GREAT EN­DEAV­OURS

James Cook set out for the Pa­cific 250 years ago. Sam Neill takes a hard look at the ex­plorer’s le­gacy — and con­sid­ers his own place in the new world. Kim Knight writes.

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - Sam Neil

James Cook set out for the Pa­cific 250 years ago. Sam Neill takes a hard look at the ex­plorer’s le­gacy – and con­sid­ers his own place in the new world. Kim Knight writes.

Cook changed ev­ery­thing. And there are so many pro­found and trou­bling ques­tions that need to be ex­am­ined. Sam Neill

From the air, it looks like Lego. Lit­tle boxes, on the ocean. Some­where, dwarfed by those five-high stacks of blue and yel­low and red and orange ship­ping con­tain­ers, is New Zealand’s most fa­mous ac­tor. Sam Neill opens his cabin door. It’s sparse. There’s no concierge, no room ser­vice. He’s lug­ging his own lug­gage. “I loved it,” he says. “I want to go back.” To a con­tainer ship? “Yeah,” he replies, smil­ing at him­self. “We worked very hard on board, but there was some­thing about be­ing in a rel­a­tively con­fined space, with no com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the rest of the world. It wasn’t like a plane, which is pretty claus­tro­pho­bic, there was no claus­tro­pho­bia, you were go­ing with pur­pose. It was very calm.”

There are, he says, not too many spa­ces like that in his life.

IN THE be­gin­ning there was Sam Neill. His first film was ar­guably New Zealand’s first film. There were ear­lier Kiwi-made movies but 1977’s Sleep­ing Dogs was the coun­try’s first fea­ture-length project re­leased into the United States. It made a Neill a movie star.

He was 30 then. He’ll turn 71 next month. His most re­cent lo­cal film was Taika Waititi’s

Hunt for the Wilder­peo­ple. It grossed $1.2 mil­lion on its open­ing week­end and set a new box of­fice record. In be­tween, Juras­sic Park, The Omen, The Hunt for Red Oc­to­ber, The Pi­ano, and so on and on and on. Sweet Coun­try in Aus­tralia ear­lier this year; old Mr McGre­gor in

Peter Rab­bit. Eighty fea­ture films all up? “Some­body said that fig­ure the other day.” That wouldn’t, Neill adds, in­clude his tele­vi­sion work. Reilly, Ace of Spies. The Tu­dors. Mer­lin. Peaky Blin­ders. There’s even a voice credit for The Simp­sons. Later this month, he’ll play him­self. Un­charted with Sam Neill is a six-episode ex­plo­ration of the im­pact of Cap­tain James Cook’s voy­ages. It starts with a four-day stint on a con­tainer ship. It ends — well, when do we stop in­ter­ro­gat­ing his­tory?

“Cook’s voy­ages mean so many things to so many peo­ple on so many dif­fer­ent lev­els,” says Neill. “There’s a sort of 10-year-old in me that can­not imag­ine any­thing more won­der­ful than to be on The En­deav­our and to go where no Eu­ro­pean had ever been be­fore. These in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful places, and to meet com­pletely new peo­ple and cul­tures that you couldn’t imag­ine or dream up.

“On a very dif­fer­ent level of course, Cook changed ev­ery­thing. And there are so many pro­found and trou­bling ques­tions that need to be ex­am­ined.”

That was Neill at the wine and canape me­dia launch of the series and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing book,

The Pa­cific: In the Wake of Cap­tain Cook. His hair was neat, his voice was slow and mea­sured. He did not ap­pear to par­take in the mini salmon tarts with wasabi caviar or the sticks of fried chicken. He took a high stool on a small stage and de­clared: “It’s go­ing to be con­tro­ver­sial. Which is a good thing. The more con­tro­ver­sial the bet­ter. There will be peo­ple who will say this is po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness gone mad. There will be oth­ers who will say this is just more bur­nish­ing of the Cook bull­shit.

“There are Cookaphiles who just think Cook was Su­per­man and there are peo­ple who think he was a rapist — and a syphilitic racist.”

