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Sam Interview: ‘I’ve taken flak from every side’


Sam Neill buries his face so deep in his wine glass I fear he’ll drown. Then he shoves it in further. The rim digs into his brow, carves furrows either side of a gently patrician nose familiar to anyone who’s been to the movies. If you haven’t seen that nose in Jurassic Park, you’ve seen it in The Piano. If not Dead Calm, My Brilliant Career, Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Peter Rabbit, then surely you’ve taken in one of the other 50 or so films the 71-year-old actor has made during a ­prolific, four-decade career.

The nose breathes in. Time is elastic, this instant frozen for eternity even as it drags us ­forward into late afternoon and the inevitably blurry end of a long and boozy lunch. Swirl, swirl. He inhales again, taking his time guessing the wine’s provenance. The stakes are high because Sam Neill is not just an actor. Since the 1990s he’s been producing wine, serious wine, from his ­vineyard home on New Zealand’s South Island. He shook off the dilettante tag early and his Two ­Paddocks pinot noir has grown a dedicated ­following in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, picking up trophies and gracing the wine lists of fine-dining restaurants like this one.

“I’m going to look so foolish when I get this wrong,” he says, tilting his glass so its red eddies catch the sunlight streaming through a nearby wall of windows. But then: “There’s something in the middle palate that suggests Central Otago,” Neill says. “It’s entirely possible it’s my wine.” Swirl, swirl. Sniff. Swallow. “I’m going to guess … I think this is my wine.” Addy Lam, head sommelier at The Star Sydney’s Black Bar & Grill and an ­enthusiastic Sam Neill fan, is hopping foot to foot with barely repressed glee. “Bang on!” he says, ­topping up our glasses with — I’ve got to be honest — a frankly delicious pinot. “Good, isn’t it?”

It’s a neat trick, making Sam Neill sing for his supper — even if it is just humming a few bars. Because, without this quiz, Addy’s tricky little put-you-on-the-spot heart-stopper, life would just be too seamlessly perfect, wouldn’t it? Plied with fine wine and top-notch food, no curfew in sight. It’s the kind of “working lunch” not seen since the ’80s and because we’re here to talk about Neill’s latest project, a National Geographic wine documentary, the conversation will range across one of his favourite topics. “How nice that they’ve invited us” — his rumbling basso drops a notch — “to drink whatever we want. Given that I have nothing else to do today …” A throaty chuckle. “We can linger.”With Nicole Kidman in the 1989 film Dead Calm.

It’s good to be Sam Neill. He has a widely admired wine label, a still-thriving acting career, even a new late-in-life girlfriend. Heading into his eighth decade, the grandfather-of-four has just been inked with his first tattoo, made waves with a new Captain Cook documentary and become a bona fide social media star, regularly tweeting goofy farmer-Joe photos from a New Zealand address that looks very much like Eden.

And because he’s Sam Neill, the nicest bloke in the world, none of this is taken for granted. “How terrific,” he says now, surveying Sydney Harbour and the cracking blue-sky day. Leaning across a comically large slab of wagyu striploin, he ­whispers conspiratorially: “We’re going to order a glass of the Grange, aren’t we?”

Neill spent most of last year on and off a ­container ship as it chugged between Tahiti and Tonga, the Arctic and Alaska. The actor reckons he’s filmed in 60 different countries over the course of his career. But this was something ­different: an epic voyage to shoot the six-part National Geographic TV series The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook, tracing the explorer’s ­journey 250 years ago while investigating his impact on the region’s indigenous cultures. “It was the most remarkably moving experience for me,” Neill says. “I did devote a lot of time to it, but I was so moved, so enchanted, so reduced to tears and laughter by the sort of things I was hearing.” He found himself developing a new regard for Cook’s seamanship and pluck while deepening his respect for the indigenous people. His bob-each-way approach drew double the ire. “I’ve taken flak from every possible side since it’s aired,” he laughs. “I’m a Captain Cook apologist, a booster for empire; I’m a loony left revisionist. They’ve been barking at me this week like mad dogs. Mad dogs!”

Not that he’s bothered. Neill cuts an even-keeled swathe through the Twittersphere, his steady-as-she-goes persona a welcome antidote to the mad dogs yapping round the edges. His ­Twitter bio declares him to be “in the cheering up business” and a quarter of a million people follow his adventures on the farm as he potters about in a procession of woolly coats taking uncontroversial selfies with the animals and cracking delightfully uncontroversial jokes. Sometimes he’ll just post a picture of a perfect red rose.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to cheer each other up because we’ve had a bleak couple of years, haven’t we?” he says. “It doesn’t sound like a terribly important task but actually it’s vital. When you look around at the current state of politics, whether it’s American or Australian, there are some very sound reasons to despair. But we cannot be helpless before this bleak tide, you know? We have to stand up and let it wash around us and the tide will go out again.”

