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Sam Neill Gets on the Grapevine

Actor Sam Neill takes time off from movies to promote his wine and vineyard in New Zealand.

By his own count, New Zealand actor Sam Neill has starred in 50 to 60 films and the same number of television series.

So it surprises even him that he only recently came to Singapore to do press interviews.

Moreover, instead of promoting a new movie or TV show, the 63-year-old is serving up wine instead. He was in town for the recent wine event Burghound In Asia to promote his vineyard Two Paddocks and take part in some of the tasting sessions and dinners.

This is not some celebrity bandwagon that Neill has simply hopped onto. His vineyard is in Central Otago, New Zealand. “It’s convenient because it’s where I live. It’s one of the very few little places in the world where you can successfully grow pinot noir. And pinot noir is what I like,” he says.

Two Paddocks was started in 1993 with 2ha and has now grown to 29ha spread over three vineyards.

When told that Wikipedia has an entry on celebrities who own wineries and vineyards, he quips with a smile: “They’re golfers, singers and porn stars.”

As for actors who also make wine, he gives the example of Frenchman Gerard Depardieu, whom he met once at the Cannes Film Festival. Chuckling, he recalls: “I was very impressed to see his nose go into the glass because it goes quite a long way down.”

One sign that Neill takes his wine seriously is that neither his name nor image appears on the bottles.

He admits that he used to have a “little handwritten thing with my name underneath it” for his entry-level pinot, but when British wine critic Jancis Robinson remarked: “I hope you don’t put your name anywhere on the bottle,” his immediate response was: “Absolutely not.” It has never been seen again.

He adds, though: “The business looks after itself, but it doesn’t look after me. If I charge what I think the wine is worth rather than what people can afford, then I’d be rather wealthy.”

Listening to the charming and drily witty Neill talk, it does not seem possible that he used to stammer very badly. In fact, he hardly said anything till he was about 14 or 15. “Some would think that’s the kind of ideal child,” he says.

While the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech (2010) got some things right about the condition, he takes issue with the suggestion that the king stammered because his father bullied him.

When Neill’s youngest daughter stammered at the age of two or three, he found out from the therapist that it runs in families and that it can be addressed. He is still a stammerer “but it’s well under control”.

Neill has a daughter, Elena, 20, with make-up artist Noriko Watanabe, and a son, Tim, 28, from a previous relationship. He also has a stepdaughter from his wife’s first marriage.

Watanabe was in Singapore as well and she touches up Neill’s face before the photo shoot. He later says with quiet pride: “She’s one of the best in the world.”

The two met on the set of the thriller Dead Calm (1989). Presumably that is one entry that stands out in his diverse body of work, which ranges from award-winning films such as The Piano (1993) to blockbusters like Jurassic Park (1993).

When the conversation turns to memorable roles and people he has worked with, though, he demurs: “If people ask ‘What’s your favourite film?’ I’m unable to answer. It’s like being asked ‘Who’s your favourite child?’ It’s a question one should never answer.”

So what does his work say about him? He ponders and says: “I don’t think it says much because it’s so disparate. Maybe except that I like movies and like being in movies.”

While he would not pick favourites, he is happy to talk about specific characters. He played the Antichrist in Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981) as the loneliest man in the world “because you can’t go around telling people that you’re the Antichrist”.

He adds: “I thought I would get burnt at the stake in Rome but nothing happened apart from one or two strange letters from fans.”

The films for which he is best remembered are probably those in the Jurassic Park series. He says: “Director Steven Spielberg has such a kind of infectious boyish enthusiasm and it really felt like we were breaking new ground as no one had seen anything like it before.”

Inevitably there would be roles that got away and one of them was reportedly that of super spy James Bond. He sets the record straight: “I never had any desire to be James Bond but I had an agent who was keen that I be James Bond. She was deluded.”

You get the sense that he is not one to look back with regret anyway. He has two films coming up, The Hunter, about a hunt for the last Tasmanian tiger, and The Vow, a romantic drama.

He has also shot the pilot for a TV series called Alcatraz in which he plays “an FBI, tough SOB”. It is produced by J.J. Abrams, one of the masterminds behind the cult sci-fi mystery series Lost.

Neill describes Alcatraz thus: “It has a very strong sci-fi background to it, definitely a mystery. I can’t tell you what it is because I don’t know myself.”

It is a project he is excited about, but he is also calmly pragmatic about its prospects: “They shoot a lot of pilots every year and not many of them go into series, so touch wood. If it doesn’t go, then we’ll do something else.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network

Sam Neill on ...

How the image of smoking has evolved in the movies: “A plane crashes ... and who’s going to get killed first. Usually it’s the one who smokes. You can’t be smoking in a film these days, something’s going to eat you. Smoking in movies these days means moral turpitude.”

His job: “Actors are by and large over-celebrated and underrated. It’s assumed that they’re flaky or lightweight and I don’t think that’s true. Whenever an actor turns to politics, everyone kind of starts to laugh. Mind you, there’ve been one or two ...”

The one role he regrets turning down: “When I read the script for The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994), I just didn’t get it at all. I didn’t think it was funny, I thought it was so rt of bad stereotypes. When I saw the film, I thought, ‘What an idiot, you were completely wrong about that.’ It would have been quite fun to wear a frock for a couple of months.”

© Copyright The Star Online

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