I connected with Sam Neill in May 2020, during lockdown.
Me: “Sam! How’s things?”
Sam Neill: “…as actors, we’ve been in rehearsal for this for years, we spend our lives stuck in hotel rooms… where are you?”
Me: “I’m here in Manchester”
Sam Neill: “I love Manchester, it’s one of my favourite cities – but I remember a particularly bleak time during the second series of Peaky Blinders. I was stuck in a serviced apartment in the middle of town During the week it seemed the only people around were boring businessmen- and at the weekend, it was terrifying. All these hen parties came in- the women were pissed, dressed-up in weird shit, and having a great time… I got in a lift with a few of them and was like, shit – I’m going to lose my life here- I’m going to die in a lift, in Manchester”
In that moment, Sam did two things. Firstly: I’d never been as proud of my home-city as I was in that moment. Secondly: Perhaps sensing I was nervous, he disarmed me with the wit and charm that has contributed to him becoming one of our generation’s most talented actors.
A recipient of an Order of the British Empire for Services to Acting, and a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, Sam Neill is internationally recognized for his contribution to film and television, with more than 80 films and over 45 television programs to his credit. He has a small organic winery called Two Paddocks, and is a longtime activist and spokesman for environmental causes. In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Sam about his life in acting, mental health and journey creating one of the world’s most highly decorated vineyards.
Q: How did acting come into your life?
[Sam Neill]: The idea of having a life as an actor never crossed my mind; it was just the most unlikely of outcomes for me. Growing up, I loved going to the movies- we’d take a bus into town in the school holidays to catch a matinee at the Regent Cinema in Dunedin. I particularly liked British films – with Trevor Howard, James Mason, James Robertson Justice and Wilfred Hyde-White. There was no television when I was a kid; but occasionally there’d be a theatre that would come to Dunedin for a week- some drawing-room comedy that was written in a far-flung place like New York or Manchester. Homegrown theatre was unknown.
I was contemplating joining the army; there’s a lot of armed-forces on both sides of my family- my father was in the army before coming back into wine and spirits. I wasn’t academic in any way- and didn’t think I had a head for business…
I did a BA in English and spent 7 years or so working on documentary films, but I wasn’t really able to commit to acting until I was 29-30, when I came to Australia and realized I could make a living of being an actor!
My career was never planned, and I still think it’s a series of unlikely accidents that led to this.
Q: How did you learn your craft?
[Sam Neill]: I’ve always been self-taught, sort of like the Grandma Moses of acting <laughs>.
If I’d gone to drama school, I would probably have had a very different career- perhaps not as much fun in some ways. Not going to drama school also kept me off the stage- when I first came to live in England, I was really-conscious of just how polished these other actors were- they had all these skills that I’d never had an inkling of, they could project their voices! Keeping me off the stage allowed me to spend more time becoming a screen actor and I got a break playing the lead in Reilly, Ace of Spies a 1983 British TV series. It was prestigious, expensive to make and extremely dauting. I thought, ‘oh shit, the best actors in England are coming here as day players, I need to up my game…’ – it did my confidence a great deal of good because I realised that whilst I wasn’t- perhaps- as good as them, I certainly wasn’t any worse – and actually my lack of drama training allowed me a naturalism that I’ve always aspired to. I don’t ever want to be caught ‘acting’.
Stage and screen require different skills, and there’s a complex relationship between the two.
Authenticity- for me- is incredibly important. It’s easy to spot the difference between acting and authentic performance- even though it may seem a contradiction in terms. You can tell when you see it, or when you experience it. When you’re acting, 10% of you needs to be conscious of what you’re doing, and 90% lost in the moment.
Q: Do you think there’s a relationship between mental health and the arts?
[Sam Neill]: There’s not a person I’ve spoken to recently who hasn’t got the glums of some sort; but that’s the nature of this strange crisis we’re in. Crises can be energising- and lots of people have thrown themselves into new pursuits, learning, all sorts – but now? we’re in the phase where it’s just a bit shit, and there’s this shitty feeling about things. I kind of preferred the beginning of the crisis!
There’s something about modern life that leads to a lot of depression in people and perhaps having a creative mind contributes to that. I think some of the most creative people I know are either diagnosed or undiagnosed manic-depressive. When they’re up- my god, they’re fantastic, it’s just incredible. I remember years ago, Stephen Fry did a series charting the course of 6 people going through manic depression and he asked them all, ‘if you had a choice, would you have a normal life, or a life with your depression’ and 5 out of 6 chose the life with their depression.
