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Sam Neill looks back at some of his best genre roles, from 'Omen III' to 'Jurassic World Dominion'
Sam Neill writes, directs, produces, makes wine, and acts.
If you've followed Sam Neill's career or even just his antics on social media, then you know he's quite the Renaissance man. In New Zealand, where he resides, Neill grows grapes for his winery, Two Paddocks, and has a farm filled with celebrity named critters. He's a writer and director of documentaries. And an outspoken humanitarian backing many environmental causes in New Zealand and Australia. But it's most likely that you know him for his 50-year acting career where he's racked up more than 140 roles in television and film. His career has touched everything from Academy Award winning period dramas like The Piano (1993) to voicing a character on Rick and Morty (2019). But a large chunk of his C.V. is comprised of sci-fi, fantasy and horror projects that have gone on to become genre classics. In fact, his first international film role was the grown-up Damien in The Omen III (aka The Final Conflict) (1981) and since then he's never looked back.
"I've always enjoyed jumping genres, you know," Neill tells SYFY WIRE in a call from Australia. "I'd hate to be stuck in one thing. And a lot of the sci-fi stuff I've done over the years has given me great pleasure. Actually the first time I met Colin Trevorrow was at the Sitges Film Festival, which is dedicated to fantasy and horror. They gave me a Lifetime Award which was very nice. And then Colin took me out for lunch, where he persuaded me that he wanted me and Jeff (Goldblum) and Laura (Dern) in [Jurassic World Dominion] for significant roles."
Dominion finally reunites all three of the Jurassic Park lead actors together for the first time in the franchise sequel since the original 1993 movie. Perhaps for the last time, Neill gets to slip into Dr. Alan Grant's signature hat and boots (fun fact: he actually kept his boots from the first movie) and put a button on his character's story. In getting to play one more significant arc, especially alongside Dern, the actor admits it was all or nothing this time around. "I wasn't interested in coming back if it was a cough-and-a-spit in a cameo," he laughs.
In our conversation, SYFY WIRE asked if he was game to do a proverbial walk down memory lane for just a few of his memorable genre roles. Initially, his reaction was pragmatic, saying candidly, "I actually never look back. I just generally take other people's word for it." But when he mused on just how many genre roles he's played, Neill gave it a go.
"I have dedicated a fair bit of my professional life to to all that stuff," he acquiesces. "And I've just done a film called The Portable Door, which is for The Jim Henson Company. That has a very fantasy/sci-fi twist about it. And that was a lot of fun to make. I'm always happy to bounce around."
Damien Thorn in Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981)
What comes to mind first when you think of Omen III, which at the time was a big sequel to land?
I think the feeling of loneliness. There are two things. First of all, as a boy from New Zealand, I suddenly found myself in an international film. And that was quite a shock. And quite a lonely feeling. The second thing was that I always felt that Damien must be loneliest person on the planet because you can't go out on a date and say, 'Look, I think you ought to know — full disclosure — I am the Antichrist.' That's gonna put girls off. [Laughs.] He has to keep his true self secret and that must be slightly miserable, I would have thought.
Captain John Ingram in Dead Calm (1989)
Dead Calm is a brilliant horror/thriller with Nicole Kidman, that allowed you to play a quasi-action lead. Did this open up your career to get offered more physical roles?
Well, it's interesting. You say action hero, but I never saw that character or indeed, Alan Grant, as being action heroes. I just always thought they were pretty ordinary people who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. In very difficult circumstances of having to look after a kid or something, and survive. But not an action hero as such. I think my character in Dead Calm is similar. He and his wife (Kidman) suffered trauma. They're on a peaceful boat somewhere in the Pacific. And trauma comes to them. Yeah, he's a naval officer, but he's basically an ordinary man that has to deal with this horror as best he can.
John Trent in In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
After Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), In the Mouth of Madness was the second film you were in that John Carpenter directed. What about him appealed to you as a repeat collaborator?
Look, he's quite unlike anyone else you've ever met. Deeply eccentric. I love that. The last time I saw him was in Vancouver. I was working and he was working there. I said, 'Let's go out for lunch on Sunday.' I found the best Chinese restaurant in Vancouver. We were going to have a real treat for lunch but John couldn't eat anything. The thing about John is he only eats diner breakfast food, three times a day. He likes bacon and eggs and pancakes. And that's it. [Laughs.] That could account for a mind that does slightly different things from other people. Like that scene in In the Mouth of Madness where we check into a hotel and there's there's a nice old girl who seems seems nice but you realize she's actually crazy. And the camera pans down and you realize she's got a naked old man chained to her ankle. What the hell?! This is really horrific. [Laughs.]
Dr. William Weir in Event Horizon (1997)
Event Horizon is a movie that gave me terrible nightmares. Does it stand out as particularly terrifying to you?
It's funny how often that film comes up of all the films I've made. And it's not that it did particularly well. But people seem to have seen it and it just sort of sears itself into their imagination or something. People always bring it up. It's a matter of grit to me that it's not longer. Most films are a half an hour too long, at least. But that's half an hour too short. It was cut like it was on speed, or fast forward. And actually, it should have been much more leisurely with more dark pauses where you just don't know what's going to happen next.
Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic World Dominion (2022)
Coming back to play Dr. Grant in Jurassic World Dominion, did you find it easy to slip back into the character, kind of like riding a bike?
Not so much riding a bike but like putting on an old comfortable pair of shoes that are well worn comfortable but not attractive. [Laughs.] Just horrible old shoes that you're not going to wear anything else with because they work. Stepping into Alan Grant, I know him so well. People don't change that much in life as well as in stories. People don't change that much. And he's not one to change. He's as ordinary and grumpy as ever. And a smelly old bachelor. [Laughs.]
As someone who is an outspoken environmentalist, who owns and works a farm and sees the effects of climate change, does it feel a bit dispiriting that the ecological message in all of the Jurassic films is still kind of the same because humanity is still doing dumb things against nature?
Look, I think there's always an underlying message in these films. I think the closest one to a real analogy is in this particular one, as Ellie (Dern) has discovered that Biosyn has developed a kind of super locust, which eats any crops apart from Biosyn crops. This is not unlike certain big companies that we're all familiar with who have produced genetically modified crops to the great expense of everyone else in the world. I actually work on quite a number of environmental projects. One of them is that I belong to the Sustainability Council of New Zealand, which is dedicated to keeping GMO foods out of New Zealand. And so far, so good. At the end of the day, these are big, action, blockbuster films. But if you look carefully, you'll find something that they want to tell you.
Jurassic World Dominion opens in theaters on June 10.