Look at the front cover up above. That picture of Sam Neill? It tells you all you need to know about his memoir. After all, a picture tells a thousand words, does it not? Well, there you go. That slightly worried expression, that tentative half smile? That’s the book – a charming, seemingly honest and frequently self-deprecating trawl through the life and career of one of New Zealand’s finest and certainly most popular acting exports.
Eschewing a strictly linear approach (there’s a reason he plumped for ‘memoir’ rather than ‘autobiography’), Neill introduces us to his family background and his Irish roots before meandering through his early years and move into the acting profession, stopping to offer comments on the many celebrated personalities he has met and/or worked with along the way.
To add some heft and emotional clout, though, threaded throughout the book are Neill’s thoughts and feelings about the health crisis that bookends it. And on a lighter note, so is the odd sojourn into one of the greatest loves of his life – his vineyard.
If you’re looking for gossip, you’ll find plenty to enjoy. But this is hardly the scurrilous slander mongering and barbed brickbats of a Hedda Hopper skewering or an ‘article’ in the National Enquirer. In fact, most of the people Neill mentions he seems to rate pretty highly. But when he does come across a curmudgeon or someone who behaved less than favourably on set, he tells it as he sees it. Though, to be frank, there are few shocking revelations. He’s certainly not the first person to remark upon Judy Davis’ blunt demeanour, while still clearly in awe of her huge talent. The idea that William Hurt, newly sober according to Neill, remained ‘angry about just about everything’ also would possibly not be news to many.
His take on Bob Hawke, at a dinner party thrown by Meryl Streep if you please, is also less than cheering, but these are all fleeting references among the positive sea of ‘greatest’, ‘loveliest’ and ‘most wonderful’ people Neill has been fortunate enough to know, live with or work with over the years.
His reminiscences of the women in his life are recounted with tact and more self-deprecation, particularly his most recent wife, Noriko, from whom he split in 2017. And by all accounts his discretion was by far the most sensible approach.
Indeed, one of my favourite chapters is titled ‘Women are Better’ and it’s simply a long list of ‘some of the great women I have been lucky enough to work opposite, alongside, under… whatever’. He ends it with ‘I’m stopping there. It sounds like I’m bragging.’ See what I mean? Effortlessly debonair and if he overdoes the humility just a tad, really, it would be a hard-hearted sort to take umbrage. Especially when he doesn’t provide a similar chapter for the chaps he has come across. In fact, my other favourite chapter head would have to be ‘Bloody Bryan Brown’.
The various descriptions of their long friendship and rivalry culminate in a story about the battle of the hair loss. Chemotherapy or major burns? Only a couple of larrikins like Brown and Neill could be manage to be competitive in such a situation…
That self-deprecation extends to his pontifications on the art and craft of acting. He addresses the topic in the chapter, ‘How to be a Good Actor’ but then immediately hits the humbles again – ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, why are you asking me… ask a good actor.’ And if you think his beautifully understated performance opposite Julian Dennison and Rima Te Wiata in Hunt for the Wilder People was the last word in generous, it will come as no surprise to hear that he winds up deferring to a fellow thespian for the last word on this topic. ‘I rather like Alan Cumming’s definition: “Pretend to be someone else, but really, really, mean it”.’
Did I Ever Tell You This?, Sam Neill
Publisher: Text Publishing
Publication Date: 21 March 2023