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Sam Neill: Not Giving Up His Day Job

At 68 you’d think Sam Neill might be looking at semi-retirement at his vineyard in Central Otago, New Zealand sometime soon. But that’s just not the plan for this veteran kiwi actor. With over 70 films and many TV series under his belt, his latest movie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is packing the audiences in, both here and in New Zealand.

By Pamela Connellan

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a comic-drama showcasing the north island’s spectacular scenery alongside Neill’s prodigious and marvellously understated acting talent. It’s already done so well in New Zealand it’s now the highest-earning local film ever. Released recently in Australia, it’s enjoying a great response here as well, probably because it appeals to people of all ages.

The Retiree asked Neill what he thought about the movie. “It’s not a kids’ film – but they love it. It’s not just for adults either – it’s had an intergenerational response. People go and have a bit of a laugh or a cry,” Sam says.

Neill says he loved working on the movie and that while there are some very funny people in it, he likes the fact it has “ … an undercurrent of poignancy” and deals with some very serious topics such as: “… abandonment and grief, love and attachment. It’s a film with a heart and conviction.”

He attributes this ‘heart’ to the movie’s success in New Zealand and says it’s all part of the bigger picture where New Zealanders are at last overcoming their cultural cringe of many years.

“There’s a new wave of young comedians who have come on the scene in New Zealand in the last ten years or so and they have kind of transformed film and TV. A few years ago, no-one would have wanted to see a New Zealand comedy but this has all entirely changed now. It’s been a slow process of turning people around,” he says.

“My job in the film was to keep it real – I’m surrounded by some of the best comedians in New Zealand and these people are incredibly funny,” he adds.

A feel-good movie for all ages

So if you’re looking for a good movie to see, Hunt for the Wilderpeople should be on your list.  New Zealand director, Taika Waititi, takes a warmer approach with this movie than his previous films. While still irreverent and funny, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about a young orphan called Ricky (Julian Dennison), a hip-hop loving troublemaker who’s badly in need of a new foster home to avoid being sent off to juvenile lockup.

The story unfolds as Ricky and Uncle Hec (Neill) are thrown together by circumstance in a madcap manhunt through the New Zealand bush. The two actors work well together and there are some great comic scenes which could be farcical or over-the-top, were it not for Neill’s expert acting skills.

When we ask Neill if he enjoyed making the movie, he says there are “…certain jobs you do which have a resonance and you know that people will remember them for many years to come.”

For more on Hunt for the Wilderpeople go to our review.

Retirement’s not in the plan yet

We ask Neill if semi-retirement is on the cards any time soon and his answer is quick and to the point. “I can’t think of anything worse than sitting in my lounge room in my pyjamas watching daytime television,” he laughs.

So it looks like there’s no slowing down in the short term for this veteran actor. Last year, he worked on four movies – Hunt for the Wilderpeople in New Zealand, two other movies in the UK and one in South Africa.

As if that’s not enough, acting is only half of what he does to keep busy: “When I’m not doing my day job of acting – I’m making probably the world’s finest Pinot Noir – and I say that without a trace of irony!” he laughs.

Neill owns four vineyards on New Zealand’s south island in Central Otago plus a winery called Two Paddocks. “That’s where I live a fair bit of the time,” he says. “Our biggest market is Australia – we’re tiny but sustainable.”

While he still loves his day job of acting, he says he achieves a different kind of satisfaction from his winery and is “…very proud of what we’ve achieved.”

The winery is going to be reclassified as organic this year and Neill says being a winemaker has been “…an extraordinary journey” for him. But he adds, “it’s in no way remunerative.”

“I always say it’s more of a public service than an enterprise,” he says. “But when I drive up the drive and I see what I’ve built, there I get an enormous sense of achievement.”

Stay tuned for more on Sam Neill in our next print edition. 

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Alana Lowes

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