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Breakthrough? Who, Me? : Actor Sam Neill pushes into the mainstream with major roles in ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘The Piano,’ but he says it’s the long haul that really counts

<i> Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

If he thought about it for more than 10 seconds, which he isn’t inclined do, given his British Commonwealth reserve, Sam Neill might be aware of the implications. Implications, in Hollywood parlance, perhaps best summed up by the videotape of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” lying on the bureau of his hotel suite.

“Do you know Curtis Hanson?” he asks mildly, arching his voice into that little fillip at the end, a New Zealander still. “I’m having breakfast with him tomorrow. To talk about some things.”

This conversation is taking place some weeks prior to the Cannes Film Festival, where “The Piano,” Jane Campion’s erotic period drama co-starring Neill, won this year’s Palme D’Or, and the opening this weekend of “Jurassic Park,” Steven Spielberg’s cretaceous opus that features live-action velociraptors and triceratops as well as actual actors--Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough and Neill in the Harrison Ford-rugged-field-scholar role.

Yet a priori or not, such interest, dare one say buzz , about Neill is already palpable in his script-littered hotel suite. For all those who greeted the news of the non-star cast of “Jurassic Park” with a sort of desperate groping among the semi-famous--"I thought Jeff Goldblum was the star"--there are those who find the second most interesting wager on Universal’s $70-million gamble, (the first, of course, being the box-office grosses) to be the film’s impact on Neill’s career: whether the kind of exposure that comes only from a $100-million-plus hit can propel the 45-year-old New Zealander best known for playing what he calls “men with cold blue eyes that can drill holes through steel at 100 paces,” into that sphere that as Kathleen Kennedy, the producer of “Jurassic Park,” puts it “mass appeal.”

“Oh yes, the leading man factor,” says Neill, who has, until now, been known largely for a series of sharply etched character roles--Judy Davis’ long-suffering suitor in “My Brilliant Career,” Meryl Streep’s stoic husband in “A Cry in the Dark” and most notably, the womanizing double agent in PBS’ acclaimed series “Reilly Ace of Spies"--which largely established the actor’s tersely enigmatic style, a vaguely British, vaguely Australian, gin-dry persona inspired, in part, by his early screen hero, James Mason.

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“I like playing villains and bad guys, characters with moral ambiguity, because, in a way, they are easier to play,” says the actor, who will nonetheless spend much of his week meeting with producers and directors like Hanson, who is casting his new action-adventure film, “The River Wild.”

“Foreign actors tend to have a hard time in Hollywood,” explains Kennedy. “Sean Connery is one of the few who hasn’t let his accent get in the way of his career. ‘Jurassic Park’ could give Sam that unique opportunity to push into the mainstream.”

While much of that speculation is the result of a happy accident--Neill was reportedly awarded the lead role in “Jurassic Park,” Dr. Alan Grant, the dashing dinosaur expert, after William Hurt and Tim Robbins turned it down--it could mean a marked change for the actor whose Down Under accent and obviously cosmopolitan heritage (he was born in Northern Ireland, raised in New Zealand and maintains homes in London and Sydney,) have fostered a career top-heavy with European and Australian films.

Those Hollywood features Neill has made comprise a purposefully disparate roster: including “The Hunt for Red October,” “Dead Calm,” “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” and the TV movies “Amerika,” “Kane and Abel” and most recently, ABC’s “Family Pictures” co-starring Anjelica Huston. His game plan has been an assiduous avoidance of pigeonholing. While no one would expect the coolly cerebral Neill to ape the career path of Mel Gibson, that other Down Under actor, he has sought to sidestep what might be called the Alan Rickman trap: typecasting as the Euro-trash heavy in big-budget action features.

“When Sam is offered these parts, he’s torn,” says Fred Schepisi, the Australian director who worked with Neill in “Plenty” and “A Cry in the Dark.” “He knows he could make a lot of money, but he really prefers to play complex characters even if it means making smaller pictures. I think he said yes to ‘Jurassic Park’ because he knew at least he could have some fun with the role.”

