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LET’S TALK ABOUT FRIENDSHIP

Canvas MagazineNZ Herald

BRYAN: You’re very wide awake for your age. SAM: I’m doing this out of a misguided sense of loyalty and friendship. I’m determined to live longer than you. You know that. What would you like me to say at your funeral? 

B: The usual stuff. What a fantastic intelligent bloke, start there. A remarkable actor. Terribly funny but of course most people probably don’t realise just how bright he is. Something like that. Something subtle. 

S: So basically life, lie, lie…Okay, fair enough. 

B: Mate, we’ve made a living out of lying for 45 years. Why end it now? 

S: I’m inclined to think when you’re acting well, you’re actually telling the truth. 

B: Not our truth, but certainly the characters’ truth. Of course, the last question was simply because you want me to say to you, “What would you like on your gravestone?” What would you like me to say? Hold on, I’m not around. I’ve left early haven’t I? 

S: Also I’m not going to have a funeral, I just want to be scattered out the back. 

B: Better find someone to do that. Because if I go you haven’t got any friends left for you. Who’s going to bury you? 

S: I’ve got quite a selection of children. 

B: Well, we know what they think! 

S: Okay let’s get on to the matters of the day. I’m very worried about Australia and particularly New Zealand at the moment, given our vulnerability in how Delta has got away on us. What are you thinking?

B: I’m thinking just like everything it, too, will pass. The big question is when and how much damage will be done in the passing. Right at the moment, there’s considerable damage done. We know the world is full of human beings and therefore pain being felt at the moment by many people and families and youngsters. But I do hang on to the thing that eventually you look back on everything and, even given the pain, in the looking back, that’s taught me something about how to get through the next time.

S: Are we learning? 

B: I don’t think while it’s going on we’re learning, because a lot of people get very hysterical just through fear or because it’s a good time to get hysterical. I don’t think we learn while it’s happening. I think it’s once it’s passed. Our being takes it on as a new experience and says you got through it. The next time we go into that part that’s happened before and think I did get through that and I can again. 

S: You seemed pretty good during lockdown. What was your approach to things? 

B: I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. I knew I had to do it but I was surprised at how it sort of went fast, areas of it. There were four or five days there somewhere after the first seemed to be a bit of walking in quicksand. I knew the only way I could handle it was if I had a structure and a routine. So  I started the day with some form of exercise. I do Pilates. I knew that would help me. As you know, I’ve been learning guitar for the past couple of years, so I was able to practice my guitar more and, of course, that led to frustration because I haven’t got any better than the first week. That frustration was able to be centered on the guitar, not the lockdown. An hour of guitar, an hour of screaming at myself. And I’m doing a show in Queensland so there were scripts to read or to take notes and tell the writers what a bad job they’d done and how to fix it. 

S: Of course, those would be very intelligent notes, given you’re this world-class writer now.

B: Oooh I’d forgotten. I’ve got pedigree now. Bloody hell. I looked at it structurally, as a wordsmith. I approached it very differently. Instead of my usual thing, “This is a lot of rubbish, fix this up,” it’s more meaningful now.

S: But writing [Sweet Jimmy] wasn’t a painful process for you, was it?

B: No. I have to admit it wasn’t. You know Bruce Robinson over in England, the writer of Withnail and I, he would talk about writing, saying I’m sitting there looking at a blank page for 12 hours and maybe one good line would come out. Well, I have to say I looked at it for 10minutes and about 400 lines came out. I can’t wait to send him my book. I know he’ll be so interested in reading it.

S: So, what authors inspired you, Bryan?

B: Well, that is a very good question. Because the truth of the matter is I don’t get my inspiration out of books or pieces of art or whatever. My inspiration comes out of the people I see in the street. Someone doing something and I go wow that taught me something about humanity. When I was 25 and went to go and travel Europe, I bought a book called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, a history of the American West and the eradication of the American Indians. That book that I bought at 25 has lived within me as something that opened me to another world, it broadened the world and gave me history — I hated history at school. Quite interesting it was about cowboys and Indians in a funny way and I’d grown up watching Westerns. The Indians were the baddies and the cowboys were all the goodies. To actually read what it really was, that it was their land, I read it because it had the battle of Little Bighorn, Apaches, Sitting Bull, all these words I knew now they went into a scope that was a reality I never knew about and it enlightened and moved me. I’ve never forgotten that book. Another book that had an amazing effect on me was Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell, which is about poverty and class. The first half is in Paris and it’s quite funny. The broke actors and writers are in the posh restaurants, pissing in the soup that gets served to the up-themselves diners. An extraordinary book that I remember to this day. They were books that had a big influence on me. They opened my world.

