Unlike most American born actors, who only go on to achieve success here in the U.S., veteran actor Sam Neill, has put a new meaning to the new millennium terminology, “Global Positioning.”
Neill, a native of beautiful New Zealand, has starred in 78 films and produced or directed nearly two dozen more in a theatrical career that began in 1974 and has spanned nearly 30 countries.
In an exclusive interview, Neill, who may be known to most Americans for his many roles in films like Jurassic Park I and III and the recently released television mini-series, Triangle, shared a multitude of his thoughts on his career, his homeland and the acting business in general.
EW: You’ve had a very long and distinguished career. Looking over your history, it looks like you career isn’t the typical “acting career.” You have been all over the place. (Laughing).
SN: I guess I’ve always thought of it as kind of a fluke. You often end up doing the job that you do by process of elimination. It was clear I was never going to be a brain surgeon or a mechanic, so what I was left with was acting. I was a documentary film director for a while with no particular distinction and I ended up acting.
EW: Well, I must say that you are a phenomenal actor.
SN: It’s nice of you to Say so, but I’ve never thought of myself that way.
EW: You’ve been in the business about 31 years. You started off with the directing and then you went into acting. How did that come about?
SN: I was acting before, when I left the University, after a year or two of taking Shakespeare around school and that kind of stuff, but I was really more interested in film and I had a couple of fiends that were working in documentary and I felt that was something I should probably do because I didn’t have much aptitude for anything else. When I got the opportunity to get back to acting, I pretty much seized that.
EW: Tell me a little bit about your personal life Sam. Are you married and do you have children?
SN: I guess my background would be middle-class. My father was in the military and I grew up in a small town in New Zealand. I’m married and I have four children.
EW: From looking at some of the films you’ve done in your career, you’ve worked in many countries.
SN: I’ve worked in 20 or 30 different countries now but I base myself in New Zealand. If you want to be really serious about a film career, you should probably live in Los Angeles, but I prefer to live here and probably have a slightly less high-octane career because of that. I’m leaving for South Africa at the end of this week and then I’m going to Belgium and France to do a film, so I kind of like the commuting. I love traveling but at the same time, I love to come home and I don’t really feel much at home anywhere else other than New Zealand.
EW: Obviously, it’s worked out well for you regardless.
SN: I’m pretty happy with it.
EW: Do you think you would be in more American films if you lived exclusively in Los Angeles.
SN: Without a doubt, but I still work some over there and I love America and I love being with Americans.
EW: How has doing work in different countries benefited your career?
SN: I don’t know if it has benefited me in terms of my acting and my career but it has certainly broadened my horizons and I tend to see things from an international perspective now. I do regret when I see the world polarizing one way or another politically because I think the more I travel, the more I realize we have in common as members of the same species.
EW: What are you currently working on?
SN: I’m about to do a film with a young, very highly regarded French director. It’s a film in English called Angel. There’s a new English girl that has the lead and Charlotte Ramsey will be playing my wife, so that’s going to be pretty cool. I did about three or four films for television last year and I expect that it will be something similar this year.
EW: It seems to me that you’ve done a wonderful job of blending in films and television roles where a lot of actors are either one or the other.
SN: I think there’s always been a kind of apartheid between film and television in America. It’s not something that you’ll find in England for instance where actors move very happily from stage to television to theater and they don’t think twice of it – and I did live in England for a while before I did anything in America. It struck me as very puzzling. It was apparent that if you did television, it was like catching a disease (laughing). I think that’s changed now. For instance, if you look at the Golden Globes today, I think you’ll find a number of actors there who have been doing both. I think those perceptions have changed a lot and it has a lot to do with HBO and some of the smarter channels.
EW: Tell me the feeling of landing your first acting role.
SN: My first feature film was Sleeping Dogs. When I landed that role, I was excited for about five minutes and then I went into a tailspin of abject terror. After that, I was cast in another film a year or two later called My Brilliant Career in Australia and I knew from reading the script it would be kind of a breakthrough thing for me and it was.
EW: Tell me about your love for New Zealand and was the filming of The Lord of the Rings a huge source of pride for New Zealanders?
SN: Absolutely. It’s been a huge thing here. We’re a country of only 4 million people and to have something of that colossal scale and ambition and achievement to come out of New Zealand was something that we couldn’t have been more surprised or excited about. Of course now, Peter has produced King Kong and we have Narnia as well, so we’re flying high here.
EW: Did you ever get a chance to stop by the sets of any of those films.
SN: The first thing was, they wanted me to do a part in the Lord of the Rings but I wasn’t available because I had a previous commitment. I live near a place called Queens Town and it’s a very beautiful part of New Zealand and they shot quite a bit of the Lord of the Rings just down the road from my house. However, I never got to visit the set, which I regret.
EW: Once again Sam, from looking at your biography, it looks like you’ve done two or three productions every year whether it’s film, theater or television.
SN: I enjoy working a lot. I get fairly antsy when I’m not. Having said that, when I’m not working, I am now the proprietor of three little vineyards which I’m very proud of. I don’t like my hand to be idle. I think it’s some sort of sad Protestant work ethic that I never knew I had. I’ve always thought of myself as lazy, but you’re right. When you look at it, I’m actually fairly busy.
EW: You didn’t have a lot of formal acting training.
SN: No I didn’t. I’m like Grandma Moses where I’m self-taught.
EW: What advice do you have for young aspiring actors?
SN: My advice is … first of all, don’t do it. It is an unusually cruel profession and very few people manage to sustain a career let alone support themselves. If you must do it and some of us must, then enjoy it.
EW: Would you suggest that people take formal training classes?
SN: Oh, yes. There is a sort of school of thought that acting should be some sort of therapy. I’ve never thought it had any therapeutic value at all. It’s just about showing off and trying to get away with it.
EW: Thank you Sam for your time and I wish you and your family the very best.
SN: Thank you very much and I wish you and yours the very best as well. Take care, Eric.