“I would be a turkey,” Sam Neill says to me as we sip his own label of pinot noir. I had asked him about naming his farm animals after famous people — his friends who have consented, he assures me. There’s Anjelica Huston the sheep, Helena Bonham Carter the cow, and Imogen Poots the sow, along with a cast of other animal characters like Ewan McGregor and Meryl Streep.
If you follow Neill’s Twitter — and you really should follow Neill’s Twitter — you’ll find more pigs and kangaroos and cows than you’d expect from the actor who solemnly swore to keep us safe from rogue dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. If you don’t remember him as Dr. Alan Grant from the iconic 1992 movie, maybe your tastes were a little more avant garde and The Piano will ring bells (or keys, rather): Neill was the mean one who wanted to take Holly Hunter away from the feral but sexy Harvey Keitel. More recently, he played the moralistic constable on the first two seasons of Peaky Blinders and graced the screen momentarily in Thor: Ragnarok.
Eighteen months ago, I found myself sitting across from Neill — cheese plate and bottles of Two Paddocks red and white between us — in a $10,000-a-night luxury lodge (not his, and only temporarily mine thanks to a VIP press trip courtesy of Tourism New Zealand) in Queenstown. I had prepared questions, but no magazine had bitten yet for the interview. Not to worry, I thought, I always sell my stories eventually. Plus, I’d interviewed Neill once before for the Sundance premiere of Taika Waititi’s indie film Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He knew I wasn’t some crazed fan, and I knew he could hold a conversation.
But sitting in that room together, alone, the air feels tense — despite the mammoth mountains dipping into Lake Wakatipu as our backdrop — and I can’t tell if it’s me or him.
I take a big sip of the riesling and blankly ask about pinot noir grapes to get the conversation going.
“That’s white your drinking,” Neill blinks at me.
“Oh. I know. I just…I dunno,” I’m giggling nervously while the voice in my head is scolding me for being such a nonce. Deftly regaining my professionalism as a seasoned journalist, I pivot the conversation to his acting career as he takes a long, cool sip of his wine in preparation.
“I always want to be as good in the part as I possibly can,” Neill says. “But I make no pretensions of being the greatest actor in the world.” He pauses, and I nod my head in light reverence. “I’m serviceable. I’m durable. I get the job done.”
In his thoughtful and tempered way, Neill explains that he realized very early on in his career that there was always going to be someone whose career was hotter than his, who was getting the part he wanted. That’s when he decided to not care.
“As long as there’s a job coming up, I’m perfectly content,” Neill says. “That’s not to say that I’m happy with mediocrity. I’m just really relaxed [in the world of acting]. And if you’re okay with a lifetime of rejections, go ahead with it.”
I commiserate, explaining how the life of a freelance journalist is exactly the same, minus the good money when a job does actually come along. As my first glass lowers in volume, the air lightens a little and we begin to find common ground. Little does Neill know that I’ll pitch this interview around to all my usual publications (Vanity Fair, BBC Travel, The Independent) and beyond (AARP Magazine, Sunday Times Travel, Men’s Journal) over the next two years with nary a bite. I don’t know if it’s me or him.
But back in the Owner’s Cottage at Matakauri Lodges, the wine is going to my head and the cheese is melting in my tummy.
“Film has been my life, as opposed to acting…what with my documentary filmmaking in the early days,” Neill muses; perhaps the wine is going to his head as well. “The wine thing was a slippery slope, or rather, a slippery mountain upward; a mountain I never knew I wanted to climb.”
Neill is careful to explain his passion (addiction) for being a vintner. He’s sunk all he has ever made as a steadily working actor for nearly 50 years back into Two Paddocks. “I don’t have a chateau in France,” he says. “There’s no private airplane or yacht. [Winemaking] is not even a toy; it is my great endeavor.”
His friend Greg Hay — owner of Wet Jacket Winery — planted his first five acres of grapes in 1993. The Central Otago region on the South Island of New Zealand is now home to nearly 700 wineries, but at that time there were fewer than 50. It’s an area that lucks out with subregionality throughout its three big valleys, which allows the variety in the pinot noir grape. Neill planted his next two vineyards over the years and purchased his last vineyard five years ago. Currently, Hay and Neill are the only producers in Central Otago who have a stake in each valley.
“[Winemaking] didn’t bring the competitive [streak] out in me,” says Neill, now on his second glass, and me somewhere in the middle of my fourth. “But I really did want to make the best wine in the world — no small ambition for someone who is completely without ambition. I never had an ambitious impulse in my life until I started growing wine. That’s why I put so much energy and devotion and capital into what we do [at Two Paddocks].”
The devotion is obvious. The Neills arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1861; Sam is the fifth generation of Neills to work in the spirits industry, though the first to grow (the others were merchants). In 1999, rains flooded Peter Jackson’s sets of The Lord of the Rings; Two Paddocks’ vineyards were severely affected — as were many in the region — and produce dropped drastically. “I don’t know what was the bigger calamity,” says Neill, totally seriously.
His children aren’t terribly interested in growing grapes, but his 18-year-old grandson has taken to it. Neill keeps his hands in the dirt as much as possible, and when he wipes them off to update his blog and Twitter, his posts are mostly about the vineyards and occasionally a wisecrack about the deplorable state of American politics.
“All my natural optimism has been deserting me,” he says, not subtly referencing the recent election of Donald Trump. And we spiral down into the hole of I-can’t-believe-he-FILL IN THE BLANK. “This is the most depressing interview I’ve ever done,” I laugh, inhibitions lowered now by the fifth glass.
“I know,” he laughs back harder.
Trying to counter the flow of dismal doubts, I ask Neill how he wants his legacy remembered.
“I certainly don’t want to die playing a round of golf,” Neill says, taking another jab at Trump. “And I don’t want to die like Elvis. That’s all they remember about him — the most beautiful man on the planet. I’ll get off the can before I go. Maybe up a river, fishing. I just landed an 11-pound brown trout and released him and thought, ‘Life doesn’t get better than this.’”
By this time, we had wandered onto the balcony overlooking the lake and were staring up at the mountains. And then I did something I never, ever do when interviewing celebrities: I suggested a selfie. Neill grinned and whipped out his phone. We were buds now — I’m pretty sure the wine had only a small part to play in that.