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EXCLUSIVE: The poignant way Sam Neill is remembering his late parents as he pens "stories of his life"

''I've particularly enjoyed – it seems odd to say – spending time with my parents again.''

By Tiffany Dunk
Sam Neill was leaving his local café two weeks ago when he heard a loud call. "Hey," yelled a man from across the street. "I know you. You're on TV. What's your name?"
"I said, 'Hugo Weaving'," Sam recalls now, chuckling at the memory. "And he went, 'Oh yep,' and wandered off. He seemed perfectly happy with that."
It seems almost impossible that Sam Neill could pass unrecognised. His five decade-long career has seen him go from blockbusters to arthouse films, comedy flicks to gritty drama series and more.
He's trodden the boards and taken over social media during lockdown – his Instagram feed as famous for the A-list appearances from his friends as for the farm animals that surround his home in Central Otago, New Zealand.
He's been in so many projects that, he admits today, even he can't remember the names of all of them. Sometimes when one of his films or series re-runs on television he is startled to see himself suddenly appear.
Sam admits that even he can't remember the names of all of his projects. (Image: Kate Roberge)
"Oh yes, I have the odd fright like that," he admits. "I'm up in the hundreds now and you can't remember everything with absolute clarity.
Memories are on Sam's mind today as we chat. The 74-year-old has been approached by publishers over the years hoping to commission his autobiography. To date, he's always said no.
"My excuse is, look, nothing much happened and if it did, I can't remember it," he says.
So it's ironic, he tells us, having found a little spare time on his hands recently, that he began "tootling around, starting to commit things
to my computer".
"Sort of writing stories of my life and things," he says. "Not that people will be particularly interested. But it's interesting that once you start to remember things, other memories start triggering. They're all there in the back of your head. So, it turns out that quite a lot of things happened. And I do remember."
The memories have been varied and unexpected but the most enjoyable have been those which have brought his father and mother, Dermot and Priscilla (who passed away in 1991 and 1999 respectively), vividly back to life.
"I've particularly enjoyed – it seems odd to say – spending time with my parents again," he says with a smile. "Remembering what they were like. Who they were. They were deeply eccentric and a lot of fun. I actually got my mum and dad to write their memoirs, which are treasures.
"I was away at the time and so I got someone else to do the talking and transcribe it and turn them into books. But I wish that I'd been there to ask the questions. Like, 'What was it about Mum that you thought you'd quite like to marry her?' Those questions that would be very interesting to know the answers to but now I never will."
Sam has been "writing stories of (his) life". (Image: Kate Roberge)
He's unsure yet if his own jottings will turn into a fully-fledged book but he's enjoying the process. And in the months to come he's looking forward to adding to it, along with spending some time at the family and friends-run organic vineyard he owns, Two Paddocks.
Lambing season is approaching, so he's readying to welcome a new batch of baby animals to the farm. With famous friends including Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter having inspired the names of a few of his menagerie past and present, we wonder if it's an honour others compete for.
"No one has applied for the job yet because it will usually be a pretty unappealing animal," he laughs. "So it's best to stay out of it."
Some new friends who could be in the running, however, are those he made on the set of his latest television project, The Twelve, in which he plays defence barrister Brett Colby.
A reimagining of the innovative 2019 Belgian courtroom drama of the same name, The Twelve differs from the average courtroom drama by focusing on the outside lives of the jury and how that influences the way they decide upon their verdict in a high-profile case.
"It's a really big and diverse cast and I was happy to be amongst them," he says of the upcoming 10-part series which features a huge list of the who's who of Australian actors, from the hugely established to the up and coming.
WATCH: The Twelve trailer. Article continues after video.
"This is the first time I've worked with Marta [Dusseldorp, who plays prosecutor Lucy Bloom] and we were locking horns all the way through the show which was fun. I've admired Kate Mulvany [who plays his accused client] from afar for many years – not just for her acting but also she is a very gifted writer and I loved being with her. I was defending her you see, so I had quite a lot to do with her.
