerful and in control--went wild over this hot new young actor. In England, the film caught the attention of James Mason, a powerful actor in his own right.
However, Sam's success was not overnight; he spent the next two years in Australia, doing two more films which were not well-received outside their native land: The Journalist and Just Out of Reach. Neither of these films were significantly popular at the box office, but they provided Sam with employment and income, as well as further experience for the development of his acting abilities, while he waited for his career to grow internationally.
Sam recounts the incident that began the next era of his acting profession:
I was working in Melbourne doing Lucinda Brayford [an Australian mini-series based upon Martin Boyd's 1948 novel]. I got called to the phone and it was an overseas call from Switzerland, and this rather cultured voice said "this is James Mason. You don't know me, but I know your work and I think you should be working overseas. I've been talking to people about you, and I'm sending you an air ticket. I want you to come to England next week and test for a film".
For some few moments it was impossible for Sam to believe that it was actually James Mason, an actor famous for such roles as the Nazi general Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox (1951) and Judy Garland's alcoholic husband in A Star Is Born (1954); he believed instead that it must be one of his friends playing a practical joke. Sam was eventually convinced of the authenticity of the voice, and he accepted Mason's generous offer of a ticket to London.
Sam has never downplayed the role that Mason performed in launching his career, however he believes that Mason deserves recognition for something that Sam feels is even more important: 'He gave me a belief in myself. That was his main gift to me.' Sam flew from Australia to England to try out for the role of Damien in The Final Conflict, the third film in the Omen series. In this 1981 film directed by Graham Baker and co-starring Lisa Harrow, Sam plays the now-adult son of Satan, Damien Thorn. The Final Conflict is an American film, produced by American Harvey Bernhard for Twentieth Century-Fox, but was filmed in England. Bernhard elaborates on the reason behind using England as a backdrop:
There's something about filming in England that is just right for these movies. The country has so many spooky old buildings. The English scenery has so many different moods and contrasts. There's the beauty of Cornwall where we spent a week at the beginning of the film shooting the important hunting scenes. Then from the studio we moved to Yorkshire.
Bernhard decided that he had found the perfect scenery for The Final Conflict. Then his goal was to find the perfect adult Damien:
I spent six months searching for Damien, and must have seen every young actor there is in that age group. Then James Mason, and his Australian wife Clarissa, recommended Sam Neill, whom they had seen in a theatre performance in Australia. He had already starred in the award-winning film, My Brilliant Career, which introduced him to world audiences. Mason sponsored his trip to London, and as soon as I saw him on film I knew I had found the new star I was looking for.
The success was tempered with some drawbacks, however; after the film was released in the cinemas, Sam was swamped with letters from what one would be tempted to call "the lunatic fringe". Although Sam loves portraying evil characters, the reaction to The Final Conflict caused him to shy away from such roles for years following its release.
Journalist Greg Williams once asked Sam how he did research for the part of Damien, the Antichrist. As is usual for Sam, he gave the question much consideration and was able to respond without really answering -- a talent that would do any professional politician proud.
It's hard to research, because there aren't a lot of them around. When I read the script, I thought, "What a lonely job", because you can't go around telling anyone what you do for a living. It's much easier to be a Messiah because your job is to go round telling everyone. But if you're the Antichrist you've got to keep pretty quiet about it.
When it was commented that Sam made a perfect Anti-Christ as Damien, he laughed and said, 'Yeah, like a duck to water.'
Sam worked with fellow New Zealander Lisa Harrow on the set of The Final Conflict, and fortunately their relationship off screen went somewhat better than their relationship on screen. Sam and Lisa were involved, on and off, for six years. A son, Tim, was born to them in 1983. Lisa Harrow, a talented actor in her own right, was once said to be one of the two or three best Shakespearean actors of her generation. A comment such as that, coming from John Barton, the great Shakespearean director, is high praise indeed. Harrow is known for her portrayal of Nancy Astor in the television series based on the life of Lady Astor. A family friend of Sam's commented that "Sam actually relied on her professional advice quite a bit in the days when they were together". Sam and Lisa Harrow remain on friendly terms, and Tim often stays with Sam during the holidays. Sam says that he looks at their past relationship 'with great affection. How could it be otherwise when, from it, we have such a wonderful son?'
In 1982, Sam played Brian de Bois Guilbert in the film adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. This was memorable for him in part because it gave him the chance to work with James Mason. It was memorable for other reasons as well, as Sam explains:
It was fun being on the set of Ivanhoe, apart from the chainmail costumes, which were in fact painted chain string, which attracted all kinds of insect life in late summer in England. We had an extremely distinguished cast, and I felt I was in good company, which is to say also fun company. It was nice to work with James at least once, although I don't think we had much in the way of scenes together. He also had a not particularly good part and I think probably put in the worst performance of his career. However, I am sure he was paid much more handsomely than I. In compensation, I had a rather good horse, and I spent a lot of time on him.
After accepting Mason's offer of assistance, Sam spent seven years in London, working on such films as Enigma with Martin Sheen, and The Blood of Others with Jodie Foster. In among these films was a feature which puzzles nearly every fan of Sam's: Possession. This 1984 French-German horror film co-stars Isabelle Adjani and was directed by Andrei Zulawski. Film critic Mick Martin termed the film a 'turkey', and other critics are not much kinder in their critiques. When asked about his decision to do this film, Sam replied, 'What can I say, I was broke at the time and needed the work.' He then gave a slightly more serious answer, saying that 'In my view it is one of my more interesting films. It is very odd and many people hate it, if they have seen it at all. Isabelle Adjani got best actress at Cannes for it--have you noticed many women do very well when they work with me!!!'
None of Sam's films during this period were highly successful at the box office, with perhaps the exception of The Final Conflict, yet critics have tended to agree that even on the occasion when the movie is a failure, Sam's performance within the movie is excellent. An example would be Claude Chabrol's 1984 film, The Blood of Others. Film critic Marsha Porter said that 'considering the talent involved, both in front of and behind the camera, this made-for-cable miniseries is a generally unconvincing adaptation of Simone de Beauvoir's novel.' Sam admitted that
it was a disastrous film. All of that was apparent from the day I arrived. You can tell whether you like a script. With the Chabrol thing, I didn't like the script very much, but I thought Chabrol! -- that's going to be great.
The movie was far from great, but Sam still found that it was not an entire loss. He explains:
You're sitting in London, you've got nothing to do, why not go to Paris and be paid a good wage and go to a lot of good restaurants with Claude Chabrol? And that was the best thing about the job -- he knows the best restaurants in Paris.
Although many of Sam's films from 1984 were not overly successful, the mini-series Reilly - Ace of Spies, which chronicles the career of Sidney Reilly, was a smash hit. Historically accurate, the series is based on the book by Robin Bruce Lockhart, whose father was the Sir Robin Bruce Lockhart who had worked extensively with Sidney Reilly. Reilly has often named the greatest spy in history; Ian Fleming once said, "James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up. He's not a Sidney Reilly, you know!" Reilly is often the work by which people first recognise Sam, an example being a small occurrence which took place in London, England:
I was once suspected drunk in charge of a vehicle, and was arrested but released when the test showed I was well under -- after four hours at Bow Street Police Station. Not fun . . . but the sergeant liked Reilly . . . .
Sam pointed out that "no favours were done or asked for."
In 1985, Sam was offered a small part in a film starring Meryl Streep. He quickly jumped at the chance and was transported into another era of his life. When one ponders what Sam has said about Meryl Streep, it becomes a temptation to say that he is verging on hero-worship where she is concerned. In a 1990 ELLE magazine interview, Sam listed Meryl Streep on his 'most recommended' list. 'Not because she says nice things about me', he explains, but because she is an excellent actress. Sam points out that he is not the only actor awed by her talent, mentioning that he 'heard Jack Nicholson quoted as saying "there's Brando, there's Streep...and there's the rest of us." Not bad.'
Sam describes his first encounter with Meryl Streep on the set of Plenty:
With someone like Meryl Streep, who's obviously consummately good at what she does, it's a great pleasure to work with. It lifts you up. Having said that, I don't think that I was particularly good in Plenty. I was a little daunted by the experience, particularly the bed scene.
Sam's uncomfortableness with the subject matter becomes painfully apparent at this point. It appears as if he has began blushing crimson red, nonetheless he perseveres in his explanation:
It's a pretty scary thing when I hardly know the woman...to rub up against Meryl Streep on the second day of meeting her. If you watch the film, you'll notice it's completely unrealistic. I didn't want to grind her or anything.
It is not only his temperament as a gentleman showing itself here; it is obvious that Sam holds Streep in very high regard. He elaborates on the perks of acting with performers of such quality as Streep:
I never fail to be astonished with the sort of people that I get to work with. It was a very short time [together] in Plenty but I liked it. It was two weeks work, no big deal. But obviously, I was fascinated by the idea of doing a couple of weeks with Meryl Streep; who wouldn't be?
One person who wouldn't be, evidently, is Sam's own son, Tim. Sam describes his son's reaction to his father's high regard for Meryl Streep:
My son was staying over and he and my stepdaughter were outboasting each other over breakfast, as kids do. My stepdaughter said, "My friend Emily, her father met Kylie Minogue and got Kylie's signature" and Tim said, "That's nothing. My cousin Paul knows Jason Donovan." This went on and on, so eventually I said, "Look kids, you tell your cousin and you tell your friend that your Dad has worked with Meryl Streep." And they looked at me, completely blank, and Tim said, "Who's Meryl Streep?"
After finishing the film Plenty, Sam went on to do the American television mini-series Kane and Abel, his first production to be shot in North America. Kane and Abel marks the beginning of a new leg of Sam's journey towards a truly world-wide career.
Based on a best-selling Jeffrey Archer novel, Kane and Abel, this 1985 American mini-series tells the story of a life-long rivalry between a Polish immigrant-turned-millionaire, Abel Rosnovski (Peter Strauss) and Boston banker William Lowell Kane (Sam Neill). In this mini-series, Sam's uncanny ability to "become" another person is highlighted. He was able to reproduce the Bostonian accent expected from Kane perfectly.
Sam had avoided Hollywood until the offer of Kane and Abel. He was not overly fond of the 'disposable culture' of America, as well as the overbearing attitude of the film industry toward its actors:
I resist Los Angeles to a certain extent. It's not a place I particularly care to be. There's not an awfully lot of films made in Hollywood that I find particularly appealing. I received plenty of offers of work from all over the place. However, I could still walk down the street without being rugby-tackled or have helicopters buzzing--problems my peers have to put up with. I'd like to be a successful actor in America, but I have no desire to be a celebrity. I don't think that people from this part of the world (Australia and New Zealand) are very good at being well-known. I don't think we're very comfortable with it; I'm not very comfortable with it. I don't particularly like being recognised. At the same time, it's good when people know you.
