“What is it with Irish sheep?” ponders Sam Neill. “They care not for traffic or boundaries or road safety. They’re feral, lawless animals. They’re not like sheep anywhere else.”
It’s dark and wet in Dublin as Neill, speaking via Zoom, adjusts his webcam to show the sunny spectacle of his working New Zealand farm.
“It’s rather beautiful here, I’m sorry to say,” he grins.
Neill’s estate, where he produces his organic Two Paddocks wine, is home to several notable animal residents named for his fellow actors. In 2019 the Jurassic Park star was heartbroken to discover that Meryl Streep the chicken had been killed by a ferret. Not long before, Hugo Weaving, a prize ram, keeled over while mounting a sheep.
“Most of my animals get names so that Mike – who is the farm manager – doesn’t end up eating them,” says Neill. “My bull was called Jimmy Nesbitt. And Jimmy Nesbitt got very arthritic and old; We had to put him down because he was really in quite a lot of pain and could hardly walk. But we gave him a decent burial. I’m not going to have Jimmy Nesbitt turned into sausages.”
Neill’s uneaten animal companions are part of the staff, he insists. His Suffolk sheep – “with black faces and socks” – have important duties.
“The sheep control the weeds as much as anything,” he says. “You can’t make any money out of sheep at the moment. It costs more to shear my sheep than I get for the wool. It’s ridiculous. Particularly when you consider that wool is the greatest fabric ever known. I love wool carpets. I love a Donegal tweed jacket. It’s incredible that people choose to wear clothes made from petroleum instead of a good wool sweater.”
Sheep-raising is a family tradition. Neill recalls an occasion when his father entered a prize woolly ruminant – a ram named Ramekin – in a local agricultural and pastoral association show. Ramekin was the only sheep in his class. “And he came second,” laughs Neill. “My father was furious and bitter to the end. He was sure he’d clean up. Imagine coming second when there was no first. Such mean f***ing judges.”
Neill has yet to name the ram that has taken to following him around the farm. “He’s very fond of me; not inappropriately so. But fond.” But his extensive sheep-themed history proved the ideal preparation for Rams, a new comedy starring Neill and Michael Caton as warring sheep-farming brothers. The film, a raucous remake of a 2015 Icelandic film, concerns a sheep cull that brings the estranged siblings together in order to save their prize herd.
“I love my animals and that was one of the pleasures of making this film,” says the 73-year-old. “It’s like Gregory Peck used to say: no acting required. But I also had some nice people to work with, like Miranda Richardson and Michael Caton. I’ve worked with both of them before. They’re friends. And the sheep were, well, the sheep.”
Nigel John Dermot “Sam” Neill was born in Omagh, Co Tyrone, to an English mother and a New Zealander army officer father. He was seven when the family relocated to New Zealand; he’s the third generation of the clan to live there; his great-grandfather Percy left Belfast for the islands in 1860.
“I remember Ireland, of course,” says Neill. “I particularly remember Co Down. We had a lovely little whitewashed cottage on the beach at a place called Tyrella. It was a coast guard house or watch house in the 1700s when I think people were smuggling things. I don’t quite know what smugglers smuggled back then, but smuggling was a big thing. And heaven forbid we should smuggle things. Perhaps it’ll be back post-Brexit.”
Did he have an accent when he arrived in Christchurch?
“I suppose I must have done. My mother was English and my father was a New Zealander. But my friends all had Northern Irish accents and I think I sounded like them. I don’t think I ever had anything like the sort of Belfast accent I use in Peaky Blinders. I’ve often thought that was the genesis of me becoming an actor. I think I had to learn how to act and sound like a New Zealander to avoid getting bullied at school.”
After graduating from the Victoria University of Wellington with a BA in English literature, Neill landed some roles on television and directed a short for the New Zealand National Film Unit. His big break came with 1977’s Sleeping Dogs, the first feature-length 35mm film produced entirely in New Zealand, and a late hit in the career of Warren Oates.
