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Sam Neill Interview

25 years and more than 50 films after his stunning debut in 'My Brilliant Career', Sam Neill maintains the best review he's ever had was for his winemaking, not his acting. And that self-deprecating comment is typical of a man who's kept himself away from the usual idiocies of celebrity and the headlines that often follow. A class act on the screen, much beloved of his friends off it.

ANDREW DENTON: Welcome, Sam.

SAM NEILL: Thank you.

ANDREW DENTON: Now, you seriously are a winemaker, aren't you? Is this something you dabble in, or is this a major exercise for you?

SAM NEILL: It's something I started about 10 years ago, and I planted some vines, and now I've planted a whole lot more. And we produce what I think is an excellent wine. I was hoping that I'd got to the stage of life where the wine would be supporting me, but sadly, I'm still supporting the wine, because it's a very expensive operation.

ANDREW DENTON: It's had great reviews, though. It's been described as 'sex in a glass'. How have you managed to bottle sex, Sam?


SAM NEILL: Yes, 'sex in a glass'.


SAM NEILL: Thanks for mentioning that. I'm far too modest to mention it myself, but, um, that's how we've always thought of it. It was good that someone picked it up.

ANDREW DENTON: I actually have my own vineyard, which one shouldn't advertise on the ABC. But it's Chateau-Denton.

SAM NEILL: (With French accent) 'Dontonne'?

ANDREW DENTON: 'Dontonne'. That's right. Now, this is a fine wine. It's from a loamy soil. We actually bury my family in the same plot, so it's what I call a full-bodied wine.


ANDREW DENTON: I wonder if we could... (Pours wine)

SAM NEILL: Yes, thank you.

ANDREW DENTON: You have an excellent nose and palate. If you could just...

SAM NEILL: (Sniffs wine) Important to put the old snoz down the glass.


SAM NEILL: Yeah. That smells rather good.

ANDREW DENTON: Yeah, thank you. That was made this morning.


SAM NEILL: (Drinks wine) I think that's fantastic. What is it?

ANDREW DENTON: Well, obviously I can't tell you my trade secrets. But it's filtered through some clothes of mine.

SAM NEILL: It has that sock kind of thing.

ANDREW DENTON: It does. Thank you very much. It's 'socks in a glass', actually. That's what I like to refer to it as.

SAM NEILL: Cheers, thank you.

ANDREW DENTON: If you'd like more during the interview, just feel free. We're obviously not going to go the Oliver Reed route, where you stagger around completely drunk, but it's on me tonight.

SAM NEILL: I'll keep my clothes on too.

ANDREW DENTON: Yes. You've disappointed half the audience there, Sam. And that's just the male half. It's a strange group of people tonight.


ANDREW DENTON: You have been described as an 'elder statesman' of acting, after 50 films, and you've said about acting that the great moment is when you get it right, like hitting a cricket ball exactly where you want it. How do you know when you get it right?

SAM NEILL: I must have made that up. 'Elder' is right, I think. That's good. But the 'statesman' thing, I think, would be a bit of an exaggeration. But no, I must have made that up. 'Cause, you know, you never get it right, really. And that's what's so tantalising and wonderful about acting, is that there's no one right thing to do. But... The cricket bat analogy's not bad, actually. I must have copied it off someone. But when you hit that sweet spot and you think... and it goes to the boundary, once in a while, you'll have one of those wonderful moments. But they're few and far between.

ANDREW DENTON: Do you remember a moment like that, where you were right in the moment?

SAM NEILL: No, I've wiped the tapes.

ANDREW DENTON: Oh, come on, now.

SAM NEILL: I have. No, I have. But I've seen wonderful moments like that with the people I'm acting opposite.

ANDREW DENTON: Well, Meryl Streep, for example, she's regarded as one of the best.

SAM NEILL: Well, someone I spoke to today thought she was not quite the Lindy Chamberlain that she should have been. But I actually thought she was fantastic in that... And I like acting with women, and partly I think that's because I'm happy for them to be the star, and I'm, you know, very comfortable in a kind of support position.