Indeed, with the Cannes acclaim for “The Piano” and all-but-certain box-office appeal of “Jurassic Park,” that scenario appears to be changing. Or as Neill himself put it in an emotional speech at Cannes where he accepted the Palme D’Or on Campion’s behalf (the eight-month pregnant New Zealand director had flown home to Australia), “It’s a long way from New Zealand to here, and this is a kind of miracle,” and now, in his Beverly Hills hotel suite, modestly predicts, “I see a bit of a place for myself here now.”

Sporting his usual uniform of navy blazer and khakis and partaking of midmorning coffee and cookies, Neill seems less the star on the verge of a breakthrough than the proper foreigner. His exactingly polite manner is offset by a wry, sardonic edge and a boyish mien including an errant sheaf of hair that keeps tumbling down his forehead. Like his screen performances, Neill has a dry, almost hesitant way of speaking--he can stretch out “Yes, it feels like a good moment to be around,” until it all but fills the room--a mannerism that would be off-putting if it weren’t also endearing in a sort of English schoolboy way.

He also, apparently, possesses a wicked sense of irreverence. “I hate this cookie,” he says, interrupting himself mid-sentence to hurl the offending article into the wastebasket before returning to the topic at hand. “Oh yes, I am happier playing Americans than I used to be. It’s not something I was always at ease with because I didn’t really understand much about being American and now I think I do, perhaps presumptuously.”

Indeed, friends and colleagues say that off-camera Neill is far less dour than his screen persona might suggest; an actor given to prankishness and, surprisingly, indolence. During the filming of “Jurassic Park” on Kauai, it was Neill’s idea to stage a mock fight among the actors for a group of horrified Japanese tourists. “He’s very funny, very relaxed, and really kind of a lounge lizard,” says Meryl Streep, who co-starred with Neill in “Plenty” and “A Cry in the Dark.” “And the person Sam is socially is not one that has been tapped in his films.”

Although he had met Spielberg nearly 10 years ago in London when the director was casting one of the Indiana Jones movies--"We were having tea at the Savoy, rather like this actually"--Neill did not get a serious overture from the director until two years ago, when Spielberg sent him a copy of Michael Crichton’s bestseller about dinosaurs brought back to life, with the suggestion that he might play paleontologist Alan Grant.

“It was a good read, sort of science-fiction thriller about what is theoretically possible--cloning dinosaurs for monetary gain--and what can go wrong does go wrong,” says Neill who, despite some reservations about playing a leading man defined largely by a love of dinosaur fossils and a distrust of computers, found the director’s offer one he could not refuse.

“What? Say ‘No’ to Spielberg?” he says.

“Sam is somebody we’ve paid attention to for a long time,” says Kennedy, who declines to discuss Neill’s casting vis-a-vis Hurt and Robbins. “We’ve been intrigued with his work ever since the ‘Reilly’ series and those early Australian films. And for ‘Jurassic Park’ we needed someone who could suggest real intelligence as well as a ruggedness, and Sam has that.”

As the main protagonist in Crichton’s novel, “Alan Grant is the kind of guy whose only interests are digging up bones and solving dinosaur riddles,” says Neill, who was coached in his performance, as was Dern, who plays Ellie Sattler, a paleobotonist, by Dr. Jack Horner, a renowned paleontologist. “You have to imagine him imagining all his life what dinosaurs were like and now he’s on an island where they live and breathe and walk around,” explains the actor. “That would kind of blow your mind a bit, wouldn’t it?”

Although the film differs from Crichton’s plot-driven novel by bolstering the interaction among the characters--Grant is romantically involved with Sattler; Grant dislikes the young children he’s forced to accompany through the dinosaur park--even Kennedy concedes, “I think in terms of what Sam has played, this isn’t an intensely complicated part.”

But for Neill, playing a relatively bland leading man whose appeal might be summed up by his ability to look scholarly while wearing a denim shirt, brought its own challenges. “This is why the bad guy is always easier to play than the good guy--because the good guy is often amorphous, not very well delineated,” says Neill who, at Spielberg’s suggestion, only partly tamed his New Zealand accent for the role. “Where bad guys have psychological defects, good guys are often just guys and in the case of Alan Grant he’s a real guy’s guy. But then I guess this is where that leading man thing comes in.”

