As is the case with many a beloved screen actor, everyone has their own mental image of Sam Neill. For some, it’s of the prickly paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park. For others, it’s of desperate, spiralling Mark from Possession, or grumpy Uncle Hec from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. (For my mother, it’s “the man who raises those pigs”; for my New Zealander best friend, “our national treasure.”) His latest role — as a religious rancher dealing with the fallout from the murder of a white man by an aboriginal farmer in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country — is just as indelible as any of those, not least because the film itself is so thoughtful and delicately crafted. (It continues screening this week at the IFC Center.) It’s as much a simple western as it is an indictment of Australia’s checkered historical conflicts between colonizers and the indigenous population.
It’s also Neill’s first western, which, as he tells the Voice while on vacation in Tahiti, is a bit of a personal milestone. So is the growing success of his vineyard, Two Paddocks. We spoke about the film, the wine, and everything in between — including old (bad) reviews.
How much research did you do in preparation for this role? Your character doesn’t play a huge part in the film, but he is present throughout.
Warwick doesn’t see any of his characters as particularly black or white, though this is a film clearly about black and white relations. My guy is a rancher. He’s also deeply religious, and he believes in certain verities like the dignity and equality of man. But you should be cautious, because he, of course, is one of the characters instrumental in bringing Christianity into remote places like this, and that was not necessarily, in the long run, enormously beneficial to the indigenous people that were scared of him.
You’re from New Zealand. How much did you already know about the history of Australia with regard to the indigenous people before you came onto the project?
A certain amount. This film is part of a wide discussion, in that there is quite a bit of Australia’s dark past that has become increasingly the subject of discussion, and it’s really only now that people are becoming aware of what happened. It’s not dissimilar to the United States. It involved land clearance; it was not just chopping down trees. It was also eliminating the people that lived there, and in the drive West, that’s what happened. People drove West in the United States, and it involved dead people, and the destruction of cultures. This film, made by an aboriginal director, is part of that discussion. It’s only really in the last ten years that, as an outsider and a non-Australian, I’m aware of people really talking about the massacres that took place.
How did you end up involved in the project to begin with?
How do you get involved in anything? I knew of Warwick Thornton’s work — not just as a cinematographer, [though] I knew it would be a beautiful-looking film. He made a real landmark film called Samson and Delilah [in 2009], and I thought that he’s one of the truly original voices in Australian cinema. I was keen to work with him. It’s not just polemic; I’ve always wanted to do a western, and this is definitely a western of sorts. It takes all sorts of tropes from the western genre, like posses and a hanging judge and all those things, but it kind of subverts and turns them on their head. I think it’s a very interesting film, one of the best films that have come out of Australia for many years.
I was struck by the final shot, in which a character walks off into the outback under a great rainbow. I read that that rainbow was real, and just happened fortuitously. Was there anything else that happened like that?
That rainbow was quite a thing, wasn’t it? I think the greatest stroke of luck that we had, and we were very lucky in many ways, was — you can get completely ravaged by flies. I’ve worked in the outback many times, and one of my vivid memories is of Meryl Streep [during the shoot for A Cry in the Dark], covered from head to foot in black flies, trying not to scream. That’s one of the things that can happen. [But we had] a relatively fly-free environment.
Do you think about genre a lot in the projects you take? I feel like you’ve done almost everything at this point.
I’ve always wanted to do a western. I’ve always loved westerns. It’s one of the genres that, of all the American genres, probably travelled best. And just on a sort of daily basis, I love working with horses. They’re really fun [films] to make.
I know that you own a farm as well. Do you have any horses? I’ve seen a lot of pictures of the pigs.
I’ve got almost every animal. I’d love some horses, but I’m away a lot. I’m starting a new film [this week], and I’m going to be doing two films in a row. My work takes me away from the farm a lot, and I would dearly love horses, but there’s no one on the farm that really understands horses, and of all animals, they need the most care and attention.
I’m hoping that Sweet Country has a wider reach outside of Australia. Do you think about the impact a film will have? Jurassic Park, for instance, is now this juggernaut franchise, and an all-time classic.
