PLAY IT AGAIN SAM
Byline: Julie L. Belcove
NEW YORK — Sam Neill is raising humility to an art form.
The New Zealand-born actor describes his latest role, as King Charles II in “Restoration,” which opens Dec. 22, as “the best character I’ve been asked to play.”
“He has all the characteristics I would like to have myself — charisma, intelligence, charm,” Neil says. “He’s consummately attractive to women. It would be marvelous to be that king for a day.” But when asked if he possesses those qualities, the much sought-after character actor responds, “No, I don’t — and God forbid I should think so. You come across those people, and they’re intolerable.”
The most he has to say for himself is, “I don’t think I’m stupid.” Fans of his intelligent acting style and masculine appeal would call that an understatement.
Despite consistently strong reviews for his work in such films as “The Piano,” “Dead Calm,” “My Brilliant Career” and “A Cry in the Dark,” his self-criticism extends to his work. Neill calls his portrayal of Charles II “the closest I’ve come to a good performance.”
“I wanted to be sure I performed the part with the precision of a Swiss watch. I wanted a sexy accuracy to it,” he says of his role as the monarch returned to power after the harsh, puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell. “It’s Merivel [Robert Downey Jr.] who goes on a journey, but the king is the one who watches the arc of that journey. He’s sort of a chess player, and the characters are his pawns.”
As for his worst turn on the screen, Neill recalls a scene from “Ivanhoe” in which his passion for Olivia Hussey’s Rebecca quickly turns to anger. “When you’re acting, nine-tenths of you is doing it, and the other tenth is monitoring it,” he says. “That one-tenth was telling me, ‘You are really fantastic, mate,”‘ an opinion bolstered by the crew’s spontaneous applause at the end of the take.
But Neill’s reaction when he saw the performance on screen was decidedly different. “That scene was flesh-crawlingly, embarrassingly, direly dreadful,” he says. “I’ve sort of lost faith in that one-tenth now.”
All his self-deprecation is not to suggest the actor is without vanity. Neill, who appears solidly in his 40s, playfully gives his age as “about 30.”
Neither effusive nor aloof, Neill is stingier with a smile than with an opinion. He is repulsed by Americans’ predilection for sprinkles on their cappucino, disdainful of Brits’ preference for their dogs over their children, intrigued by the VH1 Fashion and Music Awards and why anyone cares whether Madonna is wearing Gucci, and slightly contemptuous of celebrities outfitted in Versace. “They’ll look back and say, ‘I can’t believe I wore that …,”‘ he says.
Neill admires Yohji Yamamoto and adds, “I do think Issey Miyake is a genius, but completely unwearable. If it’s austere, I’ll like it.” Then he admits he’s embarrassed that he even knows the names of the designers and describes himself as “kind of a sloppy guy.”
Although his rugged good looks are movie-star material, he has resisted moving his wife and children from Australia to L.A. and scoffs at the “imitative crap” that so often gets made there. Neill, a former documentary filmmaker, prefers quirkier roles, such as the “homosexual, opium-addicted psychopath” he plays in the upcoming “Victory” with Willem Dafoe, or the double-agent in “Children of the Revolution” with Judy Davis. Some of his favorite films are also some of the least known, such as “In the Mouth of Madness” and “Death in Brunswick.”
In his current project, “Snow White,” now filming in Prague, he plays the heroine’s father, an otherwise decent man done in by his love for the evil stepmother, played by Sigourney Weaver. Neill describes the film as “closer to a Gothic horror film than Disney cute.”
He has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, from Steven Spielberg (“Jurassic Park”) to Meryl Streep (“Plenty,” “A Cry in the Dark”), and he enjoys the perks that attend his profession, including the compensation and the travel. But Neill does not consider himself part of “that community.”
“I’m really happy with where I am and what I am, which is to say I think I am a well-respected screen actor not cursed with the penalties that can go along with that,” he says. “I don’t need an entourage.”