ANDREW DENTON: You're too modest, I think, Sam Neill. Speaking of women, you worked with Nicole Kidman in 'Dead Calm', which was fairly early in her career. Did you have a sense then...

SAM NEILL: She'd already done 'BMX Bandits'.


SAM NEILL: And clearly she had a very hot career, I gather, from that. And I thought she's never really been better than 'BMX Bandits', but, no... She had rather funnier hair in those days... And that's all been sorted out.

ANDREW DENTON: Yeah. It's been through the mill.

SAM NEILL: Yeah, yeah.

ANDREW DENTON: When you played the role of Alan Grant in 'Jurassic Park', you said an interesting thing - that playing the action hero is actually a lot more difficult than you'd realised, and a much underestimated craft in a way. What was the challenge?

SAM NEILL: I think I was better at it the second time around. I rather thought that I was the guy with the hat in the first one. You know you're the action guy when you get a hat like that. And I thought Spielberg would tell me what to do with the hat. But he was very engaged in everything else, so I didn't get a lot of sort of action hero directing in the first one, and I was stupid - I should have really worked it out for myself. So, second time around, I think I'd sort of nailed it a bit better.

ANDREW DENTON: You mentioned Spielberg, and you've worked with some pretty extraordinary directors - Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong. Now you're directing a series of telemovies based on Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan novels.

SAM NEILL: Well, I've done one. John Clarke directed the other one.

ANDREW DENTON: Have you taken notes from the directors you've worked with, or do you wish you had?

SAM NEILL: Oh, look, it was... You know, talk about teaching old dogs new tricks. It was just, you know... I had to start from scratch. And it was a really scary thing to do, while I'm terribly glad I did it, 'cause I found it really, really, incredibly stimulating and engaging. I had a fantastic time doing it.


ANDREW DENTON: I'm certainly intrigued to find out what the larger scene is there. When you said it was scary to direct, what was the scary bit for you?

SAM NEILL: Well, I didn't know if I could, you know? I mean, it's... But I suppose I did pick up something. I was working with a lot of directors, a lot of really good directors too, so if I hadn't picked up something over these years, it would be regrettable, wouldn't it?

ANDREW DENTON: The first time you walked on set as director, was it a bit like stage fright for you?

SAM NEILL: Yes, I went to work and... You know, you're preparing all this and you've got it all ready in your mind, and then I turn up to work and there were all these trucks with lights and actors coming out of caravans. And I thought, "Oh, my God, it's real. Now I have to be real too."

ANDREW DENTON: Though a star, you're not entirely comfortable with that concept, and I know that some years ago you bought a Porsche for yourself. What became of it?

SAM NEILL: You're very well informed, aren't you?

ANDREW DENTON: I've actually been following you, stalking you for years, Sam.

SAM NEILL: Thank you.

ANDREW DENTON: Those phone calls late at night? That's me.

SAM NEILL: ... I knew the voice was familiar. No, I...


SAM NEILL: This was... 20-something years ago and I was living in London, and I'd just done a series called 'Reilly: Ace of Spies', which took about eight months and was very hard work. And I thought, "I'll reward myself. I've got some money in the bank. I've always wanted a Porsche." So I went out and bought... I actually ordered it from Stuttgart or wherever they're made. And it looked like a blowfly. It was all black. There was no chrome. It was just all black with black leather. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. And I was completely thrilled. And I got in it and drove it home - it was quite difficult to drive - and I got it back to the flat. And as the days went on, I got more and more uncomfortable with the idea that... I mean... I'm not a Porsche man. That's the thing.