"Also, there's a young Aboriginal actor Ngali Shaw [in the jury] who I thought ... I think that guy's got a real future, he's terrific. A guy to watch, someone to keep your eye on."
Despite the high praise the Belgian series received, Sam stopped watching after two episodes, so as not to be influenced by his counterpart's portrayal. And although the crime is a different one in this new series, he deliberately stopped reading scripts ahead of time in order to make sure his client's guilt or innocence was as much of a mystery to him as to the audience.
"And I was surprised when we got to the last episode to see exactly what happened," he says now. "I think it was really a rather good decision."
With every job he takes on, Sam has a golden rule: "If I want to keep reading the scripts by the time I get to page 10, then it's something worth looking at," he explains. "If my attention wanders and I want to make a cup of tea or see what is on the news, then I know it's not working. It's not for me."
With The Twelve, he was gripped. But not only that, he finally found a way to make a long-held dream come true.
Sam is starring in courtroom drama, The Twelve. (Image: Foxtel)
"I think I've always had a secret lawyer inside of me and I've never played one before," he said of what clinched the deal. "I had ambitions a long time ago. I thought I might actually be a barrister because I'm quite good on my feet."
Those ambitions were fired when he was 19. Having begun dabbling in acting, Sam was attending an event in his then-home of Christchurch when he was approached by the most charismatic and successful barrister in town at the time, Brian "Clicks" McClelland.
Clicks came up to me and said, 'The only career for you, my boy, is the law. You need to be in court.' And I took him seriously. Because it's not many people that take you seriously when you are 19. And so I did law for a year with absolutely catastrophic results.
"How they taught law, and I'm sure it's not changed, was ... body stiffening dull. You just learn cases by rote and it's incredibly boring. I spent much of that year doing plays and all these other things I shouldn't have done. But nevertheless I always thought it would have been something I enjoyed."
Certainly, he enjoyed acting the part, and the experience of shooting on Australian soil – where he has a Sydney home – was a fun one.
"Australian sets are very fraternal, if that's the right word," he says of what keeps him coming back for local jobs. "Why I enjoy going to work is that I enjoy being in the company of actors. I love the hanging around and the fun that you have. And that's work!
"[Acting] is an itinerant job and you have to learn to make friends quickly. Actors are good at that and so you can have an agreeable time. The time you have on set is as important for me as what you produce at the end of it."
Sam (pictured with Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern) played Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. (Image: Brook Rushton)
One set that he's spent plenty of time on during the years is that of Jurassic Park.
When the first Steven Spielberg blockbuster hit screens in 1993, Sam's turn as palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant saw him discovered by a new generation of fans. And despite the sixth instalment having recently been released to big box office success earlier this month, he's still flummoxed and also humbled by the enduring legacy the films have created.
"It's funny how many people stop me and say, 'You are so part of my childhood, and that film is my generation'," he says. "It was a film that broke new ground in terms of CGI and animatronics, and it was very popular entertainment, no question. But it does seem to have had a life beyond itself. And it spawned a whole franchise of six films – I don't think anyone had heard of a franchise back in those days. I'm very pleased to have been a part of that and to have made a lot of very good friends. To go back and hang out with them and do a bit of running from dinosaurs was actually a lot of fun."
As we wrap up our conversation today, Sam says he's ready to stop the constant running and work grind for a while; a three-month break currently the only thing on his calendar. So, we ask, if his long-held dream of donning barrister garb has now been realised, what is left for producers to tempt him back to the screen with?
"The only thing I've ever admitted to not having done would have to be a cowboy in a Western," he muses.
"But there's not many Westerns made anymore and because I'm not Clint Eastwood I'm probably a bit old for it now. I'm more likely the drunk at the corner of the bar at the saloon."
The Twelve premieres Tuesday, June 21, 8:30pm on FOX Showcase and On Demand.
Stream it now on Foxtel Now, live and on demand with a 10 day FREE trial. START FREE TRIAL
You can read this story and many others in the July issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now
  • undefined: Tiffany Dunk

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