Sam laughs at the apparent contradiction. 'I don't know. I've got mixed feelings about it.'
However, Sam could not turn down the chance to play William Kane, starring opposite Peter Strauss' Abel. He describes his character:
Kane is a moral man, probably not as attractive to women as some of the cads I've played, such as Reilly. I'm not an apologist for snobbishness or the class system, but I think some of the values these people adhered to have a lot to recommend themselves. They led spotless lives. Kane isn't ruthless. He just does what he sees as right. Part of me sees life in a very similar way to Kane. I don't believe in inherited wealth or dynastic families, but there is a part of me that's puritan.
A friend of Sam's agrees with his last comment, saying that Sam does indeed have a Puritan side in that "he believes in stretching one's potential, in hard work, in family, in keeping one's house in order. He isn't frivolous. What I always come back to is his decency; he is a very worthwhile human being."
Sam's heritage is not dissimilar to Kane's, as he points out:
"Kane isn't too far removed from my experience. My family were merchants. I was supposed to be one of them, but it all went terribly wrong and I became an actor."
After Kane and Abel, Sam returned to England to film Strong Medicine, a four-hour mini-series. Based on a best seller by Arthur Hailey, Strong Medicine is set in Boston, but was filmed in the London suburbs of Ruislip and Wembley as well as England's Lake District. It is about the cut-throat world of the pharmaceutical industry, and co-stars Pamela Sue Martin and Patrick Duffy. Sam's character is Vincent Lord, a villain of villains, capable of anything and everything to claw his way to the top of the drug-industry heap. One of Sam's favourite actors at the time, Dick Van Dyke, also co-starred in Strong Medicine, playing the president of the pharmaceutical company. Sam said that he felt he would 'never get over the fact that Van Dyke shook his hand at their first meeting and told him how much he'd enjoyed his performance in Kane and Abel.' As for his attitude toward the mini-series, during filming Sam said, 'It ain't gonna be art, but it's gonna be entertaining.' He went on to say that
It's one of those jobs where after a take I went away giggling because I've just been enjoying it. You know you're not shooting King Lear so you can afford to relax and just enjoy acting. And the only point in acting is to have fun, really.
In 1987 Sam continued working in television by portraying a Communist leader in the highly controversial American mini-series Amerika. It was in Amerika that Sam did what he felt, at that time, to be some of his best work, as it dealt strongly with the contrasts and conflicting natures of humans:
I don't believe anyone is entirely good or bad. I think even the best of us are capable of evil and even the worst of us are capable of doing good things. Human beings are flawed.
Sam does not pretend that Amerika is one of the best mini-series or films that he has worked in, but he does believe that the character he portrayed is one of the most interesting.
I played a KGB colonel, very smart, who loves power and loves manipulating power. I hate that sort of thing. He's a very complex man, and sees, for instance, that in some circumstances, in order to achieve a wider good, you have to do things that are bad in the short run. I actually don't think that's defensible at all. He's totally committed to the Soviet system, but on the other hand, is obsessively attracted to things that are Western and decadent.
After completing Amerika in 1987, Sam returned to Australia to film The Umbrella Woman, released in America under the title The Good Wife. Sam had fun with this film, in part because he was able to work with one of his best friends, Bryan Brown, and also with Rachel Ward. Sam stated that he very much admires Bryan Brown:
He just manages his life so well. He's certain of what he wants and where he wants to go. And so focused. I've never traditionally had a very well-managed life.
In The Umbrella Woman, Sam plays one of his most famous caddish characters, Neville Gifford. Gifford is a man who is brought in to run the pub in a small outback motel. Sam describes his character:
In The Umbrella Woman, the first time you see this character, he gets off the train and he sort of oozes up to Rachel Ward. I'm not getting off the train thinking "I'm gonna be sexy", I'm getting off the train thinking "this is just disgusting what this guy intends to do."
One term of description for the character of Neville Gifford is a 'cad'. Without a doubt he is quite without morals or ethics, yet women find him completely enticing and alluring. When asked why he thought that women found such miscreants irresistible, Sam answered:
I had to do quite a bit of research on this. I'm not a cad; that goes without saying. I don't even know any cads. So I've had to talk to a lot of women who've come across these sort of people. And it seems to me it's very simple. The secret to success is very easy: you just have to be nice to women. You just have to say nice things to them. This is what cads do. They say things like "you've got fantastic legs". And it always works, every time. I think it's got to do with Australian men, particularly Australian husbands--this is what women have told me--that it's hard enough to get Australian men to be nice about your roast chicken, let alone say anything nice about your legs.
This is not to say that simply because a man compliments a woman he is a scoundrel, however. Sam elaborates:
Cads always come across as gentlemen and then you realise that there's something very unpleasant underneath. People ask me to play cads and villains quite a bit -- I'm never entirely sure why -- but would say that this [Neville Gifford] is probably the most caddish role I've played.
Sam's characters certainly come across as men who easily compliment the ladies--the smooth, suave, dashing sort. He often appears to play these roles entirely too convincingly. So, is he a "cad" in real life as well? Sam answers:
I like to play away from myself. The more villainous, or caddish, whatever, I think it's easier. The hardest thing to do is to play something close to yourself. It's like Laurence Olivier who puts on noses, ears, wigs and things--the more things you can stick on to yourself as an actor, the more props you can use, the easier it is to produce a character. The hardest thing is to play something close to yourself, because then you're not playing a character; you're just playing.
Sam, however, does not consider the character of Gifford to be one dimensional, but instead believes that Gifford has some redeeming values:
He's not simply a sleazebag. I believe every character like this has his reasons. I mean, I've seen this as being partly a tragic character, someone who has an absolutely insatiable appetite for women, but never gets close to anybody, never has any kind of emotional life at all. I think there's something rather sad about that. So, I think he's kind of amusing. At least he has an appetite for life. He loves being alive. He loves women...in a way. Yet, there's something about womanisers that they're destructive. They want to destroy the people they love.
When asked in an interview promoting The Umbrella Woman if he likes women, Sam appeared to be at a loss. Obviously uncomfortable, he fidgeted in his seat, the heat from his sudden blush almost palpable. His entire face glowed with his grin as he stammered, 'I...yes, I do.' Composing himself a bit, he continued, 'I think that women are by and large more likeable than men.'
The Umbrella Woman was the first film in which Sam appeared in a moustache. He explains his reasons why:
I did a bit of research into the period and obviously the man would want to look like Clark Gable, but I knew that a Clark Gable moustache on me would look extremely sleazy, and indeed it does.
Not only was the moustache Sam's idea, but so were the rings which Gifford wore:
I remember I had a teacher at school, who was a bit of a Neville, and he had all these rings. The rings are based on him. He had these big, green, square ones, and gold signet rings. I got one and had engraved on it "N. G." for Neville Gifford, and also for "no good". Just putting the rings on in the morning, you'd feel no good.
Sam explains his reasons for wanting to be Neville Gifford in The Umbrella Woman:
This is a film that people were trying to make for about four years and there's just something about the story that I find very appealing. I'm not sure what it is -- there's a certain tragic element in it and also there's something to do with an exploration of obsession and sexuality in an Australian context which strikes me as being very different from a lot of things that are done here [in America]. It's certainly a film done from a woman's point of view, but I don't think it's a film exclusively for women. I think all women in a way have met a Neville. I mean, it's not just women; all of us love the thing that we can't have -- the thing that's elusive.
Sam also admitted that he 'would have done it (the film) for free', because 'Rachel was just wonderful to play with. I mean, how often do you get a chance to put your hand up Rachel Ward's skirt?' Sam elaborated on his co-star:
I think Rachel is a marvellous actress, and I think this is the first film, really, that she's been allowed to really show what she can do. I think she's fantastic.
Two years following this interview, Sam was once again on the same talk show, and he learned that his co-stars from The Umbrella Woman, married couple Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown, had also been on the show, in a follow-up appearance to his own. Sam was shown a video containing part of Brown and Ward's interview, in which Bryan had been shown a clip of Sam's opinion regarding Rachel Ward -- the one in which he had mentioned having his 'hand up (her) skirt'. Bryan's reaction to this comment of Sam's was, naturally enough, one of indignation, and he proceeded to proclaim Sam a 'dirty bugger'.
After watching his friend's reaction to his comments, Sam was naturally embarrassed, but not for the reasons that one would normally assume. Evidently he had been busy observing the clothing that he had worn during his interview two year's previous, because Sam's only comment on the incident was an embarrassed, 'two years later, I'm still wearing the same tie.' He reflected for a moment and then added, 'And Bryan's still saying the same things about me.'
Sam redeemed himself from his role as a rogue in The Umbrella Woman by playing supportive, compassionate husbands in his next three films: Dead Calm, A Leap of Faith, and Evil Angels.
Dead Calm is based on a 1963 novel by Charles Williams. Orson Welles had began a film version of the novel, but the project was suspended in 1970 and then abandoned altogether in 1973, due to the death of Laurence Harvey, who was to be the leading man. Director Phillip Noyce and producers Terry Hayes, Doug Mitchell and George Miller gave the novel another chance at life as a film in 1988.
Starring Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane, Dead Calm is a true-blue thriller. The action takes place aboard two yachts off the coast of Australia, and the three characters remain surrounded throughout the entire film by miles and miles of ocean. Cut off from civilisation, the plot centres on sharp psychological mind games between the married couple, John and Rae Ingram (Sam and Kidman), and the madman, Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane).
The madman is not what worried Sam during filming, however. It seems that Sam suffers somewhat from claustrophobia as well as sea-sickness. These are two ailments which an actor could certainly do without when he is portraying a man trapped on a sinking yacht as the water rises up above his ears:
My idea of a way to waste a Sunday is to go out on somebody's yacht. I don't like them at all. We were filming actually at sea; we didn't have any way to cheat these scenes. So, we have a certain amount of scenes which are actually in storm conditions and we just had to wait until we got the right weather. They were very uncomfortable. I didn't enjoy them -- at all. I was very often seasick.
The fact that the film had many shots of tightly enclosed areas, several of which were underwater, gave Sam the opportunity to discover new aspects of his personality. He elaborates:
I found that I'm slightly prone to claustrophobia; I think most people are -- but those scenes where the water's rising and rising and it looks like my chips are up, well, they were pretty uncomfortable. The water was cold as hell. Physically, I think this was the toughest film I've ever done.
