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Sam Neill spent months aboard a container ship retracing the steps of Captain James Cook for documentary The Pacific. And now the actor has revealed what filming was like as he traversed the high seas.

Speaking to News corp on Sunday, the 70-year-old said he gained a whole new respect for the explorers on board. ‘It’s a third of the planet,’ he said, adding, ‘It is unimaginably immense, particularly when you’re in a boat that’s only 100-foot long.’

The Jurassic Park star, who travelled on the 260 metre ANL Warragul, said it was difficult to imagine what it would have been like for the explorers. ‘It’s hard to imagine just how hideously difficult life must have been on board the Endeavour,’ adding that it would have had 100 men on it.

Filming the six-part series for Foxtel’s History Channel, Sam said his journey was a little bit more comfortable than what Captain Cook endured. Despite working hard at sea, the Northern Ireland-born actor admitted that he found it somehow relaxing, especially with no phone service on the voyage.

The comments come after Sam defended the project, amid criticism against Cook’s sometimes violent impact on the region. ‘Cook did, rightly or wrongly, change everything. And he has become a symbol for something that he probably didn’t deserve,’ Sam told the Herald Sun earlier this month.

‘I personally don’t think it’s fair for Cook to take the blame for everything. You can’t blame Cook for massacres of Aboriginal people, and these things happened.’ Sam decided to retrace Cook’s journey on the 250th anniversary of the British explorer’s first voyage, interviewing native people to gauge their opinion on the controversial figure.

Sam acknowledged the fact it’s no longer ‘cool’ to be a Captain Cook supporter, but insisted he’s not bothered by popular opinion. He came away from the trip with both a renewed fondness for Cook, and a newfound respect and understanding of the cultures he impacted, for better or worse.

Sam travelled to Tahiti, Tonga, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, The Arctic and Alaska. ‘I think he was actually an extraordinary man, and often had extraordinary insights into the cultures and the people he was encountering,’ he said.

Source: DM


Sam Neill says he is fascinated with those “initial awkward, often funny, sometimes tragic first encounters” between Captain Cook, his crew, and the people they met in the Pacific.

When we think about Cook’s time in the Pacific, ‘funny’ isn’t usually the first, or even the second, word that comes to mind. But in this six-part series helmed by Neill, viewers discover the very human, and sometimes humorous, side of Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific.

“One of the funniest ones takes place off Cape Kidnappers,” says Neill, grinning as he recalls an encounter between the crew of the Endeavour and local Māori. “One of the warriors onboard the canoe bared his buttocks to show what he thought of the English and one of the English returned the gesture by baring his bum over the side of the Endeavour, which enraged both sides,” he laughs.

“They were just so angry. There were stones being thrown. It probably wasn’t very funny at the time, but it strikes me as hilarious now.”

In his new series Uncharted, Neill opens with the disclaimer that he is “not a historian or an expert”, but it soon becomes apparent that he has a vast knowledge and genuine interest in this subject.

A storyteller both on-screen and in real life, the 70-year-old actor, known for a wide range of movies including Jurassic Park and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, imbues an old story with new energy.

“As someone said, ‘There’s not a feathered quill in sight or a piece of parchment’,” says producer Owen Hughes. “I think one of the lovely things about it is that it’s very much a contemporary story so it’s not really stuck in the past.”

Uncharted marks the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first journey to the Pacific, during which time he visited New Zealand, Australia and Tahiti. In Tahiti he recorded the transit of Venus, a navigational breakthrough which helped to accurately calculate longitude.

“It’s a boys’ own adventure. What could be better than the story of James Cook?” says Neill. “Cook is so integrally part of all our history and that moment when Cook first sailed in the Pacific was a watershed moment, for good or ill, for a third of the planet.”

Neill visited all of the places that Cook saw in his subsequent journeys to the Pacific and some that he didn’t, including Antarctica and Mt Yasur, a volcano on Vanuatu that Cook was forbidden to climb.

Neill also sailed on many different vessels as he followed Cook’s path, but the container ships and fishing boats he travelled on couldn’t truly capture the experiences of the sailors of yore.

“We just got a little intimation of it but it’s unimaginable the sheer hardship, what sailing would have been like for these blokes – 100 men on a tiny vessel, along with livestock.”

As for his own seafaring adventures, Neill wryly remarks, “I’m probably better on dry land.”

Given that Cook is viewed as the catalyst for colonisation in the Pacific, Neill encounters mixed feelings about the navigator and explorer. This series aims to provide perspective from “both sides of the beach”.

Neill is full of admiration for the achievements of the man who “came from humble beginnings” but acknowledges throughout that Cook and his crew carry much of Europe’s ills with them.

“People were so isolated in the Pacific so they were incredibly vulnerable to all the crap that the Europeans had with them – syphilis and gonorrhea just to mention a few, the common cold. These things kill isolated people.”

