The way I see it, you either get Sam Neill or you don’t. You don’t if you buy wholesale into the depressing big-screen standard of men to die for–rugged adventurers who’d never lower their sights to a life of mundane commitment, bad boys running in pairs or posses to avoid shouldering grown-up responsibilities, shyly stammering charm monsters stuck in prepubescent ideas of romance, sensitive truth seekers who spout the slogans of enlightenment while screwing people over left and right. Sam Neill on-screen is none of these. And what a relief.
To the underwhelmed, Neill is that Aussie/Kiwi guy who isn’t exactly Mel Gibson, but, then again, isn’t Bryan Brown, either. He’s the hazily familiar, all-purpose good-looking chap who mixes up arty Down Under-type stuff like My Brilliant Career, A Cry in the Dark, The Piano and Sirens with an occasional foray into such big, stupid entertaining stuff as The Hunt for Red October, Jurassic Park and Event Horizon. But for those attuned to his subtle cadences and unshowy but palpable voltage, Neill stands tall as one of the screen’s few guys who aren’t too pretty, too self-enchanted or too sexually conflicted to arouse trust, confidence and grounded desire.
Indeed, Neill’s stand-up qualities–his comfort in his own skin and his unassuming guy-ness–have over time burnished him into that rare movie commodity: a sexy, lived-in grown-up. Of course, the faintly cruel, mocking, James Mason configuration of his mouth and the merciless gaze of his eyes guarantee a welcome quotient of edge. He’s been so quietly effective for such a long time now, often at his best in little-seen gems like In the Mouth of Madness, that he is practically a signifier on-screen. Neurotic, self-tortured female characters played by industrial strength screen presences–Holly Hunter (The Piano), Meryl Streep (A Cry in the Dark), Judy Davis (My Brilliant Career) and Sigourney Weaver (Snow White: A Tale of Terror) among them–almost invariably scorn, cheat, pursue and abandon him. (Overheard at a screening of The Piano: “I’m supposed to empathize with a female character who cheats on Sam Neill with Harvey Keitel?”) By contrast, less conflicted women characters–Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm), Laura Dern (Jurassic Park), Elle Macpherson and the other Sirens–spark to his quiet strength. Little wonder female costars sing his praises, or that he’s a secret weapon of such disparate directors as Wim Wenders, Steven Spielberg, Jane Campion, John Carpenter and Phillip Noyce.
Neill and I intersect for lunch at the haughtily chic Mondrian Hotel on a day when the actor has stopped in L.A. en route to Montana to finish Robert Redford’s movie version of The Horse Whisperer, in which he plays the abiding husband of Kristin Scott Thomas. In a sea of people whose togs, attitudes and cell phones scream Notice me! he appears utterly unaware that he is stealing the thunder in a crisp white shirt, blue blazer and khakis. As we begin our conversation, Neill suggests, in his exceedingly genteel way, that he finds the prospect of our talk somewhat daunting. Why? “I’m personality-free,” he asserts. “I take issue with journalists who like to lull actors into feeling they’re on a psychiatrist’s couch. And I don’t like having to think of strategies in order to make myself an intriguing character. I don’t think it’s anyone else’s concern, nor is it of the remotest interest to me, what terrible abuse some actor has been subjected to as a child. It’s a terrible burden for an actor to have to develop an interesting persona, unless it’s as a character in a movie. I’ve worked all my life to shed myself of any character. Have you noticed?”
Neill utters all this with such a silken grin, in such Jeremy-Irons-as-Claus-von-Bulow tones that I begin to glimpse how he has actually worked his wiles on-screen: I dare you to draw me out, to know me, he seems to say. “I have noticed you’re aiming for opacity,” I tell him. “Of course you have,” he shoots back. “I just wanted to warn you, I’m not terribly much fun.”
“For our readers, then,” I offer, “I’ll be fun and you just go ahead and be Sam. Deal?”
Neill assents and I begin to recount to him some background information I’ve learned about him. He was bom in Northern Ireland and migrated as a child in the 1950s to New Zealand with his mother and his military father, along with his older brother and a sister. After graduating from a university in New Zealand, he became a documentary filmmaker until directors and casting people started encouraging him to try his hand on the other side of the camera. He lives, variously, in England, Sydney and New Zealand. He has long been married to the same woman, who is Asian and with whom he is raising three kids. His birth name is Nigel.