S: What have you had to admonish yourself or give yourself a good talking to about lately?

B: Some 20 years ago I went through anxiety. I got very ill while I was shooting a movie and was rushed into intensive care. I had, what I guess you could describe as a near-death experience. So for a few years after that, whenever I travelled I’d get very heavy bouts of anxiety that were not pleasant at all. I didn’t know what was happening to me, I thought it was something physical that was wrong with me. Eventually I was smart enough to go, “I want to get to the bottom of this,” so I spoke to a psychologist. It was really fantastically worthwhile and got me through it. Towards the end of this quarantine and moving into the few days after it, I suddenly got about of anxiety again. This time I knew what I had. I knew what was going on with myself and I had to say to myself, “It’s okay, there’s a way to deal with it. Go back to what you’ve learnt.” I had to say to myself, “It’s okay Bryan, it’s there, it will go away. Stay away from any negativity that might be coming at you. That’s not going to help you here. You’ve got the distraction of work coming up.” In fact, I did a read-through yesterday and I felt fine, because that was taking all my focus. I had to have a talk to myself about how to handle this thing.

S: There is so much more anxiety around and people identifying it. I didn’t really know what it was until last year and I got it really badly. I can sense it coming on again once in a while and I’ll go through a few bad days. But I do take your advice which is, “I see what you are. Go away, I don’t need you.” I know that feeling now and I can talk it away.

B: That voice in the head, being able to go, “Get out of here. Bugger off.” I said to my son yesterday, “This thing is going to be around in waves until I can get rid of it.” But the character I’m playing is carrying something. I said, “I think I can use it. ”In fact, I’ve just said to it, “If you’re going to stick around, you’ve got to pay your rent. The rent is, I’m using you, mate.”

S: Let’s talk about friendship. One of the things that’s very useful in dealing with anxiety and depression is friendship and how valuable that is. With the isolating powers of Covid that’s problematic, isn’t it? I think friendship has been extraordinarily useful for  me in dealing with things. It’s a conundrum that here we are, isolation is one of the things that’s going to save us, but it’s also killing us as well.

B: I think you take friendship for granted, like you take anything for granted that’s been around for a while, your family, your kids. My big thing is I just want to take five minutes more to be able to say thank you to my mother but I’m not going to get it. And friendship you take for granted. But when you’re up against it, by God it’s important. So great to be able to talk to someone and you know they’re with you. Just someone at your back, that is immensely important in times like this.

S: Well, I’m going to say this once and I’m never going to say it again. Thanks for your friendship, Bryan, okay?

B: I’ll say the same, but don’t count on it forever.

S: All right, the matter’s closed, otherwise you’ll get embarrassed.

B: I’m very glad we have the friendship we do. We’ve had some bloody interesting arguments and I’m not sure who got the loudest.

S: I do!

B: But the world we’ve inhabited has been similar paths and we understand a few things about each other and where we sometimes need a bit of support.

S: Moving on, because that can get a bit embarrassing ... On Apple TV there’s a documentary series called 1971: The year that music changed everything. It’s 10 hours and I’ve just watched the first two episodes and can’t wait to get back to it. There’s all this footage of John Lennon at home recording Imagine. Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Shall we take a minute to remember Charlie Watts?

B: How cool was Charlie Watts!

S: There they are recording in the south of France, dealing with heroin. And 1971, we were there! And it’s fascinating. You’ve got Nixon and the Vietnam War looming over everything.

B: You’ve got Watergate ...

S: Politics is out on the streets. It’s phenomenally good.

B: To this day, I remember walking into some poolroom at 10 in the morning in London and Angie was being played. I had to stop and allow this song to…it was so romantic and sexy. Wonderful. That must have been about 1972 or 73.

S: 1971 was actually ironically the year I was least engaged in the world because I was travelling around with three others — a drama quartet—travelling around in a VW minivan around New Zealand, taking Shakespeare and Shaw and others to schools from the tip of the north to the very south. Often a slightly thankless job, it would have to be said. I think in 1971more than any other, I paid my dues.

B: You’re saying you did a form of theatre in education in 1971?

S: Yeah, we were performing for intermediate-level kids to high school kids.

