Hear of the dog

Sam Neill, as Dean Spanley, and Jeremy Northam. Photo from image.net.
Sam Neill, as Dean Spanley, and Jeremy Northam. Photo from image.net.
He's captained a Russian submarine, been chased by dinosaurs and in his latest film is reincarnated as a dog.

But his favourite role is in gumboots on a Central Otago vineyard. Nigel Benson talks to Sam Neill.

"No problems with having a name like 'Nigel' in Dunedin, then?" actor Sam Neill enquires with a chuckle. He can laugh.

The veteran actor was born Nigel Neill in Omagh, Northern Ireland, but got the nickname "Sam" while boarding at Christs College because there were three other Nigels at the school.

"I encouraged the nickname, because I thought I'd be slightly less likely to be victimised," he teases.

"I clung on to `Sam' with great enthusiasm. Nigel was a little effete for the rigours of a New Zealand playground."

I cough, but plough gamely on.

At 62, there's still a touch of the naughty schoolboy about Neill, who has a delightfully laconic and wickedly New Zealand sense of humour.

During the filming of Jurassic Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the actor staged a mock fight among the crew to shock a group of Japanese tourists.

"I'm very little trouble on the set, as long as I have my own chair," Neill drily observes.

The Neill family moved to Dunedin when he was 6 years old.

His father, Dermot Neill, was a New Zealand army officer stationed in Northern Ireland, but returned to New Zealand to work in the family business, Neill Ltd, which became liquor giant Wilson Neill.

Alcohol also plays a role in his latest film, Dean Spanley, which is set in Edwardian England in 1904 and tells the story of a dean with a fondness for a Hungarian dessert wine called Tokay.

Once primed, the dean reminisces about his past life as a, er, dog.

"It's a sort of dessert wine, one I know nothing about, but I'm prepared to believe it's transcendent," Neill says.

"It seems to have this magical effect on the dean. The lubrication comes from wine. I do strongly believe in the power of a good glass of wine to transform."

Neill has vineyards at Gibbston and Alexandra, which supply his Two Paddocks label.

He established the label 10 years ago, when he and old friend Hollywood director Roger Donaldson (Sleeping Dogs, The World's Fastest Indian) began cultivating grapes on neighbouring blocks.

"I have three little vineyards, and we produce an extremely approachable pinot noir. It's hard to find because I make some and I drink most of it."

Neill likes to joke that his acting income finances his vineyards.

"There's a terrible truth in that. Hopefully, the wine will start paying me back, but it doesn't seem to want to at this point," he sighs.

"The blight about being an actor, is that it's unclear what you are when you're not acting. So, by growing grapes I can call myself a wine-producer. I love acting, but there are few things as rewarding as opening a good bottle of your own wine."

Not everybody is impressed with his wine, though, including his wife, make-up artist Noriko Watanabe, who won a Bafta for Memoirs of a Geisha.

"She's decided she doesn't like wine at all. She only drinks beer, but I can't afford a brewery."

Dean Spanley is an Anglo-New Zealand co-production developed from the novella My Talks With Dean Spanley written by writer and occultist Lord Dunsany, in 1936.

The film features a star-studded cast, led by 76-year-old eight-time Academy Award nominee Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia), Jeremy Northam (The Winslow Boy, Gosford Park) and Bryan Brown (Cocktail, Gorillas In The Mist).

The film was initially thought so unlikely that O'Toole only agreed to do it because he considered it would never be made.

"When we first met, Peter said to me: 'I don't know how they got money for this. It's too intelligent, too funny and too different. What are they thinking?'," Neill says.

"He was thrilled that they had, but was completely surprised."

O'Toole subsequently delivered a mesmerising performance.

"Peter O'Toole's one of the great screen actors of our time. I've actually worked with Peter on two other films, but we've never traded blows, so to speak.

"He's so fabulous and has been immensely encouraging and generous. I couldn't be more delighted to have had some time with him," Neill says.

"Bryan [Brown] is also a very old and close friend of mine. We've worked together on a number of things. There's no shorthand necessary. It was immensely pleasurable. I really enjoyed myself," he says.