Later, he clar­i­fies there is no ev­i­dence of Cook “ever hav­ing sex with any­one other than Mrs Cook” — but the ship’s cel­e­brated botanist Joseph Banks? “He was what’s known in Aus­tralia as a root rat. And I don’t de­fend that.”

It is 250 years since Cook left Eng­land on a sci­en­tific voy­age to record the tran­sit of Venus across the sun from Tahiti. Mis­sion com­plete, he opened the sealed or­ders that re­sulted in the first Eu­ro­pean cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of New Zealand. There would be two more epics voy­ages be­fore Cook was killed in Hawaii.

“One of the in­trigu­ing ideas,” says Neill, “And this comes from [an­thro­pol­o­gist and Pro­fes­sor Dame] Anne Sal­mond, was that Cook him­self was colonised by the Pa­cific, and be­came stitched into the fab­ric of the Pa­cific. Well, I think that’s what’s hap­pened to me and my fam­ily.”

NEILL IS one of those celebri­ties with too much back­story for a weekly mag­a­zine word count. He must be re­duced to bul­let points: Born Nigel John Der­mot Neill in North­ern Ire­land. Dad is a third-gen­er­a­tion New Zealan­der, serv­ing with the Ir­ish Guards. In 1954, he moves his fam­ily home. Nigel changes his name to Sam, out­grows a stut­ter, schools mostly in Christchurch, mar­ries and sep­a­rates twice, has chil­dren and stepchil­dren, be­comes an in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned ac­tor, buys a vine­yard in Cen­tral Otago and wins awards for his Two Pad­docks pinot noir. His fu­ture is, lit­er­ally, planted in Aotearoa. Neill took a year off movies to make

Un­charted. He fol­lowed Cook’s wake through Tahiti, New Zealand, Aus­tralia, Tonga, Van­u­atu, the Nor­folk Is­lands, Antarc­tica, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii — where the guy at the rental car desk would un­wit­tingly ask the man who played pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Dr Alan Grant, whether he’d like any in­for­ma­tion on the Juras­sic Ex­pe­ri­ence.

I think we need to be more cog­nisant of the Pa­cific. About where we are. About our re­spon­si­bil­ity as lead­ers in the Pa­cific.

“I didn’t know what I was go­ing to find or who I was go­ing to talk to,” says Neill. But over and over, he re­ceives a clear mes­sage: “These weren’t dis­cov­er­ies. Ev­ery­thing had been dis­cov­ered be­fore. But that was the last con­nec­tion. The last piece of con­nect­ed­ness on the planet. Cook was re­spon­si­ble for that.

“He did open the door and what came through the door was coloni­sa­tion which, in many cases, was cat­a­strophic. Cat­a­strophic to cul­ture, to loss of life — the list is end­less. One of the most dis­tress­ing things for me was in the Bay of Is­lands, talk­ing to some­one there and I paused for a mo­ment and said, ‘When you look at me, do you see a colonist?’ And she said, ‘Of course.’ And that struck me with such great force be­cause, you know, I’m fourth gen­er­a­tion of this coun­try but it doesn’t seem enough.

“So, um, yeah — but you know, let’s talk about that for a mo­ment. To use a coarse phrase, shit hap­pens. And shit, it hap­pened here. And we’re all part of it. Per­son­ally, I’m very en­cour­aged by what’s hap­pened in New Zealand in the last 20 or 30 years. I think we’ve taken a re­ally good look at our­selves. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re more con­scious of what we are now.” Neill says ig­no­rance is not bliss. “Ig­no­rance is that way hell lies. We need to know the whole story, we can’t just sweep things un­der rugs and hope they never hap­pened be­cause they did and we need to arm our­selves with knowl­edge.”

And re­spon­si­bil­ity. Neill didn’t play it safe at that me­dia launch. Ev­ery­where he trav­elled, he says, he saw ev­i­dence that Aus­tralia and New Zealand were los­ing in­ter­est in the Pa­cific.