Hughes says the response they had from some of the people they interviewed was, “Not dissimilar I suppose to the reaction that Cook himself got when he went around.

“We tried to find a variety of people, what Sam would call ‘Cook-lovers and Cook-haters’. So we had an ear out for the Cook-haters. We wanted to hear what they had to say.”

Having sailed in Cook’s wake and followed in his footsteps, how has this experience coloured Neill’s view?

“Cook was an extraordinary figure and his achievements are legion. I can’t do anything else but admire him, but in a qualified sense. That’s to say he had his bad days when he got things wrong. I think in some parts he got too much credit when I was growing up.

“And he doesn’t get enough credit in other places now. History keeps turning on its head.”

Uncharted, Prime, September 2.

Source: Stuff NZ


Few performers can match the easy charm of Sam Neill either on camera or off, but he is braced for outrage in response to his latest outing, as presenter of a six-part documentary series retracing the epic voyages of Captain James Cook.

“Let me say firmly and squarely that there’s hardly a minute in all of this six hours that isn’t going to give offence to someone,” he says. “Some people will say, ‘These people are apologists for colonialism, they’re burnishing the reputation of Cook’. Others will say, ‘This is political correctness gone mad’.

“There’s hardly a minute that’s not going to infuriate someone. But that’s good. If it’s controversial, that’s great.”

The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook is no straight history. Rather it’s an attempt to look at Cook’s three great voyages, as the tagline says, “from both sides of the beach” – to consider not just the voyages but their impact on the indigenous cultures they encountered and, inevitably, changed.

At 70, Neill is as in-demand an actor as he’s ever been, having just wrapped roles in Rachel Griffiths’ feature directing debut Ride Like a Girl (about Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Michelle Payne) and Rachel Ward’s adaptation of Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Palm Beach. His recent screen roles include the curmudgeonly Hec in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Tiny Rowland in the miniseries House of Bond, and the Bible-quoting settler in Warwick Thornton’s magnificent Sweet Country.

But by the time the idea for The Pacific was born, says Neill – who started his career as a maker of documentaries in New Zealand – “I was a little bit over acting – not overacting; I’ve never overacted – and I just wanted to take a break. So I more or less put a year aside for this.”

Filming took place in bursts, with Neill and the crew (including directors Kriv Stenders and Sally Aitken) travelling by container ship and plane to the far-flung locations for interviews with talent lined up by a team of researchers and writers. But they didn’t really know what they were getting until they sat down to talk about what Cook’s “discovery” of their lands has meant for the various indigenous cultures of the Pacific.

And what a lot of beach there is. Cook’s first journey, from 1768 to 1771, took him to Polynesia, New Zealand and up along the east coast of Australia; his second, 1772-75, skirted Antarctica; the third, 1776-79, took in Hawaii and the west coast of North America, passed through the Bering Strait and then returned to Hawaii, where Cook’s peregrinations concluded rather abruptly with his murder and, appropriately enough, the roasting of his body (for preservation of the bones, not cannibalism).

That’s a lot of ground – or ocean – to cover, and it made for a big, and at times unwieldy, exercise.

In New Zealand, the series is called Uncharted. “That reflects two things,” says Neill. “The fact Cook was sailing into waters uncharted by Europeans, and the fact that I was myself sailing into uncharted waters. I didn’t know what I was going to find.”

“And to be perfectly honest we didn’t quite realise how disparate the various versions of Cook’s journeys are until we got into it, nor did we properly gauge how deeply felt things are,” he says.

“I didn’t fully understand how much there are Cook fanatics who see him as close to Superman, and there are people who see him as demonic.”

And your take on the man?

“I don’t think either is entirely fair,” he says. “The truth lies somewhere in between.”


Some of these encounters are absolutely delightful, and surprising in the way they hold in balance seemingly massive contradictions. He encounters a tribe in Vanuatu, for instance, that has gone back to the traditional ways of “kastom” (if you’ve seen the movie Tanna, you’ll recognise some of the faces), but whose number includes eight men from three generations of the same family who are all called Captain Cook.

The series covers a lot of ground – and water – though not of all of it by rowboat.

In one extraordinary scene, he talks to a Maori woman descended from a white whaler, who says people like her – hybrids – are in an ideal state to adapt to the modern world. But, he tells me, she also gave him one of his biggest jolts, when he shared with her the views of a Samoan friend who said it could have been worse, in that it could have been the French who staked a claim, “because they never leave”.

“And she looked me square in the eye, there was very loaded pause, and she said, ‘And yet, here you are’,” says Neill. “I’m still bleeding a little bit from that wound.”

But the most personally moving moment of the series, and the experience of making it, is one whose significance he is still struggling to understand.

