Murray Whelan Series: articles

Sam Neill

Sam Neill

The interview

Sam Neill is very polite and engaging in a dutiful way. He is a gentleman and believes in the importance of manners. So we chit-chat for a bit. And when I take a long time to express myself about something, his frequent “mmm”s signal that he is hanging in out of civility. When we get to the nitty gritty he responds with reticent modesty. In a matter of moments we discuss his acting training (none) and the fact that he directed documentaries for seven years before he became a full-time actor. He begins to animate when I suggest that maybe starring in the blockbuster Jurassic Park was a guilty pleasure for a man who has been described as passionate about politics, racism, religion, music and art and making films that matter…

“Ha, ha, ha, yeah, I suppose, ha, ha, that’s one way, ha, ha of looking at it.”

And like a lot of sports people, the money is disproportionate to the work that you do.

Well you have to keep it in proportion, too. It’s not like we are working on a cure for cancer. It can be very exciting and stimulating but it’s not going to save the world.

But you get paid as though you are going to save the world. Pete Postlethwaite was offered $20 million to be in a movie and turned it down because it was too much.

Ha, ha, ha. Damned fool.

Neill charmingly deflects the discussion by mocking his wealth (“I need a bigger house, I deserve it.”) I get the feeling there is guilt in his pleasure. He has said that it’s silly that actors are expected to have opinions about all sorts of issues but he once campaigned for the Australian Labor Party and is a supporter of Greenpeace and a loud opponent of genetically modified foods.

Are you wary of your status in the community?

I’m always very troubled about celebrities and causes. On the other hand, there are things that you can’t just shut up about otherwise you are derelict in some sort of duty to yourself and to society.

You say you are most at home in New Zealand, the country where you were raised. You’ve lived in Australia, Britain and the US. Does your sense of identity come from a place or something else?

I’m very attached to Australia and I care about the politics here. Many of my friends are Australians and I feel kind of embedded here in a way. But I think Australians and New Zealanders are almost interchangeable… I think this hideous concentration camp approach to illegal immigration is shockingly at odds with what I know of Australia. It did give me enormous pride that we (New Zealand) took the Tampa people.

Neill directed the second Murray Whelan telemovie, The Brush-Off. He wanted to have a go at commandeering a film after keeping quiet on several film sets despite having strong opinions about the direction. (That politeness again.) “Murray Whelan is like the people I know,” he says. “They are slightly hapless, decent people with slightly lefty political leanings, their home lives are disastrous, they bumble through things and come out of it reasonably optimistic.”

Do you have actor friends? Yeah, yeah. I love actors.

Do you talk about acting?

No, never talk about acting. We talk about other actors. I personally think actors make wonderful company. First of all I empathise with them—the vulnerability that comes with an actor. But they are also entertaining people. They can usually tell jokes or play a guitar. They have something to offer.

He says that although he enjoys playing dark characters he doesn’t know any—“I know some shits.” In the recent film, Perfect Strangers, a New Zealand black comedy, Neill plays a nameless dark character whose idea of romance is chilling. Many New Zealand films, including The Piano and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, seem to have an effortless blackness. Neill wrote and directed a documentary examining New Zealand film, Cinema of Unease, a few years ago. “It’s a film that’s partly biographical about my experience growing up in New Zealand,” he says. “I’ve always thought there is a dark side to New Zealand and that comes out in the cinema.” Neill was born in Ireland in 1947. His father, Dermot, a military man, was a third generation Kiwi, and his mother was English. Neill arrived in New Zealand at the age of seven with a stutter and a plummy English accent that he managed to cover up to fit in. He learned to act, he says, by just going to school and surviving. Unbeknownst to Neill, his father kept a scrapbook of cuttings about his son dating back to school days. “He hardly ever mentioned my career,” Neill says. “Sometimes I wondered whether he had forgotten that I was an actor. I didn’t find out that he was interested until he died (in the early ’90s).”

What did you get from your military father? Are you disciplined, punctual, neat?

Mostly it was a sense of resistance. Having to stake out your own claim in the world independent of your parents. But I was quite surprised—and continue to be surprised—how much I missed my father after he died and how important he was in my life. My father always said he would just like to go (without a fuss) and “If I was one of my horses someone would just put me down; get someone to put me down.” He slipped into a coma eventually and the doctor was standing over him with a syringe when suddenly he woke up and he saw the doctor and all the family around the bed and he clearly thought that we were going to put him down. But he sat up in bed and looked around and said, “I’m not afraid, I’ve never been afraid of anyone or anything in my life. You are a darling family and I love you all and I think we should sing Auld Lang Syne”. So we all had to hold hands, which was something we never did at home—never touched anyone, let alone held hands. Then he said, “Enough of these theatricals”, and he lay down and that was the last thing he said. Great last words.

The Brush-Off screens on Sunday at 8.30pm on Channel Seven.

By Chris Beck
Picture: Chris Beck
September 02, 2004
The Age