Sam Neill: ‘I dodged a bullet with James Bond’
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It’s pouring with rain, and Sam Neill is chasing a white duck around a lake on his vineyard home near Clyde in New Zealand. “Come on Charlie, I know you missed me,” shouts the actor and winemaker, who has just returned from Australia, where he spends a lot of time working.
“I give my animals the names of my friends so they don’t end up on the dinner plate,” explains the 70-year-old with a chuckle as he sweeps Charlie, named after his good mate Charlie Pickering, an Australian comedian, up into his arms.
The emotional reunion between man and beast stands in contrast to Neill’s characterisation in his latest movie, Peter Rabbit. In this adaptation of the Beatrix Potter book, he stars in the role of crazed, bulging-eyed gardener, Mr McGregor, who declares war on the local rabbit population that are eating his vegetables.
At Two Paddocks, the vineyard and farm which Neill bought from the New Zealand government in 2000, the animals, which include pigs named Anjelica Huston and Imogen Poots, appear to be doted on by their celebrity proprietor.
Neill has worked with some of the world’s best actors and directors on big box office smashes, including Jurassic Park, as well as critically acclaimed art-house movies, such as The Piano. He is also a star in the popular British television drama Peaky Blinders. But at Two Paddocks there is little acting memorabilia on display. Instead, it is a shrine to one of Neill’s other great passions: making wine.
“I take great pride in the wine that we make. When you get 95 points from Wine Spectator in New York two years in a row you are clearly making one of the great Pinot Noirs of the world — so, ambition fulfilled,” says Neill.
Neill owns four small organic vineyards in New Zealand’s Central Otago region, which produce Pinot Noir and a little bit of Riesling. He planted his first grapes in 1993 and sells his wine in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
“People are taking the wine seriously, as they should, and that has taken a while,” he says. “People tend to underestimate actors. They say ‘he is an actor, what would he know?’”
For someone who has spent his career zooming between filming locations around the world — more than 60 countries at the last count — Two Paddocks is an important anchor for Neill.
Neill is separated from his second wife Noriko Watanabe, with whom he has one daughter. He has three other children and four grandchildren and there is a regular procession of family members through his vineyard, which is located at the foot of a gorge underneath the snow-capped peaks of New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
“I am well planted in the land. In this little oasis,” he says.
Neill would not comment on media reports that he is dating one of Australia’s most prominent political journalists, Laura Tingle.
Neill lives in a converted tractor shed on the vineyard, which he describes as his “man cave”. The corrugated iron structure has an open plan living room and kitchen and a single bedroom.
The living room is bright and airy with skylights, large windows, wooden floors and minimalist decor that includes two small modern sofas, a table and two red leather chairs. A large wood-burning stove provides heat for the cold winters in the Queenstown region. Neill owns a record player, a large vinyl collection and a lot of books.
One of his favourite books is The Last September by the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen. “I’m really interested in the crumbling remains of the Ascendancy [in Ireland]. So much great literature came out of that era,” says Neill, who was born in Northern Ireland and moved to New Zealand when he was six or seven years old.
He says the shock of moving at a young age to a rather brutal New Zealand school, as a shy kid who spoke like a Pom, probably turned him into an actor. “I had to learn fast to become a New Zealander. I’m convinced that is the seeds of acting,” he says.
The walls of the “man cave” are decorated with art, including work by Gavin Chilcott and Neil Dawson, two prominent New Zealand artists. Dawson is famous for making large-scale sculptures using aluminium and steel for civic use. One of these large metal pieces — a weathervane in the shape of a feather — sits proudly on a hill within the vineyard’s grounds. Neill is also interested in Indigenous art.
“I’ve been looking at the effects of colonialism a lot this year,” says Neill, who is making a documentary about Captain Cook for television and recently completed Sweet Country, a western set in the Australian outback in the 1920s in which he plays the role of a preacher.
“The damage wreaked by colonialism, and in particular by missionaries, is so clearly evident all around the Pacific,” he says. “There has been a lot of not thinking about this in Australia. But this needs to be thought about and addressed. You cannot leave these as open wounds.” Neill’s modest living quarters are surrounded by beautiful native trees, including beech, rata and kowhai, which provide shade in the summer. Fields surrounding the garden produce a rich harvest of lavender, saffron, figs and other exotic fruits.
“Every time I come back here these trees are a little more mature. I’m planting a lot more native trees and the native birds are coming back — these things give me immense pleasure,” he says.
Neill is an environmental advocate, who recently starred in a Greenpeace advert calling for a ban on single use plastic bags. He is an advocate for organic farming and would like to see politicians and business leaders take climate change more seriously.
“I’m not a wild-eyed crazy hippy, but I do think we have to be extremely sceptical about the use of chemicals,” he says. “We all have to be concerned about the planet. It astonishes me we are all still being sold trickle-down economics, which is all about greed, and the environment and everyone else can go to hell in a hand-basket. I have four grandchildren and I’m very concerned about their futures.”
Neill is a fan of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, who he describes as a “rock star” who is pressing all the right buttons. “What a breath of fresh air. The world is run by too many boring, white, middle-aged men like me.”
Last week Neill hosted an event with former US president Barack Obama, who was on a visit to New Zealand. But he is scathing about the state of politics in the US, saying Trump doesn’t have a “f***ing clue”, and worries the UK is headed for “catastrophe” with Brexit.
“I think the EU combined with Nato is one of the great achievements of the 20th century,” he says.
When asked if he knows any of the rich foreigners, such as US technology guru Peter Thiel, who have bought “bolt hole mansions” in this region in case of global catastrophe, Neill is dismissive.
“They are not my people,” he says. “Some of them are here because they think the world is going to shit. But why would anyone want to be the last person left alive on earth? What’s the point? ”
Neill says he has no regrets about his acting career and considers himself lucky to have missed out on playing James Bond, a role he auditioned for which was eventually secured by Timothy Dalton. “I dodged a bullet that was never fired,” he says. “You’d walk into a room and people would say ‘that is the James Bond I never liked,’” laughs Neill.
He has no plans to retire any time soon and is currently working on a movie about the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup horse race, Michelle Payne.
“I’ve had really great times in the most unlikely places. Actors are really very enjoyable people to be with: they are fun, usually intelligent and they tell great stories. They also like a drink or two. What is not to like?”
Jamie Smyth is the FT’s Australia and Pacific Islands correspondent
A landscape by Ralph Hotere, a New Zealand artist of Maori descent, is one of Neill’s most treasured possessions. Hotere, who died in 2013, was one of his good friends.
Hotere had a great interest in Indigenous cultures and travelled to Lake Mungo in Australia when the archaeological dig took place that discovered Mungo man, one of the oldest human remains found. On the back of the painting it says: “Sam Neill sketch for a Mungo painting”.
“Ralph never discussed his work and it took me some time to work this [sketch] out. But he is looking at surveyor’s pegs when they do the archaeological digs, and in a sense he is also referencing Aboriginal dot paintings,” says Neill. “The idea that Indigenous culture could be more than 40,000 years old, 35,000 years before the pyramids, is important.”