One theory that Neill seems to reject, however, is the suggestion that his career will be significantly improved by “Jurassic Park.”

“Look, I don’t believe in breakthroughs, it’s a notion that I reject,” he says. “If you accumulate in your body of work a certain credibility, then that’s a useful position to be in, but I think it’s business as usual really. It would be nice to think that because I’ve had a bit of a run of quite good things lately that it gives you a little more leverage. But I have this penchant for small films--my agents complain about it from time to time--because I like to play a lot of different things.”

In “The Piano,” Neill plays another of those small, iconoclastic roles that first brought him to prominence more than a decade ago. “It’s a very romantic, sexual, violent, disturbing period piece set in 1850 in New Zealand,” says Neill, who first met Campion through her parents, the founders of the New Zealand Players, “the closest thing we ever had to a national theater. I knew Jane was making interesting small films in Australia, so I tracked her down in Sydney and made it clear I was interested in working with her some day.”

When Campion sent Neill a copy of “The Piano"--the story of an early New Zealand settler (Neill) and his mute Scottish bride (Holly Hunter, who was named best actress at Cannes) who communicates to the world through her child and her piano--Neill was initially attracted to the role of the kindly, lustful neighbor, a part that was eventually played by Harvey Keitel.

“I more immediately saw myself in that role, so I was quite surprised when she offered me the role of Stuart, the husband,” says Neill. “But I think it was a much more interesting decision because I hate to say it, but I’m related to people like him. A lot of my family (has lived) off the land for 150 years.”

Unlike his role in “Jurassic Park,” playing a taciturn but explosive New Zealand settler who regards everything, including his wife and the local Maoris, as property to be bought and sold, taps Neill’s roots as an actor. “I felt sorry for him. Obviously he’s foolish and ignorant, but I always felt like . . . " Neill pauses, fumbling for words. “The physical image I had to get into the character was that I had no skin, no epidermis, that what happens to him in the film makes him so raw, so vulnerable that everything he does becomes understandable.”

It is a performance that Neill also cannily imbues with unexpected, but effective humor. Upon first meeting his wife-to-be on the beach where she has been unceremoniously dumped after her trans-Pacific voyage, he glances her up and down and coolly remarks, “You’re small. I never thought you’d be small.”

“My own view of acting is that it always has a comic element to it,” he says, citing Jack Nicholson’s performance in “A Few Good Men” as evidence. “Look at that scene where he is on the stand. It’s a tour de force and he’s terrifying, but there is also an aspect to it that’s hilarious and that is what I look for when I can find it--what’s funny--because it just gives your work more dimension.”

It also contributes to what Neill considers the optimum effectiveness of a film “when it works at a kind of subconscious level,” which in the case of “The Piano,” Neill personally found “very affecting and disturbing. A curious thing happened to me when I first saw the film a few weeks ago in Sydney. There were only six of us in the cinema and I sat right down in front a long way from anybody and at the end of the film, I started to cry. And I never cry. Me cry? I went to boarding school and there are certain emotional responses that have been cauterized, sealed off for good. But I sat there completely incapacitated for about 10 minutes. I still haven’t worked that out.”

“I never had any real intention of being an actor,” says Neill who traces his minimalist acting style to British actors like John Mills and James Mason, “not James Dean and those other cool Americans. Growing up in New Zealand we didn’t have television, we had movies, but they were British, not American films. And the idea of having a career as an actor, let alone a Hollywood actor, was unthinkable. There were no role models.”

As the youngest son born to a long line of New Zealand immigrants, Neill was born to an English mother in Northern Ireland, where his father, then a major in the British Army Irish Regiment, had been stationed. After attending the University of Canterbury, he spent two years working with a local theater group before joining the New Zealand Film Unit to become a director of documentaries.

He made his feature film debut in Roger Donaldson’s first film, “Sleeping Dogs” in 1977.