You caught me on a day when I went to see my doctor. I told him that I’m feeling terrible, and that I think I might have depression. Albert (my doctor, who has known me for years) said, ‘Sam, normally right now you’d be at the farm or making a film- but right now you can’t do either…’ – and what he said is true. Right now, I’m in a terrible limbo – my life in acting was always a counterbalance to my life on the farm, one was the palliative to the other.
There’s also a danger in acting of identifying yourself as an actor. We have to try to identify ourselves as human beings first, and our jobs second. I’m Sam, I act sometimes… not I am Sam, I am an actor. What I do is separate to me.
My early mentor, James Mason, was terribly kind to me. I remember asking him, ‘how are you between jobs?’ – he said, terrible. I said to him, ‘James, you’ve made hundreds of films… surely you have nothing to feel terrible about…’ – but he always felt that nobody was going to give him another job. I thought there was something terribly sad about that; one of the most successful actors ever in a state of despair when he wasn’t acting. The only way I could think of to stop that happening to me was to separate myself from my description. An actor who isn’t acting becomes a sort of non-person. If you’re not acting, what are you?
I remember earlier in my life anxiety wasn’t something I considered as a thing. I’d had a rough few years, including a divorce that seemed to go on forever. It took me a long time to figure out that the sensation I was having was anxiety- it’s a real, physical, feeling that manifests within you. It’s so much more than just being ‘in your head’ it’s your whole body.
Q: How did winemaking come into your life?
[Sam Neill]: <laughs> we’ve always been interested in alcohol! It’s a family thing for us- we’ve had generations who’ve made a living from it.. my father… my grandfather… they’d go to Bordeaux and would learn as much as they could about the culture and techniques of wine. My father conveyed that to me in an oblique way. There was always wine on our table, which wasn’t the norm in New Zealand when I was young- it was more of a beer and brandy culture.
My love of wine, like so much in my life, came through a series of accidents. I’d got interested via James Mason in Burgundy during my time in England. We went to a restaurant one night (apparently, Charlie Chaplin’s favourite restaurant!) and I had a burgundy- I’d never drunk anything like that, it was a revelation to me that wine could be so extraordinarily beautiful. I went down the road to a good wine shop and said, ‘I’m interested in this burgundy stuff, what should I get?’ and they guided me into it. Back in New Zealand- family friends of ours had Rippon Vineyards and started growing Pinot Noir – they planted in the 80s near where I’d built my house in central Otago – I thought wow, you can grow pinot noir here in central? I then bumped into another friend- Greg Hey- who was planting vineyards of pinot noir in Gibbston Valley and suggested I come in on the development. We planted in ’93, and I opened my first bottle in ’97. It was pretty good- but that meant I was doomed…. I wanted it to be better, and the wine world consumed me, and has become part of me. It’s been an incredibly rewarding 27 years.
Q: How has the Covid/Coronavirus pandemic impacted Two Paddocks?
[Sam Neill]: The future of Two Paddocks is by no means guaranteed- disposable incomes are decreasing in this crisis, jobs are scarce, people are taking pay cuts, and so people may not want to spend as much of their income on really good wine… and I’m not interested in making crap wine. I’ve only ever wanted to make the best wine that money can buy. I’m sure there are going to be some terrible casualties in the wine-world, and I just hope we’re not one of those. I do think we have a good chance at weathering the storms. Our brand recognition is strong, and after the initial scepticism of ‘an actor making wine’ the critics take our wine very seriously. We’ve also done a huge amount of work with our soils, vines and process. Barring an absolute calamity, we will prevail through to the other side of this.
Q: What does it take to make great wine?
[Sam Neill]: A lot of winemaking is viticulture, it’s scientifically based – everything is measurable, and every season brings different challenges. Wine making is also alchemy, not everything is controllable – you are dealing with nature. There’s a savage element to all of this. A great winemaker is an artist and a scientist, and has this God given palette that you either have or you don’t You can work on it, you can work on your craft, but if you haven’t got it it’s never going to happen.
It’s like music – I was just watching a Ken Burns documentary on country music. Someone in the documentary said, ‘what’s country music? And why do people love it?’ the answer? ‘…it’s three chords and the truth…’
The truth is the most important part of all that, and that applies to any craft- be it wine making or acting – It’s simple but also incredibly difficult.
