Revelling in his new role of entertaining the masses during lockdown, the Northern Ireland-born actor talks to Alexandra Pollard about news overload, season two of Flack and, ahem, Kylie Minogue's derriere
Sam Neill has appointed himself the world's lockdown jester. For the amusement of his half-a-million Twitter followers, the 72-year-old star of Jurassic Park and The Piano has been "making an idiot of myself on social media". Which means playing Uptown Funk on the ukulele; painting "post-postmodernist" portraits of Stephen Fry; reading Dr Seuss stories; making spoof movie trailers; setting his garden gnome up on a date; showing off his fridge magnet collection; and filming Cinema Quarantino Productions with Hugo Weaving and his other actor mates. Everything he posts is a thousand times more heartening than that Imagine video.
"People need a bit of cheering up, you know? They're sort of miserable," says Neill, sounding anything but miserable. There might be a gruff gravitas to his on-screen persona - sometimes, as seen when he flies into an axe-wielding rage in The Piano, a malevolence - but it can switch to mischievousness with the arch of an eyebrow. That's the Neill I'm speaking to today. He's isolating in Australia with his girlfriend, political journalist Laura Tingle, so he's away from his New Zealand home, as well as his vineyard, his pigs Angelica Huston and Imogen Poots, his rooster Michael Fassbender and his cow Helena Bonham Carter.
Neill was born in 1947 in Omagh, Co Tyrone to Army parents, NZ-born dad Dermot and mum Priscilla Beatrice. Although the family emigrated to New Zealand when he was seven, he has fond memories of growing up in Northern Ireland which he once described as his idea of the Garden of Eden. In an interview seven years ago he said: "I would range freely around the beautiful countryside, and I vividly remember, too, going with my brother to Tyrella beach - one of the greatest in the British Isles - and fishing for hours on the rocks; no one was there; it was ours."
Life is much more restricted now due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he's not letting that get to him. "If there is an upside to being effectively imprisoned, it's that you have to get a little bit inventive," says Neill, "and you've got time to do the things that you're far too busy to do otherwise. And all that busyness is just being busy getting to somewhere else where you're gonna be busy, and then getting back to be busy at home again. We have the opportunity to be a bit quiet for a bit, and to think about different stuff, and to play with our toys."
At the start of lockdown, he had plans to "binge television like there's no tomorrow". That didn't happen. "I've hardly turned on the television. I simply can't be bothered with television."
Presumably, he's hoping not everyone feels the same. We're here to talk about Flack - the comedy drama starring Anna Paquin as ruthless celebrity publicist Robyn, and Sophie Okonedo as her formidable boss Caroline - though his role in it is fairly minimal. Neill pops up in the second season which, despite being an improvement on the first, won't air in the US after being unceremoniously dropped by the cable network Pop. It's out on home video in the UK this week, though, and I'd recommend that you seek it out - if only for the chemistry between Okonedo and Neill, who plays Caroline's louche ex-husband Duncan, a man who "once snorted a gram of cocaine off Kylie Minogue's bottom and then rode a Shetland pony into a swimming pool".
"Kylie's a friend of mine," says Neill with a giggle. He giggles a lot. "And I thought she wouldn't mind, but perhaps she'll take terrible exception to it. But she does have a famously good bottom. I was worried they'd cut it out, but it's still there, is it?" I guess he really hasn't switched on his TV.
"I thought the series sounded fun," he says when I ask what drew him to Duncan. "The world of celebrity that is portrayed in Flack, I know it exists, but I am not conversing with it at all. It's not my life. I have a handful of friends who are celebrities - I do not envy their lives at all. So, it's all a bit unfamiliar to me, I have to say - but it is amusing."
More than anything, he took the job because it meant working with Paquin again. The pair first met on The Piano, the Jane Campion romance in which he played her colonist stepfather Alisdair, and for which Paquin won an Oscar at the age of 11. "It was the very first job she did, so it's sort of closing a circle, really," says Neill. "She's a mother of children and all that stuff, so that was a reunion which I found very pleasurable."
