One of our best-known serious actors grabbed his chance to be part of a Barry Crump-meets-Taika Waititi comedy.
Sam Neill is the most hated man in Sweden. Well, once a year, anyway. It’s not the sort of accolade that finds its way into the literature for the Kiwi actor’s Two Paddocks vineyard and winery, or the portfolio notes among the Golden Globe and Emmy nominations and the more than 40 years of critical and box-office success. It’s highly unlikely it was mentioned in any citation relating to the 68-year-old’s Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit or honorary Doctorate of Letters at the University of Canterbury.
But the star of Sleeping Dogs, The Omen III, The Hunt for Red October, Dead Calm, The Piano, Jurassic Park and The Dish is notorious in Sweden because of his annual appearance as the evil Brian de Bois-Guilbert in a 1982 adaptation of broadswords-and-bodice-ripping drama Ivanhoe.
To Neill, the film is special because it is the only time he acted alongside his mentor and friend James Mason – but for the Swedes, Ivanhoe has become a cult classic that is rolled out every New Year.
“It’s very strange because it’s an almost entirely forgettable film, but it has become something like a Christmas tree in Sweden. Once a year, all the families in Sweden sit down together, and because I was the bad guy, I suppose I’m the most hated man in Sweden for that day. I have to be – it’s a national tradition.”
Despite risking the wrath of a nation-load of sunlight-deprived Scandiwegians, Neill still smiles warmly when recalling his decision to work with Mason, whose roles in Lolita, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Julius Caesar and The Desert Fox made him a stalwart of classic mid-20th century cinema on both sides of the Atlantic.
The relationship started when, just a couple of years after 1977’s Sleeping Dogs, Neill left New Zealand – “I cast myself adrift,” he says now – and went looking for work in Australia.
“I got a call out of the blue and it was James Mason saying I really should be working overseas, so why don’t I come and stay with him and his wife – and they’ll get me an agent – and go to England to see what happens,” Neill says. “And when someone offers you such a kindness …”
He stayed with Mason in Switzerland for 10 days before moving to London, where the pair dined frequently together and Neill soaked up the elder statesman’s guidance.
“Actors have much less choice than people think … sometimes there’s nothing on the horizon and you have to take what’s on offer because it might be your last hurrah. Everybody feels that. I asked James about that and he felt it until the day he died, in spite of all the things he’d done.”
Neill’s drive to stay true to Mason’s word means he’s frequently bouncing between different characters – the past 12 months have seen him starring in gritty UK TV drama Peaky Blinders; appearing alongside Geoffrey Rush in The Daughter, an Aussie reworking of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck; playing two stiff-upper-lip-Brit roles in TV miniseries Tutankhamun and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None; and returning to New Zealand to play rugged bushman Uncle Hec in Taika Waititi’s new comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
THE CRUMP CONNECTION
Neill emerges from the Urewera bush with a bristling boar strapped to his back – every inch the kind of good keen man Barry Crump would approve of. He glowers at the camera and stomps off to singe, skin and butcher his kill.
This is the audience’s first view of Uncle Hec and, right from the get-go, it’s not a Neill role we’re accustomed to. But the chance to work with Waititi and portray a bit of old-school New Zealand – Wilderpeople is an adaptation of Crump’s story Wild Pork and Watercress – was too good to miss.
Waititi’s deft direction mixes humour, poignancy, action and classic Kiwiana references through a storyline that revolves around child welfare, abduction and New Zealand’s East Coast wilderness.
“It’s not a straight-out comedy by any means – there’s a lot of sadness and shadow in the film as well, and that’s what gives it dimension for me,” Neill says.
“It’s very Barry Crump-meets-Taika Waititi. I’ve just been on a road trip around the North Island and it’s easy to overlook the fact that a fair amount of our country is bush with bush people living in it – but it’s still true. I’ve met a lot of Hecs in my time and I know some of them quite well and they do still exist … I’m a trout fisherman so I disappear from time to time and find myself in wild places, but I don’t like shooting stuff.”
Neill never met Crump – but did have a brush with him in his childhood. He and his fellow Christ’s College schoolmates were taken to see Bruce Mason deliver his one-man performance of The End of the Golden Weather at the Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers.
“Bruce was a rather cultured man from Auckland who performed in a rather fruity voice, and we went along as schoolboys and it was riveting,” Neill says.
“But halfway through there was this loud incoherent shouting from back of the room. When Bruce stopped, the shouting stopped.”
After three attempts at reading the same passage had been drowned out by the shouting, it became apparent that the noise was coming from Crump, who’d emerged from the bush to listen to his favourite story.
“At some point, he’d been stuck in a hut in some remote part of New Zealand and weirdly there was a wind-up gramophone and a copy of Bruce Mason doing The End of the Golden Weather. He must have listened to it a hundred times and this was his favourite part and it was all too much for him, so in his drunken state, he was shouting the very words that Bruce was delivering from the stage.”
Uncle Hec is undoubtedly one of those Crump-like characters that Neill admires. But after Wilderpeople received great reviews and a wonderful audience reaction at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January, it became clear that the Waititi-Crump combination has appeal beyond our shores. All helped, no doubt, by standout performances from Neill and 13-year-old Julian Dennison – the chubby kid from Waititi’s Blazed anti-dope-driving ads, Shopping and Paper Planes.
“It was a very nice warm feeling sitting beside Julian at Sundance and digging each other in the ribs from time to time when we thought it was funny,” Neill says. “But it was also very gratifying to be in an audience of around 1500 and still get those huge laughs, because there’s no way you can predict that because it’s so New Zealand. There’s no way to predict whether others would understand, let alone know what we’re talking about, so it was a surprisingly gratifying experience.”
THE MASON MANTRAS
Apart from the rule about staying in work, the main two pieces of acting advice that Neill recalls from his time with Mason (James, not Bruce) are “entirely practical … but things you can extrapolate out into something quite profound”: never smoke or eat in a scene, and look at a door before you exit through it.
“It’s a weird thing, because it’s actually not about exiting a door, it’s about considering doing something before you do it on film – it makes it look very natural.”
But even three decades on from that advice, Neill says he’s still learning more about the profession and seeking new roles and styles. Quentin Tarantino is in town the day we meet and he’s definitely on Neill’s wish list, but he’s loath to discuss chatroom speculation that he’s due for a return to the Jurassic Park franchise.
And maybe after discussions with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, there might still be a role for Sam Neill: last action hero.
“I did this film a couple of years ago with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger [Escape Plan], and between set-ups I said to Sly that I couldn’t believe how much crap was beaten out of him in that film.
“And he said, ‘That’s my career – what happens to me is I get the crap beaten out of me and then the crap beaten out of me again. And then again. And then I stand up’. Then he said, ‘These new guys like The Rock or Jason Statham come out and then they beat the shit out of 20 bad guys, but me, I come out and then 20 bad guys beat the shit out of me and then I stand up. That’s what being a hero is.’
“I thought, that’s right, that’s what being a hero is – it’s getting the crap beaten out of you and then you stand up. It’s a Colin McCahon painting as a movie – ‘I am scared, I STAND UP.’”
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is out in cinemas on March 31.
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