The physical conditions of the film may have been less than ideal, but there were no complaints about his co-stars on Dead Calm:
Nicole Kidman was fantastic in the film. She's a great girl and I'm very fond of her. She's bright and beautiful, talented, and all the things you need to be a film star. I think she's got a great future in front of her. She's a sexy broad, you know?
Well, perhaps there is one co-star that Sam was less than enamoured of: Benjy, the dog. This relationship appeared to be one of a love/hate category:
We were very fond of Benjy. He's such a cute dog, but you wanted to throttle him after a few days. He's a clever dog. I mean, he did everything he was required to do. I didn't have many scenes with him, thank God, because you know the old movie adage: never act with children or dogs. Nicole had most of the stuff with Benjy.
Dead Calm is most memorable for Sam because it was on the set of this film that he met Noriko Watanabe, a make-up artist who was also working on the film. ('She is very busy,' Sam comments, 'one of the top people in her field. I do not see enough of her.') Sam recounts his initial reaction to Noriko: 'When I fell in love, I had the usual symptoms: insomnia, light fever, loss of appetite. It was like the flu, except the symptoms intensified in the presence of the intended.'
'Love', Sam adds, 'is an extremely volatile element. The explosion can blind and cripple you, or it can be an absolutely marvellous injury. There ain't nothing like it.' Sam describes his pursuit of Noriko as one of simple perseverance. Evidently she knew actors far too well to consider dating one. Nonetheless, the typical Neill tenacity paid off and Noriko eventually gave in, agreeing to a date. Subsequent encounters proceeded smoothly, and in October, 1989 Sam took time from filming The Hunt for Red October to fly to Sydney, Australia. The purpose of his journey was twofold: receiving the Best Actor award at the Australian Film Institute Awards for his portrayal of Michael Chamberlain and marrying Noriko.
After completing Dead Calm, Sam returned to North America to star in the 1988 made-for-television production A Leap of Faith. Released on video as A Question of Faith, this work tells the true story of Debby Franke Ogg, played by Anne Archer. Ogg had been diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of cancer which her doctors had termed incurable. Rather than give in, her husband Oscar (Sam) seeks out several alternative remedies which Debby faithfully tries, and after two years her cancer is subdued into remission.
Anne Archer comments on Sam's personality:
He likes to pull little, gentle jokes, but nothing that would hurt anybody. Sam is very huggable. There's a quiet gentleness about him. He displays all the characteristics of someone who lives in a simpler world.
When Sam was asked about his opinion on the subject matter of Leap of Faith, he replied:
I personally feel that [alternative medicine] can be productive and useful, but I also happen to believe in the efficacy of conventional medicine, and by and large I think the two are best employed in tandem.
From a movie on the subject of natural healing, Sam went to Australia to film what may be termed that country's most controversial film ever: Evil Angels. Based on a novel by John Bryson, Evil Angels was released in the United States and Britain as A Cry in the Dark. This film gave Sam the chance to work with Meryl Streep and Fred Schepsi once again, his last film with the two being Plenty in 1985.
Evil Angels tells the true story of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, played by Meryl Streep and Sam Neill. In 1980, the Chamberlains were on a camping trip, visiting Australia's famous Ayer's Rock, when their baby daughter, Azaria, was taken by a dingo. What followed was worse than the worst nightmare: gossip grew to a frenzied pitch, resulting in Lindy being accused, then convicted, of murdering her daughter. She spent three years in prison before being released on an appeal.
Sam wanted to work on Evil Angels for several reasons, one of which was the chance to again act opposite Meryl Streep:
I think she is extraordinary in this film. People talk about her Australian accent being superb and of course it is flawless, but that's just the surface. It was the substance beneath the accent and her grasp of the character that I found astonishing. She is a great actress. There's no doubt about it. I certainly learn from her. Just being on the set with her is a constant reminder that one always has to concentrate, to be inventive and creative.
Meryl Streep has nice words to say about Sam, as well:
The time we had together on-screen was so intense that I was grateful it was someone as witty and droll as Sam that I was spending time with in the off-screen moments, to relieve the tension. He has a great barking laugh that you won't hear in this film, but that I hear all over again whenever I think about him.
Sam believed the Chamberlains to be innocent, and that was the second reason for wishing to be a part of this film:
I believe completely in their innocence. I think of Michael as being a friend of mine and I think the media has a lot to answer for in this case. I feel a kind of responsibility toward Michael. I feel I have to do him some kind of justice. Here you have someone who has done everything right and then God, or whoever it is that runs things, served a number of events and situations for which he (Michael Chamberlain) wasn't in any way prepared. Initially his faith insulated him from reality, and this is the man that was brought face to face with reality in no uncertain terms. I think he's a better man for it in a lot of ways.
For their initial encounter, Sam was to be met at the train station by Michael, so that they might spend a few days together in laying the groundwork for the role that Sam was to play. Unlike his preparation for the role of Oscar Ogg, Sam did do considerable research for the role of Michael Chamberlain. However, Michael was not at the train station, as had been planned:
Five minutes later, Michael walked out of the doorway and came walking towards me. It was then that I realised that actually I was the one under observation. Somehow the tables had been turned here -- the observer was being observed.
Sam considered the fact that he was portraying a real person, who was still very much alive, the most difficult part of acting in the film. Due to the large amounts of news footage and taped interviews, Australia was intimately familiar with Michael's tone, personality, and mannerisms. During the media blitz, Michael had become well-known as an ordinary, plain man who was also brimming with religious zeal. The fact that his life-style was so different to mainstream Australia made it difficult for Michael to relate comfortably with the media, and this in turn made it an extremely difficult part for Sam to portray. Nonetheless, Sam was fully believable as Michael Chamberlain. Those who know both Sam and Michael were amazed at the similarity between the real Michael and Sam's portrayal of him in the film. He was able to capture Michael's loyalty and vulnerability and expose it to the audience in a completely convincing manner.
Sam worked closely with both Lindy and Michael throughout the film, and once it was finished, Michael phoned Sam in America:
Michael was in tears at that stage and finding it difficult to articulate, but Lindy, who is pretty amused and amusing about a lot of things, felt I was more Michael than Michael himself.
The fact that Michael is so ordinary a man was difficult for Sam as well, since he could not rely on 'props' to fill out the role. 'It's not a flashy part,' he explains. 'I'll be surprised if anyone notices me. I'm not exactly playing Spartacus in this film. Michael's not Ben-Hur.' However, Michael does have a wider range of emotions than Lindy, who was known for her stoicism throughout the trial, a fact that greatly contributed to her being initially convicted of the crime. 'I suppose Michael in many ways is a lot more vulnerable than Lindy', Sam admits. 'You see him exposed in a way that you don't really see her very often.' Sam continues elaborating on his character's emotional nakedness and vulnerability:
Simply having to tap those emotional resources in myself, a thing I'm not very often asked to do as I usually play people that are sort of covered and cool, and there are times in this film where I had to explore a sort of raw emotional area that I'd never really been to before. There are scenes in this film that you look through the script and you think "God, how'm I gonna do this? This is so confronting." I was scared about it. In a way I think that sort of helped, that I'd go on the set very frightened. I'd take a deep breath and go into it, and you wouldn't know what would happen, where you'd be at the end of the scene. You'd end up at a different place than you'd expected to be. That was an exciting, new thing for me. It was a departure.
The fact that the Chamberlains had lost a child, in reality, caused Sam to contemplate his own life, and that of his son, Tim:
The things that these people went through -- losing one's child -- if you have a child of your own you know that this is your worst nightmare. I suppose what caught the popular imagination about this story had to do with a choice of two horrors here, and it's to do with the loss of a child. One is: a dingo takes a child, so you have a horror that lurks beyond the light of the campfire, the beast in the dark. Or, the mother kills the child -- if this is what the courts say, or the papers say the people say -- you live in a world which is doubly horrifying. You live in a world where, if a mother can kill a child any horror is possible. That sacred bond between mother and child has been severed.
This potential horror emanating from the film affected not only audiences world-wide, but also the cast and crew of Evil Angels. Sam describes what took place after filming a particularly emotional scene:
We were in tears on that particular occasion. There's something about the situation that someone, after a year, can finally, actually, talk about what had happened. And say her (Azaria's) name. That tapped something in me at the time.
This film brought out another facet of Australia. America, England and the rest of the world had been treated to pictures of 'Crocodile Dundee' and 'Young Einstein', which were bright and cheerful at best, benign at worst. Now the world was shown a darker side of Australia, one of prejudice and bigotry. Rather than being completely negative, Sam sees this new presentation of Australia in a different light:
At last, after quite some time, there's a really strong, gutsy film from Australia. Of course, this is the flip side of the fantasy of 'Crocodile Dundee'. We're talking realism here. Myself, I don't think this is an anti-Australian film. I think that's nonsense. I think that it is the mark of a mature society, indeed of a mature film industry, when you can produce work that does take a good clear-eyed look at ourselves, you know? There's nothing wrong with self-criticism; I think it's healthy.
Other people were critical of Evil Angels, due to a tenaciously held belief in the guilt of Lindy Chamberlain or due to the fact that they were 'sick of the Chamberlains' and felt that they were little more than 'publicity hunters'. Sam responds, in a tone rather more sharp than is usual for him:
Well, I'm not sick of the Chamberlains. Actually, a lot of the response that I've received has been people ringing me up and saying "I'm so surprised by this film. It really moved me in a way I didn't expect."
A close friend of Sam's commented that he feels Sam's portrayal of Michael Chamberlain was the best work he has ever done, because the character is so dissimilar to Sam's own personality. 'When I saw the film, I realised that he actually could act,' he said. Sam's choosing such a character is not surprising, as it has been Sam's policy to accept parts that would extend his range, and is therefore always on the lookout for something different.
In pursuit of diversity, Sam ended the decade of the eighties with what promised to be a wonderful film, La Revolution Francaise. This film is a $50 million epic about the French Revolution. Filmed in Paris, Sam starred with Peter Ustinov and Jane Seymour: 'I played Lafayette and spent a lot of time riding around on a white horse.' La Revolution Francaise turned out to not be the blockbuster that the French movie industry had expected, however, and seems to have quietly retired into the vaults. But, looking on the bright side, Sam notes that 'it was fun for the simple reason that one was working for 10 weeks or so in Paris.'