It was during a brief hiatus from filming The Pacific that the National Geographic people approached him to front Great Innovators: The Rise of Australian Wine. “They said, ‘Do you want to do this film about wine, and I thought, ‘That sounds fantastic!’” There’s that rumbling chuckle again. Heh heh. ­Seeing a way to further indulge his love of history (he also fronted Why Anzac with Sam Neill in 2015) he happily tumbled down an oenophilic rabbit hole to explore a past in which Australia pioneered such innovations as screwcaps, refrigerated harvesting and the bag-in-a-box. He explored the mid-1960s cultural shift from beer to wine, delved into the science of production, and tracked the adventures of Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold and his chief winemaker Max Schubert as they chased the maddest impulses to produce one of the world’s most collectable, transcendent wines. He even hosted Penfolds’ current chief winemaker, Peter Gago, at his Central Otago home.

Unless you’re a sommelier, it’s a delicate dance to talk seriously about wine and Neill lives in dreaded fear of sounding poncy. He refuses to utter the word “passion”, for instance. “Everybody who grows wine says they’ve got a passion for it,” he says. “I think the word passion should be reserved for the sort of activity that might involve the losing of trousers at some point.” Addy has a suggestion: perhaps “an affair” with wine? “Yes, I like that,” Neill nods. “It has a slightly illicit air to it.”

Throughout lunch, Neill somehow adopts a relaxed slouch while maintaining perfect posture, projecting his golden voice up and out, as if to the last row of a theatre. His phrasing is precise, the tempo leisurely. He’s wearing a bluish tweed jacket and soft-soled shoes and his silver beard is magnificent. He’s the gentleman farmer come to town, with a dash of the derring-do that once had him in contention to be the next James Bond (he lost out to Timothy Dalton). Yes, it’s good to be Sam Neill. It would be even better to be Sam Neill with a glass of Grange in your hand. “So dense, so ­profound, it’s like the richest ­Christmas cake you could ever eat,” he says wistfully.

“How’s your piggy going?” Here’s Addy the sommelier again, with more brimming glasses. Pinot grigio and chardonnay, something from Austria and a trendy natural wine, all of them to “try with the salad”. Anyone who follows Neill’s barnyard antics on social media knows the favourite of his three pigs is an elderly but noble porker named Anjelica Huston. “Anjelica is such an expressive pig,” he says now. “If you sit down and read a book about Donald Trump, if you wait long enough, you’ll get a pig looking over your shoulder with the same look of horror and astonishment as you have on your own face.”

Imogen Poots, on the other hand, is an unlike­able sow and Taika Waititi a rather aloof boar. Their namesakes — Neill’s co-star in British black comedy A Long Way Down, and the New Zealand director of Hunt for the ­Wilderpeople — must be thrilled. Only the lucky ones are named, Neill says, to distinguish the pets from the snacks. “They’re not safe if they’re not given names,” he says ominously, adding that some of Hollywood’s finest have petitioned to be included. “But they have to be a friend. You can’t just be someone I don’t know and expect to be a pig.” The naming process is a random, gender-be-damned affair that has seen a duck named Charlie Pickering ­surprise the farmworkers by ­laying three eggs, and two inseparable chicken friends become Meryl Streep and Stephen Fry.

Neill has four small organic vineyards in ­Central Otago, cradled at the foot of a crooked gorge beneath snow-capped mountains. Fields of saffron and lavender, olives and cherry trees ­surround the modest homestead near the tiny town of Clyde, and Neill has also planted hundreds of native trees to lure back the birds. “Last time I was there I counted seven different species of native birds,” he says. “A couple of tuis flew out of a kowhai tree and I almost cried with delight.”

Susan Sarandon and the other sheep graze along rows of grapes between seasons, but Helena ­Bonham Carter, one of a dozen head of cattle, serves a more base purpose. “It would be alarming to be told you’re really there for the manure, wouldn’t it?” Neill’s chuckles are looser now. “I’m here for my good looks? Nah. You’re here for the shit.”With Julian Dennison in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Picture: supplied

Neill’s father Dermot, a British Army officer and third-generation New Zealander, was ­stationed in Northern Ireland in 1947 when his English wife, Priscilla, gave birth to a son. The ­family moved to New Zealand when the boy, christened Nigel, was seven. He was shy and ­initially struggled to fit in to his new homeland. Being teased for his posh accent didn’t help and he developed a stutter. At about age 10, the boy changed his “unfair handicap” of a name to Sam and, by the time he started boarding at Christ’s College, Christchurch, he’d found his calling, appearing in more than eight plays throughout high school. In 1977, director Roger Donaldson cast him in his first film, Sleeping Dogs, and Sam Neill was on his way to becoming the country’s first international movie star.

He bought his first parcel of land in 1993, the year he became a household name with roles in the game-changing CGI spectacle Jurassic Park and Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning The Piano. “I grew up in Dunedin but Central Otago was where we used to go on holidays as kids — skiing, camping, fishing,” Neill says. “Then when my career started to sort of turn into something I realised I had enough money to buy some land and build a house there.” Six months later, he planted his first vines of pinot noir, a grape so flavourful and yet so temperamental that it inspired a Paul Giamatti soliloquy in the 2004 Oscar-winner Sideways. “They don’t call it the heartbreak grape for nothing,” Neill says. “But the idea we could grow something like Burgundy down the road from where I’d built my house was intoxicating.” His eyes crinkle, bringing his whole face in on the joke: “Literally intoxicating.”