The Piano's release coincided with that of Jurassic Park. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the game-changing dino-pic - in which Neill starred as palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant - grossed over a billion dollars and made Neill a household name. By then he was already 46. As a child, he was painfully shy and had a stammer; acting helped him overcome that. But it wasn't until 1981, when he was in his mid-thirties, that he achieved his international breakthrough with two devilish roles: one as a murdering spy in the cult horror Possession, the other as the antichrist Damien in Omen III: The Final Conflict.
Though his career nearly took a very different path when he got close to being chosen as the next James Bond, he's continued to make stellar work. There have been TV roles - most notably in Peaky Blinders and The Tudors - and cinematic ones, perhaps the best of his 21st-century output being the delightful Taika Waititi adventure-comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016). But he's not found it an easy career to pursue.
"Mental health is a very big issue for people in the acting profession," he says. "I think it's to do with the precariousness of our work. There's probably 10 actors that can be assured of work. The rest of us never know where the next job's gonna come from - or if it's gonna be any good. Having said that," he adds with another giggle, "those 10 actors are all out of work at the moment, too!"
When the world shut down, Neill was about to fly to London's Pinewood Studios to film Jurassic World: Dominion, the third in the Chris Pratt-fronted reboot trilogy. "I think they got about two weeks in the can," says Neill. "I'd be in the make-up chair as we speak, but that's all gone into the chiller for the moment." Neill, having sat out 1997's Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, returned for Jurassic Park III (2001), but hasn't dusted off his fedora hat and neckerchief in nearly two decades. In 2008, he said he wouldn't do a "Jurassic Park IV" if it ever happened. "Did I?" he asks. "I was probably drunk. I don't think I ever actually shut the door on that. It was probably meant ironically, and that perhaps I was getting a little old for the running part. But Chris Pratt is very fit and we'll get him to do the running. And then, of course, there's my reunion with my old pals Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern, so I can only think that it's gonna be very pleasurable."
Speaking of Goldblum, there's a much-memed line of his in the original Jurassic Park that feels particularly prescient. "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could," he says, "they didn't stop to think if they should." Neill disagrees. "I'm not sure if that's a prescient line, because what we're looking at now is a world in which science is being neglected," he says. "Research has been starved and climate science has not been taken seriously enough ... and that is coming back in a big way to bite us in the a**e. I'm a believer in science, and I absolutely deplore the way scholarship and science have been denigrated. We are being asked not to listen to the experts. Well, if I have to listen to anyone, I want it to be a f***ing expert and not some clown who's got some Trumpian agenda. I cannot put it more bluntly than that."
About three or four weeks ago, Neill stopped watching the news. Not just because he can't be bothered with TV, but because the news cycle is "doing my head in". Now, he just asks his girlfriend to tell him if there's anything he needs to know. "I think when you start becoming nostalgic for George W Bush, you know the planet's in trouble," he says, letting out his biggest giggle yet. "That's why I've turned off the news. One more idiotic press conference and you just want to hang yourself. But I'm not gonna hang myself! Because I'm not listening to any more idiotic press conferences."
It's difficult, I say, to find the balance between staying informed and staying sane. "There's only so much you can handle," says Neill. "Exacerbating one's own anxiety is counter-productive. Busying oneself with things that might not seem of any coincidence, like learning to sing a song with an instrument, can be one of the most uplifting things you can do. So, that's what I'm looking for. Things that are gonna make me feel better. I don't think this is a selfish thing, I think it's purely common sense. It is a kindness to stay at home. It is a kindness not to threaten other people's lives by wandering around, and in particular in America with guns, for Christ's sake. What little common sense I have is telling me to find enjoyment within the confines of one's lockdown. And to try and treat it as an opportunity to be still and thoughtful and kind."
He has to go now. He's off to film another Cinema Quarantino Production with Helena Bonham Carter (the actor, not the cow). It'll be called Das Fone Hell, Bonham Carter will play the role of his neglected iPhone, and it'll be watched by over a million people. It's a full-time job, cheering people up.