Unusually in this year of shuttered cinemas, Sam Neill is the star of a No 1 box-office smash. The film in question, Jurassic Park, was first released in 1993, and has played exclusively at drive-in cinemas this year, but a chart-topper is a chart-topper. “Isn’t that funny?” says the 72-year-old, stroking his impressive white beard and speaking via Zoom from Sydney, where he has been holed up throughout lockdown with his girlfriend, the political TV journalist Laura Tingle, far from his own home in New Zealand. “And here’s the other thing I discovered,” he continues. “Which Australian film of mine do you think is the most successful in terms of box office?”
Perhaps it was My Brilliant Career, the 1979 period drama that inspired James Mason to pay Neill’s way to the UK to boost his prospects. It worked, by the way: Neill, who was born in Northern Ireland but had been living in New Zealand since he was seven, won the lead in the third Omen movie, The Final Conflict, where he played the son of Satan as if he were the loneliest man in the world. Or maybe his biggest Australian money-spinner was A Cry in the Dark, in which he and Meryl Streep did some of their fiercest work as the real-life couple falsely accused of killing their own baby and blaming it on dingoes. There was Aussie money, too, in Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning The Piano, featuring Neill as a cuckolded colonialist. But no: each of these, he reveals, was roundly trounced at the box office by Peter Rabbit, a US-Australian co-production, in which Neill wore a fat-suit to play a curmudgeonly farmer. “I wouldn’t have guessed myself,” he says, eyes twinkling with mischief.
We are speaking a few days after the streaming release of his latest film, Ride Like a Girl, in which he plays the New Zealand horse-trainer Paddy Payne, whose daughter, the jockey Michelle Payne, became the first – and, to date, only – woman to win the Melbourne Cup. “Michelle is an extraordinarily courageous young woman,” Neill says. “She broke nearly every bone in her body at some point or other, and nearly died after one accident.” He spent a day with her father, a wry, taciturn fellow, before filming began. “We circled round each other. He was deeply suspicious of me, and I was slightly in awe of him. He said: ‘I’ve never seen any of your movies, Sam, but they tell me you’re going pretty good.’ I’m not sure if that was an endorsement.”
There is another film on Neill’s mind right now: tomorrow he will fly to the UK to belatedly begin shooting Jurassic World: Dominion alongside Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum, his co-stars from the original movie. What on earth could have tempted his character, the palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant, to return after almost ending up as an hors d’oeuvre in two previous Jurassic outings? “That’s a good question,” he chuckles. “I can’t give anything away, but a real-life dinosaur is a compelling thing to someone who has devoted his life to them. There will be screaming. We know this.”
Quarantine rules are being waived for some productions shooting in the UK, but Neill is adhering to them anyway. “I feel it’s incumbent upon me to do so,” he says. “It’s only fair.” Besides, he believes we’re in the most difficult stretch of the pandemic to date. “The full-blown crisis was strangely energising. I’ve spoken to people who are missing lockdown; they liked being at home, and now we’re in this no man’s land where no one knows, and we’re getting mixed messages from people in charge. There’s the human impulse to think: ‘Well, that’s done and dusted.’ And, of course, it isn’t.” At least in the country he calls home, he has a leader who instils confidence. “Jacinda Ardern has done an extraordinary job. She’s been a great exemplar for the world, and I’m a great admirer of her. We are, of course, expecting an election in September and there are people at work undermining her. But she has my vote unreservedly.”
Although Neill has never wanted for admiration from audiences, lockdown has added a new layer to his appeal. Of all the celebrities who posted videos during those months of confinement and dread, none committed to the project with quite the degree of fun and fervour shown by him. Nor has any other figure in the entertainment industry emerged from that period with their place in the public’s affections so enhanced. Over the past few months, he has become social media’s designated cheerer-upper, a kind of international treasure.
“If I do cheer up two or three distressed souls, that’s a good thing,” he smiles. “I’ve been on Twitter for a few years, but it has become so toxic. I have firm views on all the things that people shout at each other about, but we really don’t need someone else shouting. It’s quite good for someone to say: ‘Listen, we’ll get through this, it’ll be all right.’ And I’ve been astonished at the response. People saying, ‘Thanks for making me laugh today, it’s been bloody grim at my place.’ I’m happy to make a fool of myself if it helps.”