In the 1990 blockbuster The Hunt For Red October, a film based on Tom Clancy's novel dealing with a Soviet submarine captain attempting to defect to America, it was Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin who were touted as the big names in various reviews and critiques of the movie. In these same reviews, Sam was mentioned only in passing, but always with admiration. In an April 1990 US magazine review, a critic states that Sam was 'burdened with some of the movie's tritest lines' but was 'genuinely affecting as his sympathetic second in command'. Sam did not seem overly sympathetic when describing his work on the set, saying 'I spent the whole time in the submarine. Up periscope, up periscope, up periscope. There was one woman, but I never saw her. It's a real boy's picture'. Sam did enjoy working with Sean Connery, and remarks that 'Sean walked on to The Hunt for Red October set and it was like the grand old man had arrived. He commands respect, and it's well deserved.'
By commenting that it was 'up periscope, up periscope' constantly, Sam was not insinuating that he did not enjoy working on the picture, but rather he was simply expanding on the fact that it was a 'boy's adventure. Ripping yarn stuff'. Although it may have been an action adventure film, Sam's character developed sufficiently to be accepted with open arms. Producer Mace Newfield said that 'audiences would literally stand on their feet in horror when Neill's character was shot, they liked him so much.'
Sam began the nineties with a different twist, from the blockbuster The Hunt for Red October to a film that has been described as both a side-splitting comedy and as a psychosexual thriller. Actually, it is a dark comedy, but Sam put his wit to use when speaking about the film, Death In Brunswick, with a talk-show host in Australia:
People seem to think it's very funny. This is something we find difficult to understand, because we thought we were making a psychosexual thriller or something like that.
The host never seemed to notice that Sam was pulling his chain, leading him around and toying with him. In an overly cautious, serious tone, he asks Sam 'How could you not know it is funny. If indeed it is funny?' To which Sam grinningly replied, 'Well, we were very serious about it, you see.' The host, still tenaciously holding onto the bait that Sam had cast him, asks, 'Perhaps it was funny, and you didn't know. Is that possible?' It is obvious that Sam is enjoying every minute of this, and continues with the game:
Well, I thought it was funny when I read the script. But, then I thought "it's not going to be funny if we think it's going to be funny." So, from now on it's absolutely, deadly serious.
The cherry on top of the sundae came when the host asked Sam how the movie was going to be promoted, as 'a funny film, then?' Sam holds back his grin as he answers, as seriously as possible, 'As a psychosexual thriller, I hope.'
In all honesty, Death In Brunswick, based on the novel by Boyd Oxlade, is a hilarious comedy. It is named as the favourite of Sam's films by his fans, above and beyond all the others; Jurassic Park does not come even close. It is one of Sam's favourites, as well, for several reasons. He enjoyed working on a small-budget Australian film, he enjoyed the subject matter, and he enjoyed working with his old friend, John Clarke.
Sam continued with his cat-and-mouse game with the interviewer, by calling Clarke
a ratbag and a reprobate. We've had a common loathing for 20 years. We've never actually worked together before this. He's always been clever. Got a good brain. He's very quick. Not likeable, but quick.
The fact is, however, that Sam and John Clarke are obviously the best of friends. Sam also says of Clarke:
I enjoy his company more than anyone else I can think of. He's very good in the film, and that's no surprise, John's a very good actor, and he's a very funny performer. So, it's not surprising he's one of the best things in it. When we get together we never stop talking. John is one of the last great conversationalists, so when you are working with him you are often loath to go back on the set.
Clarke concurs, saying that he and Sam have 'helped each other out a lot over the years, but this is the first time we've done it sober.' He and Sam continue insisting that Death In Brunswick is not a comedy. Clarke explains that
It is a contemporary urban drama and if people find it funny it is no fault of ours and we hope appropriate medication is given as quickly as possible.
Sam agrees with his mate, saying that
to make a film funny you do everything but make a comedy. Nothing is guaranteed to kill a work more than if an audience goes in expecting all comedy. I would call this film odd on its own, peculiar, delicate. I'm a bit prejudiced against comedy; I can't bear comedic acting.
In contrast to the tit-for-tat insults between Sam and John Clarke, co-star Zoe Carides has only nice things to say about Sam:
Sam was wonderful. I was scared about meeting him at first, but he put me at ease by being a normal person. The sex scenes were very funny, which is probably a bit unusual for sex scenes, but I was quite scared about doing them. But again Sam made me feel very relaxed. He told me: "if you think you've got problems -- I once had to lie on top of Meryl Streep!" He is very attractive. It sounds great, but it was not making love to Sam Neill.
Everyone, except perhaps Sam himself, was surprised that he agreed to do this small, low-budget local drama. Scriptwriter/ director John Ruane said that 'after [being in a] big film like Evil Angels I thought he wouldn't do it. Sam is usually cast as the cold spy, the sleazy lover, or the evil devil.' Sam had a few questions about accepting the part himself, saying
I read the script, and I wanted to meet them to say "Why me?" I don't know exactly what my type is, but assuming they were casting against type, that they had the imagination to cast me, then I was interested.
Sam has evidently become intimately attached to his character in Death in Brunswick, Carl Fitzgerald:
He's an everyman. Most people I know are like Carl, they muddle along; they live in a state of horror. This bloke, he's hapless, but he's not a fool. He just hasn't managed his life particularly well nor has he particularly wanted to, but he's not harming anyone. Often I am cast as a person who is in charge of things. I am usually a bloke who gives commands and has absolute certainty about where he is going. But most of us are wildly out of control. It's sort of nice to see a person on the screen who is muddling along just like everyone else. All actors bring something of themselves to their roles -- I'm not different in that respect. Meryl Streep called me after seeing this film and she said, "it must be a relief to play someone who's very like you". I think I'll probably take this as a veiled insult and I'll never talk to her again. But I think the point she was making, apart from pulling my leg, was that Carl is more like most of us than the kind of people we're normally given on the screen. I loved playing Carl. I'm inordinately fond of him.
Sam not only loved his character, Fitzgerald, but the movie as a whole, even though it was not always comfortable physically:
It was cold, unpleasant, and creepy filming in a graveyard at night; I'm probably the most cowardly man on earth. I found the film to be one of the finest I've ever worked on. It has soul and integrity and it was made with a lot of heart and commitment. There's something fairly black and twisted about the film, and that's something that appealed to me a lot.
Sam left Melbourne after finishing Death in Brunswick to work on another big-budget film, Until the End of the World. This was 21 weeks of intense work, globetrotting through '10 or 11' different countries, including France, Portugal, Italy, Japan, America and Australia. Directed by Wim Wenders, the film also stars William Hurt, Max Von Sydow, and Ernie Dingo. Sam plays a writer who follows his lover around the world, while she chases after another fellow: William Hurt. He says that the movie is 'part science fiction set in the future, part road movie, and part apocalyptic vision.'
Following Until the End of the World, Sam returned to Hollywood to film John Carpenter's science-fiction film, Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Sam noted that the film has 'lots of special effects'. It is 'a thriller with a certain amount of comedy and a romance between Chevy and Daryl. I'm a spook, the worst you can imagine. I like playing bad guys--once in a while.'
Playing opposite comedian Chevy Chase and beauty Daryl Hannah, Sam is in his element as the all-around evil CIA agent, intent on capturing Chase in order to exploit his invisible powers for personal profit. In his 1992 review of the film for People magazine, Mark Goodman wrote that 'best performance goes to Neill, who has inherited the velvet mantle of the suave villain cut so elegantly many moon-dark nights ago by James Mason'.
Although it is obvious that Sam could have leaped on the bandwagon of popularity several times during his career, becoming a megastar in the same manner as fellow-Australian Mel Gibson, he has managed to never really fit in to the Hollywood mould of what is typically considered an 'actor'. It is not that he was not able to be a superstar success in America, because there is no doubt that he could, if he so desired. However, he does not desire to become a 'star.' His perspective on this issue coincides with his perspective of what it is to be a success:
Who needs winners? Winners are the worst. There's nothing romantic about winners. All these bloody Hollywood films are about winning now, about "making it." The worst thing is to be a loser [in their opinion.] It's about the worst thing you could say about someone, (Sam dons an American accent) "He's a loser", in Los Angeles, in America -- it's death.
Sam continues his explanation of why he considers the obsession, particularly the American obsession, with success to be exceptionally detrimental to the human psyche:
I saw a [documentary] on high-school children in America. There were a lot of alarming things about it and I'm sure these kids have a lot in common with kids in Australia. But all of them wanted to be a success. And that in itself struck me as being a bit sad because how many people can be a success? Half a per cent of us? What is a success anyway? Nobody said "I want to be happy". I would have thought that was a much more realistic and indeed much more worthwhile thing to want to be. They want to be a success and what they meant by being successful was making a lot of money. The phrase is "they wanted to make it". Make what?
Sam qualifies his statements to some degree by pointing out that while he 'loathes the idea of winners and losers' he also 'applauds excellence. This is different'. Sam's perception of this difference is observable when he notes that
I am probably a perfectionist, but I am not someone who is driven, and I don't have to be working constantly. The perfectionist bit is different. The elusive nature of acting, as such, is that it comes and goes and you can never be entirely sure whether you are inspired or whether your choices are correct, and once it is done it is out of your hands. It's not like being a painter or a writer, who can go back and change things; it's way too late for that. Therefore screen performances are inherently flawed. I know mine certainly are.
When asked about success in Hollywood, Sam seemed to find it extremely difficult to give an answer that he considered satisfactory. 'I prefer to not be noticed. I can still walk down the street in Amsterdam, even in Cannes, without getting a bad time. I'd like to keep it that way.' In the next breath, however, he laughingly admitted that he does like getting recognition for his work. That isn't ego showing through -- Sam is anything but an egotist -- it is the honest pleasure of accepting praise for a job well done. The lack of desire for fame is what has kept Sam from pursuing Hollywood. Yet Hollywood has continued to pursue Sam.
Sam has appeared in several big-budget, highly successful Hollywood films, such as The Hunt For Red October, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and Jurassic Park, yet has still been able to remain relatively unknown. It seems to be a continuing trend that Sam's co-stars garner all the fame and glory while he remains in the background. This fact is evidenced in that Chase and Hannah received the lion's share of the attention for Memoirs, a fact which did not miff Sam, who explains: 'While working in Hollywood with Chevy Chase, in Memoirs of An Invisible Man, Chevy was yelled at all the time. I would find that uncomfortable and boring; I don't envy it.'
The early nineties were also filled with made-for-TV movies such as Hostage and Fever, and an American mini-series, Family Pictures.
Fever allowed Sam to remain in close proximity to his wife, Noriko, during the last weeks before giving birth to Elena. Although he wasn't especially fond of making the movie, it did fit in well with his private life. His character in Fever is Elliott Mandell, a lawyer who Sam says 'is a nice guy -- he's so nice you wanna kick him.' Armand Assante co-stars as a paroled convict who also happens to be the ex-lover of Mandell's live-in girlfriend, Lacy, played by Marcia Gay Harden.
