Sam Neill on his new memories and living with blood cancer: ‘I’m not afraid of dying, but it would bother me’ | sam neil

YoIf you came to Sam Neill’s memoirs without knowing anything about it, chapter one would give you a terrible shock. It starts off quite funny: a lovely anecdote about her daughter Elena from her when she was asked at school when she was little about her father’s job. “My dad sits in trailers,” he says, an answer “both insightful and completely accurate,” writes the actor, who then goes on to describe a past life on film sets: sitting in trailers, reading the paper, sipping cups of tea. , waiting for the magic moment when someone comes along and says, “We need you on set, Mr. Neill.”

The tone changes to reflective. There’s an encapsulated preamble about what it means to live a good life, which sets the tone and theme of the book, you ponder why you’re writing a book, who’s going to read it, so it sounds a bit swan song. And then, there’s this:

“The thing is, I’m a thief. Possibly dying. I may have to speed this up.

As narrative setups go, it’s a hook, all right. There are so many questions: is it okay? It will be OK? Where will we be at the end of the book? Should you… cheat and skip to the last chapter to find out what’s going on?

But here, on a blue February day in Central Otago, New Zealand, 75-year-old Neill is his own spoiler alert. He seems fine, though he admits to being a little fragile as he sits on a sunlit porch talking about what he’s processed about not existing as he surveys everything that exists before him. The glorious bounty of his farm unfolds everywhere: rows of pinot noir grapes for his wine, orchards, herb gardens, heirloom apple trees, gooseberry bushes, the odd brood of chickens and ducks, black-faced sheep and cows in distance, and newly planted trees that he wants to see grow to maturity.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” he says, “but it would bother me. Because I’d really like another decade or two, you know? We have built all these beautiful terraces, we have these olive trees and cypress trees, and I want to be around to see it mature. And I have my adorable little grandchildren. I want to see them grow.

“But as for the dying? I couldn’t care less.

Sam Neill with his pig Angelica. Photography: /Fiona Goodall

Sam Neill has established one of the most eclectic acting resumes with more than 150 credits spanning five decades, from the initial launch pad of My Brilliant Career (1979) with Judy Davis, to his breakout role as dinosaur detective Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park (1993) to Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and, most recently, the evil Chester Campbell in the television series Peaky Blinders. He has a reputation as a genuine Mr. Nice Guy and his friends are legion, steadfast and not just stellar; yeah, there she is on his beloved Instagram feed (541k followers) with his Jurassic Park pals Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern singing, ahem, no also seriously – but he has a parallel life where farmers and winemakers are his world.

He is not very impressed by the celebrity and has carefully avoided her. In his local town of Clyde, the one-cop town five minutes from his farm where he drinks coffee in the morning, heads don’t turn much. In Sydney’s Surry Hills, where he has a home and divides his time, he enjoys telling people he thinks could I know who the Matrix actor Hugo Weaving is. He likes to talk to strangers; he doesn’t care if they know who he is or not.

“I have several friends who are true celebrities, you would know who they are, and I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs for one moment, even though they are filthy rich and, you know, filthy famous.

“There is a complete lack of privacy on the one hand, and privacy is very, very, very important, I can walk down the street in Surry Hills and have my coffee, and nobody bothers me, you know? And there are no paparazzi. My life is mine.”

Some of them he happily shares on social networks: he believes that the art of entertainment is an honorable activity. And he entertains: farm life, ukulele singing, his winemaking, banter with Jeff. He has his charming Dr. Dolittle schtick, frequently appearing with his farm animals, many of them rescue animals with the affectionate names of celebrities and friends. There’s Laura Dern (chicken), Kylie Minogue (duck), Helena Bonham Carter (cow), Bryan Brown (pig, female). During this interview, Bryce Dallas Howard, a glowing Gingerbread Hen, pecks his way past and then Michael Fassbender, a rooster Majestic in appearance, he appears chest first around a corner, closely followed by three chickens. “Fassbender, big dick,” Neill laughs. “He’s so full of himself that he always has his girls following him. But he is very handsome.

In Have I Ever Told You This? Neill shares quite a bit more of himself. In fact, he has stripped down and, like most actors waiting for reviews, he wants to know how he did it. As for the memoirs, it’s very funny and extremely entertaining, but with a judicious touch of pathos. There is no self pity here. He’s an enormously good storyteller, and also delightfully intrusive in some of his narrations (co-stars misbehave, take note). But still, he is careful about his private life. Details of past relationships are omitted, as in the case of his most recent relationship with Canberra press gallery journalist Laura Tingle, or mentioned fleetingly such as his marriages to actress Lisa Harrow and film make-up artist Noriko Watanabe. His four children and his eight grandchildren appear as careful references to the joy of his life and his great love.