SAM NEILL: I'd completely... it was a stupid, stupid thing to do. And I would walk out of the flat and I'd walk down the street, and I'd walk past the Porsche and then I'd check if anyone was looking. And if the coast was clear, I'd jump in and roar off. Then I was driving through Hyde Park one day and it was Sunday so there was no-one around - you could actually open it out a bit - and it was middle of winter, nobody around, and I stopped at a... There was one pedestrian in the middle of all of Hyde Park. And this was when I was feeling at my most uncomfortable in my Porsche. And I realised to my horror that I knew the person who was crossing the road. It was Judy Davis. And I thought, "God, I hope she doesn't see me." And I looked up - "Oh!" - and she'd seen me and she came over to the thing and know, and I had an electric window, and it went, "Zzsshh." And she just shook her head like this. "Not you, Sam, not you." And turned and walked away. And I... "Oh, well, that's it. I'm buggered now." I sold the car the next day. It was never seen again.

ANDREW DENTON: You mention Judy Davis, and where we first met you was 'My Brilliant Career'. When you got that part, you were living in New Zealand. Is it true you basically sold your house the day you got the role and moved to Australia?

SAM NEILL: I did - I came over here and tested for that film, and I thought, "Well, look, I've been offered a leading part in a film in Australia. I think I might give this a go." And what is more, the other thing about coming here was that people were so nice to me, and they're still nicer to me here than they are in New Zealand.

ANDREW DENTON: Is that right?

SAM NEILL: Yeah, people say nice things to you in Australia. They're generous, Australians, I reckon. They're generous to me.

ANDREW DENTON: Why don't they say nice things in New Zealand?

SAM NEILL: We're miserable in New Zealand.

ANDREW DENTON: What are you miserable about?

SAM NEILL: Oh... The first time in my life ever anyone said to me, "You're really good," and it hadn't occurred to me before that that might be a possibility - I still don't believe it - but it never occurred to me that I had anything particularly to offer as an actor or anything, until I came here. Um, because people in New Zealand are more inclined to say, you know, "Who do you think you are?" But I don't have any pretensions that I'm, you know, Laurence Olivier or something, but... AUDIENCE LAUGHS

SAM NEILL: It's very tough talking about yourself. That's the problem with coming on these things.

ANDREW DENTON: OK, let's move on to another subject which doesn't involve you. When you were seven...

SAM NEILL: (Laughs)

ANDREW DENTON: No, actually, you said that when you were seven and started school in New Zealand, that is, in a way, what taught you to act. How was that?

SAM NEILL: I always ask other actors, "Where do you come from and what's your story?" And it's very interesting how many actors have had a sort of disrupted childhood of some kind or another. So it's typical, for instance... I was an army brat. My father was in the army so we moved around a lot when I was a kid. We went back to New Zealand when I was seven. And a lot of army kids become actors because of, you know, their being sent to different schools, all know, every time. So you have to adapt your accent or... You know, just to survive. And a lot of people in the diplomatic corps, their kids become actors.

ANDREW DENTON: That's interesting - it must have been even tougher for you, because when you were young you had a stammer.

SAM NEILL: Mom. Yes, I spent most of my childhood, hoping that people wouldn't talk to me so that I didn't have to talk back, because I knew I had to... They'd say, "How are you?" And I'd say... (Mumbles) You know, it was a very bad stammer. I kind of outgrew it. I can still... you can still detect me as a stammerer.

ANDREW DENTON: Yeah. Really?

SAM NEILL: But I did find out more about it as an adult because one of my kids stammered when she was very small. So we took her to a speech therapist and the first thing that the therapist said was, "Do either of you stutter?" - talking to the parents. And I said, "Well, I used to." And she said, "Well, this is to be expected because it's more or less an inherited condition." So completely news to me. So we put her through speech therapy and she talks way too much now...

ANDREW DENTON: You actually weren't christened Sam - you were christened Nigel. Where did Sam come from?

SAM NEILL: My best friend at school was also called Nigel, which was confusing. So I called him Bill and he called me Sam. That's sort of more or less how it started. And also, 'Nigel' was a kind of liability. You know, if you're called Nigel - and if there are any Nigel's out there, they know of what I speak - you're just an absolute prime target for being picked on.

ANDREW DENTON: Is that right? What is it about the name Nigel?

SAM NEILL: I don't know, there's... Something about that name just incenses people.