Q: Where do you find joy in life?
[Sam Neill]: This business of finding happiness is hard during these dark times. I had to switch off the news- and just get the headlines from my girlfriend who’s a journalist. I’d had enough of seeing those terrible graphs, those animated virus backgrounds… Jesus… how much more of that can we take!
I went out today and got stuck in a traffic jam – I was like, ‘fuck me, this shit is back?! I thought we’d got better at this- I thought we’d worked out that it’s horrible being in a car, sat behind another car, in a row of cars…’ I’ve also come to appreciate the quiet. I live 4 floors up here in Sydney, and it was deathly quiet – calming – and sounds are now gradually coming back to the city. I remember Jools Holland did a show exploring the sounds of London – and it got me thinking what London would have sounded like in Victorian times- with horses clopping past and children playing on the streets. You never hear children now, and what a loss that is.
The return of silence was interesting; and now, people come down the street laughing and jolly and part of me is happy that people are out and about and sound happy, but another part of me is like, ‘shut the fuck up! This is a quiet street with quiet people! Fucks sake!’
A recipient of an Order of the British Empire for Services to Acting, and a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, Sam Neill is internationally recognized for his contribution to film and television, with more than 80 films and over 45 television programs to his credit.
Neill made his film debut in Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs and his feature breakthrough in a starring role opposite Judy Davis in My Brilliant Career. The two films that subsequently brought him international stardom and acclaim were writer/director Jane Campion’s The Piano and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Written and directed by visionary filmmaker Jane Campion, The Piano starred Neill, Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin and won 3 Oscars, 3 BAFTA and 11 Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards, along with an AFI Best Supporting Actor nomination for Neill. In 2016 he received an AFI Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in The Daughter.
His film credits include Dead Calm opposite Nicole Kidman for director Phillip Noyce; A Cry In The Dark opposite Meryl Streep for director Fred Schepisi; The Hunter opposite Willem Dafoe (for which Neill received an AACTA Best Actor nomination); Little Fish opposite Cate Blanchett; The Horse Whisperer alongside Kristin Scott Thomas, Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson; Perfect Strangers; The Hunt For Red October alongside Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin for director John McTiernan; Dirty Deeds alongside Bryan Brown and Toni Collette; Bicentennial Man opposite Robin Williams for director Chris Columbus; Wimbledon opposite Kirsten Dunst; My Talks With Dean Spanley alongside Peter O’Toole and Bryan Brown; Skin opposite Sophie Okenedo; Yes for Orlando director Sally Potter; Daybreakers; the animated film Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’hoole; and Czech production The Zookeeper. Recent features include The Daughter (for which he received his second AACTA Best Actor nomination); director Taika Waititi’s multi-award winning film Hunt For The Wilderpeople; director Warwick Thornton’s AACTA Best Film winner Sweet Country opposite Bryan Brown and Hamilton Morris, box office success Sony’s Peter Rabbit and Palm Beach, directed by Rachel Ward and also starring Bryan Brown, Richard E. Grant and Greta Scacchi. Upcoming he will be seen in multiple projects including Blackbird with Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon and Mia Wasikowska directed by Roger Michell and Rams with Michael Caton and Miranda Richardson directed by Jeremy Sims.
His work in television has earned Sam Neill three Golden Globe Best Actor nominations. In 1998 he received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his performance in the title role of the NBC miniseries Merlin. He received a Golden Globe nomination in 1992 for his performance opposite Judy Davis in One Against The Wind and a third Golden Globe nomination, along with the BAFTA Award for Best Actor, for his performance as British spy Sidney Reilly in director Martin Campbell’s Reilly: Ace Of Spies. He also received the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Best Actor Award for the Australian drama Jessica.
Other television credits include the ITV miniseries, Tutankhamun; the first two seasons of the hit BBC series Peaky Blinders, starring alongside Cillian Murphy; the Australian crime drama Old School opposite Bryan Brown; the FOX drama series Alcatraz; the acclaimed Australian television series Rake; NBC’s Crusoe; Showtime’s The Tudors with Jonathan Rhys Meyers; the miniseries To The Ends Of Earth with Benedict Cumberbatch; and Granada’s epic miniseries Doctor Zhivago.
He has a small organic winery called Two Paddocks, and is a longtime activist and spokesman for environmental causes.