Magazine article Metro Magazine

Sam Neill: Serves Up Dry Wit and Chilling Ghost Stories

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Sam Neill: Serves Up Dry Wit and Chilling Ghost Stories

Article excerpt

When female directors are fishing around for names to play the man who their female heroine is itching to give the flick, Sam Neill's face comes to mind. A curious state of affairs you might think. Handsome, intelligent, debonair, sophisticated: all adjectives that fit the versatile New Zealand actor who wooed us as Harry Beecham in My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979), scared the living daylights out of us as Damien Thorn in The Omen III: The Final Conflict (Graham Baker, 1981) and stood ably by as Meryl Streep murdered the Australian accent in Evil Angels (Fred Schepisi, 1989).

But Sam also radiates danger. Beneath his sleek exterior lies the potential for madness. So no wonder his heroines make for the exit, like Ado in The Piano (Jane Campion); and in Sally Potter's upcoming Yes (2004) he plays the husband who Joan Allen is trying to dump. The twinkle in his bedroom-blue eyes invites you in, then takes you prisoner. A perfect example of this can be found in his latest role in his first New Zealand film in some time--Gaylene Preston's Perfect Strangers (2003), one of the most eccentric love stories since Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992).

Having appeared in over fifty films, Neill is a familiar presence on the big screen. Able to balance leading man roles with more offbeat supporting parts, his acting prowess can often be underestimated His talents on the other side of the camera, however, will soon be tested as he is in the midst of preproduction on his directorial debut. The telemovie is The Brush-Off, adapted from Australian Shone Maloney's book, a satirical comic thriller featuring his antihero Murray Whelan, a colourfully droll Victorian Labor MP.

The role of Whelan would suit Neill to a T but Neill has handed the role over to David Wenham. 'We are doing two books. John Clarke is directing Shane's other book, Stiff [Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1993]. I do a small part in his and he does a small part in mine.' (1) Maloney is an entertaining character in his own right, so when I ask Neill whether the writer has scored a cameo in the films, he dryly admits, 'He will have a cameo in both of them. Not sure if he can say any of his lines though, so I don't know if I will allow him to act'.

A laconic wit permeates Neill's answers when we talk. There is an initial flintiness which subsides once he hunkers down with one of his favourite subjects--politics. Filmmaking is another subject he takes very seriously. Neill likes to talk and you get the feeling that he enjoys the collaborative nature of films, as much for the company as for the chance to act. Now facing the more adult challenge of directing, Neill is grateful for some of those fireside chats with directors of the calibre of Jane Campion, Steven Spielberg and Wim Wenders. Not a bad brains trust to choose from.

One thing I do know, is how to talk to actors. Fred Schepisi is coming back in December so I thought I would have a word with him. The only advice I have had so far is 'pretend you know the answer to everything'. After that, you just wing it and try not to show your own fear But I have made about fifty films. If I haven't learnt something, I am thicker than I look.

With his production company Huntaway Films coproducing, Sam gets to turn the tables and crack the whip on his crew.

It's a dreadful schedule. We have four weeks to shoot a film. You would have twelve in Hollywood. We are just going to have to go at it with hammer and tongs. I have to drift into everyone they have to do minimum twenty-five setups a day. On a normal film, twelve setups is pretty good. But we haven't struck a blow yet. We have just been casting and location scouting and scrubbing scripts. It's been good fun.

In some ways Sam's career has come full circle. Having left his Dunedin home to study at the University of Canterbury, then tour NZ with a repertory company, he secured a position in the National Film Unit in 1971. …

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