The veteran New Zealand actor, talks to WYZA® about his latest movie – a comic-drama showcasing the north island’s spectacular scenery alongside his legendary acting talent.

Sam Neill, 68, has acted in over 70 films. He played the artist Norman Lindsay in Sirens, was in Jurassic Park, The Piano and of course the classic Australian film My Brilliant Career. He has also starred in many TV series including Peaky Blinders, The House of Hancock, Alcatraz and The Tudors.

Called Hunt for the Wilderpeople, his latest movie has already done so well in New Zealand it’s the highest-earning local film there ever. Released recently in Australia, it’s enjoying a great response here as well, probably because it appeals to people of all ages.

Watch the trailer for Sam Neill's latest film

“It’s not a kids’ film – but they love it,” Neill says. “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. 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.”

Neill says that while there are some very funny people in this film, 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 explains.

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 adds.

Sam Neill with Hunt for the Wilderpeople director, Taika Waititi

Not looking at giving up his day job
At 68, with over 70 movies under his belt, Neill is more excited than ever to keep looking forward and working. “I can’t think of anything worse than sitting in my lounge room in my pyjamas watching daytime television,” he laughs when asked if he’ll ever retire.

So it looks like there’s no slowing down 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.

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Neill enjoying a glass of wine with Bryan Brown (Photo: Sam Neill/Twitter)

Sam Neill the wine expert
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 again as organic this year and Neill says it’s all 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.”

Sam Neill shows his sense of humour and love of good wine in this short film called The Odyssey

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
If you’re looking for a good movie to see, Hunt for the Wilderpeople should be high 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.

Bella (Rima Te Wiata) takes him under her wing and her husband, Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) goes along with it. As the film unravels, tragedy strikes and Uncle Hec and Ricky are thrown together, ending up on the run in the wild New Zealand bush.

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Newcomer Julian Dennison stars alongside Sam Neill (© 2015 Piki Films)

The movie then takes a turn and becomes a madcap, crazy manhunt with loads of action. It’s both a salute to – and a good natured sendup – of some of New Zealand’s earlier classic movies.

In amongst all this mayhem, there are some classic cameo performances including Rachel House as Paula – an over-zealous child-services worker who seems to think she’s the star of the latest ‘Whodunnit’. She delivers some hilarious lines alongside her deadpan offsider, Officer Andy (Oscar Knightley).

Relative newcomer, Julian Dennison stars as Ricky, the young troublemaker. He works well alongside Neill and brings a lot of humour to the role in this, his third Kiwi feature.

The film uses comedy to deliver its message about what a family really is (© 2015 Piki Films) 

Sam Neill is superb in this gift of a role as the laconic and gruff mountain man. Neill plays Uncle Hec with understated and gritty style, giving the film a strong, grounded base. The other actors work as highlights to Neill’s base and it’s clear it wouldn’t all come together half as well, without Neill’s strong performance.

In essence, the relationship between Uncle Hec and Ricky give the film its heart. And towards the end of the film, as things get a bit unrealistic and farcical, we never lose interest because we’re so strongly engaged with these characters.

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“Warmly funny and deeply delightful” – Tom Grierson, Screen Daily (© 2015 Piki Films) 

The film uses comedy and pathos to drive home its message about what a family really is. It’s no surprise the film is the highest-grossing film so far in New Zealand. It’s serious and funny at the same time, attempting to please everyone and delivering the goods.

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

What is your favourite Sam Neill film? Join the conversation below.

(Featured image: Sam Neil/Twitter)