“I’d seen Sam in a small film where he played a priest,” recalls the Australian director. “And I thought I was seeing an interview with an actual priest, he was so convincing.”

Although Neill recalls his performance in “Sleeping Dogs” as “absolutely appalling,” it nonetheless caught the eye of Australian director Gillian Armstrong, then casting “My Brilliant Career.” Within a week, Neill had moved to Sydney. The film became something of an international hit in 1980 and helped to launch the nascent Australian film industry and Neill’s international career.

James Mason, who had seen Armstrong’s film, became an early champion of Neill, sending him a ticket to London and encouraging him to work in the British film industry. “He got me to Europe,” says Neill, who landed his first role in Britain in 1981 with Mason’s help--playing the anti-Christ in “The Final Conflict,” the third of the series of “Omen” films.

For the next several years, Neill worked in England, Australia and Hollywood, appearing in such diverse films as “The Good Wife,” “Plenty” and “Attack Force 2,” but most notably Fred Schepisi’s “A Cry in the Dark” in 1988, a performance for which he won the best actor award from the Australian Film Institute. “I always thought Sam was a much better actor than the roles he was playing,” says Schepisi, “and that he had the potential to be a great character actor as well as a leading man.”

“Sam played a guy who is three steps slower than he is himself, but he did it without condescending to the character,” says Streep. “That really impressed me, that dignity. There is just something about Sam that is so upright. It has to do with his wit but also his tenderness.”

Nonetheless, it was Neill’s portrayal of the womanizing espionage legend, Sidney Reilly in the PBS hit series “Reilly Ace of Spies,” that remained, to a large extent, his signature work in Hollywood. “I never had the response to anything I’ve done like I had with Reilly,” says Neill. “Which is sort of extraordinary, given what a bastard he was.”

Now his performance in “Jurassic Park” is expected to supplant that rather villainous image with a more user-friendly persona. It is a career move, as Schepisi says, that “indicates that Sam understands he’s got to make a real run at Hollywood before it’s too late"--but one that seems to cause the actor some measure of disquiet.

“It always baffles me when I hear about actors who won’t play bad guys because it’s bad for their image,” Neill says. “What are they? Dream machines or real actors? A real actor takes real parts.

“The tendency in Los Angeles is to think there are no other film industry; it is not all there is. And while I do feel more a part of things here than I did, I wouldn’t like to cut myself off from the other things I like to do,” says Neill, who owns a small ranch in New Zealand but who is also scouting for a house in Los Angeles for his family--his wife, Noriko Watanabe, a makeup artist whom he met making “Dead Calm,” and their two young children. (Neill also has a son from an earlier relationship with Australian actress Lisa Harrow (“The Last Days of Chez Nous”).

“Look, it is slightly disingenuous to say that all I think about is my acting and the career takes care of itself, and I like being, well, in demand I suppose,” he says. “But I never expected to be as successful as it has happened. I think of myself as someone on a wire with a balancing pole--balancing the types of films you do and the roles you really want to play, your private life with the public self. And it’s quite hard to stay on that wire, but I’m still up there now and it’s OK.”

Sam Neill’s Filmography

In the movies: Sleeping Dogs (1977) My Brilliant Career (1978) The Journalist (1979) Just Out of Reach (1979) Attack Force Z (1981) Possession (1981) The Final Conflict (1981) The Country Girls (1983) Le Sang des Autres (1984) Robbery Under Arms (1984) Plenty (1985) For Love Alone (1985) The Good Wife (1986) A Cry in the Dark (1988) La Revolution Francaise (1989) Dead Calm (1989) The Hunt for Red October (1990) Until the End of the World (1991) Hostage (1992) Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) Jurassic Park (1993)

For television: From a Far Country: Pope John Paul II (1981) Ivanhoe (1982) Reilly: Ace of Spies (1984) Kane and Abel (1985) Arthur Hailey’s Strong Medicine (1986) Amerika (1987) Leap of Faith (1988) Fever (1991) One Against the Wind (1991) Family Pictures (1993)


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