From “The Piano” to “Jurassic Park”, revered actor Sam Neill talks about his new film “Dean Spanley”
Boasting an illustrious career that stretches back over thirty years, Sam Neill remains one of the world’s most revered actors. His CV includes work with some of the world’s most famous directors, including Jane Campion (The Piano), Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park) and Robert Redford (The Horse Whisperer). Born in Northern Ireland, but raised on New Zealand’s South Island when his family moved there, Neill began his life in film by spending seven years at the New Zealand National Film Unit. Later moving to Australia, he started his acting career with some of the country’s most prominent filmmakers: Roger Donaldson (Sleeping Dogs), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) and Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm) among them.
While Hollywood came calling, Neill has never forgotten his roots. Upcoming for Neill are several projects by Antipodean directors, including big budget vampire movie Daybreakers and children’s fantasy Under the Mountain. This month, Neill can be seen in Kiwi director Toa Fraser’s Dean Spanley, based on the novella by Lord Dunsany. Set in Edwardian-era England, Neill plays the title role, a cleric whose love for Hungarian desert wine sends him into a trance-like state – beginning a moving tale that brings a father and son (Peter O’Toole and Jeremy Northam) back together. Below Neill talks about what drew him to the film, and why he believes a good honest glass of wine has the power to transform.
Q: What convinced you to take on Dean Spanley?
A: I think Toa, for a start. First of all, I was daunted by it, and I wasn’t sure how to play this part, that I may not be the right man for the job. Then I was persuaded that perhaps I might be. The second thing was, this was my fifth film this year, so I was thinking that it might be time for a break. But what I overlooked is that I love working and when you do things back to back, in a sense it’s easier. You get match fit. It’s like a singer – if you’re doing your scales, it’s easier to hit the high notes.
Q: Did you already know Toa?
A: I’ve known Toa for a few years now. He comes more out of theatre really, so I was interested that he would have a…he brings an intellectual approach to what we’re doing.
Q: We’ve recently seen Australian director Stephan Elliott take on Noel Coward in Easy Virtue. What is it about Antipodean directors latching onto these English period pieces?
A: That’s a good question. I don’t know. Toa is half-English and so am I, so I have divided loyalties here.
Q: Was working with Peter O’Toole another attraction?
A: Of course. 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.
Q: You also just made The Tudors with him and another Dean Spanley co-star, Jeremy Northam…
A: I know Jeremy very well, and we get on really well. We ping off each other pretty good. He was Thomas More and I was Woolsey.
Q: Does it help that you’re old friends with these guys?
A: Absolutely. And 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. And Art [Malik] I’ve worked with before. It was immensely pleasurable. I really enjoyed myself.
Q: What sort of preparation can you do for a film like this?
A: About all one can do to prepare for something like this is to…there is no research you can do, but what I’ve drawn on is embedded in myself. A familiarity with odd people and dogs!
Q: Are you a dog lover then?
A: I have a Staffordshire bull terror of whom I’m inordinately fond!
Q: So you’re not a cat person then?
A: If I had to choose, I’d come firmly down on the side of the dog.
Q: There’s a cricket scene in the film. Did you indulge and play?
A: No cricket for me. Just as well. I used to play at school though I was never any good.
Q: Can you explain what the Dean drinks to take him into this strange reverie?
A: He likes Tokai – it’s a sort of Hungarian desert wine, one I know nothing about, but I’m prepared to believe it’s transcendent. It seems to have this magical effect on the Dean. He’s a fool for Tokai.
Q: That’s his spiritual lubricant, right?
A: Yes, the lubrication comes from wine, and I do strongly believe in the power of a good glass of wine to transform.
Q: Not least because you own your own vineyards, right?
A: Yes. I have three little vineyards, and we produce an excellent pinot noir. That’s my little sideline and it’s a great deal of fun – and it’s even more fun to drink!
Q: Do you know much about reincarnation, which the film touches on?
A: It’s not something I know a lot about, or indeed think a lot about. These are other people’s preoccupations. The things this film deals with are…eccentric might be a way of describing it. I think it’s also very funny, in an eccentric way. That’s something to do with being English – or Irish, as Dunsany was Anglo-Irish. So perhaps it’s that!