In Hostage, Sam again plays a British secret agent, one who goes against company policy one time too many. When asked to comment on this movie, Sam admitted that he had never seen it. 'I liked Buenos Aires,' he commented. He goes on to say that the filming of the movie may have actually been more exciting than the movie itself: 'We just missed a bomb by a few weeks that demolished the block we were living on.'
Sam then did an 180 degree turnabout to portray a quiet, unassuming psychiatrist in Family Pictures, a mini-series based on the novel by Sue Miller. Sam commented that 'we were actually an unusually close bunch on that film and I remember it as quite a good time. Angelica Huston is still a good pal of mine.'
In Family Pictures Sam starred opposite Anjelica Huston in a story about a family's trials and tribulations, the stress of which is initiated through the birth of their son, who is discovered to be autistic. The story traces the family's life from 1948 through 1983, thirty-five years which include the Vietnam war and obsession with Freudian psychology.
Sam was in the midst of filming
Pictures when Steven
Spielberg asked him to play the part of Dr. Alan Grant in
Jurassic Park. At first it appeared that Sam may lose out
on the opportunity, due to the two schedules overlapping, but in the
end Spielberg decided that Sam was worth waiting for.
In 1990 Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park was published and quickly became a best-seller. Just as quickly, Hollywood smelled something very pleasant -- profits rolling in from a blockbuster movie made from Crichton's book, and so began bidding for film rights. According to Tom Pollock, MCA Motion Picture Group Chairman, Crichton decided to not auction his book in the conventional sense, but rather 'set a very high price on it and decided to sell it to the studio and the filmmaker who could and would do the best possible job on the film'. Universal Pictures won the rights to the book. The fact that Universal had chosen Steven Spielberg as director for the film undoubtedly helped in making up Crichton's mind as to which studio he would sell the rights of his novel. The fact was that Crichton had already more or less promised the story to Spielberg, who had read his work and loved it. Crichton felt that Spielberg's past experience with movies such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind would make him the perfect director for Jurassic Park, and so Crichton told him, 'I'll give it to you if you guarantee me that you'll direct the picture.' In the end, Crichton's wishes were granted.
Spielberg wanted to do Jurassic Park mainly because he has had a fascination with dinosaurs his entire life. There were several dinosaur movies that he remembered from his past that he called on in the preproduction work, movies that had certain scenes or aspects that he especially liked, such as Gorgo and Godzilla. But the most important thing aspect that Spielberg wanted to bring out into the forefront with Jurassic Park was realism -- the feeling that this could really happen. Crichton had felt that realism was the most important aspect of the story as well and, beginning in 1981, he spent several years working on the novel in order to make certain that every point was feasible. Where were they going to get the dinosaur DNA? How would they fill in the DNA's missing gaps? Where in the world was all the money going to come from in order to do all of this -- the research, the DNA synthesis, the theme park? Eventually Crichton was able to answer all his questions to his own personal satisfaction. Crichton also decided to have a character -- a mathematician who specialises in chaos theory, Dr. Ian Malcolm -- as a mouthpiece to voice Crichton's own worries that there is rampant commercialisation of genetic engineering; something, Crichton says, 'which is, I think, a very serious problem and one that we are still not facing'. Crichton's scenario where a self-absorbed billionaire decides to create a theme park featuring 65-million-year-old dinosaurs 'emphasised rather nicely the idea that all this amazing technology is being used for essentially commercial and frivolous purposes'. The idea of a theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs is not as far-fetched as it once was, since mosquitoes in amber were discovered during the production of Jurassic Park. This is the very basis of the engineering of dinosaurs in the film: mosquitoes preserved in amber were the sources of dinosaur DNA which was used to 'clone' new dinosaurs. Also, the very real Human Genome project, which makes use of scientists the world over, has made advances beyond the wildest imagination in the area of genetic engineering.
Spielberg and Crichton worked closely together in order to make the film follow the novel as closely as possible. Spielberg felt some changes were necessary, however, in order to make the transition from novel to film as smooth as possible. Spielberg reduced the number of dinosaurs in the film, as they were extremely expensive to create and he was determined to keep Jurassic Park within budget. Spielberg added a subplot of a love interest between Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler. He also inverted the ages of the two children; in the novel Tim was the older child and Lex was little more than a whining brat. Making Lex older allowed her to be mature enough to have a crush on Sam Neill's character, Dr. Alan Grant, and Tim was young enough to be believable as a wide-eyed dinosaur nut. Both children were infinitely more interesting as a result.
Jurassic Park is not a movie that one would normally conceive of as being potential material for Sam Neill. Sam is considered a serious actor, one who gravitates towards historical movies or movies that make a statement. However, when he was approached to do Jurassic Park there were three main reasons that Sam decided to accept: he wanted to do a film that his children could watch and be proud of, he could hardly turn down a chance to work with Steven Spielberg, and his agent felt that it would be an excellent career move.
No rational human could dispute that appearing in a Steven Spielberg movie should work wonders for an actor's career. However, Sam is not overly anxious to 'boost his career' or at least not in the everyday sense. He relishes his relative anonymity, and so increased recognition value does not have priority with Sam. The primary reason that Sam decided to accept the offer to do Jurassic Park was for his children. Sam noted that he has not 'acted in many films that would be of interest to children', and he wanted to perform in a movie that his own children can enjoy watching and can take pride in -- 'that's the real stardom', he says. His love for his children is more than obvious as he explains:
My own children feel they can take some pride in the work I do, being in a Spielberg movie that everybody in the world's going to see, where they can say, "Hey, that's my dad up there." It's horrible to have a father that you say is an actor but has never been in a film your friends have heard of. It comes as a great relief to my kids that they finally have dinosaurs to talk about.
So when Spielberg offered him the starring role in Jurassic Park, he accepted the offer while, possibly, giving up any chance of going unrecognised ever again.
Although Spielberg had been talking with Sam for some time about appearing in a movie for him, and Sam was among Spielberg's first choices for the role of Alan Grant, so were such well known names as Richard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell, and William Hurt. The fact that Sam was filming the American television mini-series Family Pictures at the time, a project that would overlap the starting date for Jurassic Park, made Spielberg feel that he couldn't wait for Sam. William Hurt turned down the role, and so eventually Spielberg went back to Sam, and ended up moving the start date in order to accommodate Sam's schedule. Sam wound up finishing Family Pictures in Toronto on Thursday and beginning work on Jurassic Park in Hawaii on Monday. As his fans know, Sam is well accustomed to such hectic schedules, zooming from one country, even one continent, to another, week after week.
Sam prepared for the role of Dr. Alan Grant by reading Crichton's novel and by talking to the real-life Dr. Grant, palaeontologist Dr. Jack Horner. One aspect of the novel's Dr. Grant that Spielberg altered was his nationality, or -- more precisely -- his accent: Grant was supposed to be an American. Sam explains this obvious change in the film's Dr. Grant by saying that Spielberg remarked on Sam's natural accent, saying, 'I like the way you speak'. To which Sam laughingly replied, 'I'm happy about that. I like the way I speak, too'. Eventually, Spielberg decided that Sam should just use his own natural accent for the character of Dr. Grant. Sam states that later on during filming Spielberg did ask him to 'just take off the most recognisable Australian influences, a request that Sam remarked 'only served to confuse me altogether, and so I just went on and did what I felt like'.
Sam's second reason for agreeing to do Jurassic Park was the opportunity to work under the direction of Steven Spielberg, whom he considers to be a brilliant director. Sam seems to have only good things to say about Spielberg:
His work speaks for itself. Obviously, he's one of the greatest directors of the day, but on a personal level, on the floor, he's vastly stimulating to work with. What he really enjoys doing is working with actors, above all else; the technical stuff is second nature to him by now -- he hardly needs to think about that. And, he's a funny guy; it was a pleasure to go to work.
Although Sam had to give up some of his closely guarded privacy to star in Spielberg's film, it was at least, evidently, a very pleasant experience.
Spielberg was determined to finish Jurassic Park on time and within budget, and so the principal photography on Jurassic Park began August 24, 1992, following two years of intensive research and preparation. Eighty-two days were allocated for shooting the film, the first three weeks to be done on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, locale for Jurassic Park's Isla Nublar. The cast was there, excited and ready to roll: Sam as Dr. Alan Grant, Laura Dern as paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler, Jeff Goldblum as arrogant chaos theory mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, Sir Richard Attenborough as Jurassic Park's billionaire owner John Hammond, and Bob Peck as the Park's main game warden Robert Muldoon. Due to the intensive preparatory work, filming proceeded rapidly and smoothly. The ease with which the shooting progressed was amazing, considering the fact that Mother Nature intervened in Spielberg's carefully laid plans. Hurricane Iniki, which devastated the island, arrived on what was to have been the last day of shooting. By this time, though, Spielberg had all the location shots he needed. The production returned to the mainland, and principal photography was completed on October 24, 1992, twelve days under its allotted schedule.
Sam states that 'spending two days hunkered down as Hurricane Iniki did its best to blow our hotel to pieces' was his most memorable experience from the filming of Jurassic Park. Without a doubt, riding out a hurricane should be memorable, if not completely terrifying. Was Sam terrified? Not especially, he explains:
There were moments when it was probably wise to be a little bit afraid. But on the other hand, the terrible thing about those kind of events is that they're kind of fun. It's not often in our insulated, modern lives that we're actually confronted with something like that.
Although Sam, Laura, Jeff and Richard were the main actors of the movie, the stars were the dinosaurs. Spielberg said:
I love this cast. I could have gone out and hired what they call the 'movie-movie-movie stars', and put all the money on them and just had a tiny dinosaur running around and saved money that way. But I decided to just hire tremendous performers who were talented actors. And I was blessed with my entire cast of Sam, Jeff, Laura, Richard, and Ariana Richards and Joey Mazzello, who were just a blast to work with.
Spielberg was also blessed with the technical talents of Stan Winston and his crew, and the staff of Industrial Light and Magic, who created the live-action creatures and the computer-generated dinos. These technical wizards gave birth to amazingly fully believable dinosaurs, which all those involved, Sam included, readily admit were the stars of Jurassic Park. In response to a reporter's inquiry as to his feelings about being a leading man in a Hollywood film, he quipped, 'It's a surprising state of affairs. Perhaps, though, we'd better take up the 'leading' part with a rather overbearing Tyrannosaurus Rex I know.' Evidently many movie-goers were awe-struck by Grant as well as the dinosaurs, since fan club president Chriss Green commented that membership has risen dramatically since the release of Jurassic Park. One club member stated, only half-facetiously, 'Why do you think it [Jurassic Park] grossed so much? Because people wanted to see dinosaurs? No, I don't think so! All the smart women went to see it ten million times because Sam Neill looked so darn good!'
