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The Individualists: Sam Neill Comes Home To A Kiwi Comedy

The veteran of global blockbusters arrives at Sundance with a New Zealand comedy

Sam Neill the Individualist
Louise Kennerley/Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Out of his isolated roots in New Zealand, Sam Neill has emerged as a multifaceted actor, able to tackle villainous roles (“The Piano,” “The Tudors”), heroic ones (“Jurassic Park”), and those in between (“Peaky Blinders”) with the same aplomb.

A self-ascribed travel addict, Neill has worked in nearly three dozen countries and seems keen on upping that number.

“I’ve always felt like I was a message in a bottle,” he muses. “I was thrown off a cliff in New Zealand, bobbed around in the sea and just waited to see what shore I’d wash up on and who would open the bottle.”

At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Neill appears as Uncle Hec in Kiwi filmmaker (and Sundance darling) Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” It’s a comedy — Waititi’s fourth feature and notably in the vein of his independent and unique voice — about a family thrown together through the foster system who escape into the New Zealand bush to thwart authorities who want to take the child back from them. He spoke as part of a collaboration between the Autograph Collection’s The Individualists series and Variety.

You’ve done TV, big blockbusters, and projects of every size. What makes you come back to a small indie like “Hunt for the Wilderpeople?”

I think it’s important to go home sometimes; to go back and contribute and to be a part of what’s going on. And I mean “home” in a fairly loose sense — I probably include Australia and New Zealand in that because that’s where my film origins are, in the antipodes. Taika is such an interesting and original voice from New Zealand. I’ve followed his career and I thought it would be wonderful to (work on a film) with him.

Besides Waititi being a unique filmmaker, as you say, was there something else that attracted you to this film or role in particular?

I liked the idea of playing this part. I’ve known kind of characters like Hec over the years, especially when I was a young fellow. In a way, I think it’s coming full circle. I think Taika was making a nod to the sort of films he grew up with in New Zealand, films by Roger Donaldson and Geoff Murphy, which were very much of their time. I was in one called “Sleeping Dogs” (Roger Donaldson, 1977). And here I am, come full circle, except I’m the old geezer now.

Does budget matter to you at all? Or are are you as happy doing a huge blockbuster as you are doing an independent film?

A lot of money in budgets these days is spent on enormous special effects; cities and continents are destroyed in the blink of an eye. That’s not necessarily entertaining. There are good films and bad films at whatever budget level though, and the trick is, if you can pull it off, to be in the good ones. That’s not always possible.

I do think people tend to overestimate how much control actors really have in their own careers. There are probably a dozen actors in the world who have got as much choice as they’d like. That’s the truth of it.

When I started my career, there was no map. I think there might be clearer maps now, and for people older than me there were maps – the studio systems. For me, I was the first actor that I knew of who actually had the prospect of a screen career. That came upon me as a complete surprise. I didn’t know that’s what I would end up doing, but I did.

In fact, you’ve ended up travelling to so many locations throughout your career. What’s a place that you were surprised to enjoy?

My last job just finished in South Africa. It’s a place I never wanted to go to and that was probably very much to do with its associations with the apartheid years. Weirdly enough, in the last decade, I’ve done no less than five jobs in South Africa.

While it’s a place I’m never entirely relaxed — it’s not the safest, sleepiest part of the world — it’s enormously interesting and incredibly beautiful. People keep surprising me there, too. My prejudices keep getting upended.

I did count once, some years ago, how many countries I’ve worked in. It was something like 30 different countries. I’m sure it’s considerably more now. I am hopelessly addicted to getting on airplanes and finding myself somewhere else. That’s probably something to do with coming from the most profoundly isolated country in the world.

Has travel helped shape you as an artist?

I’m very interested in other cultures, in other cuisines, in other people. I like finding myself somewhere new with a little bunch of actors who are forced into each other’s company, forming bonds with those people. The most rewarding part of what I do is the camaraderie that comes out of making films. You don’t find that if you’re working from home. Finding yourself in a new place with other people who have never been there before, that makes for the bonds, many of which have lasted through the years.

Is there a journey you recently took that’s impacted your life?

Actually, I hardly journey on a voluntary basis because I always think that a movie will take me there eventually. That’s almost always true. Probably the last voluntary journey I made was to Turkey last year. For so many reasons, I think it’s probably as interesting a place as you can possibly find, given its thousands of years of history and the geopolitical position it’s in today.

Also, the warmth and generosity of the people — I think Turkey’s absolutely great and is a very interesting place to be in terms of where we are, where the world is right now.

Are there other mediums of art that influence your work as an actor?

I’m very interested in contemporary painting and particularly Australian and New Zealand art. I collect 20th century black-and-white photography. When I’m not making movies, I’m making wine. I have four little vineyards — Two Paddocks — I have a winemaker and a viticulturist. We make Pinot Noir primarily.

What do you think it takes to get noticed by the industry today? Is making a good movie enough?

I think more than any other job that I can think of, good luck and good fortune is paramount.

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