Q: How has Toa approached realising these more fantastical elements?
A: It all has to be grounded in some kind of reality, otherwise you’re just dealing in the surreal and the absurd. Though come to think of it there are some surreal elements…but it can’t be a lot of luvvies goofing off. That would be awful.
Q: It seems to be a very dialogue-driven film?
A: There’s as much dialogue in this film as I’ve done in the last five years across I don’t know how many films. 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. Once you realise you’re enjoying yourself – that’s terribly important.
Q: Is it unusual to play in such a dialogue-driven film?
A: It’s very unusual in that respect, in that it’s very dialogue heavy. Troy Kennedy Martin, who wrote Reilly, Ace of Spies [which Neill starred in] did a film that Clint Eastwood played the lead in. And Clint, before they started, gave him the script back and said, ‘Troy, I want you to cut down my lines. I only ever say 12 lines in a movie!’ Well, that’s one way of going about things, and it certainly worked for Clint. But this is diametrically opposed to that. This is all about ideas and stories.
Q: It’s quite moving towards the end, don’t you think?
A: I think in the final third is where everything starts to pay off. 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. 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?’ And he was thrilled that they had but was completely surprised.
Q: Did the film make you think about your own relationship with your father?
A: Of course, yeah. Since my father died – and he died about 15 years ago now – I’ve thought about him every day. I’d hardly thought about him while he was alive. Funny, isn’t it? The older I get, the more I realise there’s a little bit of my father in every performance I give.
Q: So what fed specifically into playing the Dean?
A: I would say there’s a little bit of my father in there. I would say there’s a fair bit of my dog in there – my Staffordshire Bull Terrier. I always loved those English actors from the Forties and Fifties. James Robertson Justice, Wilfrid Hyde-White…and I think there’s a bit of them in there. And then all the churchmen I remember from the place when I used to go to church. So it’s a bit of a mix.
Q: How do you approach making a period movie? Is it the same as a contemporary film?
A: I always think if you start thinking period…well, you have to respect the conventions and the manners of the time. But if you start thinking period, that way madness lies. I never think of myself as doing a period film. It’s like getting through a constipation that goes with corsets that are rather too tight. It’s much more interesting to think of being immediate. These curious relationships that people have with each other. One has to think of them as actual and present.
Q: Talking of period films, you made your breakthrough with My Brilliant Career. Do you consider it the turning point of your life?
A: Well, prior to that, there was Sleeping Dogs, which Roger Donaldson did, but I didn’t think that was going to lead to anything. My Brilliant Career certainly did, and it led me to England, and I was here for seven or eight years. And that was really what got me started.
Q: You’ve just made Daybreakers, a vampire film with the Australian-born Spierig brothers…
A: Yeah, they’re a couple of interesting guys – they’re identical twins. The only way you can tell them apart is that one has a girlfriend who’s a very good cook, so he’s a few pounds heavier! They do everything together. They write and direct; they’re like two halves of a very interesting brain. They’re very smart guys.
Q: Is it a big scale movie?
A: I would say it’s medium scale. It’s Hollywood money and it’s got a Hollywood-ish cast. There’s Willem Dafoe and Ethan Hawke. It also has some Australians. It’s a cool idea, where it’s a vampire world and I play an oligarch vampire who finds humans for blood. There’s a lot of money for blood in the vampire world.
Q: Do you like working with auteur directors?
A: Yes. I like the idea of auteur directors, and to be a part of their body of work is a pretty cool thing to do.
Q: You have also made Skin, with Sophie Okonedo. What’s that about?
A: It’s South African. A true story about a girl who was born ‘coloured’ but to a white family. And it deals with all the appalling things that happen to her as a result of this hideous system. I play the white father – I was Sophie Okonedo’s father! It could be terribly interesting.
Q: What did you do after you made Dean Spanley?
A: I took a little bit of time off, and then I did Robinson Crusoe for NBC, then I did Under the Mountain, a kids’ film, then went back to Crusoe. The last four months have been pretty flat out. Before that, I had about two months off.
Dean Spanley is at Irish cinemas from December 12th