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If there were an Olympic competition for world’s most laid-back, likable dude, the U.S. would probably send Jeff Bridges, but he’d get some fierce — which is to say, low-pressure charming — competition from Sam Neill of New Zealand. The remarkably hale 74-year-old Kiwi actor is regarded as something of a national treasure down under, the mere mention of his name apt to induce ready smiles and an involuntary twinkle in the eye.
Neill’s nearly 50-year career on screen has brought him some era-defining Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Hunt for Red October and Jurassic Park I, II & III, as well as prestige TV roles on shows such as Peaky Blinders, and memorable voice performances on animations including The Simpsons, Rick and Morty and Peter Rabbit. But he’s also routinely returned to the comparatively small New Zealand industry where he began, appearing in both local indie projects and international breakthroughs, including Jane Campion’s landmark Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Piano and Taika Waititi’s hit adventure comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Meanwhile, regular work in Australian film and TV (The Hunter, The Daughter) has resulted in New Zealand’s neighbor and rival laying claim to him as one of their own.
In recent years, Neill has developed a surprising second celebrity thanks to the social media dispatches he issues from his home in Alexandra, New Zealand, where he operates his own farm and vineyard, Two Paddocks, set amidst the South Island’s stunning natural beauty. Sometimes he’ll post a video of himself feeding his pet pig, or perhaps a photo of the two of them doing yoga together. Other times, he’ll play a little ditty on the ukulele to cheer himself up, maybe with some support from his pal Jeff Goldblum.
LOCKDOWN BLUES ? Look , this might help , just a little . Or not . Tough times , really . But the little things can help get us through . Try this and let me know how you go. pic.twitter.com/PwNbfaq8jl
— Sam Neill (@TwoPaddocks) January 11, 2021
At the Berlin Film Festival’s virtual European Film Market, currently underway, Neill’s recent feature The Portable Door is making its sales debut courtesy of Arclight. Directed by Australian filmmaker Jeffrey Walker, the film is a fantasy adventure co-starring Christoph Waltz, Miranda Otto (The Lord of the Rings franchise), Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and Chris Pang (Crazy Rich Asians), with newcomers Patrick Gibson and Sophie Wilde in the lead. Based on a series of YA novels by Tom Holt, the film’s story follows two put-upon interns (Gibson and Wilde) at a mysterious London firm, J.W. Wells & Co., who become steadily aware that their employer is anything but conventional. The charismatic villains who run the company (Waltz and Neill) are disrupting the world of magic by bringing modern corporate strategy to ancient practices.
Ahead of the Berlin market, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Neill via phone from Australia, where he’s currently shooting Foxtel’s courtroom drama series, The Twelve, for a brief chat about The Portable Door, his upcoming return to the Jurassic Park franchise and some tips from his farm on getting more enjoyment out of life.
Not too much about the The Portable Door and the details of its world have been shared. So, to start, could you tell us a little more about your character and what appealed to you about playing him?
Well, I’ll tell you a little more about the film. Our lead is played by a very charming young Irish actor named Patrick Gibson. This young character lives in London and he’s looking for a job, and he sort of chances his way into a position at a company which he doesn’t quite understand. It’s called HW Wells and they’re like Barclays Bank. They’ve been there forever and it seems like a stuffy, Edwardian sort of company and everyone who works for them looks completely authentic and straight out of HG Wells. But nothing is quite as it seems, and his job is not going to be what he was promised. He learns that this is a company that doesn’t have an underbelly — it has an underworld. And what happens in that underworld is very interventionist, shall we say, with what happens in the upper world, the one that you and I live in.
There’s also a nascent love story running through it, between Patrick’s character and a young woman played by a fantastic actress named Sophie Wilde. But it’s above all else an adventure story.
And your character?
My character works in the company and is seemingly one of those puffed up middle manager blowhards who wears three-piece suits and takes a lot of pride in that, but there is considerably more to him. And Christophe Waltz, who is my boss — and to whom I toady in a very unattractive way (laughs) — turns out to be not all that he seems either. He looks very polished, respectable and successful, but there’s quite a lot of darker things going on there. So, yeah, it’s very funny in parts, but it should be exciting and not quite like anything you’ve seen. It’s certainly not at all like anything I’ve been in before. And, of course, it’s produced by the Jim Henson Company, so expect to see various creatures and beings that will be a surprise to all. It has the invention and fantasy that Jim Henson is known for. And I was really taken with our young leads, Patrick and Sophie. We’ll be seeing a great deal more from them. They’re fabulous.
