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Exclusive: Jurassic Park star Sam Neill hits career high with new film

The Hollwood heavyweight stars in ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ which is in cinemas now

William Mullally

Published: Updated:

Chances are, some time in the last 40 years, a performance by Sam Neill has caught your eye. You may know him as Dr. Alan Grant, the paleontologist whose infectious love of dinosaurs brought a sense of wonderment to “Jurassic Park.” Maybe you’ve seen him on Netflix’s sleeper hit series “Peaky Blinders.” Across the 122 film and television credits to his name, Sam Neill has humbly become a beloved and respected figure for movie fans of all sorts, owing to his stand out performances across disparate genres in films big and small. And at 69-years-old, Neill, rather than coasting off old successes, is doing some of his best work.

If you haven’t seen all of Neill’s work—don’t worry, he won’t be offended. In fact, rather than expecting adoration, he’s quick to recommend some of his less appreciated work. He’s quite interested to see where and how you might have discovered him. After all, even his more obscure work has become cultural canon in certain parts of the world.

“I did a television version of “Ivanhoe” in 1982, and since 1985 or something every Boxing Day or New Year’s Day in Sweden it’s played every afternoon of that day once a year,” says Neill. “It’s like a national institution—every year, the whole of Sweden sits down and watches Ivanhoe again. I’m the bad guy and for two hours once a year, I am the most hated man in Sweden.”

Sam Neil Photo courtesy Hollow Creative 5 (exclusive pics)
Sam Neil Photo courtesy Hollow Creative 5 (exclusive pics)

Neill is from New Zealand, and while he has taken on many blockbuster roles out of his home country, he’s always returned home, both as an actor and appreciator of New Zealand film. In the last ten years, one person in particular has caught his nation’s eye—Taika Waititi. Getting his first-ever Oscar nomination in 2004 for his short film “Two Cars, One Night,” Waititi made what became the then-highest grossing film ever in the nation, Boy, 2010. The film caught the eye of Neill, as well.

“I was particularly taken with ‘Boy.’ I just saw it again the other night. The first time I saw it, it struck me as being hilarious. The second time I was overwhelmed by how sad it was,” says Neill.

After the uproarious international hit What We Do in the Shadows, a film Waititi did with his old comedy partner, “Flight of the Conchords’” Jemaine Clement, Waititi’s next film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” was to adapt a novel, 1986’s “Wild Pork and Watercress.” The book tells the story of a young overweight Maori orphan, and an old misanthrope on the run in the New Zealand wilderness—much more in the vein of Boy. Sam Neill would play Herc, the old man who learns to love the boy he initially can’t stand.

Sam Neil Photo courtesy Hollow Creative 5 (exclusive pics)
Sam Neil Photo courtesy Hollow Creative 5 (exclusive pics)

“I think in some ways, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a sort of sequel to Boy. People are describing it a comedy because it’s very funny but it’s quite dark underneath and there’s a lot of sad stuff going on underneath particularly with Ricky, the kid. No one wants him, he’s got no family. He’s been chucked out of every foster home. My character as well is a marginalized character. There is a poignant sign of this that is very evident in Boy, but this is a funnier film than Boy.”

Waititi’s films embrace the diversity of New Zealand, as well as telling the stories of those who might usually be at the fringes. In today’s New Zealand, those sorts of stories are being embraced, where that wasn’t always the case. For Neill, he has been able to watch his country grow more inclusive and open just in watching the films he has made.

“I’m kind of an amateur student of New Zealand film and New Zealand history, and I think what is interesting about this film, as opposed to the sort of films that we were doing in the 90s, like [Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning] ‘The Piano’ that I was also in, is that the people in our films are more comfortable with each other than they used to be, and that’s probably true of New Zealand on a whole too. I think a film like this has a certain healing function in a way. It’s difficult to explain, but the warmth and humanity in the film has a positive effect on a country, and it’s been embraced in a very warm-hearted way by New Zealanders, which is very gratifying.”

Credit: Universal Pictures Sam Neill
Credit: Universal Pictures Sam Neill

But while Hunt for the Wilderpeople is changing New Zealand for the better, that isn’t the only territory in which the film has made waves. The film has garnered rave reviews around the world, captivating all audiences.

“This is a film that could have only been made in New Zealand, but at the same time, has universal appeal. I think what we have in common as humans are our feelings and compassion. We understand loss and grief and abandonment. We understand friendships and we understand how having a laugh can make things better. You come out of this feeling better about life, I think.”

Neill credits the film, but the actor never gives much credit to himself. When asked about what he brought to the role, he shies away from giving himself any praise, instead deferring to the brilliance of those around him.

Even his young co-star Julian Dennison, according to Neill, only learned from him tips on how to get the best food on set.

“Maybe he learned to run to lunch so you don’t have to queue up for too long when catering is on.”

Dennison himself tells it differently. When asked separately about how Neill helped him on set, Dennison recalls a moment when Neill was the only person on set to make him feel safe.

“In one scene, we had this part where we were on top of a 200 ft. waterfall,” says Dennison. “You look down and you can see a SWAT team, a task force, and we’re looking after the edge. That was really us! We were harnessed in, strapped in and totally safe, but getting to that waterfall, and going down these rocks to get there, I was panicking, I was freaking out. My mom and dad weren’t there; it was just the crew, the safety people and the director. That was when Sam really stepped in and helped. He said to me, ‘you’re ok, you’re not going to fall, you’re going to be safe.’ That really reassured me that I was safe and I wouldn’t get hurt. Everything he does is in a caring way.”

That isn’t to say that Neill always shies away from positive attention. Dennison recalls one day during the Wilderpeople press tour when Neill asked Dennison to say a few things about him.

“During our last interviews together in London, he wrote this note for me. He wrote down something and he said, ‘you have to say this for the next ten interviews’, and I said ‘sure, I’ll say it!’”

“The note said, ‘it was a pleasure to work with the most talented actor of our time.’ I said it every interview because I thought to myself, ‘this isn’t lying; this is him.’ People say he’s a great actor, but he’s an awesome man. Not just to work with, but just being my friend.”

Sam Neil Photo courtesy Hollow Creative 5 (exclusive pics)
Sam Neil Photo courtesy Hollow Creative 5 (exclusive pics)

Dennison hasn’t dug too deeply into Neill’s work, however. He says he asked his mother if they could watch Event Horizon together, but she nixed the idea.

So why does Neill shy away from saying positive comments about himself? “It’s probably perfectionism. You always feel like you could do something better than you did. But that’s what you did, so there it is,” says Neill.

And while Wilderpeople director Taika Waititi has taken the call of Hollywood himself—currently helming Marvel Studios’ “Thor: Ragnarok,” don’t expect Sam Neill to come along for anything more than a cameo.

“There’s only so many superheroes I can take, to be honest.”

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in cinemas now.
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