Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, August 21, 1998

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Actor Sam Neill plays Republic of Hawaii Prime Minister
Walter Murray Gibson in Era Films $10-million
feature, "Damien."

Sam’s the man

Co-star of 'Damien' Sam Neill
is cool, refined and likes a
mean macaroni and cheese

By Tim Ryan


HE likes to read science fiction and studies architecture. He's a fan of the Beach Boys, "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld." His favorite food is macaroni and cheese and he likes boysenberry ice cream. In his free time, he plays the ukulele.

Actor Sam Neill's great-great grandfather even aided in burning down the White House in the War of 1812. But the star of "Jurassic Park" emphatically denies rumors -- begun by co-star Laura Dern -- of involvement with the largest velociraptor in the film.

"It's a bare-faced lie," he remembers telling Katie Couric on the "Today" show a few years back. "There was a purely professional relationship. We may have held claws once in a while, but that's it."

The cool, refined leading man who first gained acclaim for his 1979 performance as a young grazier in Gillian Armstrong's "My Brilliant Career," is in Hawaii for Era Films $10-million feature "Damien," in which he plays Republic of Hawaii Prime Minister Walter Murray Gibson.

"It's a wonderful story about a wonderful man and a great role," Neill said during a break in the filming this week at the Queen Emma Summer Place in Nuuanu. "But I'm afraid Mr. Gibson is not a very sympathetic character."

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
In a scene from the movie "Damien," Hansen's disease
victims are forced to jump off the boats.

Neill, 50, who played the cuckold husband in "The Horse Whisperer," said his rather eclectic choice of roles -- from a paleontologist in "Jurassic" to the wizard "Merlin" in the television mini-series, is spawned by character and story, not budgets or salary.

"I look for stories that mean something to me," Neill said, "and a character who has depth. I bore quickly; doing action films over and over again would drive me crazy."

An hour earlier, Neill, who lives in Sydney, Australia, was in khaki shorts and an aloha shirt, battling a swarm of mosquitoes as he sat through a news conference. Now he's in Victorian garb: dark slacks, crisp white shirt with upturned collar and a vest.

He sits stiffly, perhaps not wanting to smear the thick pancake makeup on the collar. Though he answers questions politely and completely, there is a sense that Neill does not suffer fools easily. He has the sort of demeanor that makes you very glad when he smiles.

Of his 50 films, "The Piano" in 1993, he says, is the one of his he would recommend because "It's the only one that made me cry." The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But he also likes the character he plays in "The Horse Whisperer," a husband of honor and dignity whose marriage is suffering and his wife has a brief affair with Robert Redford's character.

"Redford made the part easy for me because the character had strength, a spine and empathy," Neill said. "I could understand what the man must have been feeling, the doubts, the anger, perhaps betrayal. But he never lost focus of what he really wanted and that was his family."

How much of the characterization is Sam Neill?

"Some parts may be the best of me," he said. "It would be nice to be able to react with such restraint, but I'm not certain I could."

Neill was born in Ulster, Northern Ireland and educated at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His father was a third-generation New Zealander descending from the family that owned Neill & Co. (now Wilson Neill & Co), one of the country's largest liquor wholesalers. According to Neill, many generations on both sides of his family served in the British army, a career carried on by his father. Neill has an older brother and younger sister.

Because of the number of "Nigels" at school in New Zealand, Neill took nickname "Sam."

"I encouraged it because I thought I'd be slightly less likely to be victimized during the tender years," he said. "Nigel was a little effete for the rigors of a New Zealand playground."

Neill began in Hollywood playing Damien the devil in the third installment of "The Omen" series ("The Final Conflict") in 1981. He brought a quietly commanding, middle-aged grace to his distraught husband in "Dead Calm" and his Russian submarine captain in "The Hunt for Red October." Neal provided a solid center to Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" in 1993 as a skeptical paleontologist surprised by his encounter with biogenetically engineered dinosaurs.

"The last time I was in Hawaii I got caught in a hurricane," Neill said remembering the September day on Kauai when Iniki struck. "I must say the weather has been far lovelier during this visit."

"Damien" filmed for more than eight weeks on Kalaupapa and since Monday on Oahu. The production finishes today.

Did he mind being overshadowed by a dinosaur?

"I don't mind being second fiddle just as long as I have a fiddle."

It was on the set of "Dead Calm" where Neill met make-up artist Noriko Watanabe who became his second wife in 1989.

Neill was awarded an O.B.E (Order of the British Empire) in 1991 for services to acting, the only award he says he has has been "thrilled" to receive. It was given to him four days before his father died of cancer.

"It made him proud of me and I'm pleased he knew about it."

The attention of "Jurassic Park" got him a voice cameo on "The Simpsons" as a David Niven-esque figure. Neill is not sure what's next for him.

"I'm in a familiar state of procrastination," he said, smiling finally. "I feel I should do some directing. I have a good bank of experience to do it, but I'm not sure if I really have the chutzpah, or the sheer gall for what it takes."

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