Sam's wonderful sense of humour was given a test when he did a promotional appearance for Jurassic Park on the Tonight Show in the United States. Jay Leno questioned him about a rumour that was going around about Sam having an affair on the set of Jurassic Park. Looking intently at Sam, Jay asked, 'Laura Dern was here last night, and she said that there was a bit of romantic involvement between you and one of the dinosaurs. You know about the tabloids in America?' Sam looked amazingly guilty, and began attempting to explain his relationship with the dinosaur on the set of Jurassic Park, without even a hint of a smile. 'Just because I got on well with one of the velociraptors and we got together and helped one another with our lines...it's not like we went out to Spago together or anything.' Shaking his head as if he simply could not believe how such rumours about a strictly platonic relationship could be blown into outrageous proportions, Sam sighed. He then looked up at Leno, grinning with one his famous Damien Thorn grins, and said in a conspiratorial tone, 'Wolfgang Puck does look delicious, though, doesn't he?'
The crowd roared with laughter at the thought of the famous rotund Hollywood chef/owner of Spago restaurant being a meal for a voracious raptor and ravenous actor.
After contemplating many of Sam's remarks about what he loved most about Jurassic Park, and combining that with the fact that Death In Brunswick is recommended highly, one has to wonder about his sense of humour. 'The death of the lawyer is one of the funniest things I've ever seen on film,' he laughs. 'Another is when an arm lands on Laura Dern's shoulder and she thinks to her relief it's Sam Jackson, but, of course, the arm is dismembered. It's absolutely a riot! I'm a sucker for it.' Sam's strange, if not altogether sick, sense of humour is shown in several of the antics that he and his co-stars took part in during the filming on Hawaii. Sam, Laura and Jeff all loved working with each other, and they became close during the shooting -- Laura and Jeff became so close that their relationship continued after Jurassic Park finished filming. The trio raised kidding and practical joking to a high art. After the day's filming, Sam and Jeff would return to the hotel while still wearing their makeup and costumes. Sam explains:
We were covered in blood and dirt, and Jeff had one leg all ripped up and in a splint. We developed an immaculate sense of timing. As we approached a big party of tourists from Turkey, for instance, we would start to argue about 100 meters away from the group. The argument would get more physical the closer we got, until I would start kicking him in his bad leg, and cursing him at the same time. This had a miraculous effect on the tourists. They would go white, and clutch each other, then we would pass on as if nothing was wrong.
Laura Dern thought that these antics were 'hilarious! With Jeff's mangled leg! Oh, they were so sick. The tourists were freaking out, because it looked so real.' She describes her relationship with Jeff and Sam as being 'the Three Musketeers. Spending a few days in one room with one toilet and no water and very little food, during a hurricane, gets you very bonded.' When Sam was asked whether he bonded with his fellow actors, he replied, 'There's nothing like going through the eye of a storm to bring people together -- what they might call in California "a bonding experience".' But when he was asked what they would call it 'back home', Sam explained that 'nobody bonds in New Zealand'. Bonding or not, some sort of strong relationship was cemented between the actors, and a love for fun and jokes was definitely one of the ingredients in the cement.
Laura Dern describes her impression of co-star Sam Neill:
I think people perceive him as very serious and respond to him in that way. But actually Sam has the best sense of humour. You know, very dry, and at times so cynical that you think, "is he putting me down?" Then you get the gist of it, and it's hilarious.
Sam describes Laura Dern as a 'funny broad. We have a number of terms of abuse for each other, that one being one of the milder.'
Sam related another favourite practical joke that he, Jeff, and Laura enjoyed pulling on the tourists that were staying at the hotel. 'We would look for Japanese tourists coming up to the hotel as we were leaving, and we would clutch at our stomachs, bend over and look as sick as possible.' Sam laughs and holds out his hand as if warding off the guests, 'And we would shout to them, "Don't eat the sushi! Don't eat the sushi"!'
A typical day of shooting could be imagined with this cast of characters:
The tyrannosaurus rex has just escaped from her enclosure, rampaging in search of more food. The goat could hardly even be considered an appetiser. That lawyer fellow sure looked tasty. During her pursuit of food, the t-rex never noticed that she has trampled on Ian Malcolm. But he noticed. Now his leg is mangled and bleeding, and he prays that the dinosaur will not see him hidden beneath the wreckage strewn about.
Jeff Goldblum is lying on his back on the muddy ground, readying himself for another take.
"Now would be the perfect time", he thinks. Lifting his head, he calls out to the director, "Steven, Steven. I think that lunch may have been bad. I feel like I, I am going to be sick".
Spielberg turns a nice shade of gray. No, not now. We have to get the scene right. Then he notices the grin playing about Jeff's mouth. Damn him! Not another joke!
Even Spielberg wasn't safe from the practical jokes. More than a few times he was panicked by one of the three pretending to be sick and about to vomit on him before they were scheduled to shoot a scene, or by one of them lying on an empty plastic Evian water bottle to produce a crackling sound while complaining of a aching back -- 'Anything', Laura said, 'to make Steven panic'. Steven took it all in stride, proving that having a good sense of humour can be a life-line, especially when one is working in close quarters with the likes of Sam, Jeff and Laura.
Although one would assume that it would be extremely difficult working with technological creations such as the dinosaurs, evidently that was not the case at all. Sam said that
Jurassic Park wasn't like one of those special effects films where actors are working with nothing, because we had these huge dinosaurs lumbering around. It wasn't difficult to be afraid of them.
The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were accredited with having true personalities, and weren't considered by the cast as 'mere mechanical creatures' created by Stan Winston and his Industrial Light and Magic crew. Sam said that the cast 'developed a dialogue with them between shots. We named them all because they seemed to have personalities.' The tyrannosaurus rex, one of the models for which was scaled to be life-size -- 40 feet long and 9,000 pounds, was described by Sam as 'not the kind of guy you'd take home to meet your mother'. All in all, though, Sam felt that the 'dinosaurs are certainly better to work with than some actors I've worked with', and even though he wouldn't name names of either the dinosaurs or the actors, he went on to say that 'they (the dinosaurs) didn't stay sulking in their trailers. In between takes they're rather passive'. For all his joking about the dinosaurs, there was some rumours flying around that the actors were miffed at being upstaged by the dinosaurs. This was pure invention on the part of Hollywood gossip mongers, as all the actors knew beforehand that a starring role in Jurassic Park would, in all likelihood, not net them an Oscar nomination. 'We all know who the real stars are', Sam noted, speaking of the dinosaurs. He then expanded on the thought, saying that 'if I had to make a choice between actors and the dinosaurs, I would probably choose the actors'. Sam's impish humour comes to the forefront again as he continues, 'That's not to say that the actors and the dinosaurs didn't get along. We did.'
Another perk of being part of the highest-grossing film of all time is the fact that Sam is able to see himself pictured on towels, T-shirts, lunch boxes, socks, sleeping bags, underwear and, of course, action figures; although the replica is not all that similar to the real thing: 'My action figure has somewhat of a finely chiselled jaw', Sam comments on the dissimilarities between the "real" Dr. Grant and the plastic one. The fact that Jurassic Park was pictured everywhere evidently caused a few problems at home at times: 'My daughter thought that I worked in a place called "Jurassic Park." They were disappointed when they came to work and there were no dinosaurs.'
While making Jurassic Park was the job of a lifetime, it was not the be-all and end-all of Sam's career. His next film could not have been any more different than Jurassic Park; it was not designed to be a special-effects blockbuster, but Sam was delighted to have been asked to be a part of Jane Campion's the Piano.
Jurassic Park has, of course, become the blockbuster movie of all time, placing Sam in the unique position of having starred not only in film's greatest box-office success, but also in one of its greatest art movies as well: the Piano. While Sam 'had a blast' making Jurassic Park, he says of the Piano: 'I feel like I've been in something that is of a profound and permanent place in cinema history'.
Although the Piano hit American movie theatres six months after Jurassic Park, Sam actually completed work on the Piano well before the release of Jurassic Park. The differences in the two films could not possibly be greater. Sam went from a role where he portrayed a self-conscious, unconfident, angry husband to a highly-respected PhD-holding paeleonotologist, who also happens to be a courageous hero. Sam being the unique person that he is, he seemed to enjoy playing Alisdair Stewart more.
the Piano won the Palme d'Or, Cannes, for director Jane Campion in 1993. The film takes place in the New Zealand bush of the 1800s and stars Sam as landowner Alisdair Stewart, Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath, Anna Paquin as her daughter Flora, and Harvey Keitel as their neighbour, George Baines. In the Piano, Sam portrays a Scot who has immigrated to the bush of New Zealand with the goal of becoming a wealthy landowner. He arranges a marriage with a stubborn, silent woman, who is sent to him across the ocean from Scotland. The two characters are complete opposites of one another. Sam describes Alisdair Stewart as
a dour, single-minded, and repressed man. The fact that he falls in love causes him so much pain. When he becomes vulnerable to her, it's like he loses his epidermis. Just the touch of the wind or the weather on him makes him feel like his nerve endings are exposed.
Similarly to Jurassic Park, the human actors are not the stars. In the film, a piano belonging to Sam's mail-order bride, Holly Hunter, is the star. 'I refuse to bring the piano up from the beach,' Sam explains. 'But my neighbour, Harvey Keitel, suddenly has designs on that piano as well as my new wife. It's a very sexy film as passions and jealousies emerge, and it becomes a matter of every dog having his day, so to speak.'
I remember meeting Jane (Campion) at the Berlin Film Festival and saying "Of course I think of Stewart as being an archetypal pakeha New Zealand male, greedy for land and so on." And Jane was very much surprised; she by no means saw Stewart as the villain of the piece -- which I found extremely encouraging. Certainly he serves that function from time to time, but he is not the villain. I don't condone what he does, but I see it as entirely understandable because of the time he lives in; and he's a man of his time. I see Stewart as being someone who is rather vulnerable. He really wants his little family. He wants things to work out. He wants to be loved, and he does love this woman. There are certain sad things about him, lonelinesses. What happens to him, I think, is that this shell--a carapace that Victorian men could assume--is cracked and disintegrated by the power of his feelings for Ada, leaving him very exposed.
