James Cook set out for the Pacific 250 years ago. Sam Neill takes a hard look at the explorer's legacy — and considers his own place in the new world. Kim Knight writes.

From the air, it looks like Lego. Little boxes, on the ocean. Somewhere, dwarfed by those five-high stacks of blue and yellow and red and orange shipping containers, is New Zealand's most famous actor.

Sam Neill opens his cabin door. It's sparse. There's no concierge, no room service. He's lugging his own luggage.

"I loved it," he says. "I want to go back."

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To a container ship?

"Yeah," he replies, smiling at himself.

"We worked very hard on board, but there was something about being in a relatively confined space, with no communication to the rest of the world. It wasn't like a plane, which is pretty claustrophobic, there was no claustrophobia, you were going with purpose. It was very calm."

There are, he says, not too many spaces like that in his life.

In the beginning there was Sam Neill.

His first film was arguably New Zealand's first film. There were earlier Kiwi-made movies but 1977's Sleeping Dogs was the country's first feature-length project released into the United States. It made a Neill a movie star.

He was 30 then. He'll turn 71 next month. His most recent local film was Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It grossed $1.2 million on its opening weekend and set a new box office record. In between, Jurassic Park, The Omen, The Hunt for Red October, The Piano, and so on and on and on. Sweet Country in Australia earlier this year; old Mr McGregor in Peter Rabbit. Eighty feature films all up?

"Somebody said that figure the other day."

That wouldn't, Neill adds, include his television work.

Reilly, Ace of Spies. The Tudors. Merlin. Peaky Blinders. There's even a voice credit for The Simpsons. Later this month, he'll play himself. Uncharted with Sam Neill is a six-episode exploration of the impact of Captain James Cook's voyages. It starts with a four-day stint on a container ship. It ends — well, when do we stop interrogating history?

"Cook's voyages mean so many things to so many people on so many different levels," says Neill. "There's a sort of 10-year-old in me that cannot imagine anything more wonderful than to be on The Endeavour and to go where no European had ever been before. These incredibly beautiful places, and to meet completely new people and cultures that you couldn't imagine or dream up.

"On a very different level of course, Cook changed everything. And there are so many profound and troubling questions that need to be examined."

That was Neill at the wine and canape media launch of the series and the accompanying book, The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook. His hair was neat, his voice was slow and measured. He did not appear to partake in the mini salmon tarts with wasabi caviar or the sticks of fried chicken. He took a high stool on a small stage and declared: "It's going to be controversial. Which is a good thing. The more controversial the better. There will be people who will say this is political correctness gone mad. There will be others who will say this is just more burnishing of the Cook bullshit.

"There are Cookaphiles who just think Cook was Superman and there are people who think he was a rapist — and a syphilitic racist."

Later, he clarifies there is no evidence of Cook "ever having sex with anyone other than Mrs Cook" — but the ship's celebrated botanist Joseph Banks? "He was what's known in Australia as a root rat. And I don't defend that."

Neill didn't play it safe at that media launch. Everywhere he travelled, he says, he saw evidence that Australia and New Zealand were losing interest in the Pacific. Photo / Supplied
Neill didn't play it safe at that media launch. Everywhere he travelled, he says, he saw evidence that Australia and New Zealand were losing interest in the Pacific. Photo / Supplied

It is 250 years since Cook left England on a scientific voyage to record the transit of Venus across the sun from Tahiti. Mission complete, he opened the sealed orders that resulted in the first European circumnavigation of New Zealand. There would be two more epics voyages before Cook was killed in Hawaii.

"One of the intriguing ideas," says Neill, "And this comes from [anthropologist and Professor Dame] Anne Salmond, was that Cook himself was colonised by the Pacific, and became stitched into the fabric of the Pacific. Well, I think that's what's happened to me and my family."

Neill is one of those celebrities with too much backstory for a weekly magazine word count. He must be reduced to bullet points: Born Nigel John Dermot Neill in Northern Ireland. Dad is a third-generation New Zealander, serving with the Irish Guards. In 1954, he moves his family home. Nigel changes his name to Sam, outgrows a stutter, schools mostly in Christchurch, marries and separates twice, has children and stepchildren, becomes an internationally renowned actor, buys a vineyard in Central Otago and wins awards for his Two Paddocks pinot noir. His future is, literally, planted in Aotearoa.

Neill took a year off movies to make Uncharted. He followed Cook's wake through Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, Vanuatu, the Norfolk Islands, Antarctica, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii — where the guy at the rental car desk would unwittingly ask the man who played paleontologist Dr Alan Grant, whether he'd like any information on the Jurassic Experience.

"I didn't know what I was going to find or who I was going to talk to," says Neill. But over and over, he receives a clear message: "These weren't discoveries. Everything had been discovered before. But that was the last connection. The last piece of connectedness on the planet. Cook was responsible for that.

