(Photo by Ian Brodie)
Sam Neill‘s latest film resonates in ways its makers may not have expected when they were shooting in remote Western Australia two years ago. Rams, adapted from the acclaimed 2015 Icelandic film of the same name, follows two rival sheep-farming brothers – played by Neill and Aussie TV and film icon Michael Caton – whose decades-long feud is pushed to the brink when disease hits their flocks and upends their valley community. The movie’s images of towering bushfires (or “wildfires” to American audiences) and quarantine-enforcers in bio-hazard suits strike a particular chord just a month out from 2020, when much of the Australian bush was laid waste by flames and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the pause button on the world.
Neill’s character, too, will resonate with audiences familiar with his work. A stoic and reserved man with a preference for creatures over humans, his gruff farmer Colin, or “Col,” could be Jurassic Park’s Dr. Alan Grant in a kind of blissful pastoral retirement phase. Talking to Rotten Tomatoes over Zoom from his own farm in Otago, New Zealand, Neill laughs about playing “the grumpy old guy” again – though says it was the script’s ability to make him smile that compelled him to sign on. Despite the harsh realities of disease and fire, this is a film that lifts you up by the time the credits role – it’s a “feel-better” film, as he puts it. And for those who have seen the original, this Rams tracks a decidedly lighter path, particularly in its final third.
Talking to the actor, you could be mistaken for thinking he was in his own blissful retirement phase. Sitting at a kitchen table, framed by bottles of his Two Paddocks wine and occasionally looking out a window to check on the animals his Twitter followers have become familiar with from videos posted during the pandemic – a hen named Kate Winslet, young calf Laura Dern, her black-and-white mom Helena Bonham Carter, and other farm favorites named after his famous friends – Neill looks very chill as he churns charmingly through a roster of press interviews. But that calm, country-boy exterior belies the fact that he’s at one of the busiest and most exciting points in his career: There’s Rams, upcoming TV series Invasion, and, of course, Jurassic World: Dominion, which he shot last year under strict COVID-safe conditions, and which saw him reunite with Dern (the human, not calf) and Jeff Goldblum.
Ahead of Rams’ U.S. release, Neill spoke to Rotten Tomatoes about balancing darkness and laughs, reuniting with his Jurassic Park co-stars and the very “different” world we can expect from the franchise’s sixth film, and why people might want to give the franchise’s oft-maligned and Rotten third film – and the Neill-starring cult favorite, Event Horizon – a second chance.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: I think when people see your character in this film – a sort of grumpy, quiet farmer – they will draw a lot of connections to your life on the farm and some of the more stoic characters you’ve played in the past. What was it about this character and this story that really appealed to you and made you want to do the film?
Sam Neill: Look, I took it on with reluctance because it does have its genesis in an Icelandic film of the same name. I didn’t really want to do the remake. It was also the fourth film back-to-back I did that year – we were shooting this just over two years ago – and I also thought, “Oh God, that’s just too much. I just want a break.”
But then when I talked to Jeremy [Sims, the film’s director] and I read the script, I realized actually it was going to be an entirely different film and, therefore, it was well worth considering. When I read the script I thought, “Oh, I think I really should do this,” because I felt an uplift after I’d finished it. And I’m not sure what your audience felt, but it’s not a “feel-good film,” it’s a feel-better film. People feel better when they’ve seen it. I think that’s quite a gift. I can’t quite explain why that is, but it’s optimistic.
And speaking of Rotten Tomatoes, I’ve been combing through [the website], because I’m in the Academy….
(Photo by David Dare Parker)
Uh, oh. This part of the interview.
Neill: [Laughs] So I started with Rotten Tomatoes and have gone through working backwards from the hundred-out-of-one-hundreds. And there’s a lot of good material there, but there’s also quite a lot of rather depressing material and a lot of miserable stuff. They’re very good films, but you go, “Oh God, no. Please, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.” I think [Rams] is exceptional in that it’s not one of those.
I saw it at a theater during the day with an older audience and they loved it. [Note: The writer is currently in Australia, where theaters are open]. But it struck me when thinking about feel-good vs. feel-better, that a lot of Australian comedies or dramedies do blend those laughs and that humanity with some really dark, tragic elements. You think about classics like Muriel’s Wedding and some of the things that happened in that movie. Do you think that darkness is particular to Australian and New Zealand comedies? Or am I reaching there?
Neill: Yeah, that may be a reach. I don’t think it’s unique to us. I was thinking about Hunt for the Wilderpeople – and I played a grumpy old guy in that as well – but Wilderpeople has dark moments, and had very sad things. When the nicest person in the film dies early on in the film, and then the nicest dog dies, these are tough moments, but also reflective of life. There’s no such thing as a rom-com in real life, is there? Life is not a rom-com. It never is.
(Photo by © The Orchard /Courtesy Everett Collection)
Your Twitter feed feels like a rom-com, sometimes, between you and the animals at your farm. You seem determined to give people a piece of joy in their day on social media. What’s the impetus behind posting these videos of you and your animals, or you and your just-made jam or playing ukulele?
Neill: I don’t know if it’s that deliberate, really. I’m partly trying to cheer myself up. We’ve also had some pretty dark moments in this last year – really dark. And I think apart from the fact that a lot of the world is in dire danger at the moment, I think the human condition has turned into one of low-level anxiety, low-level depression, if not high-level depression. Most of the people I know have really struggled in the last year or so, and I’m not alone in that. I find I just have to pick up my ukulele, when I can find it, and give it a strum or two, and I feel better. If I can make one or two other people feel slightly better, then I’ve done something good that day.
