Sam Neill: Sam I Am

Sam Neill is the Irish by way of New Zealand by way of Australia actor who's not in between but someplace else entirely. Or not, as he claims to be "personality-free." Movieline tries to find out where who exactly is the man behind both Damian Thorn and Merlin and the hero from Jurassic Park.

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The way I see it, you either get Sam Neill or you don't. You don't if you buy wholesale into the depressing big-screen standard of men to die for--rugged adventurers who'd never lower their sights to a life of mundane commitment, bad boys running in pairs or posses to avoid shouldering grown-up responsibilities, shyly stammering charm monsters stuck in prepubescent ideas of romance, sensitive truth seekers who spout the slogans of enlightenment while screwing people over left and right. Sam Neill on-screen is none of these. And what a relief.

To the underwhelmed, Neill is that Aussie/Kiwi guy who isn't exactly Mel Gibson, but, then again, isn't Bryan Brown, either. He's the hazily familiar, all-purpose good-looking chap who mixes up arty Down Under-type stuff like My Brilliant Career, A Cry in the Dark, The Piano and Sirens with an occasional foray into such big, stupid entertaining stuff as The Hunt for Red October, Jurassic Park and Event Horizon. But for those attuned to his subtle cadences and unshowy but palpable voltage, Neill stands tall as one of the screen's few guys who aren't too pretty, too self-enchanted or too sexually conflicted to arouse trust, confidence and grounded desire.

Indeed, Neill's stand-up qualities--his comfort in his own skin and his unassuming guy-ness--have over time burnished him into that rare movie commodity: a sexy, lived-in grown-up. Of course, the faintly cruel, mocking, James Mason configuration of his mouth and the merciless gaze of his eyes guarantee a welcome quotient of edge. He's been so quietly effective for such a long time now, often at his best in little-seen gems like In the Mouth of Madness, that he is practically a signifier on-screen. Neurotic, self-tortured female characters played by industrial strength screen presences--Holly Hunter (_The Piano_), Meryl Streep (_A Cry in the Dark_), Judy Davis (_My Brilliant Career_) and Sigourney Weaver (_Snow White: A Tale of Terror_) among them--almost invariably scorn, cheat, pursue and abandon him. (Overheard at a screening of The Piano: "I'm supposed to empathize with a female character who cheats on Sam Neill with Harvey Keitel?") By contrast, less conflicted women characters--Nicole Kidman (_Dead Calm_), Laura Dern (_Jurassic Park_), Elle Macpherson and the other Sirens--spark to his quiet strength. Little wonder female costars sing his praises, or that he's a secret weapon of such disparate directors as Wim Wenders, Steven Spielberg, Jane Campion, John Carpenter and Phillip Noyce.

Neill and I intersect for lunch at the haughtily chic Mondrian Hotel on a day when the actor has stopped in L.A. en route to Montana to finish Robert Redford's movie version of The Horse Whisperer, in which he plays the abiding husband of Kristin Scott Thomas. In a sea of people whose togs, attitudes and cell phones scream Notice me! he appears utterly unaware that he is stealing the thunder in a crisp white shirt, blue blazer and khakis. As we begin our conversation, Neill suggests, in his exceedingly genteel way, that he finds the prospect of our talk somewhat daunting. Why? "I'm personality-free," he asserts. "I take issue with journalists who like to lull actors into feeling they're on a psychiatrist's couch. And I don't like having to think of strategies in order to make myself an intriguing character. I don't think it's anyone else's concern, nor is it of the remotest interest to me, what terrible abuse some actor has been subjected to as a child. It's a terrible burden for an actor to have to develop an interesting persona, unless it's as a character in a movie. I've worked all my life to shed myself of any character. Have you noticed?"

Neill utters all this with such a silken grin, in such Jeremy-Irons-as-Claus-von-Bulow tones that I begin to glimpse how he has actually worked his wiles on-screen: I dare you to draw me out, to know me, he seems to say. "I have noticed you're aiming for opacity," I tell him. "Of course you have," he shoots back. "I just wanted to warn you, I'm not terribly much fun."

"For our readers, then," I offer, "I'll be fun and you just go ahead and be Sam. Deal?"

Neill assents and I begin to recount to him some background information I've learned about him. He was bom in Northern Ireland and migrated as a child in the 1950s to New Zealand with his mother and his military father, along with his older brother and a sister. After graduating from a university in New Zealand, he became a documentary filmmaker until directors and casting people started encouraging him to try his hand on the other side of the camera. He lives, variously, in England, Sydney and New Zealand. He has long been married to the same woman, who is Asian and with whom he is raising three kids. His birth name is Nigel.

Neill laughs aloud at this last bit. "There are four people in the world who call me that, and you're not going to be the fifth," he insists, revealing for the first time a slight but detectable stammer. Then, just as I'm about to launch into an actual question, he circles back to the theme of what he calls his "inner reserve."

"It may have held me back," he observes, meaning in his career. "I was very bad always at greenroom chat, the sort of thing other actors are so good at. See, acting was sort of an accident for me, nothing I designed. I've never been driven by any particular kind of ambition. Being brought up in New Zealand as I was--well, let's say that New Zealand produces rather wonderful actors, most of them alcoholic, perhaps because you're kind of a lonely voice. Life just shuffled me in the direction of acting and I was amazed, and remain amazed, that I can earn a living this way. I'm the first actor I know of in New Zealand who is actually able to make a living from working in films."

Make a living Neill certainly does. He is far busier than your average mid-level Hollywood star, taking larger roles in smaller films (The Piano), or major roles in films sold on special effects rather than stars (Jurassic Park and Event Horizon), plus crucial supporting roles in major pictures like The Horse Whisperer.

"I have this feeling it could be quite terrific," Neill enthuses about the film adaptation of Nicholas Evans's best-seller which centers on a woman who leaves her husband (Neill) behind to bring her handicapped daughter and their wounded horse to a mysterious healer. "I got a call while I was on holiday in New Zealand that was, like, 'Sam? This is Bob Redford.' It's a shock to get a call like that out of the blue. I didn't even know he was called 'Bob,' and I can't think what he was thinking about when he cast me. There's something to be said, though, for actors directing, because Bob--it's Bob now, you see--is involved with every aspect of what he's doing. What a marvelous guy to work with. And Kristin Scott Thomas? Talk about a great woman--capable of anything."

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