Sam Neil's vintage year

JAMES CROOT
Last updated 05:00 19/05/2013
Sam Neill

Good vintage: Sam Neill at his Central Otago winery, with a glass of his Two Paddocks wine.

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This year could turn out to be a vintage year for Sam Neill.

Not only is the 65-year-old Kiwi actor currently on both our large and small screens, he's also got an impressive lineup of television and cinema projects scheduled for release in the next 12 months and this year's harvest from his Central Otago winery has resulted in a bumper crop.

When Your Weekend catches up with the star of everything from The Horse Whisperer and The Hunt For Red October to Death in Brunswick and Dean Spanley in Sydney this month,the 65-year-old he is fresh from a rare treat - being able to play a part in bringing in this year's Two Paddocks grapes. Some might describe it as just a hobby, but Neill takes his role very, very seriously and you can hear the angst in his voice as he reveals just how tense things can become around late April.

"Every year, especially at our Gibbston Vineyard, it is touch and go down ... as to whether we'll produce grapes to the ripeness that we like, but I think we pulled it off. You can never tell until things are in the barrel, but an educated guess would say it's going to be pretty good year. A very good year actually."

Which is exactly how 2013 is shaping up in Neill's other career, starting with the one-two punch of the 20th anniversary, extra-dimensional re-release of Jurassic Park and new Kiwi TV police drama, Harrycurrently on TV3 on Wednesdays at 9.30pm). The latter sees Neill play Detective Senior Sergeant Jim "Stocks" Stockton, the head of an Auckland-based major crime unit investigating the links between a motorcycle gang, methamphetamine production and a series of murders around the city.

While a combination of factors drew him to the dark drama (a clear diary, his friendship with co-creator and star Oscar Kightley and an impressive script, Auckland having a milder winter climate than his Queenstown home), Neill admits that he "just liked the sound of it".

"I've always admired Oscar in what he does and I'm a big fan of the Scandinavian thrillers (The Killing, The Bridge, Wallander). Somehow, dark stories tend to be a little more substantial and touch on things a little more pertinent to the way we live."

Although describing working on Harry as a pleasurable experience that he really enjoyed, Neill jokingly says playing Stocks wasn't that much of a stretch. "He's a gritty, gnarly old geezer. I'm not sure about the gritty, but I am gnarly."

The role also gave him an opportunity to hang on to some facial fuzz that he'd grown for fantasy film Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box and that was required for subsequent projects. "I think Stocks' moustache was probably a hangover from when he was recruited in 1971, when moustaches were all the go."

When asked whether Harry is something that could have been made a decade ago, Neill cites the plot's central driver, methamphetamine, as the main reason why it couldn't. A decade ago, a few stoners growing marijuana plants up in North Auckland would have been a major crime, he says. "Today it is a very different landscape and a much more dangerous one."

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But while Harry and Jane Campion's recent Top of the Lake's dark depictions of New Zealand might lead international audiences to suspect our famous "cinema of unease" (a topic Neill even hosted a documentary about in 1995) had made its way to television, Neill says what's impressed him most about Kiwi television in the past decade has been its diversity.

 "What's been refreshing for me is that we're not only going into the dark places, we've gone very successfully into comedy as well, led by the likes of the Flight of the Conchords, bro'Town and Sione's Wedding. That was unthinkable 10 years ago - comedy that was funny."

He believes part of the reason for this change is that we are wisely beginning to tap increasingly into the Polynesian dimension (including Maori) of our culture. "That's a very rich seam and resource to be mining."

That includes Polynesian acting talent like Kightley and Michael Koloi, the young actor who plays Major Crime Unit rookie Moss and who has caught Neill's eye. "I remember thinking when I first saw him, you're really good, I'm going to see a bit more of you."

As an actor who benefited from the mentorship of the legendary James Mason (the North by Northwest and Lolita actor lobbied successfully for Neill to play the lead role in 1981 Omen horror sequel The Final Conflict), Neill says he does take a kind of avuncular interest in a lot of younger New Zealand actors.

"I don't know how much use it is since they all know a lot more than I do anyway. I occasionally give talks to things like the Wellington-based New Zealand Drama School Toi Whakaari, give them the benefit of my lengthy experience.
But I'm still learning myself, I'm always looking at other actors ... and go 'Gee, I could learn a fair bit off you'."

Surprisingly, one thing Neill could teach some of his younger colleagues is the use of social media and online technology. "For an old bloke I'm a bit of a pioneer in some things. I've been doing a blog on the Two Paddocks website for 13 years now. I also do a Two Paddocks tweet and Facebook thing that I've grown to enjoy, even the feedback that comes with it." Lately, the Twitter and Facebook accounts have been full of praise for Neill's performance in Jurassic Park, the 1993 dinosaur blockbuster that has recently been re-released in 3-D.

"I get a lot of tweets from people who didn't get the opportunity to see it on the screen in the first place who are enjoying it now and other people who think the 3-D adaptation is amazing."

As well as confirming that he is unlikely to be a part of next year's Jurassic Park 4 ("I'm told it's a big reboot, a total re-jig"), Neill confesses he hasn't seen the new version of the original.

Time has been at something of a premium for Neill as he has been shuttled from one job to the next over the past 12 months doing everything from an adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel A Long Way Down to action movie Escape Plan, where he stars opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. "I did about a week on Escape Plan, just for fun, and I was mostly working with Jim Caviezel, Vinnie Jones and Stallone. It was an experience. Some jobs you do just to be able to tell stories around the dinner table when you get home, and that was one of them."

It will be a few weeks before he gets back to the Central Otago dinner table and the home he shares with his wife of more than 23 years, Noriko Watanabe, a film make-up artist whose credits include creating the many vibrant hair-dos for Kate Winslet in 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (They have a daughter Elena who was born in 1991, while Neill has a son, Tim, and Watanabe a daughter, Maiko, from previous marriages).

That's because Neill has just started work on an eight-part Australian TV series, Old School, starring Neill's former Dean Spanley and Dirty Deeds co-star and good friend, Bryan Brown. "He plays an ex-crim and I play an ex-cop who hate each other, but they have to team up, unwillingly."

Which certainly isn't Neill's feeling towards the job, he's just happy to still have plenty of work.

"I never want to jinx myself, but the work offers seem to be coming in unabated and I'm very grateful for that because every actor lives in the fear of the phone not ringing. Touch wood, and I am, the phone is doing well. Time will tell in the future, but so far so good."

Harry is on TV3, Wednesdays at 8.30pm. Jurassic Park 3D is now screening.

- Your Weekend

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