Neill laughs aloud at this last bit. “There are four people in the world who call me that, and you’re not going to be the fifth,” he insists, revealing for the first time a slight but detectable stammer. Then, just as I’m about to launch into an actual question, he circles back to the theme of what he calls his “inner reserve.”
“It may have held me back,” he observes, meaning in his career. “I was very bad always at greenroom chat, the sort of thing other actors are so good at. See, acting was sort of an accident for me, nothing I designed. I’ve never been driven by any particular kind of ambition. Being brought up in New Zealand as I was–well, let’s say that New Zealand produces rather wonderful actors, most of them alcoholic, perhaps because you’re kind of a lonely voice. Life just shuffled me in the direction of acting and I was amazed, and remain amazed, that I can earn a living this way. I’m the first actor I know of in New Zealand who is actually able to make a living from working in films.”
Make a living Neill certainly does. He is far busier than your average mid-level Hollywood star, taking larger roles in smaller films (The Piano), or major roles in films sold on special effects rather than stars (Jurassic Park and Event Horizon), plus crucial supporting roles in major pictures like The Horse Whisperer.
“I have this feeling it could be quite terrific,” Neill enthuses about the film adaptation of Nicholas Evans’s best-seller which centers on a woman who leaves her husband (Neill) behind to bring her handicapped daughter and their wounded horse to a mysterious healer. “I got a call while I was on holiday in New Zealand that was, like, ‘Sam? This is Bob Redford.’ It’s a shock to get a call like that out of the blue. I didn’t even know he was called ‘Bob,’ and I can’t think what he was thinking about when he cast me. There’s something to be said, though, for actors directing, because Bob–it’s Bob now, you see–is involved with every aspect of what he’s doing. What a marvelous guy to work with. And Kristin Scott Thomas? Talk about a great woman–capable of anything.”
Having been an actor for over 20 years, Neill has never catapulted himself into major stardom–unlike, say, Mel Gibson, who came into the business at roughly the same time, and with whom he has contended, at times, for roles. “Do you ever look at where a Mel Gibson or a Harrison Ford is in his career and utter a ‘Damn?'” I ask.
“I’m not envious of anybody,” Neill asserts. “I think it’s marvelous and amazing that Mel has transformed himself into not simply a movie star, but a major player. You’re right that we started off at the same time, and who would have guessed that goofy old Mel would have the chutzpah to put together Braveheart, act in it and direct it? I find it absolutely staggering and I take my hat off to him.”
“Why don’t I hear any ‘but’ in what you’re saying?” I ask. He laughs. “Maybe because the whole idea of ‘career’ is just anathema to me. If I were working my way up from vice president to CEO, then that’d be a career. But one of the real pleasures about being an actor is that you’re not on a career path. You’re so free of all that. One wants to be a successful actor, of course. But to want to be a movie star is making a pact with the–well, making a pact with something with which one should not make a pact. You’ve seen this stuff up close, so you know. It’s not a great thing to be famous. In fact, I can’t actually think of any particularly good things that go with fame.”
Neill breaks off for a moment, then continues, “I also want to say about actors that, with all the attention paid to fame, they are also in general, trivialized. There are these perceptions that actors are unable to form stable relationships, that they subscribe to fashionable causes they haven’t really thought about properly, that they’re somehow unable to show their true feelings, if they have any at all. Generally speaking, I have found these views to be completely wrong. I find actors to be just the most stimulating company and I love being around them. You have to be bright, for a start, to be any good. And if they subscribe to a cause, they have given it a good deal of thought.”
Oh, I get it. Big stardom? Not a good thing. Actors? Solid, thoughtful citizens. We’d better let that last point go or we’ll be sparring here forever. But what he’s been saying makes me wonder whether he deliberately didn’t get himself cast as an Indiana Jones or in a James Bond role he’s rumored to have been considered for. And while we’re thinking about what he deliberately didn’t do, is there truth to the rumor that he flipped off playing Meryl Streep’s husband in The River Wild, not to mention the stylish villains Alan Rickman ended up doing in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? “I never say what I turned down,” Neill responds. “And I don’t give a rat’s ass when I know that another actor has turned down something that I accept. If they don’t want to do the work, I’ll be happy to. I will tell you that I was under pressure from my agent to go for Bond, though, and I subsequently left that agent. It’s perfectly fine for Pierce [Brosnan], who is a terrific Bond, but I just don’t think I’d be very good for Bond and I don’t think Bond would be very good for me. I’m a useful actor, you see. I don’t come to the audience with any particular baggage. When I turn up on the screen, you don’t necessarily know whether I’m going to solve everything as the good guy or whether I will turn out to be something else entirely.”