Each viewer who has seen the Piano comes away with something very different. It affects both men and women profoundly, zeroing in on the core of their beings. Sam is no exception:
I think this film explores both the desperate and the wonderful things that happen between men and women in a way that's not often done in films. These things make for moments of sublime ecstasy and moments of the most terrible fear, of terror. It's been pretty scary territory to be acting in--it helps to have had a little life experience.
Sam and Holly Hunter put on a show for an American interviewer, Sam allowing his impishness out to play. Looking at Holly with a face-splitting grin, arms crossed in front of him, he begins by pointing out that 'this stuff between women and men is never simple, is never straightforward. It's a tough gig...a lot of the time.' Then leaning forward in order to see Holly better he asks, 'It can be fantastic, too, can't it?'
Holly looks a bit taken aback. Laughing and looking at Sam, then the interviewer, she answers, 'Sam's talkin' to me like, you know, we're a couple or somethin'.' Sam chuckles, and Holly continues, 'You know, like maybe we're a couple!' They both look at one another and burst out with laughter at their joke. The interviewer was never quite sure of the degree of seriousness.
American interviewer Chantal asked Sam what emotional impact the film had on him, to which he answered:
I think a lot of people have trouble articulating what effect the Piano has on them, because it has a very deep, emotional effect on pretty much everyone that sees it. It's very different from person to person, too. It's interesting watching women watch it. Some of them were coming out like this [Sam raises his clinched fist, it a victory/warrior pose] and some of them come out [Sam taps his chest in the area of his heart] you know, with the old heart beating. My character, Stewart, in the film , who's in love with this woman who doesn't care for him, is completely incapacitated. His power is completely...he's cut off at the knees. The usual objectifying of women that you see so often in films is reversed in this film. The men are sexual objects, at some time or other in the film. And I have to admit it's not easy. It gave me a whole new insight into what it must be to be a woman, and a woman in film. It's tough.
Chantal asked Sam about the differences in working on a New Zealand production, such as the Piano, compared with such Hollywood productions as Spielberg's Jurassic Park. Sam describes the New Zealand manner of filming:
In the early days, making films in New Zealand was very primitive. We didn't know what a call sheet was. We used to all get into the trucks and drive, and when you'd see a place and say, "that looks good. We'll shoot there." We'd all stop; we'd all get out. Someone would put up the camera, and then we'd shoot; then we'd all get back into the trucks and drive off to find somewhere else to shoot. It was a shambles. But now you go back, and things have completely changed. When we made the Piano it was a New Zealand crew, and it was entirely as professional as anything else you'd find. We didn't have a sushi chef, but we were well looked after.
Although the terrain was very rough in the Piano, the people that Sam worked with were exceptional. He considers Jane Campion to be perhaps the best director he's worked with, 'because of the love she lavishes on her actors. We need it.'
The film is a dark, gloomy one, with deep blues, greens and browns. A thick pea-soup mist hangs about continuously. Sam and the rest of the cast slogged through what looked like treacherous mud and muck throughout the film--muck which covered everything from top to bottom.
'It wasn't real, you know,' Sam confides. 'That mud was fake. It was clean mud.' Perhaps the special-effects people should have been nominated for an award; it certainly looked real to the audience. Not everything was artificial, however: for instance the lamb-chop sideburns of Stewart's were very much real. 'They were mine,' Sam admits, 'although there were a couple of times, especially weekends, when I wished they weren't.'
Sam is very proud to have been a part of one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time, the Piano, but he concedes that there is a danger in all of this hoopla:
It's had tremendous critical acclaim, but I think the danger in that is that it makes it sound like it's a kind of arty film. I think it's much more than that. I believe it's a real date movie. You should definitely take your date to this film.
Sam paused, then decided to qualify that statement, 'As long as you're grown-up, because I think it's a film for grown-ups.'
From the Piano, Sam went on to such films as Sirens, The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, The Jungle Book and In the Mouth of Madness.
In Sirens, Sam plays Norman Lindsay, the famous, or perhaps infamous, Australian painter whose forte was shocking the world with his erotic paintings and libertine ways. Sam's co-stars in this film are Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi, Tara Fitzgerald and Hugh Grant. Grant plays a young minister sent on a mission to talk Lindsay out of showing a particularly offensive painting. However, once he and his wife, played by Tara Fitzgerald, arrive at Lindsay's Blue Mountains retreat they are overcome by the free-and-easy lifestyle. Set in 1930's Australia, the story is based upon a real incident. The painting which Grant is meant to talk Lindsay out of is very real, "The Crucified Venus", and this painting was actually the centre of a major controversy. Beyond these facts, however, how true-to life the rest of the film is is anyone's guess.
Once again Sam was placed in the position of being considered as little more that part of the background. An interview with talk-show host Conan O'Brian illustrates this, when Conan asks Sam about Sirens: 'You did a movie with Hugh Grant, Elle Macpherson. And the movie got a lot of attention, because Elle Macpherson is nude for most of the movie. There are scenes where she's fixing a bicycle or something, and she's nude. Was that at all distracting?'
Sam begins to twist and shift uncomfortably, his eyes widening as if he is wondering how in the world he will get out of this one:
I was in the same scenes, and nobody noticed me. I was in that movie. The scenes I'm in, mostly I'm painting these girls. But you'll notice, in the frame there I am, painting away, and the girls are nude over there [Sam motions to his front and left, as if the models are to the side of his canvas]. And do you notice I hardly ever look over there? I'm really concentrating on that canvas. There's a reason for it. Because, my wife was working on the film, too. If I looked up too much, I knew I was going to get my ass kicked.
Conan attempts to draw Sam out even more, perhaps into a huge kettle of hot water with Noriko standing above it, by commenting that 'it did get very distracting, though, working with Elle Macpherson, to the point that you actually dreamed about her...?'
Sam's face takes on a guilty expression, and he reluctantly admits, 'That's true. Actually, I had a dream about Elle the other night. And...you know...God, you're not responsible for your dreams.' He becomes increasingly flustered at this point, and Conan steps in: 'that's OK, we're here to help you.'
I had this dream, and there was a knock on the door, and it was Elle. She said, "I want to go to bed with someone, and I want to go to bed with you, and I want to go to bed with you now. I was shocked. I mean, even though it was a dream, I was stunned. I knew this was odd. This was unusual. This doesn't happen everyday. And I thought, "No! I'm a married man. I can't possibly do this. [Sam's voice lowers to a whisper.] I'd get into terrible trouble."
Conan comments that Sam is 'a very decent man in your dreams,' to which Sam replies, 'Look, I'm very proud of myself in this one. I thought "I'm going to have to turn her down. I'm going to have to say no."' Sam appears to suddenly realise something: 'Probably no one's ever turned Elle Macpherson down. Have you ever thought about that? I suspect that it's never happened, wouldn't you say?' Conan ponders the question, and replies that 'probably not.' Sam continues recounting his dream:
So, I had to lie. I had to say "I'll be right over." And then, instead of going over and going to bed with Elle Macpherson, I went next door and played indoor cricket with the old people who happened to live next door. It's sort of a sad story. There was a great dream advantage there, and I just threw it away.
Conan comments that Sam 'screwed up.' He then asked Sam how the cricket turned out, to which Sam answered, 'it just faded away there. There's few things more boring than indoor cricket. Elle was gone, just gone. She was waiting for me there, across the street.'
A gentleman, even in his dreams, it appears. Sam's other films of the time period were not quite as erotic as Sirens, but they were definitely worthwhile.
Sam was pleased to be a part of The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior because he is sympathetic to causes such as those of Greenpeace. The Sinking co-stars Jon Voigt and is based on an incident which took place in July of 1985. The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was docked at Auckland's Marsden Wharf when two agents of France's secret service bombed the ship, completely destroying it and killing one on board. The reason for the bombing was French irritation at Greenpeace's intention to protest against a French nuclear test in Mururoa, Polynesia. In October, 1987, Greenpeace won $8.16 million in damages from the French government.
Sam continued in his insistence on diversity by working with John Carpenter once again on the horror flick In the Mouth of Madness. In this film, Sam plays John Trent, an insurance agent who is hired to search for a missing author, a Stephen-Kingish character by the name of Sutter Kane. Along the way, Sam meets up with supernatural forces and strange, other-worldly incidents. In the Mouth of Madness promised to be another blockbuster for Sam, garnering praise from various magazines and critics, but it failed to live up to expectations. The reason could possibly be due to faulty marketing, as it was widely promoted as a Nightmare on Elm Street-type film, yet that is not what it was at all. Sam gives his opinion of the film:
The film is kinda cool, frightening, and I think it's very funny. In one scene I'm in a padded cell, covered with crosses. You ought to know that there's a lot of bad stuff happening, a lot of evil stuff, the crosses are for insurance. I figure the more crosses I've got on me--cos garlic is not available, as you know, in asylums--the safer I'll be. I think it's a funny film. I enjoy that sort of rather subversive, dark humour that runs through it. It appeals to me. I also think that it's the kind of film that film analysts--the kind of people who get a kick out of working out what things mean--will like. Even PhD writers, I get letters from those sort of people about the most odd things that they want to know about the films that I do. I'm sure that I'll get a rash of those for this film, because there's a lot to be mined out of it.
As for In the Mouth of Madness being a scary movie, Sam acknowledges that it is quite scary, and that is a good thing:
I like having a scare every once in a while. I think that's fun; it's cathartic, and it's probably good for you. We've always, as a species, enjoyed scaring each other with scary stories. This film states the obvious, that reading horror novels drives you nuts. It's certainly done that to me.
Sam does not really believe this, however, instead he concurs with John Carpenter's notion of the effect of horror novels on the people who read them:
Of course John thinks that it is a ridiculous notion, and he is a great believer in the idea that whenever anyone mentions the word 'censorship' that we should all jump up and down and make as much noise as we can. I'm with him on that one. He also is inclined to believe that civilisation is in decline, and there's a terribly frightening line in it [the film, In the Mouth of Madness] where I say something like "any species can smell its own extinction". He subscribes to that. I'm not with him on that one. That's where we diverge. Otherwise why go to work tomorrow, and why bring up kids? I think it's important to maintain a sense of optimism, even in the most benighted of times.
Sam describes what he considers to be the horror of the film: 'It's what you don't see, it's what's suggested that's scary.' However, the film is also very funny. Sam said that when he first saw the film, he 'laughed all the way through it.' 'I thought it was hilarious', he adds.