"Most of the primary people involved were New Zealanders. When you walked on set it felt like you were working on a New Zealand set. That quiet informality."

More than 60 New Zealanders were employed in the Anglo-New Zealand production, including producer Matthew Metcalfe, director Toa Fraser and scriptwriter Alan Sharp, while the score was composed by Don McGlashan and recorded by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Neill was the only actor considered for the title character, Dean Spanley, according to producer Metcalfe.

"There's only one name we ever talked about - Sam Neill," he says. "We had never actually discussed another name. I don't know what we'd do if we didn't have him.

"Sam turned us down a couple of times, but we just kept going back at him. I think initially he thought: `They're going to have me down on the ground licking my bollocks, scratching myself and being dog-like'."

"I knew it was a wonderful story, but I had a failure of imagination. I suppose," Neill says.

"Then I saw a way to do it. I'm always looking for something different from my last role. You don't want to get stale.

"When you start a film, it always seems like a mountain too high to climb. But once you've got your crampons on and a rope around your waist, it doesn't seem too bad.

"I like that feeling of fear and apprehension you get before a role. It's a marvellous feeling. "But, I wasn't really prepared for how touching it became.

"I think it's a surprising film because it's so not like anything else. I think it would be one of my favourite roles.

Playing a character within a character - that's a marvellous opportunity for an actor."

Neill says he used his Staffordshire bull terrier, "Fire", ("of whom I'm inordinately fond") as inspiration for the role.

Dean Spanley was shot in November, 2007, around Cambridgeshire and East Anglia in England, before the production moved to New Zealand in January, 2008, where the "dream sequences" were filmed.

The film has been winning glowing reviews since it opened in Britain in December.

Neill spends most of his time at his Queenstown home.

"It varies from year to year. I did two films last year and five the previous year. I'm off to North America next week to start another. But, I can't tell you what it's called, yet."

Neill doesn't often watch his own films.

"I just see my mistakes," he admits. "When you drink a glass of your own wine, if you have any kind of palate at all, you can judge it with some kind of objectivity.

"That sort of objectivity is not available to you as an actor watching yourself."

Neill's first job out of university was with the New Zealand National Film Unit, directing documentaries, from where he went on to star in Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs (1977), the first New Zealand film to have a theatrical release in the United States.

Soon after, the actor relocated to Australia where he won the role of a young grazier in My Brilliant Career (1979).

"I came back to New Zealand and, all in the same day, resigned my job, put my house on the market. I left about two weeks later and never looked back," he recalls.

British actor James Mason was so impressed by Neill's early performances that he sent Neill a ticket to London and encouraged him to find work there.

"James Mason sort of took me under his wing. He got me to Europe," Neill says.

"I thought he was a wonderful actor and I admired the way he moved in the world. So I suppose if I've had a model, it would be James."

Mason also helped him land his first role in Britain, in 1981, playing Antichrist Damien Thorn in the third Omen film, The Final Conflict.

"I played him as if he were the loneliest being on the face of the planet. After all, who would want to go to a bar and have a drink with the devil?"

During the 1980s Neill was mainly based in Britain, starring in television series such as Reilly: Ace of Spies (1984), Kane and Abel (1985) and Amerika (1987).

He played opposite Meryl Streep in the film A Cry in the Dark (1988) and Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm (1989), before hitting a purple patch with The Hunt for Red October (1990), Until the End of the World (1991), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) and Jurassic Park (1993).

He then returned to New Zealand for the first time in 14 years for The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior and The Piano (both 1993).

Typically, though, Neill considers one of his career highlights to be a cameo on The Simpsons.

In 1986 he came within the thickness of a martini glass of landing the role of James Bond, when veteran 007 Roger Moore announced his retirement.

"My agent fancied it for me at the time, but it wasn't something I wanted. It would have been a terrible fit. My agent was pushing me in that direction, but I would have said `no' to it," Neill says.

"Mostly if I get asked to do bedroom scenes these days they involve pyjamas, a book and some reading glasses.

"Having said that, I'd love to play a villain in a Bond movie. That is one of my unfulfilled ambitions."


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