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Chapter 8: Sam Today

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/ Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;/ And as imagination bodies forth/ The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen/ Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name.

--Wm. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

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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