Sam's primary reason for doing In the Mouth of Madness was the chance to work with John Carpenter again:
This is the second time that I've worked with John [Carpenter] and we're good friends. We got on well last time; we're pals. I think he makes crisp, quality films. More than that, he makes films that make me laugh. Life's too short to have a miserable time when you're making films. In Memoirs of an Invisible Man he seemed to be under a bit of pressure. He seemed looser and happier in In the Mouth of Madness. We had time to kind of talk about the sort of stuff we enjoy. He's a great Beach Boys fan, as am I. If John asked me to shoot anything, I'd be happy to work with him. John just gave me a free hand; it was great. I had a chance to just stretch out and do some really crazy stuff. I have to take a little credit for the Carpenters thing myself. John wrote that in as a Rolling Stones song, and the distress of my character in that case would be "How could they possibly use one of the great Rolling Stones as muzak in the thing". I thought it would be funnier if they used the Carpenters. They clearly play the Carpenters all the time in this place. All the time, cos all the patients know all the words. It's guaranteed there's going to be a lot of people wanting those pills off that trolley. When they put you in a straight jacket you start feeling a bit strange. I had a Cyndi Lauper type of good time.
Working on In the Mouth of Madness was quite similar to working on Jurassic Park, it seems. Sam has become quite proficient in acting with characters who are literally not all there:
There's a special school for actors that we're put through and it's working with latex and K-Y Jelly. It's a hard school to graduate from, but I think I've got it down now. It is, of course, easier if you've got a three-dimensional monster to work with, rather than one that's going to be morphed in later by some computer in San Francisco. I prefer the three-dimensional one. People say that computers can do everything, and of course they're fantastic, but I'm of the school that believes that you can only get away with computerised things if you've actually got something three-dimensional as well that you cut to from time to time.
When asked if he enjoyed reading Stephen King-type books, Sam replied:
Well, to tell you the truth, I don't get as much time to read as I should. If I'm going to read one of those thick books, that cost you $6.95 at an airport, I tend to go more for science fiction. If I'm on a long flight, I'll get a science fiction novel, rather than that area [horror]. It's really not my bag.
What about Sam today? He is still a workaholic, doing three movies in four months in as many countries. Perhaps it isn't quite fair to call him a workaholic, since that tends to insinuate he is going for the gold, fame and glory, and that isn't Sam's style at all. The fact is, he is driven but on a more personal level, and he is a perfectionist. He works constantly, yes; but he works on movies that are significant. Movies that are consequential rather than commercial. And he wants it done right.
Sam's parents eventually came to terms with his choice of profession. His father had kept clippings of Sam's interviews and movie reviews, and his mother is pleased that her son is doing what keeps him happy. However, the fact that her son is a "star" does not impress her; she would be as happy if he were a successful teacher, lawyer, or any other profession. A family friend confides, however, that she cannot watch any of Sam's films, because "he is always being beaten up, chased, stabbed, or shot."
A supporter of the Labour party, he believes in being involved in politics and speaking out when things are going awry. He fully admits that involvement in the activities of government are more important now than ever, since he has his children's future to consider. He was pleased to work on the television movie The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior because he is sympathetic to their work, saying that he "sees no point in being polite about survival." Also, it is always difficult, if not impossible, to stand by and watch one's country, a country that one loves and cares for, being destroyed by uncaring politicians or businessmen. This is the reasoning that Sam uses for becoming involved in politics, even though he does not consider himself a political animal.
Sam considers himself to be very spiritual, although not necessarily religious. This may seem contradictory until one considers his reasoning. He is cynical about how the western culture has subtly over hundreds of years destroyed the human spirit.
Speaking of his own culture, he says that "we have been brought up to believe that sex is something we do in the dark and we certainly don't talk about it, and eating is something we do quickly and, if we could actually eat with the lights off, we would." He continues, elaborating upon how his culture, the Christian, Calvinist, and Puritan-based cultures, have tended to crush the human spirit:
There are so many things to enjoy in life and to suppress these things is anti-life, negative and to be abhorred. To me eating is one of the great pleasures. I love going to places like China or France where eating is one of the great pleasures. They live to eat, they don't eat to live like we do. We throw a hamburger down in order to keep going until the next hamburger. That's awful. That's obscene. Yes, my appetites are strong. But the thing is to recognise them for what they are, and enjoy it, rather than be guilty about them. That's what Puritanism is about; anything physical is to be frowned upon and unworthy of an enlightened human being. To me that's absolute bullshit and the worst thing about Protestantism. God knows there's enough wrong with Catholicism, but at least Catholic cultures don't deny you the right to enjoy your food. It's no accident that all the European cultures that are the most Protestant have the worst food.
As for his opinions on the other side of spiritual coin, the more 'new-age' sorts of things such as astrology, he doesn't seem to be able to buy into any of it at all. "I don't believe in UFO's, I don't believe in astrology, I don't believe in reincarnation --- I don't subscribe to any of it." It appears as if his feelings towards spirituality gravitate towards humanism, or the desire to live by the Golden Rule. He is truly compassionate towards his fellow human being. Sam's ideas of what is right and moral seems to be based more upon what is what he considers to be 'good' for the individual being, rather than what is mandated by an organised religion, or group, of any sort.
Sam has made great strides from the unconfident, stuttering child being taunted on the playground in New Zealand. He has starred in the biggest blockbuster of all time, Jurassic Park. He has starred in one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the decade, the Piano. He is happily married, and a doting, devoted father. He is now a successful actor, a thinking-woman's sex symbol.
However, his shyness still comes through in some interviews, where he is very careful in choosing his words and sometimes stammers through his sentences, trying to be as precise as possible. Sam has pointed out how upset he becomes when he is misquoted, telling a reporter that "I try to be precise with journalists because I die when I read an interview with myself when I sound stupid. And I die when I read an interview when I've been misquoted ... I suffer with that." The wounds that are inflicted upon children often last a lifetime, and Sam appears to still carry the scars caused by the taunting of small schoolboys. Even with his fame, his awards, his recognition, and his loyal following, there is obviously still the dread of being ridiculed, of being put down by others.
Then again, perhaps it is not shyness at all. If one will notice university professors of English, or of the Social Sciences, or of History, there is a distinct, albeit subconscious, desire to be as precise as possible. Since they know the importance of choosing just the right word, the right phrasing, with the right inflections, they want to make sure they do as much as possible in order to avoid being misunderstood. Considering Sam's background -- his majoring in History and English at University and his life-long career of acting -- and his desire for perfection, then it is fully understandable that he should take such pains with his interpersonal communications, being methodical and orderly in selecting what he says and how he says it.
This preciseness in his speech, in his effort to choose just the right word before speaking, is perceived differently by various people. The British tend to see it as being mannerly and gentlemanly. With their journalists, Sam is considered the epitome of civilised man. Brad Northern, a British journalist, said that 'Neill's well-mannered openness and careful consideration of each reply reinforces his image as honest, straight-forward and charming.' Yet the Americans tend to see his politeness in a very different light, and this could explain to some degree why Sam has not had more success in achieving notability in the Hollywood market. An example of the American disdain for Neill's manners is apparent in an interview in which Jay Boyar, an American journalist, stated that Sam was "virtually comatose. Sitting on a couch...Neill had the look of a man who was expecting to hear bad news about a loved one any second." During this particular interview, Sam's politeness was taken to be a negative personality trait, a trait which was taken as an example of skittishness or weakness. With reviews such as this and the misconceptions that occurred at Cannes, there is no question as to why Sam is hesitant in his answers towards journalists. However, no matter how successful, or how massive a following one has, there will always be detractors. It is impossible to please everyone all the time, but as long as Sam pleases himself, and at least some of his fans, that is what is important.
A perfect example of an incident that would push anyone into being obsessive about choosing the 'perfect' wording was related in an interview with Sam in 1993. He had spoken with a newspaper reporter about the film Death in Brunswick and was unwise enough to admit that he "connected with Carl's pre-sex nerves," and lo and behold what should appear in the newspaper but a quote that read, "Sam Neill: I am not very good in bed." That sort of misquote could turn anyone off speaking to journalists altogether. "You have to be so careful what you say because it's not what I meant at all," he attempts to explain. Then, realising how what he had just said could be taken, he adds, "What I was trying to say was that, you know, sex is kind of funnier and more ridiculous than what you see onscreen, which is why I liked those scenes in Brunswick."
So, is Sam attempting to assert that he is good in bed? There was no comment forthcoming on that inquiry, from Sam anyway. Zoe Carides, the female lead in Death in Brunswick, declares that "he's a good kisser." And there seems to be no argument that Sam is incredibly sexy, from model Kate Fischer, actress Jeananne Crowley and the readers of New Zealand's Listener magazine, who voted Sam "sexiest male New Zealand person."
How does Sam feel about his being regarded as a sex symbol? "Have you ever seen what a haggis [a Scottish dish made from a sheep's stomach filled with oatmeal and organ meats] looks like? It's a pretty unappealing, round pasty-looking thing and that's pretty much how I see myself." He is extremely fortunate that is not how his audience sees him. Sam is commonly regarded as 'the thinking woman's sex symbol' which is possibly preferable to being the 'unthinking woman's sex symbol.' Sam laughs, 'Well, if thinking women are inclined to think that way, I am happy for them to do so.'
When pressed for more direct comment, Sam insists that he truly cannot believe that he is a sex symbol, 'I'm from New Zealand. We don't go in for that sort of thing.' He says that Carl Fitzgerald of Death in Brunswick is the most like him of any persona he has portrayed: hopeless, nervous, incompetent. Under still more pressure, Sam comes a bit closer to an admission that he does realise women are sent into a state of bliss when watching him on the big screen:
If I thought that that was true [that women find him incredibly sexy] I couldn't live with myself; I would be an insufferable egotist, so I don't believe that. What I do finally believe in is that I have some sort of talent. I can cross the room without tripping over the furniture and I can memorise my lines and usually get them out without a fluff.
Yes, Sam does indeed have talent, but he does not consider it beneath him to take on a small part, such as the cuckolded husband in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. It would be tempting to play psychologist here and say that he is still trying to please his brother by choosing movies that are based upon classics, such as Joseph Conrad's Victory or the Grimm Brother's Snow White. Or movies that have historical significance, such as portraying Norman Lindsay in Sirens, or taking on the persona of King Arthur's Merlin. However, making such an observation is too easy, too simplistic. The fact is, Sam is very much his own man, with his own ideas, his own philosophy and his own set of rules which he plays by. What it all comes down to is that Sam has achieved his main goals. Undoubtedly, even with his personal, distinct definition of 'success,' he must admit he has been successful. He has a flourishing career in a profession he enjoys. He has a loving wife and wonderful children. He is surrounded by true friends and adoring fans. Could a man ask for anything more?
Copyright 1994, revised 1999
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