In the second episode he catches up with Gordon Toi, a Maori tattooist and actor who became a friend after the pair met on the set of The Piano in 1992. Toi gives Neill a tattoo (it’s his first), a Maori symbol on his forearm. Neill is in tears – and it’s not from pain.

Sam Neill may sprinkle most of what he says with humour, but he is in deadly earnest when talking politics.

“I’m still at a loss as to exactly what it was that made having that tattoo so emotional, what its importance was,” he says. But he cites the idea floated by Dame Anne Salmond in her book The Trial of the Cannibal Dog that Cook, the agent of British colonialism, was in fact reverse-colonised by the lands he visited.

“And maybe what is engraved on my arm is indicative of something like that in me,” he says.

Neill claims to have emerged from the year-long journey feeling “optimistic” about the future of the Pacific nations and their indigenous peoples.

“While impact has had horrendous consequences in different places, not least of them being the wholesale destruction of culture, what you see now all around the Pacific is a resurgence of those cultures,” he says.

Though the notion that the region was “discovered” by Cook is patently nonsense – “you can’t discover something that’s already been discovered”, he says – the reality is that advances in the technology of sailing and navigation meant that encounters with Europeans were always going to happen.

Neill says he and his fellow program makers had initially considered starting the series with the statue of Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park, and its “rather awkward” inscription about the Yorkshireman having “discovered” territories that had in fact been settled for thousands of years. But once the statue became a focus for an outbreak of the history wars, they realised that ship had already sailed.

At any rate, he says, “I didn’t think it was my function to proselytise in any sense. If we offend both ends of the spectrum, we’ve done our job.”


Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

You can purchase tickets and photo ops here.

As is the case with many a beloved screen actor, everyone has their own mental image of Sam Neill. For some, it’s of the prickly paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park. For others, it’s of desperate, spiralling Mark from Possession, or grumpy Uncle Hec from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. (For my mother, it’s “the man who raises those pigs”; for my New Zealander best friend, “our national treasure.”) His latest role — as a religious rancher dealing with the fallout from the murder of a white man by an aboriginal farmer in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country — is just as indelible as any of those, not least because the film itself is so thoughtful and delicately crafted. (It continues screening this week at the IFC Center.) It’s as much a simple western as it is an indictment of Australia’s checkered historical conflicts between colonizers and the indigenous population.

How much research did you do in preparation for this role? Your character doesn’t play a huge part in the film, but he is present throughout.

Warwick doesn’t see any of his characters as particularly black or white, though this is a film clearly about black and white relations. My guy is a rancher. He’s also deeply religious, and he believes in certain verities like the dignity and equality of man. But you should be cautious, because he, of course, is one of the characters instrumental in bringing Christianity into remote places like this, and that was not necessarily, in the long run, enormously beneficial to the indigenous people that were scared of him.

You’re from New Zealand. How much did you already know about the history of Australia with regard to the indigenous people before you came onto the project?

A certain amount. This film is part of a wide discussion, in that there is quite a bit of Australia’s dark past that has become increasingly the subject of discussion, and it’s really only now that people are becoming aware of what happened. It’s not dissimilar to the United States. It involved land clearance; it was not just chopping down trees. It was also eliminating the people that lived there, and in the drive West, that’s what happened. People drove West in the United States, and it involved dead people, and the destruction of cultures. This film, made by an aboriginal director, is part of that discussion. It’s only really in the last ten years that, as an outsider and a non-Australian, I’m aware of people really talking about the massacres that took place.

How did you end up involved in the project to begin with?

How do you get involved in anything? I knew of Warwick Thornton’s work — not just as a cinematographer, [though] I knew it would be a beautiful-looking film. He made a real landmark film called Samson and Delilah [in 2009], and I thought that he’s one of the truly original voices in Australian cinema. I was keen to work with him. It’s not just polemic; I’ve always wanted to do a western, and this is definitely a western of sorts. It takes all sorts of tropes from the western genre, like posses and a hanging judge and all those things, but it kind of subverts and turns them on their head. I think it’s a very interesting film, one of the best films that have come out of Australia for many years.

That rainbow was quite a thing, wasn’t it? I think the greatest stroke of luck that we had, and we were very lucky in many ways, was — you can get completely ravaged by flies. I’ve worked in the outback many times, and one of my vivid memories is of Meryl Streep [during the shoot for A Cry in the Dark], covered from head to foot in black flies, trying not to scream. That’s one of the things that can happen. [But we had] a relatively fly-free environment.

Do you think about genre a lot in the projects you take? I feel like you’ve done almost everything at this point.

I’ve always wanted to do a western. I’ve always loved westerns. It’s one of the genres that, of all the American genres, probably travelled best. And just on a sort of daily basis, I love working with horses. They’re really fun [films] to make.

I know that you own a farm as well. Do you have any horses? I’ve seen a lot of pictures of the pigs.