Neill’s international career began with The Omen III: The Final Conflict and some mentoring from James Mason. In the following decades he has been to Cannes with Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career and Jane Campion’s The Piano, stood by Meryl Streep (the human) in A Cry in the Dark, come to Nicole Kidman’s rescue in Dead Calm and captained a Soviet sub in The Hunt for Red October. On television he has played Cardinal Wolsey in The Tudors, Merlin in the 1998 miniseries, and has voiced an elderly cat burglar in The Simpsons and an intergalactic emperor in Rick and Morty.
“My father used to say: when are you going get a proper job?” recalls Neill. “Someone reminded me the other day that it’s 50 years since I was first seen on camera in some capacity. Which is an awfully long time. I’m proud to say that in all those 50 years, I’ve never had a proper job. One of those pieces of advice you hear people giving young people is to find something you really love and you’ll never have to do a day’s work in your life. That’s why they advisedly call plays plays.”
Playing João Havelange in the infamous Fifa propaganda drama United Passions was not his most painful gig. That honour falls to Andrzej Zulawski’s brilliant and bizarre 1981 drama, Possession, in which a West Berlin spy (Neill) discovers his wife (Isabelle Adjani) is having a, well, most unusual affair.
“Zulawski was a genius but he was also a crazy motherf***er,” says Neill. “I was told Isabelle had a breakdown after we finished shooting. And I’m not surprised. They screened it at the Sitges Film Festival in 2019. That was the first time I had watched it since it premiered in Cannes. I remember we were mobbed at the end of it. The audience was completely divided. People absolutely hated it and shouted ‘B******t, b******t’ and all sorts of French obscenities at the screen. Other people thought it was a masterwork. Small fights broke out. it was really intense and it’s an extraordinary film. It’s not like anything else in cinema. I’m very pleased that I did it. But I was pretty shaken up at the end of it.
“The most upsetting day I’ve ever had in all these years of making films is a scene where I had to slap Isabella. And Andrzej came to me and said, ‘You must hit her properly.’ And he brought Isabelle over and she assured me it was okay to hit her. I had never hit anyone in my life. So we did three takes. And the most memorable shot in the film, for me, is where she turns back and laughs. It was bloodcurdling. When we were done I found a fire escape on the building and I went down a couple of flights where there was no one around. And I wept like a baby for about 10 minutes. It was horrible.”
Neill has recently wrapped on Jurassic World: Dominion, a spin-off that reunites him with his Jurassic Park co-stars Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum. The production was one of the first tentpole pictures to resume shooting after Covid-related delays.
“I think it’s going to be a blast, “ says Neill. “It was great fun. We shot in Buckinghamshire for all of the summer and most of the autumn. They spent something like $5 million just on keeping us safe. I mean, that’s the budget of a normal, small movie. But that’s how much it cost for the Covid protocols and preventions. So here we are healthy, and I’m very grateful.”
In the depths of the Covid crisis, Neill’s Twitter account has proved a tonic for thousands. In the often toxic world of social media, the actor has provided a haven, replete with wine, funny farm animals, conviviality and humorous observations. He looks peeved only once during our interview.
“I think one very distressing aspect of the Covid world is that you realise how undervalued the arts are by those who run things. Including the chancellor of the exchequer of the UK suggesting people in the arts should consider retraining. That was absolutely infuriating. Imagine a Britain or Ireland or New Zealand without the arts? A world of accountants and tradesmen and nothing else. What a bleak prospect.”
Neill’s unbroken run of films may have been upturned by Covid. Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (featuring Neill’s voice) has yet to open in cinemas a year after it was originally scheduled for release. Happily, however, the crisis hasn’t dented his cheery demeanour.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘What’s it like just wandering around and being Sam Neill?’ It’s quite an interesting existential question. I started thinking, Do I go around being Sam Neill? No. I just go around thinking, Oh, that’s an interesting-looking tree. I don’t think: now I’ll be Sam Neill looking at a tree.
“I wouldn’t be any use in a Being John Malkovich scenario. If you open the door at the back of my head, I’m afraid there’s probably just a lot of space.”
Rams is released on digital platforms on February 5th