Sam Neill may sprinkle most of what he says with humour, but he is in deadly earnest when talking politics. Photo: Steven Siewert Actor Sam Neill at Sake Restaurant in Double Bay. Photo: Steven Siewert
Dumplings at Sake. Photo: Steven Siewert
Brussels sprouts at Sake Photo: Steven Siewert
Sam Neill has the charmer’s way of remembering your name and using it often. Like when I take an edamame pod and accidentally drop the empty shell back in the food bowl rather than in the one for scraps. “You’re forgiven, Karl,” he says, the eyes twinkling, the smile crinkling through the grey beard.
It’s cold outside, and he’s wearing a black woollen overcoat; perhaps unwisely, he trimmed his facial hair this morning while wearing it. “It’s turned what’s a rather nice jacket into a sort of homeless jacket,” he says, picking at a stray follicle or two.
Like much of what he says, the observation is delivered wryly, with just a hint of mischief. It’s as if he has the inside word on a very funny joke that he’s giving serious thought to letting me in on. Oh please, Sam. Go on.
We’ve met for lunch at Sake, a Japanese restaurant in Double Bay that has just opened a sister venue in Melbourne on Flinders Lane (to add to the one beneath Hamer Hall). It’s been picked by an intermediary rather than either of us, but it’s an apposite venue: his wife is Japanese, and he’s a big fan of Japanese food, though she rarely cooks it at home.
“I have to take her out and lavish money on her at expensive places like this,” he says.
Today, we’ve ordered fairly simply: a selection of sashimi and dumplings, with a side of brussels sprouts.
“How good is that,” he says as a long plate of toro (tuna belly), kingfish, scallop and eel atop little mounds of rice is laid down in front of us. “One of the things I love about Japan is that extraordinary craftsmanship that goes with the food. It’s that 10-year apprenticeship spent getting the rice right before you get to put a single bit of fish on it. That extraordinary devotion they have to excellence.”
He likes the idea of the sensei, the master, “someone who is revered. My mother-in-law is always called ‘sensei’, and she’s a hairdresser. She’s also a sensei in traditional Japanese kimono and all that stuff they do with their hair. I call her sensei too. Sometimes. It’s important to respect your mother-in-law.”
Neill has a place in Sydney not far from where we’re dining. He’s had a home here since he first arrived in Australia in the late 1970s, a 30-year-old director of half a dozen documentaries – “not very good ones,” he says – and star of exactly one feature film.
Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs was the first New Zealand feature made in colour, and the first of any stripe in 17 years. “There was no film industry, virtually no television,” Neill says. “There was no possibility of making a living as an actor in New Zealand at that time.”
Soon after he arrived in Sydney he auditioned for, and won the male lead in, My Brilliant Career. “I couldn’t believe my luck – I was working in Australia on a real film, where people had made films before. It was a real wave of Australian culture and I was right in the middle of it, bodysurfing along with everyone else.” Forty years on, he says, “I still can’t believe I’m actually making a living as an actor”.
The friendships he made back then have stood the test of time – he’s just spent the weekend on Bryan Brown’s farm, and shows me a photo on his phone of a massive huntsman spider to prove it. “I love getting on planes, I love going somewhere new, but I’m really comfortable working in Australia and New Zealand,” he says. “I get to work with lots of friends here.”
With old mate Bryan Brown in the ABC TV series Old School.
In addition to the Sydney home, he has a number of properties in Queenstown, where he makes some acclaimed wines under the Two Paddocks label, has an organic fruit orchard, grows saffron and has just pressed his first batch of olive oil.
That’s a lot of bills to pay; do you ever take jobs just for the pay cheque?
“Robert Mitchum used to maintain that he never worried about the script – it was the money and where he was shooting,” he says. “‘St Tropez and a couple of mill? I’m your man’. I think he was underselling himself.
“I don’t think anyone does it just for the money. Sometimes you’ll do a job for f— all money. Wilderpeople was that sort of job. It was such a pleasure to do it that I would have done it for nothing, really.” He pauses. “But I don’t want to set a precedent here.”
In Hunt For the Wilderpeople, Neill plays Uncle Hector, a curmudgeonly old bushman who forms an unlikely bond with Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), the foster child sent from the city to live with him and his wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata) in the middle of nowhere. When she dies, and the authorities try to send Ricky to juvie, the pair go on the lam.
Taika Waititi’s film has become the biggest home-grown box-office hit in New Zealand history (eclipsing his own Boy, which now sits in second place). In Australia, it has already taken more than $4.5 million. It did better on its second weekend than its first, which is almost unheard of. It did better again on its third than its second, which is even rarer.
The film is based on a book by New Zealand author Barry Crump, Wild Pork and Watercress. “People my age were raised on Barry Crump,” Neill says. “He loved drinking, loved being in a pub, loved telling stories. Hector is definitely based on him, but I don’t think he’s got any stories – and if he had, he wouldn’t tell you.”
Hector is a dour bushman with a heart of gold, though it takes a while to detect a heart of any sort at all. He’s the still centre of a film that frequently teeters on the edge of utter, delirious chaos.
As Hector in Hunt For the Wilderpeople.
“I never really saw this film as a comedy,” Neill says. “I knew it would be funny but there’s too much poignancy and sadness for it to be entirely a comedy. These are damaged people. Everyone else could be funny, my job was to keep it real.”
Besides, according to one review he read recently, the last time Sam Neill was funny was in Death in Brunswick – and that was in 1990.
“Jesus, it’s a long time between drinks,” he says in mock outrage. “That’s 25 f—ing years and I haven’t had a laugh since.”
Speaking of drinks, do you think of yourself these days more as an actor who makes wine or as a winemaker who acts?
“The catch with doing two things is that people think you’re not quite serious about either of them,” he says, the twinkle and the crinkle working overtime. “But trust me, Karl, I am deadly serious about acting, I am deadly serious about winemaking, and I am more than deadly serious about myself.”
He’s been making wine for 23 years now, and he’s bursting with delight at the news that he’s just got a 97 for his top-line pinot noir. He describes himself as a farmer. “I’m no good at tools,” he says, “but I can grow things”.
I take him at his word on the wine and the acting, though I’m not sure how seriously Sam Neill really takes himself. But when it comes to politicians pandering to our worst instincts, he is deadly earnest indeed.
He describes as “utterly shameful” the support of both major parties in Australia for the “terrible incarceration in offshore concentration camps” of asylum seekers, though he wonders if, as a non-citizen, he even has the right to speak up. Then again, “any time I see the race card being played I start to see red”.
He publicly backed former Labor prime minister Helen Clark because “she stood for a New Zealand that was inclusive rather than exclusive, and I gave my family as being an exemplar of that. We’re Asian, we’re Maori, that’s how New Zealand is now. And I refuse to be divided.
“I hate borders. I hate walls between people,” he continues, warming to the theme. “Donald Trump wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico – what f—ing madness is that? Tear down the walls!”
For once there’s no twinkle in his eye. But there’s plenty of charm in that all the same.
Karl Quinn is on Facebook and on twitter @karlkwinThe bill, please
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