I’ve got almost every animal. I’d love some horses, but I’m away a lot. I’m starting a new film [this week], and I’m going to be doing two films in a row. My work takes me away from the farm a lot, and I would dearly love horses, but there’s no one on the farm that really understands horses, and of all animals, they need the most care and attention.

I’m hoping that Sweet Country has a wider reach outside of Australia. Do you think about the impact a film will have? Jurassic Park, for instance, is now this juggernaut franchise, and an all-time classic.

Well, this certainly won’t be a franchise [Laughs]. I think it’s an interesting film, because you can read it on one level as a simple, very straightforward western, and it can be completely enjoyed at that level. But you can also read it as a very profound and political manifesto. It works on a number of different levels, and if you just want to look at a great western, there it is, but if you want something that’s thought-provoking, it offers that as well. Speaking of westerns, I’ve become a big fan of this thing called Godless, on Netflix, which I recommend. I absolutely loved that. So perhaps we’re seeing a revival of westerns. I hope so.

number of different levels,” Neill says of Warwick Thornton’s film. Michael Corridore

Do you have any thoughts about returning to sci-fi? There was a period in the Eighties and Nineties — with In the Mouth of Madness, Possession, and Event Horizon — where you were in pretty strange science-fiction–y movies.

You’ve also done some writing. I read the column that you did for the Spectator a few years back. What led to that?

There was a woman who thought I might be able to write things, and I did that for a few years. That was fun.

Would you consider doing it again?

I’ve found once a quarter is about right. I don’t have a lot to say about many things. [Laughs] Once every three months, I come up with an idea. I kind of liked writing for them. Although its politics are rather different from my own, I’ve always found it a very entertaining magazine.

Have you ever thought about writing a book or a screenplay?

I have, and then I’ve quickly shelved it. [Laughs] I think 2,000 words is my limit.

You seem to be doing well with 280 characters as well, as you’re very active on social media. How did you get on Twitter to begin with?

I preferred it when it was 140, actually. Brevity is the soul of wit. Given that I’m on a coast, looking at an azure sea, I haven’t been on Twitter for about 24 hours, but I’m fine now. I’m hopping back on it.

Speaking of mediums, you’ve done a lot of TV as well as film. Have you found that you prefer one to the other?

When I started in movies, it was like, if you’ve done any television at all, you’ve kind of placed yourself. You were never allowed back into movies. But now, people are sort of moving with ease and grace between one medium and another. There are so many platforms now; you’d be a fool to be too precious about it. Something like Peaky Blinders, I loved doing that, and you wouldn’t get a chance to do work like that in the movies, necessarily. I’m very happy doing some television.

Do you find that people recognize you more from one thing or the other?

You’ve been making wine for over a quarter century. Where did that interest come from?

I’ve always loved wine, and my family were in wine and spirits for 150 years before I started to grow wine, so it seemed like a fairly natural thing to do. It’s engaging. I’m away from the vineyards a lot, but I love being there and being involved in all parts of the process. Finally, we’re getting the sort of recognition that I think we deserve. For the second year in a row, we got 95 points from the Wine Spectator in New York. That’s very satisfying. Movies and wine have that in common: We like nothing better than a good review.

Do you read reviews of your own work?

I try to avoid them, but sometimes they come up! I’ve read very little about Sweet Country, but I keep getting messages from Warwick going, “You gotta read this.” There’s been a fantastic response to this film.

Has there been any review of your work that’s stuck with you?

Only bad ones. One of my closest friends is a film critic; he reviews on radio in New Zealand. Years ago, I just happened to be listening to his reviews that week, and his phrase was “woefully miscast.” I’ve never let him forget that. [Laughs] I’ll be in Wellington, and I’ll call him up and say, “It’s your woefully miscast friend. Would you like to get a coffee?”

How does he respond to that?

He’ll go to his grave with that tattooed on his heart. I’ll never forgive him.

One’s called Ride Like a Girl. Rachel Griffiths is directing. The great horse race in Australia is the Melbourne Cup. It’s like the Kentucky Derby. And it’s about the first woman who ever won that, something like three years ago. And the second film is called Palm Beach, that will be filmed in Palm Beach, north of Sydney, with lots of very old friends. Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward, Richard E. Grant, Jackie McKenzie. And then after that, I’ll be free in August. So, all those nice indie directors in New York, tell them I’m available.

Source: villagevoice.com


The ‘Peaky Blinders’ star on his New Zealand oasis, Jacinda Ardern and tech titans buying bolt holes against catastrophe

It’s pouring with rain, and Sam Neill is chasing a white duck around a lake on his vineyard home near Clyde in New Zealand. “Come on Charlie, I know you missed me,” shouts the actor and winemaker, who has just returned from Australia, where he spends a lot of time working. “I give my animals the names of my friends so they don’t end up on the dinner plate,” explains the 70-year-old with a chuckle as he sweeps Charlie, named after his good mate Charlie Pickering, an Australian comedian, up into his arms.