Attaining Mel- or Harrison-level stardom, though, surely would afford the pick of better roles. When I ask, “Isn’t there any Mel Gibson role you might have wanted to play?” Neill responds without the slightest hesitation: “I would have done The Year of Living Dangerously in a minute. Guy Hamilton is the one film character I can very much relate to. There’s a rare gallantry in him, and I understood his background as well. I also share an intoxication with the East that pervades that movie. I never remember film character names, so the very fact that I’ve never forgotten Guy Hamilton says a great deal.”
And speaking of that superbly evocative and resonant Peter Weir-directed movie, why have Neill and Weir, a seemingly predestined duo, never joined forces? “Why indeed?” Neill responds. “Peter is very elusive, isn’t he? I should nail him to the floor until we do work together. But I’d also love to do something with the Wachowski brothers. What a crackerjack film Bound is. And also with David Lynch, who I think is awfully good, as are the Hughes brothers. I really should let these people know how wonderful I think they are. I’m writing a letter now to k. d. lang because I think her new album is absolutely immaculate, so it’s not that I don’t write fan letters.”
Though Neill is, I suspect, a terrific letter writer, he is, by his own account, hopeless in encounters with other artists he truly admires. “I do things like this all the time,” he says, shaking his head, over the occasion on which he met Mick Jagger. “I am deeply into pop culture, especially pop music. I think Dion’s “The Wanderer,’ for me the great ’60s rock and roll song, will probably endure much longer than most of the stuff we actors do. Pop music is like the sense of smell–the most potent trigger for memories. Anyway, I was at one of these Oscar parties and I was so excited to meet Mick Jagger, I blurted out, ‘Mick, I’ve always wanted to meet you. I saw you at such-and-so in 1964 …,’ and immediately his expression completely changed and he snapped, ‘Great,’ or something like that. I went and buried my head in my hands. How could I be so inane?”
“Speaking of inane,” I say, “did you feel silly at any point when you were making Jurassic Park?”
“It’s the big effects that are of interest,” says Neill, “so making it was sometimes funny. For one scene particularly, there was a guy running around holding up a big plywood T-rex head on a stick like someone carrying a placard at a political demonstration, and meanwhile, there was Spielberg behind the camera yelling, ‘Arggghhh, arggghhh,’ through a bullhorn, which he absolutely loved doing. I don’t think you can see us heaving with laughter.”
Turning to the subject of another of Neill’s recent hits, I say, “When I saw The Piano, the only thing I wanted to know was how Jane Campion could possibly have been so perverse as to not have you and Harvey Keitel swap roles.” “I don’t immediately associate myself with a finger chopper either,” Neill responds. “I read The Piano thinking I would be offered the role [Harvey] wound up playing, actually. But I think one of the interesting things about The Piano is the curiosity of its casting.”
“But at least if you had played Keitel’s role,” I persist, “we wouldn’t have had to see him naked once, let alone in a couple of more movies since.”
“Hmm,” Neill responds dryly “Did you see Harvey’s willy in The Piano? I didn’t. I guess I must have blinked. If I had done the role and said ‘no’ to nudity, though, I’m sure Jane would have talked me into it.” There’s no telling who talked Neill into Snow White: A Tale of Terror, in which Sigourney Weaver, playing his wicked wife, extracts his semen by sexually stimulating him by hand–plenty spiritedly. How exactly did the reserved Neill prepare for this scene?
At this question, Neill buries his face in his hands and roars with laughter. “Oh, my God! My God, I’d forgotten that! When you put that scene to me that way, it’s sort of a shock, isn’t it? Well, Sigourney and I were … um … very close. She’s a good sport. You can’t prepare for something like that–you just have to make it up as you go along, I guess. When I heard that the movie wasn’t going to be released in theaters but on Showtime, I thought, ‘It seems like a waste.’ The script had a quite wonderful gothic quality to it–cannibalism, the terrifying stepmother, the sense of medieval Europe as a great, dark forest filled with bad guys and all sorts of critters one had to deal with to get from clearing to clearing. [But] there was a lot of anxiety around that set, a lot of argy-bargy behind the scenes to which I always make sure I am not in any way privy.”
