About a year and a half ago I emailed actor Sam Neill to ask whether, if he was ever in Auckland, I could perhaps interview him. We had a very pleasant email exchange that involved, of all things, a pig. He said he was seldom in Auckland but that I was welcome to go and see him, and to meet his pig, in Queenstown.
Now he is in Auckland filming a TV series, Harry, so we met in Devonport where he's staying at a friend's house. He'd suggested we meet in a nearby cafe but as soon as he arrived he said: "Would you like to come back to my house?" So we took a sticky sweet piece of slice each - "do you want a corner bit too?", and later, cheerfully, as we were eating it, "it'll kill you of course" - and coffee back to the house where he is baching. There were dishes in the sink and shirts drying on a clothes horse.
I mention all that because for one thing, he's supposed to be aloof and, for another, he's a big movie star, isn't he? An aloof person who was also a big movie star wouldn't reply to your email in the first place, let alone invite you to his house. The only slight disappointment was that the pig had remained in Queenstown, but he would almost make up for that.
In the meantime, I had to come up with some reason for wanting to talk to him. I'd never really had a reason other than that he's Sam Neill and I've always thought he was a terrific actor, was clever and was quite good-looking.
All of these things (not necessarily in that order) seem to me to be reason enough to want to interview somebody, but you can't quite put it like that, now can you? You'd sound like some weirdo stalker fan.
Is he good-looking? He said: "I can never really remember what I look like. I'm just sort of neutral. I don't think I'm sort of, you know, hideous."
I'd asked if he was vain, because he used to be talked about as some sort of sex symbol (although of course I didn't say so), and he'd been telling me that his wife, Noriko, hasn't changed in the 25 years he's known her. This is good genes, "and fish oil". He's supposed to take it too, but he only remembers about twice a year. So there you go: Not a bit vain.
He has a pleasant and decent face and a lovely smile and clever eyes. You don't really want to be interviewing people and thinking the whole time about how good-looking they are, so I was rather glad he turned up wearing a positively ghastly moustache. It was a new moustache but it looked as though it had been hanging about his face since the 80s. So he looked like whatever Sam Neill looks like currently, with a dead but rather friendly rat on his face. Somehow it suited him.
In Harry, he plays a copper, hence the moustache. He said: "I am not playing Grim". Grim is Neil Grimstone, a former copper of the old school who is only ever called Grim, who I know a little bit and who is the advisor on copper matters on Harry. I don't know if he gave advice on the moustache. Its wearer tweeted: "Bryan Brown thinks my moustache looks gay. I said to Bryan: 'It's 2012. My moustache can be whatever it wants to be'. I got about 200 people tweeting me back. You know: As long as your moustache is happy."
That was funny. There is, I think, an idea about him that he's a bit brooding, or at least, always terribly serious. Perhaps we've got him mixed up with his subject matter in his 1995 documentary, Cinema of Unease (or with the subtitle: A Personal Journey) in which he explored the darker side of the New Zealand psyche, via film.
He isn't particularly brooding; he can obviously be serious; he's often very funny, and is capable of great silliness, but you have to go looking for it. He writes a "ramshackle" blog on his Two Paddocks winery website, which is vaguely based on wine and sometimes his pigs. He said: "What do you want to talk to me about?" I thought his pig, and the blog.
His blog is interesting because it is certainly ramshackle and charming and a bit mad. None of these are what spring to mind when you think of Sam Neill. He presents himself on this blog as a pinot-swigging, pig-owning dero. Perhaps he's a different sort of person at home. I wondered whether he might have been drunk when he wrote this bit of whimsy: "You might just be a small pig ... Well, you might be ... and say ... your big fat mama has a habit of wandering off ... and you get shivery, shivery COLD, and probably a little teeny bit SCARED ... and where is she?"
There's quite a bit more of this, so it seems fair to ask whether he'd been at the pinot. But he says there is a "golden rule of tweeting and blogging. You never, ha, do it at night in case you are drunk. No, I don't blog drunk. I don't do anything drunk really." He doesn't really get drunk. "No, I don't think I do." No, I didn't think he would. But, Sam Neill and whimsy? Why not?