The film’s official summary says that the characters played by you and Christoph Waltz are “disrupting the ancient magical world with modern corporate practices.” It sounds like there might be a timely critique of corporate greed in there too. Was this aspect of the story something that resonated with you?
Well, like so many big corporations that we’re familiar with today, this one has a very ambitious and ruthless agenda. I don’t imagine they pay much tax, for example (laughs). They’re alarming and will stop at nothing, so I think you could correctly read it as allegorical.
You mentioned Hunt for the Wilderpeople and some of your fellow Kiwi and Australian stars. It’s striking how, in addition to your Hollywood and international work, you’ve consistently come back to New Zealand to appear in smaller productions all the way through your career. Has that been a deliberate effort to help support the industry you came from, to an extent?
I think that’s two things. I come back to Australia and New Zealand often to work because they’re both sort of home for me. They’re familiar, and I feel comfortable working here.
But in fairness, yeah, there’s probably a bit of that — wanting to give back, as you said. But, I don’t know, that sounds a bit more altruistic than simply having a very fortunate career, which is how I feel about it. I’ve been very, very lucky. I’m always in work, and my work continues to take me all over the world. But I do enjoy coming home whenever I can. I’m shooting a 10-hour series in Sydney at the moment, and it’s summertime here, and it’s so good to be back.
So, I know it’s a little early to talk Jurassic World: Dominion, but I have to ask something. You and that original cast were indelible and so perfect for Spielberg’s original film, and now you’re coming back for the new one. What was it like, after 20 years?
I think it’s been nearly 30 years.
Oh, god, you’re right…
I know… (laughs) Well, we had a blast. I was pleased to do it for a number of reasons. First of all, to be with my old friends Laura [Dern] and Jeff [Goldblum], you know. We were — this was in the middle of the pandemic — we were locked up in a hotel together in somewhat idyllic rural England and everyone all got on really well. The new cast I liked very much; and the established Jurassic World cast, they’re just the nicest people. Bryce [Dallas Howard] and Chris [Pratt] are absolute sweethearts. Because we were so beleaguered by COVID at this point, we felt we were on our own brave enterprise in a way, and that brought us closer together than ever. It was really an unforgettable time and I’m very grateful for it.
I haven’t seen the finished film yet. I’m sure it’s a very ambitious, huge story, a lot of characters, a lot of dinosaurs. (Laughs) It’s going to be unquestionably big, so they’ve been holding it back until hopefully cinemas are fully open and all that. It’s something that needs to be seen on a very big screen.
When you think back to making the original Spielberg film all those years ago, do you see any ways in which you approach the work differently at this stage in your career?
Well, I don’t know how many films I’ve made in between. I’m always just pleased to be doing another job. Some jobs are more successful than others; some don’t get the showing they deserve and some do. It’s a crapshoot, making films. But I can’t think of anything more enjoyable. Hopefully I’m getting a little better at what I do. I don’t really look at my work, but hopefully I’m improving. I’m trying the best I can. (Laughs) It’s really just been one hell of a ride. And then to find yourself back with a bunch of dinosaurs and old friends? I couldn’t really think of anything more delightful.
Life is in the details, of course, but from a distance, it can certainly seem as if you’ve kind of got life figured out. You’ve got this long-running artistic career, you’ve always seemed pretty balanced in your values in the statements you make on social media and elsewhere, and then you have your life on your farm and vineyard. So, what I want to ask is: What are the Sam Neill secrets to the good life?
Well, you know, first, you must always “maintain a work-life balance.” (Laughs) Look, I think the most important key to living well is not taking yourself seriously or indeed your career or anything else particularly seriously. Life is pretty short, and if you’re not doing your best to to enjoy it and live it as fully as you can, you’re sort of cheating yourself. And yeah, my sort of farm life and wine-growing life, is separate — but it’s not unconnected to my day job of acting in films and television. One sort of informs the other and one throws the other into relief. When I’m away, I can’t wait to get back to the farm, and after some time at the farm, I can’t wait to get on a plane and start a new adventure with some new people in a new country.
It sounds like the coronavirus pandemic has kept you away from your farm in New Zealand for a while now?
Yeah, our borders in New Zealand begin to open up again at the end of this month, so I should finally be able to get back at the end of March — and I can’t wait. On the other hand, I’m playing a barrister at the moment on a series we’re shooting here in Australia called The Twelve, and I’ve never done a courtroom scene before and I’ve been enjoying every minute of it. So, as always, I’ll be sad to leave all of my new and old friends here, but I’ll be completely thrilled to get back to my pig, my sheep and my grapes.
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