It’s no secret that Sam Neill is utterly charming; he’s been winning over audiences and interviewers alike for decades. His affability – personal anecdotes, reminiscences, delightfully irrelevant deviations – quickly turns a planned interview into a pleasurable, meandering chat.
When we talk about his latest venture, Neill is in Sydney, where it is, he tells me, a beautiful day. I’m in Melbourne on the cusp of winter, so of course it is not. “Ah yes, I did spend a long winter once in Melbourne,” he says, launching into the first of many entertaining tangents. “I was doing, of all things, The Sullivans.”
I hadn’t realised he’d been on the ’70s period soapie, but then Neill has an extensive CV – about 150 film and TV credits in his almost 50-year career. “I was doing a guest spot,” he says. “And the previous guest was Mel Gibson! And we were both playing similar roles, as Kitty’s love interest.”
When Kitty chucked Gibson, Neill came in as the new, older, man. “Dave Sullivan thought I was very unsuitable,” he chuckles. “I think I might also have been married! Things reached a climax because Kitty runs off with my character to Sydney and Dave Sullivan takes the train and follows us. He tracks us down and punches me in the nose – and that was the end of that!”
It hasn’t been quite as far back as The Sullivans, but Neill’s role in new Foxtel drama The Twelve marks his first appearance on small screens for some time.
When we talk, neither of us have seen the series. “But I know I was in it,” he quips. And is he any good? “We can take that as read.” He has, though, just seen a promotional teaser. “It had a voice-over and when I watched it, I thought, that’s a familiar voice and the penny finally dropped and I realised, oh – that’s actually me.”
Was he doing a booming American-style blockbuster voice? “I wasn’t doing one of those portentous things on trailers, no! It’s just my voice,” he says. “But isn’t it odd I didn’t realise? I was in a shopping mall not long ago and I thought, I think I know that music, what is it? And it took me quite a few minutes to realise, oh my god, that’s the theme to Jurassic Park. Sometimes with my … advancing years, it takes a while.”
Despite being at real-life retirement age – 74 – in The Twelve, Neill plays Brett Colby, a silk at the top of his game. He’s defending Kate Lawson (Kate Mulvany), a prominent artist accused of murdering her niece, in a high-profile case. Colby, he says, is a distinguished man, “bloody good at his job”. “He’s a silk that’s been around, is very well thought of – if you’d had the misfortune or were that way inclined to commit a major crime, he’s certainly someone you’d want in your corner.”
Unlike standard crime procedurals, The Twelve’s focus is largely on the jury members – among them Brooke Satchwell, Brendan Cowell, Pallavi Sharda, Hazem Shammas, Damien Strouthos, Ngali Shaw, Catherine Văn-Davies, Jenni Baird and Matt Nable – and their lives outside the courtroom. It’s a novel flip on what we usually see, examining the idea that jurors’ experiences cannot help affecting their judgement inside a courtroom.
“Everyone comes to a jury with their own bias, but we don’t really think about that; that’s something you never see explored,” says Neill. “They’re usually just people in a courtroom that nod. The Twelve is interested in exploring their lives and how those lives intersect with what’s happening in court. And also how they begin to become a community and … how that community evolves.”
Surprisingly, given the sheer number of roles he’s had – among them bushranger, priest, naval officer, artist, deranged scientist, even the Antichrist – Neill has never played a lawyer on screen before this.
“Oddly enough, I did think of pursuing a law career. There’s that time at uni and you think, what am I going to do with my life? There was no prospect of life as an actor; it never occurred to me that I would be ‘an actor’ one day. So – what to do?”
He began a law degree in Dunedin but lasted only a year after “catastrophically hopeless results”, before going back to his arts degree. “I would have fancied, I think, a life as a barrister, but it wasn’t to be. So now I end up playing a barrister rather than being one.”
Another career he can have a sample taste of. “Yes – what’s wrong with pretending? As the actress said to the – no, I didn’t say that!”
At least he’s not only getting grumpy old man roles now. “Oh, he’s a pretty grumpy old man. But it goes with the territory – and who isn’t grumpy when they get to my age?”
Neill is also currently starring in Jurassic World Dominion, reprising his role as palaeontologist Alan Grant, but those advancing years haven’t slowed him down when it comes to escaping a marauding dinosaur.
He was thrilled to inform an old school friend of his (“the fastest boy in the school”) that he, having been decidedly un-sporty at school and still having no athletic ability, can still outrun a T. rex. “I sprinted with alacrity! Alacrity and some flair, I would say. I was able to sprint away from dinosaurs along with people clearly far more sporty than me – like Chris Pratt.”
The image of Neill flailing around the school oval reminds me that his real name is Nigel – something that would not, I imagine, have helped, on the field.
