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Sam Neill on what he's learned

The Tyrone-born actor on his Irish roots, his enduring career and his passion for wine

By Stephen Milton

Published 14/05/2016

Sam Neill takes on role in adaptation of Ibsen play
Sam Neill takes on role in adaptation of Ibsen play
Sam Neill with his wife Noriko Watanabe

Nigel John Dermot Neill was born in Tyrone in 1947. His father, an Army officer, was stationed in Northern Ireland at the time and the actor recalls an idyllic upbringing in Tyrella Beach, Co. Down, before the family relocated to his father's native New Zealand when he was seven years old.

Changing his name to Sam at age 10 - fearing Nigel was a little effete for the playground - he initially pursued a career as a film director before the acting bug took hold. Early film roles in Sleeping Dogs, My Brilliant Career and The Omen III earned him recognition, but it was his titular performance in 1980s miniseries Reilly, Ace of Spies that made him a household name and garnered the first of three Golden Globe nominations.

Neill (68) went on to star in a string of box office hits - Dead Calm, The Hunt for Red October, The Piano, Sirens, Event Horizon and, the biggest success of his career, Jurassic Park.

He later returned to his Irish roots to shoot The Tudors alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Wicklow.

His latest release, The Daughter, a modern adaptation of Ibsen's The Wild Duck, features an ensemble cast including Miranda Otto and Geoffrey Rush, and tells the story of a man returning home to discover a long-buried family secret.

He has one daughter, Elena (25), with make-up artist wife Noriko Watanabe and one son, Tim (33), from a previous relationship with actress Lisa Harrow. He also has a stepdaughter, Maiko, from Noriko's first marriage. He currently runs a successful vineyard, Two Paddocks, out of New Zealand's Central Otago region.

I've got three passports. New Zealand, British and Irish, and I'm happy to have all three in my wallet. But my DNA is decidedly Irish. I was born there. It's part of me and I'm part of it.

I'm attracted to the absurd, that's an Irish trait. And I'm fond of words and literature. That's all very Irish. I'm a bit of a fan of 'big house' novels, like JG Farrell's The Troubles. The works of Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane are my big weaknesses.

I had plenty of time off during The Tudors so I'd get a rental car and bugger off back to Tyrella Beach in Co. Down. It fills me with unbearable nostalgia. There's a Maori proverb that goes like this: 'What is the important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.' Those places are so connected with my family, my parents, and if they're not there, there's a terrible void and a terrible emptiness that I find almost unendurable.

Down was an idyllic place for a childhood. I was sad to leave, but it probably worked out as rather good timing. Had we stayed, it might have been an entirely different upbringing from the one I had.

I actually hitchhiked around Northern Ireland in 1975. I was very shocked and upset to see barbed wire and guns and armed vehicles. No one wants to see that in the home where you grew up.

I've such mixed feelings about the 1916 Easter Rising. I'm so distressed about what's happening in the world now, what happened in Belgium, in Nigeria. Anything involving guns and violence, it just distresses me.

I'm not religious. It disturbs me that so much damage is done in the name of religion. I like churches and cathedrals for their architecture and their singing and I love a good choir. But as far as the religious content, I abandoned that a long time ago.

My career has a certain durability, which pleases me. I think I've done all right, which is a surprise because when I started out, there wasn't any precedent for anyone coming out of New Zealand, in terms of screen careers.

James Mason took me under his wing. I'm still at a loss to explain what he saw in my work. His wife was Australian and they knew my agent in Australia, and he said to me: 'Why don't you come and stay with my wife and I and let me help you get an agent in England?'

Reilly, Ace of Spies was my breakthrough. And My Brilliant Career went to Cannes ... that certainly helped. If you're lucky, once in a while you get to do something that bubbles to the surface and keeps you in work.

I knew Jurassic Park had a very good shot at being successful. You had Steven Spielberg and dinosaurs. I was never asked back for Jurassic World, but I watched it and it was very good.

My agent put me up for an audition for Bond, but it wasn't for me. There were lots of other people who were much better and I wouldn't have enjoyed it.

Working with [director] Simon Stone on The Daughter is like working with Jane Campion on The Piano. He's very capable of profound work. It's based on Ibsen's The Wild Duck, but I never had a relationship with it. The only time I ever saw the play was in French. I understood almost nothing.

I already knew many of the actors involved in The Daughter. And, oddly enough, the house Geoffrey's character lives in is called Camden House, an hour outside of Sydney and that was my character's house in My Brilliant Career, which was the first film I shot in Australia. I hadn't been back there since 1978 and it was a curious return of the prodigal.

I think I'm a rather lazy person, but I get twitchy if I'm not working. Mind you, I'm always busy because I have my Two Paddocks wine. I would call it a modest success.

I have no head for business but I leave that to people that do. It's so entirely different from my day job. It's the agrarian and agricultural, imbibing end of things that interests me.

I learned there's always someone doing better than you are. Good luck to them, I'm very pleased for them, but I don't regret anything.

  • The Daughter is out May 27

Belfast Telegraph

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