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Tabula Rasa

Sam Neill

Man O-Men

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#4, 1994

He was wonderful to work with, extremely professional. He is certainly going to be an important figure in the next decade in the motion picture business. He walks into a room and everyone turns round.
Harvey Bernhard
producer, The Final Conflict, 1981

If an actor's filmography runs just over, numerically, the years of their career, it's a good sign. Sam Neill is one of those professional actors who may not be on the A-list, but who are always in work and have their own devotees. His trademark, instant style.

The Irish-born, New Zealand-bred actor is best known to horror fans as Damien Thorne in Omen III : The Final Conflict (Graham Baker) -- the child of the original grown into his powers, not the least of which is charm. It is a mesmerising performance, fortunately for the rest of the film. The review in the New York Times (March 20, 1981) makes note of how Damien exerts a hypnotic attraction on a number of large, black dogs, 'an effect the film is unlikely to have on the audience'. Mr Neill was thirty-four, and this was his first international role.

He had come to world attention in 1979, playing opposite Judy Davis in the role that made her career. Her Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong), you might say, one of those intermittent Australian features that make it overseas. He was the handsome squatter Harry Beecham, the temptation to be overcome, and provided it. This type of presence -- and the ability to wear period costume convincingly -- influenced the entire rest of his own career.

In interviews, which are infrequent, Mr Neill comes over as one of those inevitable actors. Nothing in his home environment suggested such a career; indeed, in answer to the young 'Nigel's' increasing interest in school and university productions, his father responded that no son of his would ever go on the stage. Sam was, in fact, a school nickname that was adopted. Neill in fact graduated from his BA, at Canterbury University, to work at a sensible job, whilst taking roles in University and independent films and even wrangling stints as a director out of the NZ National Film Unit's documentary section. His first lead role was in New Zealand in 1977. Sleeping Dogs was the first feature by Rodger Donaldson, who went on to do such as The Bounty and Cocktail. The offer for My Brilliant Career followed with steady Australian work until in 1980 he acquired his 'patron', the late, great British actor James Mason. The story runs that after seeing his performance in My Brilliant Career, Mason rang him up in Melbourne where he was working on the ABC series Lucinda Bradford, and offered to bring him to England and into the contacts he would need. Mason thought Neill would make the perfect James Bond. And he did eventually play Sidney Riley, the Ace of Spies, though not before an intriguing little piece called Possession. You can't play the Antichrist in a big-budget success and not get clamorous offers from any number of horror films. Possession was the one he did, in 1981, and it is available on video in Australia, if not quite as readily as Omen III.

In Possession, shot in Germany by Andrzej Zulawski, his screen presence is tested harshly by the camera and unsympathetically by the script. He comes out having turned harsh into realistic and sympathetic, in a drama which depends on three people being upset at each other in a small flat. Until the demon manifests physically -- it's not The Exorcist but it's a nice little piece.

Sam Neill made a perfect Briton in the BBC series Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983). This was when the tag of sexy Sam became widespread. He made Cleo magazine's list of most eligible bachelors. He also made the perfect slightly evil Eastern European, playing opposite Meryl Streep in the WWII film Plenty (Fred Schepisi, 1985). In the interim he had also done a French telemovie Le Sang des Autres (The Blood of Others, 1984), so we may speculate. His next Australian appearance was in 1985, the telemovie Robbery Under Arms (Donald Crombie, SAFC). There were other films, he even played the Pope in a TV show, which has to make the mind boggle, (From A Far Country, 1981). Of necessity I am selective.

Sam Neill is just not quite the boy next door. This is probably what has kept him from the mainstream 'hero' roles, he has to be some kind of an exotic. In this context I would like to mention the film The Umbrella Woman, (US title -- The Good Wife, Ken Cameron, 1986). In this case he plays Neville, a smooth, polished stranger in a small country town, who has taken a bar-tending job. He is new. He is different -- and local housewife Marge becomes obsessed. It was on the set of The Umbrella Woman that he met the artist Davida Allen, who provided a quite unique series of works 'starring Sam Neill'. Davida Allen has won the Archibald Prize, the premier Australian award for portraiture and regularly exhibits in the international Biennale (modernist and expressionist art). These paintings, 1986 -- 87 were openly a series of fantasies centring round the actor. One of her recurrent themes is expressing ideas of desire.

'Exotic' can have a number of implications, and this seems to be what Mr Neill himself is more interested in exploring -- at least, by the roles he has taken in the past six years. Then again, casting Sam Neill as a rather ordinary character is a good way to provide extra depth, such as the husband in Dead Calm (Phillip Noyce, 1987). While Nicole Kidman interacts with one of Billy Zane's early maniacs, Sam Neill interacts with a sinking ship in a way that has to be seen to be believed. Then there is his portrayal of Michael Chamberlain in Evil Angels (US title -- A Cry In The Dark, 1989), for which he won an AFI award. This film reunited him with Meryl Streep and Fred Schepisi, who with the actual Chamberlains took up most of the news space. Better, perhaps, than being upstaged by the special effects, the fate of all that wonderful group of actors they collected for Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993); or Elle Macpherson in Sirens (Jon Duigan, 1994).

In 1991 he played not the hero, but the narrator of Until the End of the World (Wim Wenders), a massive co-production exercise in search of high-definition television. This 'film', originally a 7 hour mini-series, deserved a bit more attention than it actually received, with a script by Peter Carey that fitted Neill like a glove.

But the role he has stated he particularly empathised with was Carl Fitzgerald in Death In Brunswick, another Australian film that made a splash in 1991, (John Ruane). Carl is an exotic, yes, in the form of an introduced weed. Something different, something awkward, that doesn't fit. That is the thrust of this wicked little comedy, recommended to all on the strength of the 'hiding the body' sequence.

Which brings us quite naturally to The Piano -- bodies and all.

His performance in this twisted, claustrophobic masterpiece is essential, and another he has admitted affected him deeply. In that corner of the triangle that would perhaps be read as the villain, he finds another exotic, out of place and wilting under the violent new influences in its environment. When an actor thanks the director, Jane Campion, for allowing them to achieve the performance they have, the audience is in for something special.

Sam Neill's simple sincerity, matched only by the late Peter Cushing's ability to take his role seriously no matter what (just see The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires), makes him an asset to any film. And it is nice to see he does not despise the genre that brought him originally to the big screen. In 1994, he has completed shooting John Carpenter's upcoming feature, In the Mouth of Madness, in which he plays a novelist, who gets a little too close to the Necronomicon in what can be described as a Lovecraft pastiche. Hopefully Australia will be included soon in the release, although almost certain to be straight to video.

So that is the Sam Neill story. No drugs, no scandals. Two marriages, in 1981 to the actor Lisa Harrow, who played the reporter and mother of Peter in Omen III; later divorced and married Noriko Watanabe, whom he met when she was working as make-up artist on Dead Calm. Houses in Sydney, Los Angeles and New Zealand, one son from the previous marriage, one daughter, one step-daughter. Few awards, but a long line of impressive and worthwhile performances, and a lingering reputation for a certain, non-mainstream sexiness. The simple fact it lingers makes it seem just that much more worthwhile.


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