But, no, I don’t have any particular mission or anything. It’s never been a deliberate course. It just organically happened this year, and it was very diverting in lockdown to make those little “Cinema Quarantino” films, because I found that all my friends, the ones that could be bothered to get out of the chair and do something, were really looking for something to do. [Editor’s note: Sam teamed up with celebrity friends to film shorts he released on Twitter, including one hilarious short featuring Helena Bonham Carter as a jealous and foul-mouthed iPhone.]
They were very diverting. And the idea was that they would be badly made good little films, where no one gives a f–k about continuity. Someone put it rather inconveniently recently that I think it’s 50 years now that I’ve been on celluloid in one way or another. So, my whole life has been circumscribed by continuity. It’s good to abandon continuity, throw the bloody thing out the window.
— Sam Neill (@TwoPaddocks) January 22, 2021
What we see a lot of on your social media is something we also see in this character in Rams, which is this real beautiful relationship with animals. He finds it hard to express himself to his brother and his love interest, but when it comes to his sheep, there’s a lot of love. What is it about animals that can really draw out emotions in certain men who perhaps can’t connect with those around them? Not saying you’re particularly like that, but the character.
Neill: Look, I find that true of so many people I know. [For me], it started with my parents. My parents loved dogs and cats and horses, and sheep even. And they were terribly fond of them. And as kids, we never got cuddled. That wasn’t something that happened in our house, but the dogs were always being lavished with affection, and the horses, too. So, I completely relate to that. I completely understand that. And I’ve got a brand-new dog who’s out there, who’s now sulking a little bit because I’m talking to you.
Tell her I’m sorry.
Neill: She’s called Chuff. She’s a lovely dog. Still very puppy-ish, and just bounds around with endless enthusiasm for everything. I mean, animals can teach you so much. Every day, I get up early – I get up at six o’clock to take her for an hour’s walk. Just her incredible enthusiasm for being alive is a lesson in itself. She’s just going, “This is the best day ever. Wow. And I’m going to jump this fence because I can,” and just having a ball. And I think that’s a life lesson. Every day is a gift, and dogs, and certainly other animals, can teach you the same thing.
You mentioned you’ve been on the website. I’m not sure how much you go to your own films, but one of the films of yours that our readers love, and we actually included it in our book Rotten Movies We Love, is Event Horizon. I’ll start from the outset and say that it has a lower score than some of your other work, but in the years since its release, it has gotten a lot of affection. Is that a film that people come to you frequently about? And have you noticed it find its audience over the years?
Neill: Yeah. It’s a film that has a very niche audience. It’s a very particular audience. I heard that Paul [W. S. Anderson, the film’s director] was thinking to re-cut it. I know there’s a lot of missing footage that apparently corroded in some cave or something. And I know there are scenes that we shot that never made the film.
My main regret with that film was I thought it was cut too fast. I love thrillers and I love the alien dimension to that, that you don’t know what’s going on, that there’s a threat but you don’t know what it is. And I think Paul got a bit bored cutting it, and he cut it too fast. It should be cut, but it should be a lot slower. There should be a lot of silence, because in silence and the dark… there lies dread. It doesn’t quite breathe enough, that film. I’d like to see it re-cut. And I think that particular niche audience would enjoy it more.
Interestingly, the critic who wrote about it in the book speaks up for Paul’s very noisy, fast-cut approach, and he talks about how audacious that was. It’s interesting to hear your perspective on that. There is another one of your films in the book, Jurassic Park III, which I personally think is also very underrated.
Neill: That’s good. I’m pleased to know that. I was talking to someone just prior to you. We were talking about the genesis of how I came to be in the first one, and in passing, I said, I hadn’t really worked out how to be that kind of action hero back then. It’s a particular job. And there are some people who are good at it and some people aren’t. The job description is: be an action hero in the movie. And I hadn’t worked out what that job is. I’d always approached movies as: play this character.
But, actually, when you’ve got an action movie, there’s a different job description. Chris Pratt – I spoke to him at length about this – he’s very good at it and he’s really considered it and worked out what you need to do. And I hadn’t really worked out how to do that until I got to number three, but I think I’m actually better in the third one. I don’t think it ends so well; it ends in a hurry. But I agree. I think it comes in for quite a bit of criticism and that it’s dismissed too easily. I think it’s actually, apart from that last 10 minutes, I think it’s actually really pretty damn good.
You shot Jurassic World: Dominion last year – how was it to step back into Alan’s shoes in very different circumstances, I imagine, on set than what you’d been used to? What was it like to be that character and return to that world?
It was very interesting to come back into a different world, and a lot of things have evolved, perhaps not to Alan’s liking. And, again, there he is in tandem with Ellie Sattler, and – God almighty! – it’s Ian Malcolm again. So there are a lot of comic possibilities out of all that. Laura [Dern] and Jeff [Goldblum] are dear friends; I am very happy to be back in their company, which was much more substantive than any of us had imagined because we were effectively locked down for the duration, and we were very much dependent on each other’s company for laughs and for morale.
And Chris and Bryce [Dallas Howard] are just great; Mamoudou [Athie], DeWanda [Wise], too. It was a really great bunch actually on that film, and I felt very fortunate to be there, particularly as so many of my friends and colleagues went completely off work last year, and in fact their whole careers and lives are in a powerless position. I was bloody lucky to be there. Very fortunate.
I’m getting the hard rap, here. So, finally, is there an animal named for Chris Pratt on the farm now?
There’s no Chris Pratt yet, but I’m sure I can find a victim.
What animal would Chris Pratt be if you had to pick one?
I don’t know. They just come to me. There’s Jeff Goldblum up there [looking out of his window] – I can just see him in distance, just up by the power pylon there.
What kind of animal is he?
He’s a retired ram. He’s got a couple of mates.
Rams is screening in select theaters and available on demand from February 5, 2021.