From the beginning, Neill was determined that people respect his wine. “I struggle to be taken seriously at anything pretty much,” he laughs. “But when you produce a great wine and people go ‘Well, he’s not serious, he’s just an actor’ that’s when you start to get a little … irritable. I try to contain the irritation as best I can.” At least he can point to some good reviews: for the past two years, New York’s prestigious Wine Spectator magazine has awarded Neill’s wine 95 points, placing it alongside some of the best in the world.

Neill is separated from his second wife, makeup artist Noriko Watanabe, with whom he has a daughter. He has three other children and four grandsons, a couple of whom have done holiday work on the farm. Since late last year, he has been dating veteran Australian political journalist Laura Tingle and the couple’s spirited banter, which blossomed into life on Twitter, remains robust. At one point, Neill whips out a smartphone and snaps a photo of the bacchanalian spread. “I’ll title it ‘Working lunch’,” he chuckles, pressing send. “She’s going to be so annoyed. Working lunch!”

Hard to begrudge Neill a little mid-week ­indulgence during this brief hiatus before he starts work on two more (as yet unannounced) films, one in England, one in Western Australia. (He plays coy when asked about a rumoured return to the dinosaur franchise for Jurassic World 3: “I ­haven’t said yes and I haven’t said no because I haven’t been asked. There, I’ve given you the Julie Bishop answer.”) Neill estimates he’s shot about 80 feature films since his 1977 debut, most recently Rachel Griffiths’ directing debut Ride Like a Girl, in which he plays the father of Melbourne Cup-­winning jockey Michelle Payne, and Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach with her husband, Neill’s long-time friend and frequent co-star Bryan Brown. “Bryan’s probably my closest friend,” he says. “It probably speaks of my immense tolerance and compassion, you know. As for Bryan, I think it’s a privilege for him …” [pause, chuckle] “to have a friend at all.” It’s the kind of jovial sledging familiar to anyone who’s attended one of the pair’s rambunctious joint birthday parties, held to celebrate the turn of each decade and featuring a now-traditional game of cultural one-upmanship: Neill counters Brown’s inclusion of an Aboriginal welcome to country by bringing in a traditional Maori haka group.

Presumably there’s an option for Neill to shelve acting and spend his days on the farm? “I could, yes, and I’d probably be entirely content,” he says. “But there’s still something in me that wants to put a few more runs on the board. Also, I’m very happy in solitude but I prefer company. One of the great rewards of working in film is that there’s always good company, there are always actors who are funny as buggery and erudite sound people. There’s always good company to be had.”

­­Time drags us onward. The stemware is ­multiplying and Neill introduces “pernot” into the conversation. It’s not a real word, just the accidental, late-afternoon merging of pinot and merlot. “I should pronounce that better,” he says. Heh heh. It’s all Addy’s fault. With zero prompting, he’s brought out a 2009 Penfolds Grange, a single glass of which costs as much as the average weekly grocery bill. Caught up in the swirling vortex of goodwill and wine talk, Addy’s gone and left the bottle. “These days — working lunches aside — I don’t really drink during the week and I don’t miss it either,” Neill hastens to point out. “So it’s only weekends.” He starts on the story of a six-month period in which he went on the wagon. He’d hit the wall filming the BBC drama Peaky Blinders in Manchester, England, a few years ago. Living alone in a flat. Shopping shamefaced in the “sad aisle” at the supermarket with all the other singles. ­Shepherd’s pie for one, cooked in the microwave. Something about a bottle of Rioja a night. Heh heh.

Conversation degenerates. Something about Jurassic Park action figures. Helena Bonham Carter giving birth. Wait, the actress or the cow? By now I’m just happy to bask in the deep and rolling cadence of his voice. A sleeve goes up, revealing a tattoo on his right forearm. It’s a spiral Maori symbol recently inked by his close friend and Piano co-star, Gordon Toi. It represents Neill’s journey through a remarkable life, from shy Irish transplant to world-famous actor and successful vigneron, a life filled with kids and grandkids and animals and joy. Now he’s talking about biblical kings and the All Blacks. Being constantly confused with Hugo Weaving. The chuckles come in triplicate: heh, heh, heh. There’s something elusive about wine, he’s saying. Elusive but accessible. There are great wines, ordinary wines, wines that are undrinkable. “Like all wonderful things they’re always slightly out of your reach,” he says, before abruptly standing up and excusing himself. “I’m becoming incomprehensible.” The room without Sam Neill in it becomes suddenly quiet and empty, joyless as flat champagne. I contemplate the bottle of Grange: is it half empty or half full? But then he’s back. “I see wine as being integral to good social discourse,” he continues. Heh heh heh. “It’s not essential, but it’s a wonderful additive.”

Great Innovators: The Rise of Australian Wine with Sam Neill, Foxtel’s National Geographic channel, October 18.


Source:  The Weekend Australian Magazine

Interviews - The Weekend Australian Magazine

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