Blockbusting new documentary series Uncharted with Sam Neill explores the mark Captain James Cook left on New Zealand and the rest of the Pacific with his epic voyages.

And being at the helm of the groundbreaking six-part TV show has left its mark on the Kiwi acting great, including his first tattoo at age 69.

Neill received a piece on his forearm from ta moko artist and master carver Gordon Toi during filming last year for episode 2 of Uncharted.

Toi, a close friend of Neill's since they both acted in 1993 Academy Award-winning Kiwi drama The Piano, said they were chatting about their past between takes at his then Mangere Bridge-based House of Natives studio.


He was preparing to tattoo his daughter Wairingiringi, 22, for the next scene when Neill said "actually would I mind if I did a piece on him".

"The whole place just went quiet," Toi said.

"That... not only blew me away but blew the crew away as well."

"It definitely wasn't in the script."

Neill told the Herald on Sunday his decision "was a bit of a spur of the moment but I thought, Gordon's the man".

His reason for wanting the tattoo had "to do with connecting myself to [my] country".

Neill entrusted Toi, who has been at the forefront of a ta moko revival, with designing his piece.

"I said... you'll know (the appropriate design). You know me. He said, I do know you and I'll do what I think you need."

Sam Neill gets his first tattoo at age 69.
Sam Neill gets his first tattoo at age 69.

Toi, of Ngati Wharara, said during filming for the Uncharted episode he and Neill had been discussing the significance of the spiral symbol in Polynesian culture.

It was used to represent a person's path in life and the powerful convergence of energies from that course, he said.

Toi thought it was "appropriate that I tattoo that on him".

Neill's piece represented "his journey in life and the connnection between him and my family, and his own family".

It was apt for Uncharted, which followed Captain Cook's historic journey.

Toi said Neill was "solid" throughout the tattooing, which was watched by the actor's son Tim.

"It wasn't a big piece but it was a significant piece."

It was an emotional experience.

"We were all pretty close to tears by the time the thing was finished," Toi said.

Neill was "delighted" with his piece and grateful to Toi.

"It's extremely personal to me, and I wouldn't have wanted anyone else but Gordon to do it."

The symbol of his life journey.
The symbol of his life journey.

The tattoo made him "feel strangely perhaps more connected" to Aotearoa.

"I don't know how I could feel more connected to New Zealand but perhaps I... feel more connected."

Neill, star of Jurassic Park and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, took a year off acting to present Uncharted, which premieres on Sunday, September 2, on Prime.

The weekly series recounts Cook's historic three voyages charting the Pacific, and the impact of them over the 250 years since he left England in The Endeavour on the first of the expeditions.

Journeying in the navigator's wake "was a real rollercoaster for me", Neill said.

"There were times it was so funny, and such fun. And times when really you felt your heart was breaking."

The British explorer "opened the Pacific to the rest of the world, and that had major consequences".

In New Zealand the coming of Cook is often used to signify the onset of colonisation.

Neill said the makers of Uncharted were intent on getting a balanced view of the navigator.

"The history of Cook has been very Eurocentric, and if you start to look at Cook from a Pacific point of view it's an entirely different story.

"And that story has been much less told – it's certainly much less listened to than the gung-ho... version of Cook, which is certainly the one that I was brought up on."

Prime Presents: Uncharted with Sam Neill, premieres tonight at 8.30pm, on Prime.