“There’s a vac­uum. And who is com­ing into that vac­uum? The Chi­nese. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? I don’t know, but I’m a lit­tle bit anx­ious about Chi­nese am­bi­tions. This is a gov­ern­ment that is not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in hu­man rights, or many of the things we take for granted. I think we need to be more cog­nisant of the Pa­cific. About where we are. About our re­spon­si­bil­ity as lead­ers in the Pa­cific.”

“WAS I too frank?” It’s the next morn­ing and Neill is du­ti­fully do­ing his me­dia one-on-ones at the Hil­ton. He was star­ing out to sea when Can­vas ar­rived in the room with the An­tipodes sparkling wa­ter and mini Whit­taker’s cho­co­late bars. Neill has claimed Cook was “a hard man to read”. But what to make of this ac­tor who, on the one hand trav­els with minia­ture plas­tic pink pigs he cap­tions for laughs on so­cial me­dia — and on the other cham­pi­ons big and se­ri­ous causes. Neill has spo­ken out against cu­bi­cle dairy farm­ing in the Macken­zie Coun­try. He re­cently sug­gested a boy­cott of Cad­bury’s should its Dunedin fac­tory clo­sure go ahead. He is ap­palled at the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to de­tain 1600 asy­lum-seek­ers in Pa­pua New Guinea.

“Per­son­ally, I think Manus and Nauru are a dis­grace. I’m very proud and pleased to see our Prime Min­is­ter tak­ing a hu­mane stance about some of these un­for­tu­nate peo­ple and say­ing they can come to us. That’s the kind of thing we can do. We should re­ally be the hu­mane face.

“It’s very easy, be­cause we’re so iso­lated and we live on is­lands, to for­get we are an im­por­tant part of this re­gion. We need to re­mem­ber our lead­er­ship roles here as a First World coun­try, we need to be lead­ing the way with all sorts of is­sues. Cli­mate change, the pol­lu­tion of this great ocean, the con­ser­va­tion of species.”

He recog­nises that, 170 years ago, “My great-grand­fa­ther was a coloniser.

“But,” he says, hark­ing back to Cook’s Pa­cific ex­pe­ri­ence, “I think we’re part of the fab­ric of New Zealand now. My grand­chil­dren and my neph­ews are Maori. And I’ve be­come more aware of be­ing not just from New Zealand, but from this re­gion. From the Pa­cific.”

And this idea that wounds are slowly be­ing salved? That in telling the whole story of Cook’s jour­neys — from, as Neill puts it — “the other side of the beach” — we can some­how shift the story?

“Look, all of this is fraught and I do not pre­tend to be an au­thor­ity on any of it and I can­not tell any of these sto­ries from an indige­nous point of view. But what I did do was lis­ten to them. And that’s im­por­tant. It’s enor­mously con­fronta­tional, a lot of the time. There were things that broke my heart, things that shocked me be­yond all mea­sure. But also I was filled with hope and op­ti­mism in so many places. And I am op­ti­mistic about New Zealand.”

NEILL’S COR­NER of the coun­try is Cen­tral Otago. It’s cold down there right now. Grape vines bare, ice on the ground. That, he says, is where he finds his quiet. On the farm with its an­i­mals named for fa­mous peo­ple, on the Two Pad­docks vine­yard, which is ac­tu­ally spread across four sites. He went to uni­ver­sity for a while in Dunedin, but didn’t like it.

“It wasn’t the hap­pi­est time of my life. It was com­pletely sort of rug­ger bug­ger — you know, den­tal stu­dent jocks. There was very lit­tle in­tel­lec­tual life go­ing on there. I couldn’t find any drama to do or any­thing like that. I got out of there ... all of my school­ing and uni­ver­sity was pretty much in Christchurch.”

He was be­hind the cam­era be­fore he was in front of it. In Un­charted, he pro­fesses a love of vol­ca­noes. Ngau­ruhoe was his first, he tells

Can­vas. He was mak­ing a ski­ing film for the Na­tional Film Unit. “It was in semi-erup­tion, we got stuck up there be­cause the clouds rolled in, and the wine changed and we started to choke to death, we thought we were go­ing to die ...