It is a collection of stories from the actor, a story of family and friendship, of love and pleasure that he began writing while isolated in his Sydney apartment while undergoing treatment for his cancer. The shock came in March of last year: he had swollen glands while in Los Angeles doing press for Jurassic World Dominion, flirting with his “idiot friends.” Within a few weeks he was undergoing chemotherapy for stage three blood cancer, specifically, angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma.

Sam Neill at his home and vineyard in Alexandra, New Zealand
Sam Neill at his home and vineyard in Alexandra, New Zealand. Cinematography: Fiona Goodall

For some time the treatment seemed to be doing its job and the writing was a balm; memories of her kept him company.

“I found myself with nothing to do,” says Neill. “And I am used to working. I love working. I love going to work. I love being with people every day and enjoying human company and friendship and all that stuff. And suddenly I was deprived of it. And I thought, what am I going to do?

“I never intended to write a book. But as I went on and on writing, I realized that he was actually giving me a reason to live and I would go to bed thinking, tomorrow I’ll write about it… that will entertain me. And it really was a lifesaver, because I couldn’t have gone through that with nothing to do, you know.”

He insists it’s not a cancer book (“I can’t stand them. I’m never going to read another bloody cancer book in my life”), but characterizes the theme as a “spiral thread” through the memoir, maintaining the narrative. tied. He writes these sections in the present tense and then returns to humorous coming-of-age stories, tales from movie set pieces, and nostalgic recollections of his early life as Nigel Neill, the shy boy with a stutter who went to boarding school at eight. and changed his name to Sam at 12.

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Reflecting on her life has brought her the surprise of remembering so many stories, but also the relief of remembering the love of her parents, whose presence she still feels around her. And each decade of her life, she says, has been better than the last. Even this decade, when he’s been so ill, and he’s walked the fine line between loneliness and loneliness.

“I mean, I can’t pretend that the last year hasn’t had its dark moments, but those dark moments cast light in strong relief, you know, and have made me feel grateful for each day and immensely grateful for all my friends. . Just glad to be alive.”

Sam Neill with his duck Magda Szubanski
Sam Neill with his duck Magda Szubanski. Cinematography: Fiona Goodall

When the first round of chemotherapy didn’t seem to work and things looked bleak, a new “very expensive” chemotherapy drug was proposed. He signed a contract with the pharmaceutical company that if he was still alive after four months, the treatment would be free. (“Have you noticed that I have a slight lab rat aspect to me?” he jokes.)

At the time, Neill was the only person in New South Wales, and when he changed his treatment to New Zealand so he could be home for Christmas, he was the only person in the country. She has to have it done monthly for the rest of her life, but it has worked, even though she feels “shit” for two days after each treatment and doesn’t feel like eating. “I am not free as such, but there is no cancer in my body,” she says.

The Christmas that just passed, then, was particularly sweet: “I have never felt so good or so happy in my life, it was fabulous to be able to savor everything. The wine was glorious and the food was excellent. I swam every day in my dam, and it was the most wonderful time… I had my family and all the grandchildren. It was just fantastic.”

Joyful gratitude seems to be Neill’s default position now, but there is also contemplation of the self and the cosmos. The sound of death going up the stairs has done that.

“It is much easier to identify who other people are, but you almost never ask yourself the question: who am I? Know, [when I was sick] I would look in the mirror and see a completely different person, without a hair on my head, without eyelashes, the beard had fallen on a pillow somewhere in the hospital. I was unrecognizable.

“I would look at this alien… Really? It’s you? So that begs the question, who are you? And then I had to think about it. I mean, I was never really interested in reflecting on myself. You know, sometimes you say, you fucking idiot, why would you do that? But that would be as bad as it would be.”

But he has forgiven himself for his shortcomings and revels in the “strong feeling of being this little speck in the universe, so unimportant… but a unique speck.” The notion of the afterlife is ridiculous to him, so he instead lightly contemplates the notion of consciousness (“If it’s an illusion, I’m fine with that”), and the seductive idea of ​​”dissolving and dispersing into The cosmos”.

“I don’t mind that idea at all.”

Have I ever told you this? By Sam Neill is published by Michael Joseph (£25) and Text Publishing in Australia and New Zealand ($55). To support The Guardian and The Observer, order your copy at Shipping charges may apply.

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