Timing is everything in book publishing.
But little did Sam Neill know, one of the many stories in his anecdote-laden memoir out this week would be particularly relevant to the news cycle.
You see, Sam once spent a weekend aboard a US nuclear submarine.
He hitched a ride to help prepare for his role as a Russian submariner in the hit 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, and was even briefly handed the controls.
“I didn’t cause an emergency,” he stresses.
The same can’t be said for another VIP, who plunged the sub into a nosedive when it came to his turn in charge.
“He froze and had to be wrestled out of the chair; an ordinary seaman pulled us out of our nosedive and a spectacular nuclear death at the bottom of the ocean.”
Disaster averted, Sam went on to star alongside Sean Connery in the underwater thriller, shot in Los Angeles.
Scenes were wrapped up early on a Friday so Connery could fly up to Canada for the weekend as a way of minimising the amount of US tax he’d have to pay.
This is just one of the dozens of behind-the-scenes vignettes sprinkled through Neill’s book Did I Ever Tell You This? as he looks back on his more-than-50-year acting career.
Early headlines from the memoir have been all about Neill’s revelation he was diagnosed last year with stage 3 blood cancer after noticing some lumpy glands during a publicity shoot for the latest Jurassic Park film.
After coming to terms with the fact he was probably dying — he isn’t, thankfully — Neill decided to devote the long months of recovery to jotting down thoughts and memories.
And what clear memories they are. The memoir is something of a long love letter to Hollywood peppered with the occasional barb.
“I love being on a film set,” he writes, “it’s always familiar to me.
“I love being with other actors: how stimulating, how funny, how sad, how vulnerable they can be.
“They are the best company I know, I love doing what I know how to do. It’s a good job. I fit in.”
Jurassic Park was the film that catapulted Sam Neill to international stardom.
It was a massive career break, but one that had Neill racked with insecurities over whether he was good enough to be on the same set as the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, and Richard Attenborough.
“Why me? I’m certainly not an action hero.”
The 1993 shoot in Hawaii was nearly derailed by a hurricane but went on to become one of the most successful films ever.
All these years later, Neill still has kids calling him the Dinosaur Man (“It’s a compliment, and beats being a mere dinosaur”), and has nothing but lavish words of praise for his co-stars, particularly Dern: “The sweetest and most delightful person I know.”
Neill has starkly different memories of his breakout film My Brilliant Career.
While he and co-star Judy Davis light up the screen as lovers Harry and Sybylla, there was clearly tension on the set, with Neill describing Davis as prickly and “bloody difficult”.
He says Davis, who’d been to drama school, saw him as inferior because he hadn’t trained as an actor.
They worked on films together in later years, with Neill claiming Davis iced him on their last production, the 1996 Australian film Children of the Revolution.
They haven’t spoken since. “I have nothing to say to her anyway,” Neill laments.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking of Neill’s film recollections are his encounters with Robin Williams, when they were cast together in Bicentennial Man, in 1999.
Neill describes Williams as the funniest man he had ever worked with or met.
When the cameras were rolling, Williams was “irresistibly, outrageously, irrepressibly, gigantically funny”.
But then Neill would visit the comedian in his trailer and see a different side.
He seemed deeply, deeply depressed. “He had fame, he was rich, people loved him, great kids — the world was his oyster. And yet I felt more sorry for him than I can express. He was the loneliest man on a lonely planet.”
Williams took his own life in 2014. He was 63 years old.
One of the funniest of Neill’s experiences — although it didn’t seem so at the time — was when he was summoned to New York to meet Barbra Streisand about playing opposite her in the 1983 film Yentl.
After a charming few hours chatting with the star in her Manhattan hotel suite, Neill made the fatal mistake of asking her whether the film would have any music in it.
Streisand then proceeded to sing not one, but two of the songs to be in the movie, with Neill sitting just two metres away.
“I am like a stunned mullet, and I can feel my smile beginning to freeze … I cannot believe this is happening.”
Neill didn’t get the part, something he’s not unhappy about all these years later.
These are just a few of the candid reminiscences that spring from the memoir.
There’s also the meal Neill shared in London in the early 1990s with the then relatively unknown Hugh Grant, who’d just finished shooting Four Weddings and a Funeral, a film Grant described as “absolute and utter rubbish”. “Rubbish” that launched a stellar career.
A who’s who of the acting world grace the pages. Meryl Streep (“a grand actress and a fine person”); Mel Gibson (“extremely good fun”); Harvey Keitel (“truculent and hostile”); John Cleese (“great company”); Arnold Schwarzenegger (“charming and delightful”); Nicole Kidman (“funny, warm and affectionate”); David Wenham (“about the best actor in Australia”) and William Hurt (“angry about just about everything”).
All in all, you get the sense Neill feels extraordinarily lucky and blessed to have enjoyed such a successful film and TV career.
And as for the secret of good acting? Well, there isn’t one, according to Neill.
He reckons you’ve either got it or you haven’t. The audience must want to watch you. And that’s something Neill has never had a problem with.
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