“Look at that one right be­hind you,” he says, ges­tur­ing to Ran­gi­toto. “It’s only 600 years old. We are on a live vol­canic field. I don’t want to be too pes­simistic about this, but there might be some karma in­volved here. When that vol­canic field goes, ‘I’ve had enough of this’.”

He’s made him­self smile again. He’s like that

When I first went to Hol­ly­wood, ap­par­ently ev­ery­body was on co­caine.

un­pre­dictable un­cle at Christ­mas.

Last night: “Ghosts are in­ter­est­ing, ac­tu­ally. I felt ghosts ev­ery­where.”

This morn­ing: “There’s a hill near my place. Well, half a hill. The other half is in Nel­son. Don’t sleep easy in your beds New Zealand!” Neill thrives on un­pre­dictabil­ity. “There must have been a time when I was at the Na­tional Film Unit when I could sort of see my years tick­ing away in a gov­ern­ment depart­ment un­til I’d re­tire to my cab­bages in East­bourne — and when that didn’t hap­pen ...

“Some­times I felt like — what are those things, pin­ball ma­chines? — and I was the ball rock­et­ing around, bo­ing, the 20-point thing, and I’d get spat out and I’d get trapped. It was sort of that ran­dom, and felt some­times, like it had that sort of ve­loc­ity and I didn’t have any par­tic­u­lar con­trol over it.

“I just do what comes up, and what hap­pens to be of in­ter­est and some­times I’m not avail­able and some­times I am but they want some­one else. It’s the ran­dom na­ture of it that’s partly ap­peal­ing.”

Once, he was up for the role of James Bond. Once, he de­scribed Hol­ly­wood as a nar­row kind of life.

“That’s one of more acute ob­ser­va­tions. I don’t have many. It is a very lim­it­ing life in Hol­ly­wood. That’s all any­one is in­ter­ested in there, is their ca­reers. Frankly, I’ve never been ter­ri­bly in­ter­ested in my ca­reer. It just sort of mud­dles along. They’re in­ter­ested in what last week’s box of­fice is. How did Thor do this week? What about the new Star Wars? I don’t give a fly­ing fig, you know.”

That 80-film oeu­vre in­cludes seven for Mi­ra­max — the stu­dio headed by Harvey We­in­stein, who has now been ac­cused of sex­ual abuse by more than 80 women. That, surely, is Hol­ly­wood’s big­gest story right now?

“Mmmm,” says Neill. “I’ve done a few films that Harvey has pro­duced or dis­trib­uted and I’ve known him vaguely, you know, over the years, at things. I see him at stuff. But I’ve found it pro­foundly dis­turb­ing all the stuff that’s been com­ing out and I al­ways say, and I say it again, I’ve never seen this. I’ve never seen any of this.

“And then all my fe­male friends say, ‘Well of course you haven’t, be­cause they don’t do it in front of you.’ So I’m baf­fled and dis­turbed all at the same time.”

What is it like to have your per­cep­tion of a cer­tain time and a cer­tain place chal­lenged by some­one else’s re­al­ity of his­tory?

“Look, we all grew up hear­ing about the cast­ing couch and things. I never re­ally be­lieved there was such a thing. It was self-ev­i­dent, back in the days when MGM was start­ing out and all of that but I lived a very shel­tered life. When I first went to Hol­ly­wood, ap­par­ently ev­ery­body was on co­caine. I never knew. No­body asked me. I’m from the South Is­land. I’m naive and prob­a­bly blink­ered. I don’t know.”

Neill likes to do this. Em­pha­sise the “just a ...” as­pect of his CV. Just a wine­maker. Just an ac­tor. And yet, he’s the guy who was asked to in­ter­view Barack Obama when he vis­ited New Zealand. He’s the guy Green­peace ap­proached to pre­tend to eat a plas­tic bag for an en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paign. And it’s ac­tu­ally hard to imag­ine any­one else do­ing this Cap­tain Cook thing.