It does. For many who follow him on social media, there is no face they would rather see as a distraction from the end of the world, whether he’s reading poetry and bedtime stories, strumming Radiohead’s Creep on his ukulele or lending a voice to Sir Gerald, a garden gnome who recently dipped a ceramic toe into the dating scene. Neill has also enlisted a star-studded supporting cast, each filming their contributions from their own kitchens, for his Cinema Quarantino series of quirky two-minute films. In one, Helena Bonham Carter plays Neill’s new phone, jealous of all the earlier models; another features unorthodox dieting tips from Stephen Fry.
There’s something faintly touching about the latest episode, which has Neill for once sharing the same physical space as his co-stars – in this case, his old friends Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward. But when I ask if he has missed tactility, especially the hugs and air-kisses common to his profession, he squirms in his chair and grimaces magnificently. “Look, I went to boarding school for God’s sake,” he laughs. “At the end of the holidays, I’d catch the train back to school and my father and I would shake hands at the station. That was me, at nine years of age. ‘Goodbye, Dad.’ ‘Goodbye, old boy.’ Wouldn’t see him again for three months. So, no. I do not hug easily or comfortably. I’m not a man-hugger, let’s put it that way.”
Animals are a different matter. Neill is very much missing the livestock back on his farm in Central Otago, on New Zealand’s South Island, where under ordinary circumstances he would spend half the year. Those animals not intended for the dinner table are named after friends of his: Taika Waititi, who directed Neill in the whimsical comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, has a porcine counterpart waddling around the farm; Bonham Carter has lent her name to a cow. This system results in bulletins that can be disturbing at first glance. Last year, for instance, Neill revealed that Hugo Weaving had died in the act of mounting a sheep, while Meryl Streep was killed by a ferret.
There has been a bereavement this week, as it happens. “My bull Jimmy Nesbitt had to be put down. He had arthritis – you don’t think of arthritic bulls, do you? – and he could barely walk. He was an enormous old boy; his grave is absolutely immense.” The bad news doesn’t stop there. “I’m afraid old age also appears to be taking its toll on Helena Bonham Carter. I suspect she won’t make it through the winter.” Are his famous friends kept abreast of the fortunes of their animal namesakes? “Helena is always very keen to know. I’m loth to break the news to her.” His mood has become momentarily downcast, but he rallies suddenly. “We’ve got young ones coming up. Three new muscovy ducks named after Australian comedians. They’re all becoming friends.” He smiles. “So there’s always life on the farm.”
His land incorporates four modest-sized organic vineyards from which he has been producing his own wine for 27 years under the Two Paddocks label – so called because his friend the film-maker Roger Donaldson had planted on the land next door. Donaldson named his wine Sleeping Dogs after his 1977 thriller, in which Neill, wide-eyed and bushy-haired in his first lead role, played a wanderer thrust into the chaos of a violent revolution in New Zealand. The picture was a baptism of fire for Neill, who had only ever acted in shorts before. “I had no idea what I was doing and that’s self-evident.” He gives a shrug. “I could’ve been worse, I suppose.”
Wine is about conviviality, good company, stories. A life well-lived
There he was, facing off for his first film against the great, grizzled Warren Oates, veteran of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. “There are certain scenes where, if you look closely, Warren has his hands out of shot,” he says. “What he’d do was take a big drag on his doobie – he smoked the whole way through shooting – and then it was, ‘Action!’ and he’d put his hands behind his back and deliver his lines. Then, ‘Cut!’ and the smoke would appear again. I think he took the job in exchange for a big bag of marijuana.” Oates died five years later. “I never saw him again,” Neill says. “His last words to me, as he got in the car with a joint in his hand, were: ‘I’ll see you in the movies, Sam.’ I thought: ‘Unlikely. But thanks for saying it.’”
The approval of first Oates and then Mason went some way towards countering his own insecurities. Mason was also there at the beginning of Neill’s life as a wine connoisseur as well as a performer. It was in the senior actor’s presence, at the age of 29, that he first realised wine could be “akin to poetry”. Vintners often talk about “the bottle that changed their life”, he says. “That glass with James, that bottle, changed mine.” He wishes he’d made a note of what it was. No matter. “Wine is so much more than what’s in here,” he says, reaching for a glass of his own Two Paddocks from off-camera and holding it up for me to inspect. “It’s a great enhancer. It’s central to civilised life. Wine is about conviviality, good company, stories. A life well-lived.” It’s getting into evening in Sydney now, and he has pushed his cup of coffee aside to admire that rich-looking red. Even though it’s breakfast time in London, I raise my glass of tap water anyway: to a life well-lived.
Ride Like a Girl is available via Premium On Demand now.