The emotional reunion between man and beast stands in contrast to Neill’s characterisation in his latest movie, Peter Rabbit. In this adaptation of the Beatrix Potter book, he stars in the role of crazed, bulging-eyed gardener, Mr McGregor, who declares war on the local rabbit population that are eating his vegetables. Lake Dunstan and the view north looking towards the vineyard and farm which Neill bought from the New Zealand government in 2000, the animals, which include pigs named Anjelica Huston and Imogen Poots, appear to be doted on by their celebrity proprietor.

Neill has worked with some of the world’s best actors and directors on big box office smashes, including Jurassic Park, as well as critically acclaimed art-house movies, such as The Piano. He is also a star in the popular British television drama Peaky Blinders. But at Two Paddocks there is little acting memorabilia on display. Instead, it is a shrine to one of Neill’s other great passions: making wine. “I take great pride in the wine that we make. When you get 95 points from Wine Spectator in New York two years in a row you are clearly making one of the great Pinot Noirs of the world — so, ambition fulfilled,” says Neill. Neill’s vinyl collection and music station in the day room

Neill owns four small organic vineyards in New Zealand’s Central Otago region, which produce Pinot Noir and a little bit of Riesling. He planted his first grapes in 1993 and sells his wine in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. “People are taking the wine seriously, as they should, and that has taken a while,” he says. “People tend to underestimate actors. They say ‘he is an actor, what would he know?’” For someone who has spent his career zooming between filming locations around the world — more than 60 countries at the last count — Two Paddocks is an important anchor for Neill.


Neill is separated from his second wife Noriko Watanabe, with whom he has one daughter. He has three other children and four grandchildren and there is a regular procession of family members through his vineyard, which is located at the foot of a gorge underneath the snow-capped peaks of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. “I am well planted in the land. In this little oasis,” he says. Neill would not comment on media reports that he is dating one of Australia’s most prominent political journalists, Laura Tingle. Neill lives in a converted tractor shed on the vineyard, which he describes as his “man cave”. The corrugated iron structure has an open plan living room and kitchen and a single bedroom.

The living room is bright and airy with skylights, large windows, wooden floors and minimalist decor that includes two small modern sofas, a table and two red leather chairs. A large wood-burning stove provides heat for the cold winters in the Queenstown region. Neill owns a record player, a large vinyl collection and a lot of books. One of his favourite books is The Last September by the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen. “I’m really interested in the crumbling remains of the Ascendancy [in Ireland]. So much great literature came out of that era,” says Neill, who was born in Northern Ireland and moved to New Zealand when he was six or seven years old. He says the shock of moving at a young age to a rather brutal New Zealand school, as a shy kid who spoke like a Pom, probably turned him into an actor. “I had to learn fast to become a New Zealander.

I’m convinced that is the seeds of acting,” he says. The walls of the “man cave” are decorated with art, including work by Gavin Chilcott and Neil Dawson, two prominent New Zealand artists. Dawson is famous for making large-scale sculptures using aluminium and steel for civic use. One of these large metal pieces — a weathervane in the shape of a feather — sits proudly on a hill within the vineyard’s grounds. Neill is also interested in Indigenous art.

“I’ve been looking at the effects of colonialism a lot this year,” says Neill, who is making a documentary about Captain Cook for television and recently completed Sweet Country, a western set in the Australian outback in the 1920s in which he plays the role of a preacher. “The damage wreaked by colonialism, and in particular by missionaries, is so clearly evident all around the Pacific,” he says. “There has been a lot of not thinking about this in Australia. But this needs to be thought about and addressed. You cannot leave these as open wounds.” Neill’s modest living quarters are surrounded by beautiful native trees, including beech, rata and kowhai, which provide shade in the summer. Fields surrounding the garden produce a rich harvest of lavender, saffron, figs and other exotic fruits.

“Every time I come back here these trees are a little more mature. I’m planting a lot more native trees and the native birds are coming back — these things give me immense pleasure,” he says. A birthday gift to Neill titled ‘A Day in the Life’, by Blair Sommerville is an environmental advocate, who recently starred in a Greenpeace advert calling for a ban on single use plastic bags. He is an advocate for organic farming and would like to see politicians and business leaders take climate change more seriously. “I’m not a wild-eyed crazy hippy, but I do think we have to be extremely sceptical about the use of chemicals,” he says. “We all have to be concerned about the planet. It astonishes me we are all still being sold trickle-down economics, which is all about greed, and the environment and everyone else can go to hell in a hand-basket.