"He did open the door and what came through the door was colonisation which, in many cases, was catastrophic. Catastrophic to culture, to loss of life — the list is endless. One of the most distressing things for me was in the Bay of Islands, talking to someone there and I paused for a moment and said, 'When you look at me, do you see a colonist?' And she said, 'Of course.' And that struck me with such great force because, you know, I'm fourth generation of this country but it doesn't seem enough.

"So, um, yeah — but you know, let's talk about that for a moment. To use a coarse phrase, shit happens. And shit, it happened here. And we're all part of it. Personally, I'm very encouraged by what's happened in New Zealand in the last 20 or 30 years. I think we've taken a really good look at ourselves. There's still a long way to go, but we're more conscious of what we are now."

Neill says ignorance is not bliss.

"Ignorance is that way hell lies. We need to know the whole story, we can't just sweep things under rugs and hope they never happened because they did and we need to arm ourselves with knowledge."

And responsibility. Neill didn't play it safe at that media launch. Everywhere he travelled, he says, he saw evidence that Australia and New Zealand were losing interest in the Pacific.

"There's a vacuum. And who is coming into that vacuum? The Chinese. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? I don't know, but I'm a little bit anxious about Chinese ambitions. This is a government that is not particularly interested in human rights, or many of the things we take for granted. I think we need to be more cognisant of the Pacific. About where we are. About our responsibility as leaders in the Pacific."

"Was I too frank?"

It's the next morning and Neill is dutifully doing his media one-on-ones at the Hilton. He was staring out to sea when Canvas arrived in the room with the Antipodes sparkling water and mini Whittaker's chocolate bars. Neill has claimed Cook was "a hard man to read". But what to make of this actor who, on the one hand travels with miniature plastic pink pigs he captions for laughs on social media — and on the other champions big and serious causes. Neill has spoken out against cubicle dairy farming in the Mackenzie Country. He recently suggested a boycott of Cadbury's should its Dunedin factory closure go ahead. He is appalled at the Australian Government's decision to detain 1600 asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea.

"Personally, I think Manus and Nauru are a disgrace. I'm very proud and pleased to see our Prime Minister taking a humane stance about some of these unfortunate people and saying they can come to us. That's the kind of thing we can do. We should really be the humane face.

"It's very easy, because we're so isolated and we live on islands, to forget we are an important part of this region. We need to remember our leadership roles here as a First World country, we need to be leading the way with all sorts of issues. Climate change, the pollution of this great ocean, the conservation of species."

He recognises that, 170 years ago, "My great-grandfather was a coloniser.

"But," he says, harking back to Cook's Pacific experience, "I think we're part of the fabric of New Zealand now. My grandchildren and my nephews are Māori. And I've become more aware of being not just from New Zealand, but from this region. From the Pacific."

And this idea that wounds are slowly being salved? That in telling the whole story of Cook's journeys — from, as Neill puts it — "the other side of the beach" — we can somehow shift the story?

"Look, all of this is fraught and I do not pretend to be an authority on any of it and I cannot tell any of these stories from an indigenous point of view. But what I did do was listen to them. And that's important. It's enormously confrontational, a lot of the time. There were things that broke my heart, things that shocked me beyond all measure. But also I was filled with hope and optimism in so many places. And I am optimistic about New Zealand."

Neill's corner of the country is Central Otago. It's cold down there right now. Grape vines bare, ice on the ground. That, he says, is where he finds his quiet. On the farm with its animals named for famous people, on the Two Paddocks vineyard, which is actually spread across four sites. He went to university for a while in Dunedin, but didn't like it.

"It wasn't the happiest time of my life. It was completely sort of rugger bugger — you know, dental student jocks. There was very little intellectual life going on there. I couldn't find any drama to do or anything like that. I got out of there ... all of my schooling and university was pretty much in Christchurch."

He was behind the camera before he was in front of it. In Uncharted, he professes a love of volcanoes. Ngauruhoe was his first, he tells Canvas. He was making a skiing film for the National Film Unit. "It was in semi-eruption, we got stuck up there because the clouds rolled in, and the wind changed and we started to choke to death, we thought we were going to die ...

"Look at that one right behind you," he says, gesturing to Rangitoto. "It's only 600 years old. We are on a live volcanic field. I don't want to be too pessimistic about this, but there might be some karma involved here. When that volcanic field goes, 'I've had enough of this'."

He's made himself smile again. He's like that unpredictable uncle at Christmas.

Last night: "Ghosts are interesting, actually. I felt ghosts everywhere."

This morning: "There's a hill near my place. Well, half a hill. The other half is in Nelson. Don't sleep easy in your beds New Zealand!"

Neill thrives on unpredictability.

"There must have been a time when I was at the National Film Unit when I could sort of see my years ticking away in a government department until I'd retire to my cabbages in Eastbourne — and when that didn't happen ...

"Sometimes I felt like — what are those things, pinball machines? — and I was the ball rocketing around, boing, the 20-point thing, and I'd get spat out and I'd get trapped. It was sort of that random, and felt sometimes, like it had that sort of velocity and I didn't have any particular control over it.

