‘Hunt For the Wilderpeople’ Star Sam Neill on Taika Waititi, Wine and That Time Sigourney Weaver Crucified Him
Sam Neill is a prolific actor, perhaps more so than you might realize. Best known to a particular generation for roles in Jurassic Park and Event Horizon, Neill’s long and fascinating career can’t really be reduced to a certain genre or character type. So it’s both pleasantly unexpected and not at all surprising to see him as a curmudgeonly and stoic, but ultimately kind-hearted uncle in Hunt For the Wilderpeople, the adventurous new coming-of-age comedy from Taika Waititi — the director of What We Do in the Shadows, who also recently signed on to helm Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel.
I had the privilege of speaking with Neill about his new film and collaborating with Waititi, and while 15 minutes felt like a painfully short amount of time, we still managed to cover a lot: His wine, the Great Barrier Reef, and some of his more obscure roles. Contrary to the often serious characters he plays on screen, Neill is a gregarious and humble actor who spent much of our interview chuckling, only briefly interrupting our discussion to merrily accept a hummus sandwich:
I finally had a chance to watch Hunt For the Wilderpeople, and it is just wonderful.
Did you have a chance to see it with an audience?
No, it played at SXSW this year and I missed it there.
That’s a shame because it’s a film that works best in a cinema with a lot of people watching it with you.
That’s what I’ve been told, but I still enjoyed it immensely. And you’re fantastic in it.
Thank you. I’m happy with the movie too. It’s been very rewarding to get that warm feedback. People have been really responding to the heart of this film. And the humor. That’s pretty rare.
I also hadn’t realized that it’s based on a book. Were you familiar with it before?
No, I had read the book after I had read the script but before we did the movie. The book is very different in tone from the film — it doesn’t quite have that dark undercurrent that the film has, and it’s not remotely funny. A lot of that stuff is what Taika brings to the material. Taika, the director.
I’m a big fan of his work as well. Have you seen What We Do in the Shadows?
Of course! I’d seen all his stuff before I got this offer. I was already really excited to work with him because he’s such a new and original voice in indie theater, and I’d like to be in some way associated with that.
He’s so brilliant, and his little cameo in the film is hilarious.
Yes, and bizarrely based on fact.
Taika went to a funeral, and the priest — it’s sort of word for word what the sermon was. Truncated, obviously, but this bizarre thing about the Fanta and the Crunchy Bars and all that behind one door and behind the other one [laughs] is Jesus!
And the Burger Rings! I had never heard of Burger Rings. I had to Google them.
I found out it’s like what we call Funyuns over here, but they’re burger-flavored?
Yeah, that sort of thing.
Have you eaten those before?
No, and I don’t plan to, either.
You’ve had such a diverse acting career, but is there something you haven’t done yet that you really want to do?
Those are quite popular again right now.
Mmhmm. I ran into Clint Eastwood at the Golden Globes or something like that, and I told him, I said, I’d love to be in a western one day, and he says, “What do you mean? Wear a hat and squint a bit?” And I said yeah, that’s exactly what I mean.
I think you’d be perfect in a western.
It’s an unfulfilled ambition. One of these days.
There’s another genre that’s become a recent trend — reimagined versions of fairy tales…
You were in Snow White: A Tale of Terror years ago, and I’m not sure many people remember it. I’ve seen it probably way too many times. It was on cable a lot at one point.
Really?! I don’t think I ever saw it!
Hmm. I don’t think I ever saw it. Yeah, that’s the one in which Sigourney Weaver crucifies me upside down?
[laughs] Yeah… you don’t expect to be crucified upside down by your wife, but that’s what happens in that film.
Those kinds of movies are a whole thing now, but you were in on the ground floor.
[laughs] On the ground floor! And I got to work with a falcon on that. That was another thing that was kind of cool.
You also haven’t done a superhero movie, but Taika is making one.
He is! Yeah, and he’s obviously gonna have a very international career. I hope we don’t lose him forever because I think he’s a very distinct New Zealand voice and you know, he’s got more to say about New Zealand. That’s for sure. It’s important for every country to be able to tell their own stories, and he’s a great New Zealand storyteller.
His films certainly connect with audiences outside of New Zealand, but there’s something that feels distinctly native — especially in Wilderpeople, which features some beautiful scenery and landscapes that you don’t see often over here.
But of course like any wilderness you have to be vigilant, and some of that extraordinary bush and mountainous terrain that you fly over in the film has been earmarked for gold mining. That doesn’t sound all that… I mean, it’s a greater treasure than any gold that you’d get out of that place. I’m in Australia at the moment, and the slogans are things like “Jobs and Growth.” Jobs and growth, you know… But sometimes actually not growing and conserving things, in the long run, turns out to be considerably more valuable than than anything that you could build.
For instance, the Great Barrier Reef here is under threat. I’m sure you’ve read about that.
And in not a very short time at all it could be completely dead. That’s a world heritage treasure and an extraordinarily valuable thing for Australia. So why you would want that to happen for jobs and growth, I can’t imagine because in the long run, that will be more valuable than anything else they get out of the ground, whether that’s coal or… you know.
Anyway, you just got me on a high horse there.
Yeah, but if you’re going to be on a high horse about something…
On a little bit of a lighter note, I hear you have your own wine.
I do! It’s called Two Paddocks. And it is probably up there with the world’s greatest pinot noirs, if it’s not the world’s greatest pinot noir itself. I don’t know. That is for others to say. I just modestly put that on the table.
Is it available in America?
Yeah it’s… Oh, look! A sandwich has just arrived. Hummus sandwich. How nice! Thank you! [laughs] Yeah, and it’s available in Texas, as a matter of fact.
And clearly named after Jurassic Park.
The two paddocks, yes.
I was going to ask if you ever grow tired of people asking you about Jurassic Park, but I assume not if you’ve named your wine after it.
No, I didn’t name my wine for it. Not at all! Why do you think that? [laughs] No, not at all. Nope.
Speaking of which, Jeff Goldblum said he was never asked to return for Jurassic World, which seems crazy to me. Were you asked to return?
No, no, no. The world has moved on. I don’t need any of those relics back there. It’d be like digging up fossils.
Before you go, I want to revisit one more film from your past. Possession is a masterpiece.
Wow. Not many people can say that. Not many people have seen it! Huh.
It’s one of the best films ever made. I’d put it right up there with Ken Russell’s The Devils.
Oh wow! That’s great. It’s pretty extreme, isn’t it?
You in the rocking chair, Isabelle Adjani screaming in the subway…
[Laughs] Yes, yes. You know, it was shot in Berlin at the height of the Cold War, kind of empty Berlin. We shot a lot of it right by the wall, and it was a very, very surreal experience.
You can tell.
[Laughs] Yeah. Sadly, the director Zulawski died last month. It’s a shame.
I just watched Possession yesterday to prepare for our interview.
Wow, that’s [laughs]…that’s great. What a film.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Thank you, Britt. You’re very kind.
Enjoy your hummus sandwich!
[Laughs] I will, I will.
Hunt For the Wilderpeople hits theaters on June 24.