“No, and it certainly didn’t help in the New Zealand context – there are very few people in New Zealand called Nigel. For good reason,” he says. His best mate at school was also Nigel and the pair decided at 11 to change their names. “We gave each other nicknames – I got Sam and he got Bill, and we both kept the names. It did us both a favour.”
Nigel Neill, he says, was the little kid who came out from Britain who “stuttered, who was easily bullied and was a very nervous, unconfident kid”.
“I’ve been thinking about this lately and actually – I’m being my own shrink here – there’s still a … little Nigel inside me. Now I’m getting a bit confessional, but I think there’s a little Nigel still in there who is very vulnerable and stutters, and … that’s probably the little me that’s easily hurt or something. I don’t know. Maybe.”
Neill certainly keeps him well hidden if he is still there. He’s always been a popular and cheerful presence on social media, and during lockdowns, he stepped things up, adding to an already large fan base, by becoming – surely? – the nicest man on social media. As well as photos from his now-famous farm and vineyard in the Central Otago region, he shared videos of himself reading poetry and bedtime stories, playing his ukulele, or trying his hand at painting, and created skits with other actors. There was Helen Bonham Carter playing Neill’s mobile phone, long-time friends Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown luring Neill into a cult and Neill “sharing” a bath with Hugo Weaving.
“The nicest man on social media?” He seems slightly aghast. “I don’t see myself as the nicest man … but if it comes across that way, that makes me happy.”
Neill was once a prolific Twitter presence, but these days he prefers Instagram. “Twitter’s diminished into something awful,” he says. “There’s enough grim stuff in the world already without souping that up and being unpleasant on there – it’s called ‘social’ media, for goodness’ sake! It’s not nasty media. Christ! Interestingly, I post the same things on both and I get so much more positive feedback from Instagram.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to be negative towards Neill. “I used to be quite political, but I realised there was no point because it just made people shout. Occasionally, I do, and, oh, the stuff you get! Stuff like, ‘what would you know, you’re just an actor’! Like actors are by definition stupid!”
Now he stays away from politics – and, since former prime minister Scott Morrison’s ukulele performance, he’s abstained from that as well. “He’s ruined it for me.”
His video cameos from his assorted animals, many named after actors – Timothy Spall the ram, Anjelica Huston the pig, a sheep named Susan Sarandon, among others – are mainstays. He does post about his acting work, but it’s his off-camera life as a winemaker that fans seem more interested in. Neill is, after all, the least “celebrity” celebrity there is.
“I do hope I’m not a celebrity because … I think it’s two different jobs. You can be an actor –hopefully a very good actor – but it’s another job to be a celebrity, and that’s one you can sign up for or not. And I never signed up for that. I’ve avoided that like the plague,” he says. “The winemaking thing is absolutely half my life and has been immensely rewarding, and it’s very different from everything else that I do. I’m sort of … half-farmer half-thespian, if you like.”
His favourite room, he says, is his sitting room at his farm. “It overlooks grapes, animals, trees … all the way to the mountains.”
When he’s at home in New Zealand, nobody cares about the thespian half. People are, he says, “deeply unimpressed”.
That Kiwi attitude sends me on a tangent, thinking about NZ’s reality TV programs about highway patrol cops, who always seem so lenient when they pull someone over. Some of the crimes they let people off for would get you tasered, at minimum, in Australia.
“That’s hilarious,” says Neill. “I love that. I’m very taken here in Australia with the whole business of ICAC, you know, but I don’t think we can even spell the word corruption in New Zealand. It just wouldn’t occur to us! I’m not sure, but I think one thing you can say about New Zealand is that we’re completely corruption-free.”
He hasn’t, he says, been trying his hand at the painting much since lockdown, but he has a new project.
“You know I told you about the inner Nigel? Well, I started writing the other day. I’ve started, for my children really, writing down stories of my life and … once I started I sort of was unable to stop! Maybe there’s a book in it? I did a word count and it’s 55,000 words so far. That’s not bad for four weeks, is it? And I’ve only really just begun.”
It’s a collection of anecdotes; stories, he says, about his parents, his career, different experiences.
“I wrote about being in The Piano yesterday. There are all sorts of things to write about. I think it might be turning into a project. I didn’t mean it to be.”
A memoir of sorts sounds like the type of thing an actor eyeing retirement might do.
“No! I certainly don’t want to retire from acting – I love going to work; that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning,” he says. “And the privilege of going to work with all these great actors like Kate Mulvany and Marta Dusseldorp, Brendan Cowell and so on … there is no better company than other actors, so a big company like The Twelve – this great, diverse ensemble – was such a pleasure. And my work means my brain ticks over.”
Plus, he hates golf.
“Oh Christ – take me out and shoot me but do not condemn the rest of my life to playing golf. I cannot think of anything worse.”
The Twelve is on Showcase on Foxtel from June 21.
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