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I Am Sam

One minute he's talking about kissing Hugo Weaving, the next he's espousing the pleasures of drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. Daphne Guinness meets the laid-back - and loud - Sam Neill.

Sam Neill is not ashamed to admit that he smokes three cigarettes a day and does not intend to give them up. "I have a glass of wine before dinner, I light up a fag and enjoy it immensely."

And the other two? "After dinner but not always. To be honest, I have one after breakfast because a man needs to be regular at my age. It's better than bran - am I making myself clear?"

Absolutely. To me and everyone else in the bar at the swanky W Hotel in Sydney. He is positively shouting - something he says he never does. "But there are times with one's children you want to shout, though of course it's counterproductive, so you may as well forget it. Anyway, they don't take any notice. So why bother?"

It's 10am. Neill tosses his Hermes coat onto a chair and, in shirt sleeves and cords, tells the hovering PR, "I'll have a latte, toast and jam. Haven't had breakfast, I'm hungry." Then he throws himself on the sofa and examines the glass-top coffee table. "We could play chess or backgammon." (I've been warned that he's slow to start but once warmed up, lets rip.)

We're here to discuss not only his role in Little Fish - the new Australian flick also starring Cate Blanchett in which he plays a seedy, conniving criminal - but also Sam Neill the average bloke, Sam Neill the husband, Sam Neill the father and Sam Neill the winemaker.

So why no breakfast? "I've been terribly busy." But what does he do in the morning? "Well, I go for my walk. A walk three or four times a week keeps me OK." This contradicts an interview in 2000 where he says he goes to the gym every day: "I do 35 to 40 minutes on the runner, some weights, lots of stretching. I feel like a slug if I don't."

Something doesn't add up. Oh that, he says, caught out but not caring, "I used to go to the gym as a fanciful anthropological exercise. It was very intriguing from an actor's point of view but I'm not big on pumping iron."

Actors. How do you know if they're telling the truth? "Don't believe everything you read in the papers," he warns (implying, take care).

"He's an in-the-zone actor," says Fish's director Rowan Woods. "He becomes the character yet still keeps his radar going elsewhere. Nobody I have worked with has this ability." Another warning.

Anyway, what's this about Hugo Weaving, who plays a gay, drug-addled ex-football champion, kissing him in Little Fish? In fact, there are two kisses. Weaving giving. Neill receiving.

"I dreaded it and it opened my eyes once again to the kindness of women, that they actually put up with that disgusting bristly presence. How do you do it? Hugo had a beard and in an unkind moment, I said it was like kissing the rear end of an alsatian. My heart went out to Hugo's wife.

I told her that she has sacrificed beyond the normal demands of connubial obligations."

At which point I say (and I wish I hadn't), "Why not kiss me, then I'd know how it felt?"

"Well, I am shaven, civilised and a totally different prospect from Hugo." So he's declining my offer? "Yes, I've been turned by Hugo," he says, cackling at his joke.

I plough on. How does he get on with his children? He has Tim, 22, with Lisa Harrow the actress whom I am not allowed to discuss, Elena, 15, with his wife, Noriko Watanabe, and Maiko, her 23-year-old daughter. "You'll have to ask them," he says defensively. "I think of myself as a reasonably good dad. Oh good... " In a classic awkward-moment breaker, breakfast arrives. "They've given me sourdough. I'd hate to be allergic to wheat because bread is one of the great pleasures of life and it's a great vehicle for jam," delivering the word theatrically. So he is a jam man. "Mmmmmm, yes, I love it. My favourite is dark bitter marmalade."

His monologue usage is well-honed to deflect tricky topics. It simply won't do. I return to his children. For instance, Jeremy Irons did a film with his son - would Neill? He goes into a long Pinteresque silence, then, "I'd never encourage or discourage. It's a cruel profession. However successful, your life is littered with bad reviews and rejections by producers."

That's awfully bleak for a man who starred in the aptly titled My Brilliant Career as well as Jurassic Park and The Piano. "No, that's a fact. You need a thick skin to get through. I rather like tenderness and vulnerability in people." So he has lost that? "I hope not entirely." He still has it, then? "Who knows? That's not for me to say." (I could kill him. Everyone raves about his charm but no one mentions his irritating modesty.)

His own childhood is an open book. His parents, Dermot and Priscilla, were British ("My DNA is Irish but I am a fourth-generation New Zealander") and they weren't a demonstrably affectionate family. "But we loved each other in our own ways" - the stutter he had as a boy returns - "and there's a lot to be said for being the middle child. People don't notice you so much."

Yet when I ask what kind of a husband he is, he responds with another infuriating, "Oh, that's not for me to say." But he must know whether he's good, bad or indifferent. He's been married for 16 years to Watanabe, a Japanese make-up artist whom he met on the film Dead Calm. He was so smitten, he told one magazine, "I followed her around like a pathetic dog for months, hoping she'd throw me a bone." Now he says feebly, "I'm probably all right," munching his toast. Does this conversation make him nervous? "Solicitous." To his eternal shame, he admits, he speaks no Japanese, not even "I love you." "You'd think a more conscientious man would be fluent by now," he concedes, "but nah!" Munch, munch.

