2 February 2021

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We should put decent women in charge of everyone

If you wanted to illustrate the difference between the UK and New Zealand at the moment, the scene on Sam Neill’s Zoom is a killer. The tanned, laconic star of Jurassic Park and The Piano is speaking from his winery in central Otago. Behind him is a bar stocked with bottles of his Two Paddocks wine. Birdsong fills the midsummer morning air and soon Neill’s black labrador will jump into his lap. “It’s a lovely day in the vineyard,” says Neill, 73, as I seethe quietly in the London gloom. With only 25 Covid deaths, New Zealand has been held up as a paragon of pandemic management. “We’re very grateful to the government and to the community because people have been very compliant,” he says. “Can I send my best wishes to everybody in your part of the world because I know that things are tough at the moment.” He is unsurprisingly a big fan of his prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. “We should put decent women in charge of everything,” he says. “I’ve met her and she’s delightful.”  You can imagine Ardern saying the same about Neill, one of the most popular and versatile actors in the business.

At home in blockbusters and indies, dramas and comedies, film and TV, he is in demand in Hollywood (the Jurassic Park series), the UK (from Peaky Blinders to Peter Rabbit), New Zealand (Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and Australia (the setting of his cockle-warming new comedy, Rams). During the first lockdown he became a wry social-media star, playing Uptown Funk on his ukulele and making spoof mini-movies with actor mates including Hugo Weaving. 

In Rams, based on the Icelandic film Hrutar, Neill and the Australian actor Michael Caton play solitary brothers who have neigh-bouring farms in remote Western Australia and breed champion sheep but haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years. When the sheep catch a virus the men are ordered to cull their prize-winning flocks but Neill’s character, Colin, finds an ingenious way around that. Then a forest fire breaks out. “It was curiously prescient, that film. A year after we finished it those terrible fires ravaged Australia and then a year after that the world was dealing with a pandemic.” 

Much of his dialogue in Rams is addressed to animals. That wasn’t too much of a stretch: his organic vineyard is home to dozens of cows, sheep, hens and pigs, many of them named after actors. “One can’t really eat Helena Bonham Carter,” he explains. “When you’ve got a cow that’s a national treasure you can’t turn her into sausages. My current bull is Graham Norton — he’s taken over from Jimmy [James] Nesbitt.” He did Norton’s chat show immediately before speaking to me and Norton was delighted to hear about his namesake. “I never know whether people are flattered,” Neill says with a laugh. “Certainly Graham Norton the bull is a very handsome fellow.”  I ask the name of his labrador. “Chuck,” he says. As in Chuck Norris? “No, Chuff!  which here means to be extremely happy but I’m told in Yorkshire is a word for something else.” Yes, it refers to an intimate part of a woman’s anatomy, but Neill doesn’t seem to mind. Colin is hilariously taciturn, even when he’s being chased romantically by a “Pommie vet” played by Miranda Richardson.

It’s not the first time Neill has played a gruff loner — think of his grunting outdoorsman in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and his antisocial paleontologist in Jurassic Park. “There’s a bit of that in me,” he says. “There’s a strong tradition of those blokes in New Zealand and I knew quite a lot of them growing up. They were generally speaking my father’s generation and I think a lot of that taciturn, monosyllabic thing was because so many of them had been to the war.” Neill was withdrawn as a young man but that was because he stammered. “I spent most of my childhood completely silent.” Doing plays at school helped and he conquered it, although fellow stammerers can still spot the vocal tricks he uses. It cheered him to learn that Joe Biden was a stammerer. “I’m always pleased to hear about people who’ve overcome it. One of my children stammered very badly and I took her to a speech therapist. The first question they asked was: did either my wife or I stammer as a child? She said these things are often inherited. Six months later the problem had gone. “Now you can’t shut her up.”

After Rams Neill did Jurassic World: Dominion last year in a Covid-secure shoot at Pinewood Studios in the UK. “It was an extraordinary time,” he says. “We were pretty much confined to quarters for the duration and it brought us all closer  together than we thought possible.” Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern he knew from the first film, but he speaks equally warmly about Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. He is aware that Jurassic Park is what most people know him for. “It’s been 20 years between this one and the last one I did [Jurassic Park III], but those 20 years have been full of dinosaur questions.” He’s happy that the new movie, due out in summer 2022, returns to the methodology of the early ones, namely more “massive puppets” than CGI. “That’s one of the reasons the first one worked so well — you had these tactile creatures that were right up close to you.” CGI can get deadening, he says. “Sometimes when things are being obliterated I just
want to go to sleep.”

On returning to New Zealand, he lapped up the extra freedom, going to a recital by the Wagnerian tenor Simon O’Neill with “a live audience who were sitting side by side without masks. That reduced me to tears. I thought, ‘I am the most privileged person on the planet right now.’ ” Right, that’s quite enough of that. To be fair, Neill has been doing his best to cheer up others with his ukulele skits and “cinema quarantino” spoofs. Like many, he says he has been “prone” to anxiety and depression over the past year. He spent the first lockdown in Australia with his girlfriend, the Australian political journalist Laura Tingle. He has a son, Tim, from a relationship with the actress Lisa Harrow and a daughter Elena, from
his marriage to the make-up artist Noriko Watanabe. 

Neill was born in Omagh in Northern Ireland to a New Zealander soldier father and an English mother — they moved to Christchurch in New Zealand when he was six, but he has an affinity with Northern Ireland and loved playing a Belfast policeman in Peaky Blinders. It was terrifying, too: he’d never spoken in an Ulster accent despite living there and “it’s such an entirely different voice from anything else on the planet. But I’ve got a couple of friends who speak in that manner — Nesbitt and Liam Neeson — and I asked both of them for advice.” His family used to have a house on the County Down coast, which he visited recently. “The woman who owns it said, ‘There are two things for which this beach is famous.
Brunel’s SS Great Britain [the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic] beached on its maiden voyage and was stranded here for a year.’ And I said, ‘Wow that’s extraordinary, what’s the other famous thing?’ And she said, ‘You used to live here!’ ” He laughs. “I don’t think that really counts"  Nonsense - there'll be plaque there one day.

Rams is on digital platforms including Amazon, Apple, Google and Sky from Friday.

Ed Potton

The Times