Sam Neill has been an international spy (Possession), a palaeontologist (Jurassic Park), a senior KGB officer (Amerika) and a corrupt policeman (Peaky Binders), but his most recent role was ‘host’ to a possession of family members who turned up at his Central Otago vineyard, Two Paddocks, over the Christmas holidays.
“I did get a bit of a break,” he says when we catch up in the New Year. “But it was chaos with grandchildren turning up… they seem to be proliferating!”
The 72-year-old has been a grandfather since 2000 and, between three children and a stepchild, he’s since racked up several more, not that he’s complaining! “It’s always fun,” he says of the craziness that comes with a full house during the festive period.
But that’s not to say he’s lonely when they go back home; there’s always the other side of the family to keep him company. Charlie Pickering (that’s his duck), Susan Sarandon and Anjelica Huston (a couple of his many beloved sheep), Helena Bonham Carter and Graham Norton (two of the cows) are all part and – very welcome – parcel of farm-life, Neill says. “Every animal has a different personality, so I’ve grown fond of them and enjoy their company.”
The Central Otago crew have developed somewhat of a media presence themselves, with Neill regularly sharing their exploits with his many global followers on Twitter and Instagram.
It was 1993 when the opportunity came up for him to purchase the block of farmland near Queenstown. But it would take a giant leap of faith for Neill to plant pinot grapes in the first of his vineyards – of which there are now four – in the rugged Gibbston Valley. Because although Central is world-renowned for the drop now, in 1993 it was yet to be demonstrated that the region’s dicey climate could produce a quality pinot. But then wine – Neill says – is in his blood.
His family has been trading in the business of ‘booze’ in Otago since the gold rush, importing and trading wine and spirits since as far back as the 1860s. “I’ve always enjoyed wine, I’ve never been interested in booze, but love wine; there was always wine on the table growing up,” Neill reminisces.
“Once I went abroad and I could afford to buy good wine as opposed to ‘vin ordinaire’ then I got the opportunity to grow wine and realised I wanted to grow really good wine. It’s been a slow process to realise that, but a very interesting one.”
So what makes a good wine? “You can reduce it to three things – the right grape, the right place and people. There are other things of course – patience, diligence, hard work, 8000 years of viticultural knowledge – there are many things that come into it, but I’m not interested in making wine; I only want to make great wine.”
And great wine is exactly what he’s making, at least if accolades are any measure of success.
His four small certified organic vineyards produce pinot noir and a little bit of riesling and he’s pretty proud of earning 95 points from Wine Spectator in New York two years in a row. Two Paddocks is low yield, boutique winery and perhaps that’s why it’s so good; or perhaps it’s the passion that goes into it. Ask Neill and he’ll tell you it’s all about the people.
To Sam Neill, it’s the people that make everything.
He first caught the acting bug off his older brother who dabbled while at university. It looked like “a bit of fun” especially when family on both sides were in the military. The fact that ‘bit of fun’ ended up becoming a career wasn’t something he expected, “but just as well because I have a spectacular lack of confidence in any other field!”
“I certainly would not be much of a soldier, less of a businessman and probably a pretty average lawyer – all three things I contemplated at some point.”
He’s earned three lifetime achievement awards in the last few months – one in Spain, one in New Zealand and one in Australia. And the accomplishment has given him reason to reflect. “It looks like a very busy life, but I remember a lot of sitting around listening to good music and spinning yarns with friends, so while it’s been busy it hasn’t been hectic.”
Neill’s Twitter account says he is also seen acting “on occasion”, but at 72 it seems he is busier than ever, with a slew of new movies recently, topped by the recent announcement that he’s reuniting with his 90s Jurassic Park co-stars Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum on Jurassic World 3 in June 2021.
“I’ll be away in six weeks and that will take me somewhere warm when it gets cold in Central. I’m very fond of Jeff (Goldblum) and Laura (Dern) and it’s always great to reunite with old pals. There’ll be a lot of laughs to be had.”
There will be plenty of local work on the cards too. “One of the best things about what I do is to come home and work on familiar ground,” he says.
“I’ve actually done three films here and in Australia in the last 12 months; Ride Like a Girl has done well in New Zealand and I’ve got another one coming up soon in May called Rams which, as the title suggests, features a lot of sheep, a subject I know a little about given I’m a sheep owner.”
He may have worked with some of the world’s best actors and directors on huge hits, including Jurassic Park and The Piano, he may also star in the popular British television drama Peaky Blinders, but at Two Paddocks there is little evidence of this glamourous, star-studded ‘other life’. That’s where you’ll find him in the country’s uniform of red and black ‘swanny’ and gumboots.
He spends as much time as he can on the farm, between making movies, preferring the movies to come around when it’s winter in Central Otago. “When it’s mid-winter in Central it can be very cold with short days as well, so I do like to be somewhere warm with some agreeable people to work with.”
And although his two worlds really do seem like parallel universes, in Sam’s eyes, they have plenty in common. “It is people that are the most important thing. I’m lucky enough to work with some really great people in films and also in my vineyards and that’s been the most rewarding thing for me in all of this.”
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