One of the odd things about him is when he's not acting, he doesn't miss it, not even the attention. "That's because I am busy with my organic farm in New Zealand. We have rare-breed chickens, South-Suffolk black-faced sheep, a goat, three vineyards." He rattles on about lavender honey, lavender oil, rosewater, thyme oil, saffron and "the nice people who work for me pick the crocuses and they-"

Yes but physically, how much is he involved? "Sometimes I get to mow around the trees. That's my contribution." He talks to the grapes, too.

Those vineyards, in Central Otago on the South Island, seem as important as any acting. To her astonishment, he orders the film PR to make a note of his wine tasting in Sydney next month. "You know, make sure the right people are there." He urges me to check his website, www.twopaddocks.com. "It's me taking the piss out of myself - something I do for fun."

A July entry reads, "We hear the BBC's [miniseries starring Neill] To The Ends Of The Earth has been screened to some acclaim over the summer. We can only assume this is due to the distinguished work of Benedict Cumberbatch, Cheryl Campbell, Victoria Hamilton, Jared Harris, Charles Dance, et al, rather than that of the Proprietor. Who, it seems, is playing himself in the William Golding-written trilogy; that is, foul-tempered old curmudgeon with obnoxious politics, crap taste in hats, etc."

There are even photos of the "Two Paddocks mobile" on the site. "I've just done up a new truck, a 1947 Chevrolet, the most beautiful thing in the world." His business radar is buzzing.

But he seems incapable of accepting compliments gracefully. To those who describe him as intelligent, he retaliates, "Were they all on drugs when they said that? Oh God, the only time I ever think about myself is doing interviews. It's an uncomfortable process. I'm much more interested in other people. For instance, last night I had dinner with my friend George Gregan, the Wallabies captain. A couple of hours in his company is better than an hour in mine. Do you see what I am saying?" There it is again - that wretched modesty.

Gregan, training at NSW's Coffs Harbour, laughs. They met in 1998 at the airport. Neill, on his way to watch the Wallabies play the All Blacks in New Zealand, bumped into Gregan at the luggage carousel. He had no ticket. Gregan organised it and they've been pals ever since. "He can strike up a conversation with anyone," says Gregan. "It's a special quality that Sam has. What's amusing is we'll have a good evening with the actor Bryan Brown, who's pretty vocal. It's boisterous to the last but Sam keeps that Mr Cool demeanour, while Bryan's the complete opposite. It's kind of quirky."

Is Neill really 57? He looks 10 years younger. He's 58 next week, actually. "Am I that old? I'm shocked." Did he go through a midlife crisis? "I hope I'm not midlife yet." So no men's problems? "Touch wood, no. But my mother died a few years ago and had dementia towards the end. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. She was 84." So he's a candidate?

"I suppose so." It's the only sombre moment in the interview but he rallies. No, he doesn't mind greying hair and, yes, he shaves every day. His father, an army officer, made his men shave even if there was no water. "They dry-shaved because it was good for morale and I agree with him."

Neill is still good-looking. Naturally, he disagrees. Oddly, though, on the box getting his Silver Logie award in May for most outstanding actor in the TV drama Jessica, he didn't look too whoops. And presenting Rove McManus with his Gold Logie, he fluffed his words. Can he remember that?

He thinks hard. "I fluffed my own Logie because I was astonished to get it but was the second just one incompetence after another?" Actually, he looked as though he'd had too much pinot noir (his favourite wine and the mainstay of his vineyard). This brings on loud guffaws. If there's one thing Neill doesn't worry about it's his image. "I'm always being told to shut up because I don't really care what people think. Actually, when I say that, it's more bravado, really.

I'd much sooner be liked than loathed." He is backing Labour in the current New Zealand elections "and I know I'll get hell for that, too."

Well, if anyone has the oomph to stir things, he does. Wealth, four homes worldwide, 50 films, umpteen television roles and success in Hollywood suggest an element of brute ambition. "Brute ambition! What an amazing phrase. For me it's que sera, sera, as Dean Martin would say."

And what amazing shoes. I have just noticed them. Huge plonkers in suede with rubber wraparound soles. "Let me tell you about these shoes." He hitches a foot onto his knee and we both examine it closely. "They are American, about three feet wide and I can't imagine a more comfortable shoe. You can climb a mountain or go clubbing in them, not that these things I do. No, I won't take one off. Not in mixed company."

As for security, does it come from his job or home? He is flummoxed. Well, is he fidgety when he's not working? "I am, actually, yes. That's pathetic insecurity. If I know what the next jobs are, that's security. I don't right now so I'm fidgety."

The PR is back. "Ten-minute warning," she blasts. So it's quick-quick from now on. How often has he been in love? "Pass." Does he fall in love easily?

"In the past, yeah." Is he self-righteous? "No. Tolerance is important." Is he impatient? "With fools and scoundrels." Would he watch someone load the dishwasher and then say they've done it badly? "No, I'd encourage someone to load the dishwasher." Obviously he thinks he is a pretty wonderful person, I say, and that sends him off again into paroxysms.

"Ab-so-lute-ly, I am the bee's knees. Of course not. I'm as flawed and as fallible as anyone else." Well, he should know, he is blessed with this insight of himself. "Hahahahahahaha! You're very contentious. I'm terrified what the tenor of this interview will be when it's on the page. I'm going to look like some kind of puffed-up bloody guru!"

Actually, he doesn't. Mid-photo shoot and performing a frenzied mime of being frozen naked in his 1981 horror movie Possession, he looks like a man who can act his way through anything. Even interviews.

Link to the article online>>

© Copyright 2005, Sydney Morning Herald.

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