New Zealand’s Sam Neill has gone this year from dry, laconic Aussie humour [The Dish] to Hollywood heavyweight Jurassic park 3. And in between, he prides himself as being something of a wine expert. Thus are the many facets of one of the world’s most esteemed performers, who continues to adopt a laid-back approach to his work, as Paul Fischer discovered Sam spoke to him by phone from – where else – but his native New Zealand.
One would imagine that Sam Neill would rather play winemaker on New Zealand’s South Island than roam the world acting. But the 53-old Irish-born Thespian admits that he remains forever torn between these two major passions in his life. “There’s part of me that loves travelling”, the actor explains by phone from New Zealand. “And there’s part of me that just loves staying home. It’s a double-edged sword”.
Neill had no problem being pried away from home to return to Hawaii as star of the third instalment of Jurassic Park, partly he says, “because it was an excuse to have a good time more than anything else”. But, he adds, “these films are very arduous and there were days when I was jumping, climbing, running and falling into things, so I thought it might be time to take a tactical withdrawal from physical films; enough is enough”. Having said that, Jurassic Park 3 was a perfect film to go out on, not only because it was great fun, “but because it had come full circle. I wasn’t entirely happy about what I had done in the first film and I wanted to do it right this time. I feel, in a sense, that I have and I’m happier with the character this time around”. In the film, Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant may have personally been shaken by his encounter with live dinosaurs, but he remains determined to study them. Desperate to fund research for a new theory about velociraptor intelligence, he’s particularly vulnerable when the wealthy Kirbys approach him, offering money for his presence on an aerial tour of Isla Sorna, adjacent to Isla Nublar, the site of Grant’s nightmarish experiences. Once fate causes them to crash on the island, he learns that it was a scam concocted by the Kirbys to get an experienced guide to help them find and rescue their son, who vanished while on holiday, not realising that Grant’s prior visit was NOT to Isla Sorna. Marooned in a savage land, they have to struggle to escape from all sorts of new creatures with their lives. Though Jurassic Park III has some terrifying moments, it is not without its sense of humour, and Neill relished bringing his own sardonic sense of humour to the material. “In the back of my mind, if I had a model, it was Lee Marvin in Point Blank. “
As has already been noted in various accounts of the making of the film, it began with not much of a script, and what there was, ended up being re-written five weeks prior to shooting. Neill clearly had confidence in the filmmakers in order to embark on what some actors might see as a perilous journey. “Kathleen Kennedy and Steven [Spielberg] called me and said they really wanted me to do this and we’re sending you the script, but ignore it because it’s not the script, but there WILL be a script,” he recalls laughingly. So doing the film became “an act of faith, more than anything”. So why take it? “Because in part Joe gave me a feeling of confidence that it WOULD be alright and he also made it clear that my input would be valuable. It has an upside having a work in progress rather than a finished thing”.
Comparing J3 director Joe Johnson to Spielberg, Neill sees the former’s “sensibilities to action, and I think it was a good call to make this more of an action film and get away from the philosophy of DNA and all that, which we’ve heard quite about already”. For Sam, making a such as this meant reacting to non-existent creatures. It seems a less noble profession at times, but Neill wryly dismisses the argument. “Introspection would be fatal,” the actor vehemently laughingly. “If you started analysing what you’re up to, you’d probably have to flag it. It’s not a profession in which dignity plays a great part”.
When not acting, Sam offcourse plays a different role, that of gentleman wine grower. His Two Paddocks wine is, he is happy to report, “doing quite well. We’re about to release the ’99 and is in transit as we speak”. Neill also narrated a documentary called Space and is about to return to Sydney to do a cameo in David Caesar’s upcoming Dirty Deeds, starring Bryan Brown and John Goodman. “I play a bent cop – yes I know it’s hard to believe there are bent cops in Sydney, but they’ve written one just the same”. And Sam hopes to do a new film in New Zealand. From dinosaurs to vineyards, it’s an interesting life for this inimitable actor!