He showed me a video clip on his laptop: It's him holding a small piglet which is making the most ridiculous noises, and wriggling. He (Sam, not the pig) is laughing his head off in the video and I'm laughing my head off watching the video. But he's laughing in a curious way; he's shaking with laughter but doesn't make a sound. He is a polite and quiet laugher; he is a polite and quiet man.
He says, by the way, that actors aren't madder than anyone else but that when famous ones "blow a tyre" - a terrifically good phrase - they're just more visible. He is entirely sane, because he doesn't have a problem with drink, which is what usually leads to tyre blowing, he says. He is perhaps a little dotty about pigs. "How good is that pig?" he said about the pig in the video. I thought the bloke holding the pig was more interesting but I could be wrong.
He once said he'd "worked all my life to shed myself of any character". When I asked about it he groaned and said: "Oh God. I don't know what I meant by that. That must have been some flippant remark." He has trouble with being flippant, I think, because he is seen to be serious and so is taken seriously. But was he being entirely flippant? He then said, about Peter Sellers, whom he's interested in, that "people say that ... you were never sure who Sellers was. Even in life he was always coming up with voices all the time. But the actual essence of what Sellers was or who he was at all is interesting." Was that an answer? I still don't know. He says, by the way, that he has never "felt aloof"; that he's shy.
Which is probably why journalists who have interviewed him say, "good luck" when they hear you're going to see him. But he isn't being deliberately elusive, although it takes a while to realise this. The thing about him, in addition to the shyness, you see, is that he isn't that clever.
I know this because he, in his digressive way, told me so. He was (not at all cleverly avoiding talking about himself of course) telling me about his brother Michael, the emeritus professor and Shakespearean scholar who was to play Lear in Summer Shakespeare.
Is he ever going to do Lear? "I wouldn't do Lear." Why not? "Well, he's got the brains for it and I don't." Do you have to have really good brains to do Lear? "I think you need brains to do any Shakespeare with any authority." So he couldn't do any Shakespeare? "I could do Shakespeare, but not with any authority."
But honestly, I emailed, exasperated: Why does he pretend to be a dimwit? He answered: "Re dimwittery. An English girl I rather fancied turned on me one night and said I was the slowest person she had ever met. Speak slow, move slow, think slow. Just ... slow.
I had to agree."
All of this is true, or part of the truth. He came to New Zealand when he was 7, from Ireland, and his brother, who was 12, said in an interview recently that it was easier for his younger siblings because "they learned to pretend to be New Zealanders. I think those were his words."
Is that true, does he think? "I'm sure we adapted quicker than he did. He still sounds British."
What does he sound like? "Just some kind of mongrel."
The actual essence of Neill, or who he is, is probably not as complicated as you can make it by peering at that Sellers stuff and trying to figure out how cryptic it is or apropos of what it might be.
This is possibly a better answer. I asked about his father, a military man who wore a mo all his life except for the one time he shaved it off: "To the weeping laughter of his children ... He looked like someone else, of course". He said: "I think he was a very nice man who seemed quite distant and severe but wasn't really.
"He was really rather charming. And, you know, a bit absentminded and rather agreeable." He sounds lovely, rather like someone else ... who is not, either, a great actor. "Serviceable," he says, which is, "not bad."
I could never figure out just how famous he is; maybe a bit famous. He said "famous" was over-stating it and that he wouldn't want to be truly famous for "quids. Mind you, they do make plenty of quids, but as compensation goes for loss of privacy ... small cheese, I'm afraid. They are cruelly imprisoned."
He has, I think, the very best of all worlds. He gets well-paid work and he finds his work to be great good fun and travels all about the place having fun and then comes home to New Zealand and buggers about (he once said that's what he'd do if he ever ran out of work) with his wine and the pigs.
It seems the perfect life to me and I don't know where this idea that he's some sort of misery-guts comes from. He's the happiest man I've ever met.
And I was very happy to have met despite him not being Sam Neill at all but some slow, not at all famous actor who may or may not be a bit good-looking - if only I could remember what he looked like. Who cares? The other guy was, like Sam Neill's father, a very nice and charming man.