B: You see, that’s the difference between the pair of us. I did theatre in education in the north of England. That was my first acting job. Going around places like Sunderland and Billingham in a van but doing it to 5 and 6-year-olds, which was totally my level. I understood everything they said and they understood me very well. I love going to schools and doing all that stuff.

S: They wanted me to ask you about fame but I’m going to pass on that because I always say that you and I are sort of well known without being ridiculously famous, which is about the right level. It’s not a handicap. You don’t need an entourage.

B: No, but it’s very helpful. The old cliché, it gets you into a restaurant when there are no tables available. I mean it’s true. There’s plenty of downsides that go with it, but let me tell you, sometimes I’m awfully glad I’ve got a bit of a public profile because I got a ticket to that thing that’s really hard to get into.

S: It gets you to Canberra to advocate for the arts.

B: And they have to bloody listen to you, because they know you’ll get on TV and give them a bad time if they don’t.

S: Good for you advocating for the arts, because they’ve taken a real hammering, particularly the performing arts. The last couple of years have been terrible.

B: If jobs do start to wane, as they will —interviewer. You’re good.

S: Thanks, Bryan. Let’s see what else I wanted to talk about. This touches on what we were saying before. Jean-Paul Sartre said hell is other people. Do you subscribe to that?

B: Look, your biggest pains and the thing you grapple with most are usually to do with are relationship with a person, whether it be a loved one and a broken heart, the loss of someone who’s close to you. And at times like that, it’s hell. Other people are also your joys. It’s other people that give you the greatest joy in life. Your kid spilling his ice cream over you while you’re picking him up and having a laugh. Your joys come from other people too. Is hell some other people? At times. But is happiness other people? At times too.

S: I always think I really crave some solitude and then hen I get it I’m absolutely miserable.

B: I know—I get the phone call!

S: I can’t bear being lonely. It’s the worst thing.

B: It’s interesting. I’m happy in my own company. I can be at home pottering away, hardly going out for dinner. But this forced thing in quarantine and stepping out into a whole group of people who as yet don’t mean a thing to me, I feel I’m more isolated with all these people around me than ever. Until I make contact and have some relationship with each of those people in some way, I’m alone.

S: How did you know Rachel [Ward] was the one? Or are you still working on that?

B: No, she knew I was the one!

S: That’s not what I heard.

B: Oh, really? How did I know Rachel was the one? Because I’m not an idiot. I went, ‘This person is going to test me thoroughly. I’m not going to be able to get away with murder.’

S: And she has indeed. You got very very lucky that day. Okay, let’s wrap this up. What has surprised you about life?

B: How short it is. As I’ve got older it’s like where did those years go? In recognising that, that it is short-term. I say to anyone around me, kids growing up or whatever, “Don’t waste it. Don’t waste the time you’ve got with loved ones, you might never get it back.” Remember that our relationships are more important than probably anything else out there and you’ve only got a certain amount of time to have it. A moment ago we were these 35-year-old young guys running around the place thinking we could do anything.

S: Yeah.

B: Now, don’t go into a depression just ’cos I’ve said that. What’s your answer to it?

S: I think you’re right. We first met each other 42 years ago.

B: At least. Maybe 45 years ago.

S: That would have seemed an immensely long time at the other end of that tunnel. Now it seems like nothing. I look back and think what great good fortune and you’ve got to remember that on those dark nights.

B: There’s nobody out there who doesn’t know it. Part of life is struggle because without the struggle you don’t learn anything, you don’t earn anything. It’s one of the things we don’t talk about but you can’t get through life without struggle. It comes to everybody. It’s part of the journey. For some, it can be so painful you never get over it. But for everybody, pain is there. Struggle is there and with help, we get through it.

S: I’m often asked what I admire most in you. I think your complete and utter unflagging devotion to your family is the quality I admire most in you.

B: Well, I learnt it, didn’t I? I had a mother who was fully committed to her two children, bringing them up, so I had a great mentor on what was important. I was a lucky man.

S: Is there anything we haven’t covered?

B: Yeah, Sweet Jimmy. Great book, coming out in a minute.

S: Congratulations on the book. It’s going to be an absolutely rip-snorting bestseller and I think if I was going to advise anyone reading this, I’d say, get in early. Get a first edition.

B: Many thanks and we’ll talk in your next city.

S: See you, matey. I hope I recorded it.

B: Jesus, what a thought!

‘LET’S TALKABOUT FRIENDSHIP’ Sam Neill talks to fellow actor Bryan Brown about life, death and his new book, Sweet Jimmy

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