The Hunter was different for Neill

RURAL DELIVERY: Sam Neill as Jack Mindy. "It was unusual casting really, but that's good. If you are playing the same damn thing all the time I'd probablu shoot myself in the foot."
RURAL DELIVERY: Sam Neill as Jack Mindy. "It was unusual casting really, but that's good. If you are playing the same damn thing all the time I'd probablu shoot myself in the foot."

Sam Neill has just escaped from Alcatraz. Or, to be more exact, he has recently finished shooting the final episode in the first season of American television show Alcatraz and has just found the time to squeeze in an interview for his new movie The Hunter.

"I just wrapped Alcatraz about three days ago so I'm on the way home," Neill says during a stopover in Sydney. "My immediate priority is wine at Two Paddocks and I can't wait to get back to it."

Two Paddocks is Neill's vineyard in Central Otago, which he started in 1993. Neill's aim was to produce a good pinot noir, but this year will see the first riesling under the label and he'll be in Wellington next week to host a Two Paddocks dinner at Parliament.

Kiwi actors have been getting increasingly bigger and more prominent roles in movies and television overseas in recent years - but Neill himself remains one of the most successful to come out of New Zealand.

And he's still getting the work. Only a few weeks back his movie The Vow - where he starred alongside Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum - was No 1 at the New Zealand box office.

Other projects are at various stages of development, including the family-friendly Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box, Bruce Beresford's Drylands and fellow Australian film- maker Robert Connolly's A View from the Bridge, based on the Arthur Miller play.

But for now it's The Hunter, a psychological thriller. Neill plays Jack Mindy, a Tasmanian bush guide, who volunteers to help a stranger called Martin. Unknown to all, Martin, played by American actor Willem Dafoe, is a mercenary, employed by a European biotech company to find the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger. Mindy introduces Martin to a family that includes Lucy (played by Frances O'Connor). Her husband, a zoologist, has been missing in the wilderness for months.

Neill had already worked with Dafoe three times before, including vampire movie Daybreakers in 2009. "Willem's a very good actor. He is extremely experienced. But more than that, he's an amiable and interesting character. His wife cooks very good Italian food, so each time you're on location with him is a bonus."

But Neill says his job isn't made easier by already having worked with his co-stars or knowing them well off screen. It comes down to their abilities. "If it's a good actor - I don't care if I've just met them this morning, it will be easier [and] your job will be easier. The better the actor the happier I am to work with."

Despite his diversity of roles over the years, Neill says Mindy was a very different character to play. At first he was even puzzled why director Daniel Nettheim was keen to cast him. "I never really got an answer to that. There are at least a dozen Australian actors that I can think of who you would more readily see in this role. There's precedence for them playing those rural characters, so it was unusual casting really, but that's good. If you are playing the same damn thing all the time I'd probably shoot myself in the foot or something so I could just play the same damn thing, but limping."

The Hunter was shot on location in Tasmania and it was the first time Neill has visited the island state. " It came as a bit of a shock actually. Australians always say 'Oh you'll like Tasmania, it's just like New Zealand'. But it's nothing like New Zealand. It's not remotely like New Zealand in any way. Everything's different about it."

But Neill says he still found it "astoundingly beautiful" and is keen to return.

They also interacted a lot with locals during the shoot and some featured in the film. One of the subplots of The Hunter, which will be familiar to Kiwis, is the clash between locals wanting to use natural resources to boost the economy and create jobs, and those wanting to protect the natural environment. Neill says extras in The Hunter were made of up of real Tasmanian rural "greenies" playing the greenies and other locals playing those that wanted the area opened up.

"Where we were filming was right on the battlelines. It's like Afghanistan - it's unsolvable in many ways and I felt sympathy for both sides down there. It is a very stark choice between community and employment and this incredibly beautiful and, in many cases, pristine wilderness. I don't see things in quite the black-and-white way that I used to see things when I was a younger man."

The Hunter is based on the novel by Australian Julia Leigh. The director encouraged the cast to read the book before filming, although Dafoe was initially reluctant but eventually read it. Neill, however, never got around to it and still hasn't read it. "I might have just forgotten," he says, then laughs. "I was happy with what I had on the page and what I had in my head."

And what he has in his head now - besides his vineyard - is more work. Neill says he's keen to do another season of Alcatraz - from Lost producer J J Abrams - where he plays a federal agent investigating the mysterious disappearance of Alcatraz's prisoners and guards back in 1963. (The decision to close the famous island prison in 1963 because it was unsafe is revealed to be just a cover story.) But he says it's unclear yet whether a second season will get the green light.

At least he's in the enviable position for any actor of being able, most of the time, to pick and choose what he wants to do. "I get enough offers. Every actor wants more offers, but I get enough and I do like to be busy. I get very antsy and nervous if I don't know what the next job is. I'm always thinking about the next acting job.

"It doesn't matter how good you are. But in large measure your career is one sort of circumstance coming after another."

So do those circumstances include Neill reprising his role of Dr Alan Grant for a planned fourth instalment of Jurassic Park? It's a question he gets asked often, when plans for the fourth film are aired again.

"I'm always being asked about it and I never have an answer," he says.

The Details

The Hunter is screening now.