ANDREW DENTON: Actually, you know, you're right. I know some people...a woman who's about 20 now. But she and all her friends refer to somebody who they think is a bit daggy as a 'Nigel'.

SAM NEILL: Yeah. You see? It's entirely typical. But Sam's a much more user-friendly name, and people...people tend to like you if you're called Sam. And...I know that 'cause they call their dogs Sam. AUDIENCE LAUGHS

SAM NEILL: Labradors are often called Sam.

ANDREW DENTON: Sam, that's true. It's true. You mentioned that you're an army brat. Your dad, Dermot, was... I think he was a major in the British Army, wasn't he? What sort of a relationship did you have with your dad?

SAM NEILL: Well, you know, he was an army man so he was...and rather sort of English. He was educated in England and went to Sandhurst and all that, so he was very military. And so we shook hands and we had the sort of shake-hand type of a relationship. But I was very fond of him and he was very fond of me.

ANDREW DENTON: Did he bring a military bearing to the house, as military people do, you know, up for reveille at 0600?

SAM NEILL: Uh, no, not really, but he could shout, you know. If the music was too loud - "Turn that bloody thing..." you know. He was good at that stuff. And nobody disobeyed him, I'll bet. No, he was a scary kind of figure in some ways, but entirely lovable. And I...I was rather touched to come across one of his fellow officers not so long ago who said, um, "You know, your father was never much of a soldier. But we all loved him."

ANDREW DENTON: That's a far greater tribute.

SAM NEILL: I think that's...much better to be lovable than to be a great soldier.

ANDREW DENTON: Absolutely.

SAM NEILL: But he died rather well. I think it's important to die well.


SAM NEILL: And his last words were, "Well, enough of these theatricals." And closed his eyes and went back into a coma.

ANDREW DENTON: That's fantastic!

SAM NEILL: Yeah. know, he was in a coma for a couple of days. My niece reckons that he did say one other thing after that. A certain member of my family was, you know, beside the bed and was doing those things when someone's dying, saying, "You can let go now. It's time. You'll go to a better place." She was rather sort of New-Agey. And, um, "Just let go, Dad." You know, so... And my father apparently, his eyes opened, and he said, "Oh, for Christ's sake, if it's not bad enough I'm dying, I have to listen to this crap!" AUDIENCE LAUGHS AND APPLAUDS

ANDREW DENTON: That is a good man.


ANDREW DENTON: Would that we could all come up with something that good when we go. I think mine's going to be, "No-o!"

SAM NEILL: (Laughs)

ANDREW DENTON: You've got a very close circle of family and friends, and you've said that you actually have to work harder at being a loving person. How is that true for you?

SAM NEILL: Oh, look, it doesn't... You have to be active in love, don't you? You can't just sort of swim around in it.

ANDREW DENTON: Well, Rob Sitch describes you as the most conscientious friend he's ever had, which is...

SAM NEILL: Well, I'm Rob Sitch's only friend.


SAM NEILL: So, you know, of course I have to be conscientious.

ANDREW DENTON: Well, the fact you've taken on the task speaks volumes.

SAM NEILL: Thank you.

ANDREW DENTON: Was there a lottery, or you just felt you should do it?

SAM NEILL: It just came to me.

ANDREW DENTON: You mentioned your friend before, Nigel, who you termed Bill, who was a friend from your school years. When he was 19, he had a car accident and spent much of the rest of his life in institutions until he died a couple of years ago. Now, you maintained that friendship over 30 years.

SAM NEILL: Yes, that was a sad thing. He was my best friend at school, and we became friends 'cause he was an actor. And we did school plays together, and he was easily the funniest actor I ever worked with.