“Oh no,” he says. “There must be lots of peo­ple.” Who? “Te­muera Morrison. He can do any­thing.”

Un­charted’s pro­ducer Owen Hughes is in the chair next to Neill (the pub­li­cist is lis­ten­ing dis­creetly from the bath­room). Hughes says the just-an-ac­tor’s transtas­man cre­den­tials are “un­par­al­leled”. Ap­par­ently when Neill says “we” in Aus­tralia, the Aus­tralians think it’s all-in­clu­sive. And the same thing hap­pens in New Zealand. “Okay,” says Neill. “I’ll take that.” And the Obama in­ter­view? “I have no idea at all. When he shook my hand, he said ‘you are one of my favourite ac­tors’, but I wanted to say, ‘I bet you say that to all the boys’.”

Later, I’m not sure whether it’s ego or gen­uine cu­rios­ity, but he asks me why I think he got that gig.

Grav­i­tas, I sug­gest? And he hoots with laugh­ter.

IN THE be­gin­ning, there was Sam Neill. I had just started work­ing for a na­tional news­pa­per and there was a set visit to the West Coast where he was film­ing Gay­lene Pre­ston’s Per­fect

Strangers. My edi­tor wanted a news an­gle. I’d been promised a lengthy sit-down in­ter­view. Neill was late. He stood, glar­ing. The in­ter­view was short, use­less and I was ter­ri­fied of my edi­tor’s wrath. I drove to Pu­nakaiki, hop­ing to pick up scan­dal, gos­sip, any­thing to save the story. At the Pan­cake Tea­rooms I stopped for cof­fee and a slice of fruit cake. There was a man in the booth in front of me. Just him and I, in the whole place. It dawned on me slowly that the la­bel on the back of the stranger’s po­lar fleece read “Two Pad­docks”.

I was very, very ner­vous when I stood up to in­ter­rupt Neill’s very, very alone time. But he was charm­ing. Down the road, while he waited for makeup, he gave me a se­cond, spon­ta­neous in­ter­view. I felt like I had met two Sam Neills. I’ve al­ways won­dered which one was the anom­aly.

To­day, he is thought­ful and funny. He shows me the lat­est shot of his plas­tic pigs, posed on the “bow” of the Hil­ton (cap­tion: “Ti­tanic”) and tells a story about the time he dined at the Ivy in Lon­don. Theatre di­rec­tor Trevor Nunn and ac­tor Sir Ian McKellen were at the next ta­ble.

“Be­ing a New Zealan­der of a cer­tain age, I quite like a tweed jacket. I had a new tweed jacket which I was quite proud of. I put a tie on ...” Neill takes a seat and says hello to the

men at the next ta­ble. McKellen leans in and says, “Dear boy, what have you come as?”

The “best put-down ever,” claims Neill. Then he re­mem­bers the pair did a film to­gether — he thinks McKellen played a ser­vant.

On the vine­yard, Neill is “The Prop” (short for pro­pri­etor). His top 20 playlist be­gins with Wilco and PJ Harvey. He posts video of him­self ham­ming it up as an axe-wield­ing louche. He is not “just” an ac­tor. He has opin­ions, a point of view. And it is pos­si­ble his lat­est might be his most provoca­tive.

“We can’t take any­thing as read. So much of the his­tory I was taught, and my fa­ther’s gen­er­a­tion was taught, was so Euro-cen­tric. It’s al­most like Young Nick sights Young Nick’s Head from the top of the main mast in the crow’s nest and his­tory be­gins there. Well, that wasn’t Year Zero at all.”

Sam Neill, Pa­cific-bound.

Clock­wise from top left: Sam Neill with Richard At­ten­bor­ough and Laura Dern in Juras­sic Park (1993), The Pi­ano (1993), The Hunt for the Wilder­peo­ple (2016) and Sleep­ing Dogs (1977).

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