31 January 2021

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Sam Neill - 'Home at Last'

When Sam Neill left his vineyard in the Southern Alps of New Zealand to work on the Apple TV+ series, Invasion, last February he couldn’t have anticipated how long it would take to get home again. Or what was to follow. That borders would close and the world would stop; that there would be a season and a vintage on the vineyard he wouldn’t see. And he certainly didn’t plan on becoming a sort of kindly global uncle amusingly reassuring anxious, uncertain people as the pandemic spread and lockdown became the reality. To his half a million Twitter followers, there he was playing Radiohead and Randy Newman songs on the ukulele, reading poems and children’s books, duetting with Jeff Goldblum on jazz piano and bringing us Cinema Quarantino: comedy short films with his friends David Wenham, Hugo Weaving and Helena Bonham Carter.

This social media star who suddenly appeared in the crisis came as a surprise to those who know Sam, including his son, Tim, who describes him as “such a private and reserved person”. It wasn’t a Sam Neill that his friend of 33 years Rachel Ward had seen before either: “He’s actually quite a shy, retiring man in many ways, but he’s completely embraced it and invented this wonderful, avuncular character that is sending messages out there to try to calm the populace and to encourage them to stay home.”

When he finally makes it home to the vineyard in December, he recalls those early days of lockdown when some kind of alter ego took him over. “It was very, very uncertain,” he tells The Weekly. “I realised  people were very frightened and alarmed and isolated. And I thought, you know, if I can cheer up one person, that’s probably not a bad ambition. But mostly I was just sort of entertaining myself. I’m easily bored.”

Now 73, Sam is still in such demand that unlike most actors he is never out of work or has the kind of downtime he was forced into during lockdown, which he spent stuck at his house in Sydney, after flying back from the UK.

Rachel believes he actually needed the comfort he was giving others. “I know what’s behind that image,” she says of her long-time friend. “And he’s probably done it because he feels he needs it as much as everybody else. So he became that character out of necessity. He certainly needed to play a role, play a constructive role and play a creative role, which is what he managed to find as an actor.”

And it went deeper than that too.

“I think, by and large, I’m a pretty optimistic person,” he begins, and then ponders. “I mean, how do you assess yourself? But there have been so many lessons this year, haven’t there? We have had to examine ourselves and make some sort of self-assessment.

“I think it’s true of pretty much everybody I know in the arts that you do experience anxiety. You can’t be happy all the time. And if you’re in a constant state of happiness there’s something wrong with you, because I think that’s just being human. There are times when you sense failure, when you miss people, when you have self-doubts. All of us have that. With some people it is more extreme than others. It’s one of these conundrums that I don’t have an answer to.

“What I hadn’t really worked out until a year or two ago was anxiety... I know I get anxiety. And that was true during that first lockdown. I think many of us experienced anxiety.”

When we speak, Sam is in quarantine – again – in a hotel in Auckland. Soon after our interview he will be posting about the 10 newly rescued chickens who have arrived on the farm to join his now internet famous animals, all named after his
movie-star friends.

Sadly his beloved Muscovy duck, Charlie Pickering, died in the winter. “She was a superstar celebrity,” he says. “I’ve three more and I’m going to get at least one of them to bond with me, if it’s the last thing I do.” He is also looking forward to meeting what was a puppy and is now a full-grown dog. “We still haven’t met, so that is the first order of business – dog bonding.”

Just to be back in his homeland makes him happy. “To be in a safe little corner of the world like this feels like an enormous privilege,” he says. 

His vineyard, Two Paddocks, is a parallel universe to his life of red carpets, cameras, fame; all the things that come with being a movie star. Here he is a winemaker, a producer of world-class pinot noir, a farmer. “I feel part of the soil,” he told me 18 months ago. “I love the whole process and the changing seasons.” The anxiety dissipates here in Otago, among the great snowy mountain ranges, steep gorges, deep icy lakes ringed with willows and rock escarpments, the rows of grapevines spread out like green corduroy. “When I wrap a film, I plunge back into life on the farm with my people here, with the animals, vines, the landscape. And the annual rhythm of winter, growth, harvest, fermentation. I think one is kind of a relief from the other; they are completely different worlds.”

Central Otago is a place he’s loved all of his life. A place he returned to as soon as he had some movie money. “When I first got a little bit of money from acting, the first thing I did was buy some land in Otago. One of the things that I’m thankful for – for the career that I’ve had – is it means I’ve been able to buy land and grow things. That’s been a great benefit.”

