Belfast Telegraph

Sam Neill: Thankfully I did not get to play James Bond, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it

Northern Ireland-born actor Sam reveals bond secret

By Gail Henderson

Sam Neill hates the moustache he’s sporting when Sunday Life meets him for an interview.

The Hollywood actor, who’s starred in films such as Jurassic Park, The Omen III, The Piano and Dead Calm, explains he’s grown the offending facial hair for a TV series he’s currently filming in which he plays a Belfast cop.

When told it’s actually quite impressive, the New Zealand actor reveals it’s been described as a “friendly but dead rat”.

It’s 8.30 in the morning and Sam is just about to leave Portadown’s Seagoe Hotel and hit the road to promote his award-winning Two Paddocks wine.

Born in Northern Ireland into an army family in 1947, (his New Zealander father Dermot was in the Royal Irish Fusiliers) Sam says it feels like coming home.

His earliest memories are of playing on Tyrella Beach in Co Down where his family lived in a former Customs and Excise building called the Watch House.

Bizarrely, he also reveals that his first school was Armagh Girls’ High School — but that doesn’t seem to have had any detrimental effects.

“I don’t think I was too traumatised by it,” Sam says. “I think there were little boys there but I don’t know why. It does sound terribly wrong.

“My parents somehow talked me into it by saying AGHS stands for Armagh General High School.

“It was only later they told me it was a girls’ school. I think that was when I started to like girls — I still do by the way!”

During the interview Sam also reveals:

  • how he overcame a stammer to become a Hollywood star;
  • the moving discovery he made after his father’s death;
  • why a Porsche he once bought only lasted weeks; and
  • why he thinks he would have made a terrible 007.

Sam was seven when his parents moved the family back to New Zealand — a move Sam says was “something of a shock”.

He quickly shed his Ulster accent to fit in and points to this period in his life to explain why he became an actor.

“I think that’s why a lot of people become actors, because they have disrupted childhoods in some way,” he says.

“Try and fit in in a New Zealand playground with an Armagh accent — it doesn’t work. You get rid of it as soon as you can and learn to act.

“I think a lot of actors moved around because their parents were diplomats or something. It’s survival of the best actor — it’s Darwinian.”

Sam also had another obstacle to overcome — a severe stutter and today he’s the patron of a charity called Clearspeech.

“One of my children stuttered and we took her to a voice therapist who said it was an inherited condition and asked if either of us stuttered or had in the past,” he says.

“I had to put my hand up — I could hardly speak when I was a kid.

“It just went away — acting might have had something to do with it. I did find that when I went on stage it disappeared.

“It is treatable — that’s the mes

sage to stutterers.” For the teenage Sam, acting appealed as it gave him the opportunity to mix with the opposite sex.

“I was a boarder and you never got to see anybody apart from these other unpleasant, adolescent youths like yourself but if you got into the school play these nice girls from our sister school would join you on stage and it was excellent.

“It’s sad but true.”

Having said that, Sam would rather forget his first role ... as a bridesmaid in HMS Pinafore.

“It wasn’t a big success, wearing a frock,” he admits. “Mind you, when I got to wear Cardinal Wolsey’s big red frock (in the series The Tudors) I’d done it before!

“I didn’t really intend to be an actor,” Sam admits.

“When I left university I was working for a documentary film company for six or seven years to the great relief of my father whose greatest waking fear was that I would become an actor.

“I got the job just before Christmas and my father said, ‘My boy, this is the best Christmas present’.”

Small parts in plays and films led to the lead role in the feature film Sleeping Dogs and more work after which Sam resigned and moved to Australia.

And how did his father react to the move?

“He started to see me in films that would come to the local Odeon and realised that I might be on to something,” Sam replies.

He adds that it wasn't until his father’s death 15 years ago that he realised how proud he had been.

“I would call him up sometimes and say ‘I’m in Lisbon doing a film’ or ‘I’m in Rome — I met the Pope yesterday’ and he would say ‘That's jolly good, I was there in 1945’. He would never say, ‘What’s the film you’re doing?’.

“It got to the point where I was never quite sure if he knew what I did because we never talked about it.

“When he died I had to clear out his study and I found to my complete surprise, a scrapbook in the bottom drawer and for years he had been cutting things out of the paper about my career and sticking them in the scrapbook.

“He was obviously paying more attention than I thought.”

Today a photograph of his father as a small boy features on the label of his Pinot Noir wine. Sam bought the vineyard in 1993 when he was 46 but he denies it was part of a mid-life crisis.

“You can’t pick up girls with a vineyard,” he laughs.

“I did buy a sports car once but it wasn’t a crisis — I thought, I have some money so I’m going buy a sports car, and it lasted three weeks.

“I just felt like a Porsche driver and it was a very uncomfortable sensation. A Porsche driver feels like someone that everybody else hates.

“You stop at the lights and people say who is that in that car? It was horrible. I felt like a p***k in a sports car! I took it back and got something else.”

As well as being a reluctant Porsche driver, Sam admits he reluctantly auditioned for the role of James Bond.

“My agent put me up for it,” he recalls.

“Thankfully I didn’t get offered the part. There were lots of other people who were much better and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

“You would get stuck with that label. I just did a job with Pierce (Brosnan), he’s a great fellow.

“If you walk through London with Pierce people shout at him. Why would you want that?

“That’s the worst — losing your anonymity. When people say these huge stars get paid too much, in my view you can’t pay them enough for that sort of life.

“People turn into fools when they see a movie star and do weird things.”

With that, the interview comes to an end and it’s time for photographs.

But that “dead rat” is clearly still on Sam’s mind while he’s in front of the camera.

“No intelligent man wears a moustache voluntarily — you can write that down,” he says.

And with that, he and his moustache set off to showcase Two Paddocks wine to the rest of Northern Ireland.

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