Well, this certainly won’t be a franchise [Laughs]. I think it’s an interesting film, because you can read it on one level as a simple, very straightforward western, and it can be completely enjoyed at that level. But you can also read it as a very profound and political manifesto. It works on a number of different levels, and if you just want to look at a great western, there it is, but if you want something that’s thought-provoking, it offers that as well. Speaking of westerns, I’ve become a big fan of this thing called Godless, on Netflix, which I recommend. I absolutely loved that. So perhaps we’re seeing a revival of westerns. I hope so.
Do you have any thoughts about returning to sci-fi? There was a period in the Eighties and Nineties — with In the Mouth of Madness, Possession, and Event Horizon — where you were in pretty strange science-fiction–y movies.
I think I’ve covered all the bases. I’ve done quite a number of arthouse films. The strangest was probably Possession, which has had an arthouse revival of sorts. And I’m in Peter Rabbit, so I’ve done my share of children’s stuff. What turns up on my desk that is of interest, I’m happy to consider. “Yes, I need to make more science fiction,” that’s something that’s never crossed my mind.
You’ve also done some writing. I read the column that you did for the Spectator a few years back. What led to that?
There was a woman who thought I might be able to write things, and I did that for a few years. That was fun.
Would you consider doing it again?
I’ve found once a quarter is about right. I don’t have a lot to say about many things. [Laughs] Once every three months, I come up with an idea. I kind of liked writing for them. Although its politics are rather different from my own, I’ve always found it a very entertaining magazine.
Have you ever thought about writing a book or a screenplay?
I have, and then I’ve quickly shelved it. [Laughs] I think 2,000 words is my limit.
You seem to be doing well with 280 characters as well, as you’re very active on social media. How did you get on Twitter to begin with?
I preferred it when it was 140, actually. Brevity is the soul of wit. Given that I’m on a coast, looking at an azure sea, I haven’t been on Twitter for about 24 hours, but I’m fine now. I’m hopping back on it.
Speaking of mediums, you’ve done a lot of TV as well as film. Have you found that you prefer one to the other?
When I started in movies, it was like, if you’ve done any television at all, you’ve kind of placed yourself. You were never allowed back into movies. But now, people are sort of moving with ease and grace between one medium and another. There are so many platforms now; you’d be a fool to be too precious about it. Something like Peaky Blinders, I loved doing that, and you wouldn’t get a chance to do work like that in the movies, necessarily. I’m very happy doing some television.
Do you find that people recognize you more from one thing or the other?
It depends on what’s current, really. I’m a pretty ordinary-looking man, and I’m not readily recognized. I’m just the average man on the street. I’m always grateful I can live a normal life, and I can walk to the shops, and no one ever stops me. I don’t need security [Laughs]. I can’t think of anything worse than having to live a life with security. That would be just terrible. I’ve got friends who do have it, though. I don’t envy them.
You’ve been making wine for over a quarter century. Where did that interest come from?
I’ve always loved wine, and my family were in wine and spirits for 150 years before I started to grow wine, so it seemed like a fairly natural thing to do. It’s engaging. I’m away from the vineyards a lot, but I love being there and being involved in all parts of the process. Finally, we’re getting the sort of recognition that I think we deserve. For the second year in a row, we got 95 points from the Wine Spectator in New York. That’s very satisfying. Movies and wine have that in common: We like nothing better than a good review.
Do you read reviews of your own work?
I try to avoid them, but sometimes they come up! I’ve read very little about Sweet Country, but I keep getting messages from Warwick going, “You gotta read this.” There’s been a fantastic response to this film.
Has there been any review of your work that’s stuck with you?
Only bad ones. One of my closest friends is a film critic; he reviews on radio in New Zealand. Years ago, I just happened to be listening to his reviews that week, and his phrase was “woefully miscast.” I’ve never let him forget that. [Laughs] I’ll be in Wellington, and I’ll call him up and say, “It’s your woefully miscast friend. Would you like to get a coffee?”
How does he respond to that?
He’ll go to his grave with that tattooed on his heart. I’ll never forgive him.
You mentioned you’re doing two movies back-to-back. What are you working on?
One’s called Ride Like a Girl. Rachel Griffiths is directing. The great horse race in Australia is the Melbourne Cup. It’s like the Kentucky Derby. And it’s about the first woman who ever won that, something like three years ago. And the second film is called Palm Beach, that will be filmed in Palm Beach, north of Sydney, with lots of very old friends. Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward, Richard E. Grant, Jackie McKenzie. And then after that, I’ll be free in August. So, all those nice indie directors in New York, tell them I’m available.