SAM NEILL on some of the standout roles of his incredible career
SAM NEILL IS the master of acting without drawing attention to himself. Over a career spanning almost 50 years, the Kiwi actor has quietly built one of the most impressive careers around, his versatility standing him in good stead. From grumpy dinosaur experts to deranged doctors, he can pretty much play anything. We asked him about some of his signature roles and scenes.
MY BRILLIANT CAREER
(1979) Neill’s big break — the start of his brilliant career, you could say — came as Judy Davis’ lovelorn suitor in a Gillian Armstrong-directed drama
“I was very taken with Gillian Armstrong. She was terrific. But I had a dog that didn’t like me, and the horse that they gave me wasn’t really much of a film horse. It was a thoroughbred, a retired racing horse that had obviously failed on the racetrack. In Pretoria, for some reason, they go anti-clockwise around the track, and as a result the horse could only turn left. It was a bugger of a thing. But that gave me the faith to actually think, ‘I could do this as a living.’ That had not occurred to me before I did My Brilliant Career.” THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990)
In a movie dominated by powerhouse turns from Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, Neill hits big with his quiet, dignified Russian first officer, whose oft-stated desire to visit America results in his dying words, “I would like to have seen Montana...” “People are always yelling that at me. ‘Have you seen Montana yet?’ Yeah, I went there with Robert Redford, actually! [Neill made The Horse Whisperer, directed by Redford, there.] Eddie Murphy was doing another film on the lot at that time, and the word came through that Eddie was going to visit the set. These huge security guys appeared, and in the middle of them was Eddie. And I was near the entry, and one of his guys, with his great big hand, went, ‘BAM!’ and flattened me against the wall, like I was some sort of mad fan. Which was a bit weird, because I was wearing a Russian naval uniform at the time. That’s Hollywood!”
As Dr Alan Grant, Neill provides a pleasingly human face, and personality, that grounds Spielberg’s dinosaur epic. He displays impressive stoicism amid overwhelming odds, not least when he comes face to face with a T-rex… “We were wet and cold for a lot of that. That flare I was holding, a blob fell under my hand and went under my watch and stuck there. That’s the Jurassic scar. And the T-rex, although
an absolutely terrifying creature, gave us cause for amusement. When it came down on the car, sometimes it wouldn’t be terribly accurate. Sometimes it would hit the car and its teeth would fall out. They’d have to take the T-rex away and put his teeth back in, like an old man!”
As Alisdair, the cuckolded husband of Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s dark love story, Neill found himself going to places he hadn’t visited before, particularly in a scene where he had to cut off Hunter’s finger
“I have very strong memories of that. Holly said, ‘I want Sam to have a rubber axe in this scene!’ So when I pick her up, it’s actually a rubber axe. I said, ‘Holly, there’s no way in the world I would actually cut your finger off!’ I’m still slightly hurt by that. It’s only now that I realise the significance of his horrible line, before he drags her to the chopping block. He says, ‘Look what you’ve made me do.’ That is apparently often a line in situations of real domestic abuse that people say, and I never knew that until about a year ago. That was really upsetting.”
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS
(1995) Neill’s second collaboration with John Carpenter is a gloriously demented fusion of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, in which Neill plays an insurance adjuster who investigates the disappearance of a horror novelist, and goes quite, quite mad at the end of the world
“I love John. He’s such a curious character. All he eats is breakfast food — bacon and pancakes. He just lives on that shit! I had one major contribution to that film. When I’m in the loony bin, originally he had the Stones playing, and I said, ‘I wouldn’t mind the Stones on repeat. But it’s the Carpenters that’s guaranteed to drive you mad. That would be the worst punishment of all…’”
Neill is unforgettable in Paul W.S. Anderson’s cult classic sci-fi horror as Dr William Weir, a pragmatic scientist and designer of superspaceship the Event Horizon who, by the end, gets possessed by an evil force, rips out his own eyes, and runs around in the nip “What I remember most about that film was the camaraderie of the cast, and the sets were so phenomenal. But the demon scenes, the sheer discomfort of the special-effects make-up, was in itself a horror. Eight hours of being covered in blood and rubber. I didn’t have to try hard to be deeply, demonically unpleasant!” HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016)
The role perhaps closest to Neill’s own heart is Hec, a gruff farmer who goes on the run with his adopted son, Ricky Baker, in Taika Waititi’s wonderful comedy. Neill’s fed-up expression as his wife sings Ricky a happy birthday song is worth the price of purchase alone
“That song was really made up on the spot. Rima [Te Wiata, who played Hec’s wife, Bella] was going to play ‘Happy Birthday’, but the producer said we can’t sing that song because we don’t have copyright. So we all got our heads together, and within half an hour it had come together. She credits me with the line, ‘Me and Hector, trifecta!’”
screening. When she comes for Arthur, the crew were sitting in a row in the front, and they all leaned over in the other direction. They all had such a scare. I don’t think they were expecting it. I was helpless with laughter.
Rawlins: It never occurred to me that it was a horror film. I just thought I was doing the drama. It’s a revelation to me, and such a bonus, that it’s a classic.
Nyman: The best [horror stories] aren’t schlock, and just a silly jump-fest. If you take the scares out of it, it’s about a man who has to work away, and the impact of that on his marriage.
Moran: Our version goes to show that you don’t need to throw money at something for it to work. I’m referring to the recent version with Dan Radcliffe. To my mind, their Woman appears too often. Our Woman appears only five times. And you remember every single one of them.
Rawlins: She casts a whole presence over the film. Once you’ve seen her, she’s ever-present.
Nyman: When we were making the film of Ghost Stories, there was a moment in it that is a direct influence from
Clockwise from top: 1997’s Event Horizon; As cuckolded husband Alisdair in The Piano; With Judy Davis in My Briliant Career; Inspecting dinosaur eggs in Jurassic Park; Going, um, mad in In The Mouth Of Madness; Dreaming of Montana in The Hunt For Red October; As gruff farmer Hec in Hunt For The Wilderpeople.