Sam Neill Loves Role as Merry Old King New Zealander Plays Charles in `Restoration'

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WHO COULD HAVE imagined it - sober-sided Sam Neill quoting the madcap Mel Brooks? "It's good to be the king," he said, speaking of his role as Charles II in "Restoration," now playing in St. Louis.

What's more, Neill is good as the king, a role that brings out a sly sense of humor and an expansiveness we usually don't get from this New Zealander, who seems more at home playing brooding, controlled or repressed men like Holly Hunter's husband in "The Piano" or Meryl Streep's mate in "A Cry in the Dark."

Neill, 48, read the Rose Tremain novel on which the film is based and lobbied for the role of King Charles.

"It wasn't simply another part," he acknowledged. "I wanted to prove something to myself. It's a daunting prospect to go in and play the qui ntessential Englishman in the heart of England, surrounded by English actors. It's a scary thing, especially if you're a kind of slouching fool from the antipodes."

Not everything is good about being the king, he admits. "The costuming is certainly voluminous. You learn to carry yourself in a certain way."

As for the wigs, he said, they caused him to "develop a whole new respect for country-Western singers," he said. "I can see why they have well-developed necks."

But all that didn't matter in his zeal to portray the man history remembers as "the merry monarch," who ruled from 1660-85. One reason Neill sought the part is that "Charles has the attributes that I would wish for myself, the charm and the charisma and the sexiness, the power, the intelligence."

Unlike most actors, Neill says he "wouldn't presume to confess to any of those things." But this is a man who never dreamed of an acting career in the first place.

"I never imagined that it would be possible to even make a living as an actor. It wasn't something I seriously entertained as a prospect until I was about 30, actually. No one from New Zealand had ever become a movie actor before."

He credits his success to a series of lucky accidents that began during his previous life as a documentary filmmaker.

"While I was directing, I was also occasionally moonlighting in acting jobs - little jobs, little films for friends, that kind of thing. …