I have four grandchildren and I’m very concerned about their futures.” Neill is a fan of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, who he describes as a “rock star” who is pressing all the right buttons. “What a breath of fresh air. The world is run by too many boring, white, middle-aged men like me.” Ralphie the vineyard dog © Vaughan Brookfield Last week Neill hosted an event with former US president Barack Obama, who was on a visit to New Zealand. But he is scathing about the state of politics in the US, saying Trump doesn’t have a “f***ing clue”, and worries the UK is headed for “catastrophe” with Brexit. “I think the EU combined with Nato is one of the great achievements of the 20th century,” he says. When asked if he knows any of the rich foreigners, such as US technology guru Peter Thiel, who have bought “ bolt hole mansions” in this region in case of global catastrophe, Neill is dismissive.

“They are not my people,” he says. “Some of them are here because they think the world is going to shit. But why would anyone want to be the last person left alive on earth? What’s the point? ” Neill says he has no regrets about his acting career and considers himself lucky to have missed out on playing James Bond, a role he auditioned for which was eventually secured by Timothy Dalton. “I dodged a bullet that was never fired,” he says. “You’d walk into a room and people would say ‘that is the James Bond I never liked,’” laughs Neill.

He has no plans to retire any time soon and is currently working on a movie about the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup horse race, Michelle Payne. “I’ve had really great times in the most unlikely places. Actors are really very enjoyable people to be with: they are fun, usually intelligent and they tell great stories. They also like a drink or two. What is not to like?” Jamie Smyth is the FT’s Australia and Pacific Islands correspondent

Source: Financial Times Australia

The New Zealand actor on global politics, his earliest memory, and life on his farm.

Sam Neill was born in 1947 in Omagh in Northern Ireland, and moved with his parents to New Zealand when he was seven. He made his acting debut in the 1977 New Zealand film “Sleeping Dogs”. Since then, he has starred in major Hollywood films, including “Jurassic Park”, as well as British TV shows such as “Peaky Blinders” and the BBC miniseries “And Then There Were None”.

What’s your earliest memory?

My earliest memory is serious whooping cough aged two or three in a little room in the upper floor of a little house on the rocks off the coast in County Durham.

Who were your heroes?

My older brother. He persists in that role to this day. He’s an academic. He’s always taught English. His sidebar interests are in Jacobean literature and contemporary African literature. He was always interested in drama and music, which eventually became my interests as well.

What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

I just put down Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. It’s a remarkable read. I haven’t read a single line there that I think would be fictitious. It’s a book for our time.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?

I’m very encouraged by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She is fierce and compassionate. What she is not, and what we’ve had for far too long in New Zealand politics, as well as politics everywhere, is male, pale and stale. The world has been run far too long by dull white men of a certain age.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

I know a little about a lot of things. I’m like a plank of wood, I’m rather thick.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

The Victorians get a bad rep. Prudish, people say. I don’t know how they bred so well, if they’re so prim and proper. They had inquisitive minds. They were inventing types of science!

What TV show could you not live without?
I’m a bit of a political junkie. Though in many ways it can be deeply depressing, current politics is as good an entertainment as we can wish for. In Australia, it is an ongoing soap opera. In America, the problem is that there it matters so much. And Brexit is so compelling to read about and follow.

Who would paint your portrait?

Could you ask David Hockney if he’d like to volunteer?

What’s your theme tune?

Anything with a ukulele. I enjoy a tune by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra called the “The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas”. If you want a cheer up, I recommend that.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I actually read it the other day. One sentence that really struck me: Happiness is the feeling you get when you get something done. It could be any number of things. Happiness is getting the dishes not just washed, but dried and got away. I do know when I have five things not done, my mind is in a state of disarray. It’s a pretty simple formula. And it works.

What’s currently bugging you?

I’m addicted to Twitter, but I’m not sure if it’s healthy or a good thing.

What single thing would make your life better?

If the world was run by more sensible people. People with more brain and know-how.

When were you happiest?

I think, probably, a couple of a days ago. I had achieved a couple of jobs around the farm. I felt pretty good about that. I shepherded the sheep by myself. I have an electric bike. I hung a couple of pictures and they look good.

I didn’t really choose my job. I wouldn’t choose my job. I’d just wait until one turns up. I think an architect: I enjoy mid twentieth century modernist architecture.

Are we all doomed?

I certainly hope not. Hopefully those with fingers on triggers are surrounded by sensible people.

Sam Neill’s latest film, “Sweet Country”, is out now in UK cinemas.

Source: New Statesman

In a few weeks, Sam Neill’s acting career will break the 80-film barrier – but until now, he has never appeared in a western. In Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, the New Zealand actor plays a missionary making a new life for himself on the Australian frontier in the 1920s, until he’s drawn into the search for an Aboriginal stockman, Sam Kelly, who against a backdrop of simmering racial tension becomes implicated in the death of a white farmer.