SAM NEILL: Anywhere. And one of the very best. He was a very, very phenomenal talent. And he did the thing that could have happened to any of us, you know? Because we were young and stupid and we drank and we drove cars. And going home one night, he went to sleep in the car, went through the windscreen of his car, and he was brain-damaged and spent the rest of his life pretty much institutionalised. So we had these sort of parallel lives, and that could have been my life, you know? That's something that made me feel...deeply sad about. And he died about three years ago, and it was sort of a release in a way. And I miss him very much, but, you know... I don't know quite what to make of that, except that, uh... I'm lost for words, Andrew. I don't know where to go with it. Except that's how it was.

ANDREW DENTON: It's very... I can only imagine that those visits must have been very difficult in some ways because you knew this man for what he could have been.

SAM NEILL: Mmm. Yes, indeed. It was just a very, very sad thing.

ANDREW DENTON: Speaking of giving and love, when you met your wife, Noriko, was for you absolutely love at first sight. Was that a delicious sensation, or was it...

SAM NEILL: This is so well researched, this interview. Well, I think it was love at first sight. She came round to my house. She's a make-up artist, and she came round to introduce herself, and we had to make some decisions about the film. I mean, I'm not sure what love at first sight is, except that I opened the door and I thought, "Oh, my God!"


SAM NEILL: And I think that's probably what love at first sight is - you have to have that sort of "Oh, my God" factor. That's how it is. I still feel like that when I see her.

ANDREW DENTON: Is that right?


ANDREW DENTON: The courtship, which you described as "long and audacious", was... Because if you've fallen deeply in love with somebody, it's basically an obsession. Was that a great time?

SAM NEILL: It was. It was a bit creepy and obsessive. Because it wasn't reciprocated at all, you know? AUDIENCE LAUGHS


SAM NEILL: And so I had to besiege her, really, and it was, you know... We were on Hamilton Island, so I had to get flowers sent from the mainland. And I'd wait for her to get back from work, and the pathetic figure standing at the door - "Would you take these flowers?" You know. Went on like that. It was awful, really... But it worked out...

ANDREW DENTON: Well, it did.

SAM NEILL: I think persistence pays off in these things.

ANDREW DENTON: Yes. And it did work. You mentioned before - you referred to New Zealand as, you know, a bit of a miserable place in some ways, and in the past you've described it as 'suffocating', and yet you insisted that your children were all naturalised New Zealanders.

SAM NEILL: No, they're not.

ANDREW DENTON: They're not?

SAM NEILL: No, no. In fact, you know, one's got an American passport, one's got a British one, one's got an Australian... They're all citizens of the world. I don't insist on that at all. And ideally, they'll sort out what they want to be later on in life.

ANDREW DENTON: Do you consider yourself a New Zealander? What's your...

SAM NEILL: I do, of course. I'm very, very... You know, of course there are miserable aspects of New Zealand, but I love it too. And I'm an All Blacks supporter and all that.

ANDREW DENTON: Get off. Get out.

SAM NEILL: (Laughs) But, you know, go Brumbies.


ANDREW DENTON: A lot of people think of you as Australian because a lot of your career has been based here, and, of course, you're a citizen of the world. In your travels, have you seen a view of Australia change over recent years?

SAM NEILL: Yes, well, I think so. I mean, we're very joined at the hip, Australia and New Zealand. And I'm very deeply concerned with what happens in both countries. Iraq seems to me a bloody fiasco, and I don't really know why Australia feels compelled to be part of that. And I just think we live in a nice little obscure...quiet part of the...corner of the world, and really, it'd be nice to live quietly in an obscure place, be nice to our neighbours, and we'd all be better off for it. AUDIENCE APPLAUDS

ANDREW DENTON: Nicely put. How important is it to you to live life as a good human being, and is it more important on account of the fact you've been lucky enough to have fame and wealth?

SAM NEILL: Look, I just live as well as I can, and I don't pretend to be... (Chuckles)... you know, a top human being or anything. But I try to live by my conscience as best I can.

ANDREW DENTON: Which is a pretty good thing. (Holds up wineglass) Sam Neill, cheers to you. Thank you very much.

SAM NEILL: Cheers. Thank you very much, Andrew.

Link to article online at ABC TV>>

© Copyright 2004, ABC Television, Australia.

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