"I just do what comes up, and what happens to be of interest and sometimes I'm not available and sometimes I am but they want someone else. It's the random nature of it that's partly appealing."

Once, he was up for the role of James Bond. Once, he described Hollywood as a narrow kind of life.

"That's one of my more acute observations. I don't have many. It is a very limiting life in Hollywood. That's all anyone is interested in there, is their careers. Frankly, I've never been terribly interested in my career. It just sort of muddles along. They're interested in what last week's box office is. How did Thor do this week? What about the new Star Wars? I don't give a flying fig, you know."

That 80-film oeuvre includes seven for Miramax — the studio headed by Harvey Weinstein, who has now been accused of sexual abuse by more than 80 women. That, surely, is Hollywood's biggest story right now?

"Mmmm," says Neill. "I've done a few films that Harvey has produced or distributed and I've known him vaguely, you know, over the years, at things. I see him at stuff. But I've found it profoundly disturbing all the stuff that's been coming out and I always say, and I say it again, I've never seen this. I've never seen any of this.

"And then all my female friends say, 'Well of course you haven't, because they don't do it in front of you.' So I'm baffled and disturbed all at the same time."

What is it like to have your perception of a certain time and a certain place challenged by someone else's reality of history?

"Look, we all grew up hearing about the casting couch and things. I never really believed there was such a thing. It was self-evident, back in the days when MGM was starting out and all of that but I lived a very sheltered life. When I first went to Hollywood, apparently everybody was on cocaine. I never knew. Nobody asked me. I'm from the South Island. I'm naive and probably blinkered. I don't know."

Neill likes to do this. Emphasise the "just a ..." aspect of his CV. Just a winemaker. Just an actor. And yet, he's the guy who was asked to interview Barack Obama when he visited New Zealand. He's the guy Greenpeace approached to pretend to eat a plastic bag for an environmental campaign. And it's actually hard to imagine anyone else doing this Captain Cook thing.

"Oh no," he says. "There must be lots of people."

Who?

"Temuera Morrison. He can do anything."

Uncharted's producer Owen Hughes is in the chair next to Neill (the publicist is listening discreetly from the bathroom). Hughes says the just-an-actor's transtasman credentials are "unparalleled". Apparently when Neill says "we" in Australia, the Australians think it's all-inclusive. And the same thing happens in New Zealand.

"Okay," says Neill. "I'll take that."

And the Obama interview?

"I have no idea at all. When he shook my hand, he said 'you are one of my favourite actors', but I wanted to say, 'I bet you say that to all the boys'."

Later, I'm not sure whether it's ego or genuine curiosity, but he asks me why I think he got that gig.

Gravitas, I suggest? And he hoots with laughter.

In the beginning, there was Sam Neill. I had just started working for a national newspaper and there was a set visit to the West Coast where he was filming Gaylene Preston's Perfect Strangers. My editor wanted a news angle. I'd been promised a lengthy sit-down interview. Neill was late. He stood, glaring. The interview was short, useless and I was terrified of my editor's wrath. I drove to Punakaiki, hoping to pick up scandal, gossip, anything to save the story. At the Pancake Tearooms I stopped for coffee and a slice of fruit cake. There was a man in the booth in front of me. Just him and I, in the whole place. It dawned on me slowly that the label on the back of the stranger's polar fleece read "Two Paddocks".

I was very, very nervous when I stood up to interrupt Neill's very, very alone time. But he was charming. Down the road, while he waited for makeup, he gave me a second, spontaneous interview. I felt like I had met two Sam Neills. I've always wondered which one was the anomaly.

Today, he is thoughtful and funny. He shows me the latest shot of his plastic pigs, posed on the "bow" of the Hilton (caption: "Titanic") and tells a story about the time he dined at the Ivy in London. Theatre director Trevor Nunn and actor Sir Ian McKellen were at the next table.

"Being a New Zealander of a certain age, I quite like a tweed jacket. I had a new tweed jacket which I was quite proud of. I put a tie on ..." Neill takes a seat and says hello to the men at the next table. McKellen leans in and says, "Dear boy, what have you come as?"

The "best put-down ever," claims Neill. Then he remembers the pair did a film together — he thinks McKellen played a servant.

On the vineyard, Neill is "The Prop" (short for proprietor). His top 20 playlist begins with Wilco and PJ Harvey. He posts video of himself hamming it up as an axe-wielding louche. He is not "just" an actor. He has opinions, a point of view. And it is possible his latest might be his most provocative.

"We can't take anything as read. So much of the history I was taught, and my father's generation was taught, was so Euro-centric. It's almost like Young Nick sights Young Nick's Head from the top of the main mast in the crow's nest and history begins there. Well, that wasn't Year Zero at all."

Uncharted with Sam Neill: Coming soon to Prime.
The Pacific: In the wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill, by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios (HarperCollins, ($45).