On the morning of Sweet Country’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, I sat down with Neill in a quiet courtyard of the city’s Excelsior Hotel to discuss the film, and how he found its provocative story striking all kinds of chords with his own life and beliefs.

From there, it was only a short conversational stroll to some other deeply serious topics, including wine, comedy, his disastrous James Bond audition, and Jurassic Park.

The Australian landscape and climate play such a central role in Sweet Country, both in terms of its look and also the way they reflect what’s going on beneath its surface. Sometimes it almost feels too perfect – in one scene, there’s a rainbow just hanging in the sky above your character’s head, lending an extra sting of irony to the scene that couldn’t have been any better planned.

That was absolutely real. And when opportunities like that present themselves, you have to seize them with both cameras. We certainly didn’t have the money for a CGI rainbow.

Did it actually happen on the day you were supposed to be filming that scene, or did Warwick have to suddenly scramble the cast and crew to get the shot?

I think it was the same day. You know, it barely rains out near Alice Springs, and while we were there we had a downpour like I’d never seen it. A once-every-ten-years things. We were driving back from set and what had been dips in the road that morning had become pools of water so deep they came halfway up the doors of our Land Rovers. But nothing is done by half measures in Australia.

I mean, talk about an upside-down world. Everything is entirely different from anything I’m familiar with at all: I was born in the UK, I live in a green country, New Zealand, and faced with the enormity, the aridity, the profound age of this weathered place, I was in a state of agog-ment. Is that a word? It’ll do for now.

It’s a beautiful landscape, but a deadly one too.

Alice is right in the middle of Australia, and we were never more than two hours away from there, and yet we were able to shoot everything you see in the movie. But the gorge where our characters’ search party meets the Aboriginal warriors – in that same gorge, a few weeks after we left it, a German couple were there on holiday, went walking, got lost, and died of dehydration.

The temperatures there hit more than 40 degrees. They left Hamburg, flew to Australia, then to Alice, then travelled to the gorge, and they were dead within 48 hours of leaving Germany.

The film pulls no punches in its depiction of the tensions between Aboriginal Australians and white settlers, yet it doesn’t feel like a “message movie”. Did you feel duty-bound to make the film in a way that would address this still very live issue, or were you mostly concerned with honouring the story at hand?

It’s all very complex, particularly because the story is based on something that actually happened in Central Australia in the 1920s. [The film’s lead character, Sam Kelly, played by Hamilton Morris, is based on an indigenous stockman from the Northern Territory called Wilaberta Jack: if you want to remain spoiler-free, don’t look him up yet.] Look: at the end of the day it’s a movie, it’s a western, it’s entertainment. But anything that touches on a the relationship between white settlers and the traditional owners of that land will have a political dimension to it.

How controversial is it for an Australian film to depict this kind of material so frankly?

We are in the middle of a history war in Australia, just as America is. There was a Captain Cook monument defaced only this week in Sydney’s Hyde Park, and that shocked me when I saw it – it’s a wonderful statue of Cook, whom I personally admire. But I know he didn’t discover Australia, yet on the base of this statue it says “Discovered these territories, 1770.”

Australian history did not begin in 1770. It’s widely accepted that Aboriginal people have been there for 80,000 years, and there’s a chap currently working on a theory that it may have been 125,000 years. So we are talking about a presence there 123,000 years before Christ. And theirs is a fascinating culture, one that treads lightly on its environment, that cares for its country and its community, and that saw no reason to build great monuments or buildings because they lived in harmony with their surroundings. And this film deals with a very violent episode in which all of these things are impacted.

You’ve played characters with cowboy-ish tendencies before, not least Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. But this is your first full-blooded western. Has the genre always appealed?

I’ve always loved them. I ran into Clint Eastwood a few years ago, and we were chatting away, and I said, “Clint, you know, I’ve made a lot of films but never a western, and it’s a bit of an unrealised ambition.” And he demystified it totally. He said, “You just wear a big hat

And no-one does it better than Clint! There’s something of his hard-bitten westerns with Sergio Leone in Sweet Country, I think – particularly the idea that it’s possible that the morality of this frontier world isn’t as simple as white hats and black hats…

…or good cowboys and bad Indians. My first encounter with westerns was through Roy Rodgers, where things were always pretty clear-cut, if not clean-cut. But Leone and Clint signalled a sea change. And I suppose this film takes certain tropes from those films and turns them upside down again. I think if there’s a single thread running through my work, it’s that I’ve always looked for the dark side in bright characters, or some brightness in dark characters, or some humour in someone who is leadenly serious. Because I think there’ no such thing as white hats or black hats.

Your character in Sweet Country, Fred Smith, is a preacher, and almost certainly thinks of himself as a good man – or at least someone who is doing the right thing by bringing the word of God to the Aboriginal people. But we often get the impression that his faith is somehow absurdly out of context in this place – like in that wonderful scene in which he sings verse after verse Jesus Loves Me This I Know around the fire, to the growing dismay of his campmates.