This was a place where he’d been happy as a child sent to boarding school at the age of nine. “I think at nine years old you really should be still at home,” he admits. But holidays in the mountains were shining moments the little boy never forgot.

“So much of what you do in life is affected by your early life,” he explains. “My mum and dad were outdoors people, really. They loved brisk walks and getting on a horse; they loved fishing and camping. And so we’d go on these holidays and I remember us kids ungraciously grumbling a bit because all you want to do is lie around and read comics. We always camped – we never had a holiday house or anything like that – so we’d find ourselves in some pretty remote, undiscovered places. We’d find a bay on a lake or up a river and not see any other living person for days on end. It was just fantastic, they are some of my best memories and I’m really grateful to my parents that they made us do these things.”

His father was a New Zealander who was sent as a child to boarding school in England and became a Major in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, serving in WWII. Sam was born in Northern Ireland and not long after, Major Dermot returned to New Zealand to run the family’s wine importing business, Neill and Co, which had been operating since 1860. “I have been bathed in wine since birth,” says Sam.

“His mother was very beautiful and a wonderful gardener,” says producer Margaret Fink, who discovered Sam for My Brilliant Career, the film that launched him and Judy Davis internationally in 1979. British Priscilla had earned a place at
Trinity College, Dublin, but her widowed mother didn’t have the funds for her to go. “She was a wonderful horsewoman,” says Sam. “She was a great amateur jockey back in the day – no one could beat her in point to points. She knew no
fear, she understood horses, she bred horses, but domestic things were of no interest to her. She was a terrible cook; she made no bones about it.”

Priscilla went with Sam to collect his OBE in 1991. And he was able to tell his dying father, who had always hoped he would get a real job. “I think he was very taken with that. We both joined the establishment, just in different ways.”

Being a plummy, upper-middle class British boy in the New Zealand boarding school, Medbury, Sam was bullied. He stuttered, he was extremely shy and quiet. He was, he told Australian Story, “in the shadows quite a bit, observing people. And I think that stood me in good stead”.

His brother Michael, an emeritus English professor, believes this may have been when he first began disguising himself, acting. Back then he was called Nigel, but decided that he really wasn’t a Nigel, he was a Sam. The name Nigel has been an ongoing joke over the years. 

 

The Anglican Christ’s College where he went to secondary boarding school, in Christchurch, was known as a bastion of New Zealand privilege, one of the poshest schools in the country. “Look, there are pluses and minuses to all these things,” he admits. “If nothing else, boarding school teaches you resilience, it teaches you to be self-sufficient. I’ve spent a lot of my life in hotels, away from home, with that sense of isolation, so boarding school came in handy. It teaches you how to make friends, actually, and I very much value my friendships.”

Rachel’s husband, Bryan Brown, is one of his great friends. Rachel has known Sam since 1987, when she and Bryan worked with him on The Umbrella Woman. He and Bryan are often howling with laughter, says Rachel. “They seem to find each other hilarious.” But she says, “they’re Laurel and Hardy, they’re just so different. And in a funny way I think he is a male version of myself in regards to our relationship with Bryan.” Bryan, says Rachel, is pragmatic, working class, practical. “Bryan is like the father figure. Whereas we are emotional, spontaneous, sometimes irresponsible.” Bryan delights, says Rachel, in “Sam’s style, humour and imagination. Sam is certainly more aesthetic than Bryan. He creates these worlds; he will just go with this fantastical idea. Bryan respects that Sam can do that, that he is a very visual person, very creative. Bryan can hold worlds and threads together; Sam has got more of a whimsical, imaginative, childish quality.”

Sam seems to be a man for whom everything has come easily. Born lucky, a golden boy, he makes it all look effortless. Clever, handsome, charming, and lovely to be around, he is always inclined towards humour and wit.

Says Rachel: “He has an extraordinary facility as a public person. He just is so winning and he’s got charm. He’s really got that… But you struggle with that knowledge and in a way that brings its own insecurity. You know, underneath he’s quite insecure.”

You’d never think he was an actor, his son Tim told Australian Story, “because he is the least dramatic person you will ever meet.” Sam’s acting career was almost accidental. After graduating from Victoria University with a degree in English literature, he became a long-haired hippy documentary maker for the New Zealand Film Unit. He had done a bit of acting at uni and was interested, but there was no film industry in New Zealand. Then, in 1977, director Roger Donaldson cast him in the action thriller Sleeping Dogs – the first colour feature film produced entirely in New Zealand.