I ask Neill how he accounts for being one of the few guys onscreen to look relaxed around such other strong female screen presences as Meryl Streep, with whom he’s worked twice, and Judy Davis, with whom he’s worked three times. “I think I was probably quite good in A Cry in the Dark,” he offers, recalling director Fred Schepisi’s reality-based film, in which he plays a man whose wife was convicted of murder after a dingo made off in the night with their infant. “I absolutely love working with women. I mean, action/buddy is a fairly limited thing. With women, there’s so much room for nuance, and, generally speaking, the stuff between women and men is often better written. I’ve also become very close friends with some of the women with whom I’ve worked–Laura Dern, Anjelica Huston, Holly Hunter. Meryl, I think, is a friend.”
At the mention of Streep, Neill smiles wryly. When I ask him why, he tells me, after some prodding, “The very first day on Plenty, we had to go to bed and do a sex scene. She, frankly, insisted we be clothed, so I still had on my overcoat or something and there I am rogering her on the bed, so very nervous, thinking to myself, I’m on top of Meryl Streep! I’m on top of MERRRYL STRRREEP!‘ I was so shy about pelvic contact with Merrryl Strrreep, I was sort of sliding on top of her. It looks completely and utterly unconvincing.”
And what are Neill’s thoughts about the prodigiously gifted, prodigiously singular Judy Davis, with whom he worked in My Brilliant Career, One Against the Wind (for which he won his second Golden Globe nomination, the first having been for the UK TV series Reilly: The Ace of Spies) and Children of the Revolution? “I’ve known Judy Davis for 20 years and I would say I know less about her now than when I first met her. She is a most wonderful and accomplished actor who can do anything, but I don’t know her at all. I really wish I did.”
Since I’ve been aware, as we’ve been chatting, of two scarily stylish, middle-aged women craning their necks to get a better look at Neill–their attention is lost on him completely–I ask what he makes of his looks, now that he’s edged past 50. “I think I had some a long time ago,” he observes, shrugging, “but that’s well in the past.” Readers should know that from where I sit, it’s perfectly obvious Neill is too modest or plain crazy–the late-model Neill is possibly preferable to the sharper, more feral younger version. Does a guy as attractive as Neill find show business particularly tough on personal relationships? “Without question it’s a tough business on relationships,” he asserts. “You really have to think seriously about what it means to be a ‘husband.’ You have to go the extra mile. It’s not so much just that temptation is all around you, because as far as I’m concerned, anyway, that’s not an issue. It’s absence. Absence is difficult.”
A gentleman’s response. But as the man who stirred hearts on both sides of the pond playing Reilly: The Ace of Spies, has he tried to fathom the appeal a cad exerts on- and offscreen? “It wears on me to see cads at work in real life,” he comments. “Really, though, it’s this simple: listen and you’re in. That’s how a cad works. They listen as if no one else in the world but this particular woman had an opinion so important. Depressing, isn’t it? Doubly depressing because it tells us that men who are not cads just don’t listen at all.”
Neill himself is a family man, apparently happily so. “I always get a kick out of being in Los Angeles with my family,” he says. “I mean, this is where Brian Wilson comes from. And Frank Gehry. The one thing I find sad when I come to Los Angeles, though, is realizing that the world here is populated by millions of people who want to be actors and never will be. It’s unbearably sad to live your life and not be able to do what you really want. And it’s a particularly American thing, I think, to advise people to follow their dreams. You ought to be very careful about advising such things, because people have all kinds of entirely unrealistic dreams. As a result, so many people here think of themselves as losers, which is the worst thing you can be called in America. If you divide society into winners and losers, 98 percent of the people will feel like losers. That attitude is particularly prevalent among athletes. You know how it is: win a race and thank God for assisting you past that post. What kind of God is it that picks you to be a winner and everyone else to be a loser? I dread the Olympics coming to Sydney. I can’t bear the thought of all those people coming and having medals stuck on them, while the others are sent back to obscurity.”
As we gather up ourselves for our next appointments, I ask whether Neill is having the kind of fun he hoped that acting might bring, and he quickly answers, “I am incredibly blessed with my family, with my job. I’m working at a level I never would have imagined. I mean, Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas in Montana, what could be nicer? At the same time, I’m under no duress. My life is my own. I never wanted to be a success for the very good reason that, if I weren’t a success, I would be unhappy. I have more than I ever dreamed of. I want for nothing.”
Stephen Rebello wrote about “The New Divas” for the October ’97 issue of Movieline.