Look, I don’t want to sound like I know everything about this – the older I get the more I realise the less I know. But my observation is that Christianity, or at least the church, has not done a great deal of good for indigenous people around the Pacific. I’ll be sent to hell for this, and of course there are good and bad missionaries, but missionary work, though it’s by and large carried out by well-intended people, they’re not necessarily doing the best thing. So I’m slightly troubled by my character’s faith. I don’t have any particular faith.

Were you ever religious yourself?

Growing up I was Anglican. What I’ve always liked about Anglicanism is that it’s not very dogmatic, although having said that, there are fundamentalist Anglicans in Australia. But I think what distinguishes Fred from the other so-called whitefellas is he actually sees the Aboriginal people as human. You need to bear in mind that Aboriginal people did not get the vote in their own country until 1967. They have only been recognised as citizens of their own land for the last 50 years. That is something I just cannot get to grips with. So at least he’s a humane man who recognises humanity.

As well as acting, for the last 25 years you’ve been producing wine in New Zealand at your vineyard Two Paddocks. Has that business given you the kind of respect for the land that seems to elude some of the characters in Sweet Country?

Oh yeah. I mean, without sounding like a wanker – though I appreciate I probably sounded like a wanker fro the word go – I love the Aboriginal idea that you don’t own country, country owns you. And increasingly that’s how I feel about my farm: it’s the place in the world that doesn’t belong to me, but I belong to it. I’m very happy in the slow rhythm of life in that place.

On your Twitter and Instagram accounts you often post affectionate pictures of you livestock, many of which seem to be named after other actors. How did that start?

I don’t know, really. But I’ve found that if you’ve got a new calf called Laura Dern, with the best will in the world, you can’t eat Laura Dern. [There is a long pause while Neill grins.] I’m not going to go there. But I only name them after friends I’ve worked with, really. Apart from Amy Schumer. I don’t know Amy Schumer, but there was a chicken that just struck me as being like Amy Schumer. I told her, “You’re Amy Schumer!” And there was a blink of recognition.

The New Zealand sense of humour seems to be having a bit of an international moment right now – not least thanks to Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, in which you had a cameo after starring in his Hunt for the Wilderpeople the year beforehand. Can you pin down exactly what it is?

One of the farmers in Sweet Country has what we’d identify now as post-traumatic stress disorder – he’s come out of the trenches of the First World War and is very, very damaged. And my parents’ generation who’d been bombed, or people like my father who’d fought in the Second World War and seen things that people should never have to see in their lifetime – that entire generation was damaged by that. Just the sound of a car backfiring after that must have been alarming. So having been through all that, the dullness of a sleepy suburban afternoon in New Zealand must have seemed like all you could ever want.

No. Don’t ask! It was all a bad dream. The lesson I learnt that day was never be bullied by your agent into going along to something you don’t want to do ever again. That was the last time.

The role didn’t feel like you?

Absolutely not. And it’s been really interesting being here at the film festival – my friend and I Bryan Brown, we can go into Venice and do whatever we want. We can live a life. And without naming names, some of the people who have been our hotel for the last couple of days, there is no money on earth that could compensate me for the lives they have to live. There are guests on my corridor with six security guards outside their door. Six! And those are the people they now live with.

When you get there, you’ve lost all semblance of life. So I’m very comfortable with whatever career that I have. Because it’s permitted me great privilege with very little loss. But to be a movie star at that level you make a covenant, an agreement with some hellish angel that you cannot get out of. And I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

After the success of Jurassic Park, did you have to take stock career-wise? Were there any further hellish angel offers?

Actually no, I just muddled along, like I’m muddling along now. But Jurassic Park was always going to be its own thing. It was Steven Spielberg and it was dinosaurs. We had a very good idea when we were making it how it might be received. But it made me realise that sometimes the fabulously popular entertainment can also be the art that endures.

It’s like prog rock versus the pop music of the same era. The very serious music dies off, but the pop of the same time? You cannot kill it. Of course not all blockbusters endure, just like not all art films die. But these things are unpredictable.

You have a very fetching tattoo peeping out from the bottom of your shirt sleeve. Can I ask what it is?

It’s a Maori design. The tattooist is a friend of mine, Gordon Toi, who I met when I was filming The Piano. [He plays one of the Maori characters, Te Kori.] I was filming with him again not so long ago and I just decided to ask him on the spur of the moment if he would do me something, and he said “What do you want?” And I said, “Gordon, you’ve known me for 25 years, you know better than me.” But the symbol is about mapping my journey. Again, at the risk of sounding like a wanker, my origins are Anglo-Saxon and Irish, but I really am a man of the Pacific now. It’s an identity thing, you might say.

Source: The Telegraph

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