The film came to the Sydney Film Festival where it was seen by Margaret Fink and Gillian Armstrong, who had been on a long search for Harry Beecham, the romantic lead in My Brilliant Career. As soon as Sam opened the door to her, Margaret
knew she’d found her Harry, even if he badly needed a haircut. For Sam, it was the beginning of a long love affair with Australia. My Brilliant Career would launch the careers of everyone involved. “It completely changed my life,” he says.

His ascent was meteoric. Soon he was in London being the Antichrist in The Omen III. There he met Shakespearean actress Lisa Harrow (Tim’s mother), with whom he had a 10-year on and off relationship. Then came the Hollywood
blockbusters Hunt For Red October and Jurassic Park. But he was never comfortable with the Hollywood star system, the lack of privacy, the inflated egos and divorce from reality. And he always returned to Australia to make seminal films like Jane Campion’s The Piano and Evil Angels about Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, co-starring Meryl Streep.

In 1987, in Dead Calm, starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Phillip Noyce, he met make-up artist Noriko Watanabe. After they married, he adopted her daughter, Maiko Spencer, and they had their own daughter, Elena. In 1994, he met a son he had fathered in his twenties who had been adopted and who also became part of the family. Because of his constant travel he jokingly described his family life to Australian Story as being “somewhat haphazard” and his parenting as “benign neglect”. But his six grandchildren, Tim insists, bring him a great deal of joy.

When his marriage ended in 2015 Sam was on his own for “quite a while”. But in recent years he has been in a relationship with ABC chief political correspondent Laura Tingle. It’s strictly private, but he did tell the ABC that it’s something he’s “grateful” for, and joked: “My guess is that I’m in it for the politics; she’s in it for the wine.”

When he and then 10-year-old Tim met Princess Diana at the London premiere of Jurassic Park in 1993, it had already earned $200 million and was the most successful film of all time. Twenty-seven years later, the dinosaurs are even more enormous than they were the first time around. He has just spent four months in the UK filming Jurassic World; Dominion with original cast members Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern.

Lately he has also been playing a lot of crusty old men in box office hits like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Ride Like A Girl, Sweet Country, Peter Rabbit, and most recently Rams, opposite Michael Caton, who he had last worked with in 1979 in The
Sullivans. “Some of the regular cast were a bit too important to actually talk to you, but Michael was lovely and sort of took me under his wing,” he recalls, adding: “I get asked to do a lot of dad roles but actually I think I’m the go-to for granddads now. Crusty is fine.”

Rachel laughs at this. Crusty, she says, “is very far from who he is. He just seems to get better and better looking.”

Rams was the third of three films he worked on back to back, including Palm Beach and Blackbird. “By the end of Rams I was exhausted,” he says. “My character’s house had a spare room, and in between shots, I had a bit of a lie down – I didn’t even have the ability to take my boots off – I’d just try to get my energy back.”

Sometimes, these days he says he finds himself “shuffling” to the bathroom. “I think, why are you shuffling? You are walking like an old man. Stop that. Stride purposefully towards the shower, stop it now.” As he gets older, he says, “I am very conscious of living in the moment and making the best of the day. Somebody gave me some really good advice a few years ago: Don’t let the old man in.”

He has said acting must come from a place of truth, but is it possible to be truthful while pretending to be someone else? Sam tries to remember what he was getting at when he first said that: “I think someone said, ‘what’s it like lying for a living?’ And I took offence at that, because it’s like you’re truth-telling if you’re acting correctly. You should be truth-telling about the human condition or telling the truth of what you’ve observed about human behaviour. If you’ve really done your work, you should be telling the truth about that character.  It’s an odd idea, given that you are sort of faking something. But if it’s any good, it’s not fake – it has a core of truth.”

At 73, Sam Neill has reached some kind of third age where he’s more vital and popular, busier and more creative than ever. And that’s saying something. It’s more than ageing with dignity, kindness and equilibrium; it seems a place of wonder
and delight. And all those things he is – the self-effacing amateur ukulele player, the lover of nature, the rescuer of animals, the consummate performer – we’re fortunate he’s chosen to share them.

 

Susan Chenery and photography by Kate Roberge

Australian Women's Weekly