You can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t keep the farm — especially the dino ones — away from Sam Neill.
From the sheep of his new movie “Rams” to the bunnies of upcoming “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” the Emmy-nominated New Zealand actor is entering his milestone 50th year of professional acting with projects incorporating his love for animals. However, it’s the not-so-farm-friendly dinosaurs of “Jurassic World: Dominion” that mark one of the largest-scale and most memorable projects of the 73-year-old Kiwi’s career.
Neill reprises his role as paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant in the new film — partly filmed during the pandemic and due out in 2022 — and jokes that the cast excitably churned out what could become a six-hour movie.
“It’s going be a big film. [Director] Colin Trevorrow has that childlike sense of wonder, playfulness and inventiveness that [Steven] Spielberg has. We really shot a six-hour movie. We were all very gung-ho,” Neill says, speaking with Variety at his Two Paddocks vineyard and farm headquarters in New Zealand’s lusciously picturesque Central Otago region.
“Hopefully, there’ll be thousands of massive cinemas ready for it because it’s a big film for big audiences.”
It’s been 27 years since Dr. Grant, Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) went up against dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” and 19 since Neill returned for “Jurassic Park III.”
So, where will viewers find Dr. Grant in 2022? “Same character, but different world, different times. Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler haven’t seen each other for some time, so you’ll see how that pans out,” says Neill.
Completing filming was a feat amid COVID-19. Reflecting on the jet-setting career Neill enjoyed pre-pandemic, he had filmed “Rams” in Australia, wrapped Apple’s upcoming “Invasion” series in New Jersey, shot pick-ups in Marrakesh, then arrived in England to commence “Jurassic World: Dominion.” Two nights later, he retreated to Australia amid the spread of the virus.
“No one knew whether ‘Jurassic’ would continue, be postponed or be abandoned altogether. The world turned into a darker place and that was strange, but I found it liberating in a creative way,” Neill says.
Neill’s lockdown life Down Under garnered global interest thanks to social media posts, in which he performed with his ukulele, shared cooking demonstrations and started short film series, Cinema Quarantino, co-starring pals like Helena Bonham Carter.
“I hadn’t played my ukulele for a couple of years, so I started singing and making little films with friends. It was a strangely productive time.”
“Jurassic World: Dominion” resumed production in July in London. Neill was tested three times weekly for COVID-19 while staying near Pinewood Studios with a cast and crew of around 750, including Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt.
“It was somewhere between rehab, summer camp and Easter break,” Neill laughs. “We were compulsorily in each other’s company and much richer for it. If we were shooting in L.A., we’d go off to our different caves every night, but we got to know each other so much better.”
“I never felt less than privileged to be in work last year,” Neill adds. “So many people haven’t had a sniff of a job for over a year and I can imagine how frightfully depressing that is and how much anxiety it must induce.”
The struggles of 2020 are why Neill, who returned to New Zealand and his web-famous farm animals in November, believes “Rams” couldn’t arrive at a better time. He stars alongside Australian icon Michael Caton in the film, which was adapted from the award-winning 2015 Icelandic movie by Grímur Hákonarson.
Made by Australian production company WBMC and directed by Jeremy Sims, “Rams” follows neighboring sheep-farmer brothers whose decades-long feud reaches boiling point when disease threatens their flocks.
“I’ve been watching Academy movie screeners and almost everything’s depressing,” Neill says. “‘Rams’ looks like a knockabout comedy about daggy Australians, but it’s more complex. It’s about humanity and it’s funny, but sweet and sad. The feedback I’ve received is, ‘I’ve been in lockdown for months and this is a film about real people and real things that made me feel better. It’s just what I needed coming out of a bleak time.’
“And it involves sheep!” Neill adds about the parallels with his own life in New Zealand, having moved from a home nearer the tourist hub of Queenstown to a house built at Red Bank Farm and Vineyard, also known as Two Paddocks HQ. “I’ve even got a nice ram we might meet. He’s a friendly chap.”
“Rams,” out in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV, Vudu and other platforms, merged Neill’s love for acting with farm life, shooting in Western Australia’s Mount Barker.
The film comes five decades after the actor first graced screens in New Zealand series “The City of No,” before a breakthrough film role in 1977’s “Sleeping Dogs.”
“Sleeping Dogs” director Roger Donaldson played a part in the vintner ambitions Neill now juggles with acting. In 1993, the filmmakers planted their first vineyards, side-by-side, in the wine region of Gibbston Valley, birthing Two Paddocks. Neill now has four paddocks throughout Otago and produces around 8,000 cases annually, specializing in pinot noir.
Alongside winemaking, he has continued acting, with New Zealand films like “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” global blockbusters including “Thor: Ragnarok” and television shows like “Peaky Blinders” and “Alcatraz.”
“50 years … that’s unthinkable,” he reflects. “No wonder my beard’s grey. That’s 50 years of continually thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll get another job?’ That never goes away. But [insecurity] keeps you on your toes. You can’t afford to get smug. I’m always learning.
“For instance, I had a long discussion with Chris Pratt about how to leave a room. It sounds straightforward, but there’s many ways to leave a room in a scene. He’s got some good ideas!”
At 73, Neill’s long from leaving the room. He hopes to do more presenting work, having hosted documentary series “The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill,” and would love to work with Michael Caine or Tom Hanks. “[Tom’s] a warm, lovely fella and that warmth’s evident in his work.”
With a career spanning 50 years, Neill also recognizes the array of opportunities in television. “It used to be if you were a movie actor, there was nothing worse than doing television. It was like getting herpes: once you’d done one television project, you were blighted with that forever. But I didn’t care less. If it was interesting, I would think about it.
“Now, if you don’t do television, it’s likely you won’t do any more interesting work because there’s so much fantastic stuff being done for long-form television — which was always there, but people didn’t want to touch it,” says Neill.
Nonetheless, it’s movies keeping Neill busy. After “Rams,” fans can catch him doing voice work in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” from June, which prompts the actor to divulge secrets from the first film. “When you see Mr. McGregor’s bottom, that’s not my bottom. They got a stunt bottom!”
Depending on travel restrictions, Neill’s next job will take him to Australia. New Zealand, meanwhile, has largely contained the coronavirus, enabling projects like James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels and Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” series to film throughout the pandemic. International productions continue seeking border exemptions, which the government is granting to select projects benefiting the local economy and industry.
Neill’s well aware not all countries have strong support for the arts, recalling a suggestion by the U.K. government that artists consider retraining amid COVID-19.
“What the absolute f—? The level of philistinism in that fills me with rage,” he shudders. “Let’s ask the leading Wagnerian tenor in the world to retrain as a plumber?”
“In Australia, all the concern’s about tradies, but they’re doing well. There’s very little airspace given to the fate of people in the arts. The people who make life joyful and rich. A culture without the arts is no culture. And a country without culture isn’t worth living in. Don’t get me started. Let’s go meet the ram!”