Yes to dogs, says Sam Neill, but no to cats

Last updated 14:09 02/03/2009
JOHN SELKIRK/Fairfax Media
MAN'S BEST FRIEND: Dean Spanley star Sam Neill says he loves dogs, but finds cats 'diminish people'.

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Dogs are hard to resist but cats just diminish you, says actor Sam Neill.

The 61-year-old Queenstown-based star is back in the country for the opening of the delightfully quirky movie Dean Spanley.

In it, he plays a churchman, Spanley, who, when he drinks a particular kind of Hungarian fortified wine, is taken back into his earlier canine incarnation.

What is striking about the film is that Neill mastered the mannerisms of the Spaniel he played.

Speaking with, Neill said he didn’t feel it was any special trick to be quite so dog like.

"It is not so much being doggy but when you understand dogs you know their emotions, their thoughts, their little ploys, their sly ways. It's all so transparent. You can read them a mile away."

He’s been around dogs all his life.

"I love their loyalty and their overwhelming emotions that they feel, most particularly how fond they are of one’s self. It’s hard to resist.

"I love the elegance of cats, but they are so contemptuous and dismissive of people.

"I tend to like the fallible in creatures, and I relate to it, rather than the superior. The cat diminishes people."

Although Neill played the lead character, the major star was the venerable Sir Peter O’Toole, 72.

Under New Zealand director Toa Fraser "a sort of New Zealand informal civility prevailed" on the set.

O’Toole liked that, but everybody had had nothing but respect.

"He’s the last man standing. Most of his contemporaries have drunk themselves to death and he is still there, in spite of having inflicted a fair amount of damage on himself.

"That face, it’s at once ancient and modern. This man has led a colourful life and that is apparent in his physicality and in his work. It gives his work such depth."

O’Neill, who made five movies last year and is heading out to the US to make another one next week, believes he is innately lazy and so forces himself to work.

He has about him, though, a kind of longevity that means casting directors often call upon him as a senior figure.

"There are many other chaps you can call on. When you start off as a young actor there are a lot of blokes in competition with you and as you get on, a lot of them fall off into different things.

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"They become accountants or PR people or actor’s agents and eventually there are not many of you standing, like Peter O’Toole," he said.

As for the central premise of Dean Spanley: "I don’t actually believe in reincarnation - I think we get one shot at it and you might as well make the most of that shot."

While Dean Spanley was filmed in Britain, the main dog scenes were filmed in West Auckland with animal trainers Mark Vette, partner Rosie Miles and trainer Marie Manderson.

Neill’s other life was a welsh Springer spaniel called Snoopy, while his co-star, Australian Bryan Brown, was played by a labradoodle called Pluto.

Manderson hailed the way Neill played his dog.

"When a spaniel gets focused on something that's it, they are completely in the moment. Neill had the look."

- Bang! Showbiz

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