At sea in the world

Sam Neill

30 Nov 2013

OK, fair enough: most actors are narcissistic, insecure, frivolous and a bit camp. But they are not stupid. And while it’s true that some are overcelebrated, it is also true that they can be simultaneously underrated. That is to say, there are those who are far more famous than is good for anyone, but at the same time too easily dismissed as lightweight. Witness the ill-disguised sneering one finds in the press whenever people like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney or Cate Blanchett lend weight to a good cause.

I myself tend by inclination to be green these days. Well, greenish shall we say. Normally I tend to stay quiet, preferring a peaceful life among my vines. But occasionally I put my hand up when I think something is too outrageous to ignore. You’d be amazed at the flak I take for the mildest view expressed. Recently I voiced some disquiet at not only the New Zealand government’s wildly risky plans to drill for oil at extreme depths off our shores (about 8,000ft), but an astonishing piece of legislation which would make it a crime to protest out there at sea. Putin would be proud.

The abuse was torrential. The Minister of Energy charmingly called me a hypocrite. Radio shock jocks foamed with anger. What enraged them was along the lines of, ‘Who does he think he is? What’s his mandate? He’s just an actor!’ As if being an actor means you are irredeemably thick. That may be a little bit true of me, but certainly not my colleagues.

No, actors are smart. And a lot of fun. Just as well, as I am habitually stuck in strange places with them, and invariably I find myself having an excellent time (let us hope no photographs emerge of me dancing the Samba in Rio last month). Very often they have other interests: Jeremy Northam plays great jazz piano. Michael Gambon is apparently a gunsmith. Dan Day-Lewis makes boots, although quite why exactly, you’d need to ask him. Jeff Bridges is a terrific photographer, as was Dennis Hopper. Hugh Laurie’s records of roots music I can’t recommend highly enough. His old mucker Stephen Fry writes brainy books. And Tim Spall is the James Cook of our day.

I have been at work in Paris lately, and then, with a few days off, I took a fast train to take refuge with my friends the Spalls in Holland. Those familiar with their BBC At Sea series know that this foolhardy couple brave churning northern seas in a stately if astoundingly slow barge called The Princess Matilda. I myself have not taken to the deep briny myself with the Captain. He is an autodidact at navigation, which I suspect would be no comfort at all in a force 8 gale. And he is not a little prone to accidents. I witnessed three in 20 minutes.

When the winters draw in they hunker down in some accommodating Lowlands port such as you might find across La Manche in Essex, only about 20 feet lower and much cleaner. Say what you like about the Dutch, their streets are clean. And it was in one such spotless street that Spall had his first mishap — hit by a flying Renault as he stepped backwards into traffic to admire the dexterity of a third-floor window cleaner. Happily just a glancing blow.

Next up, the Captain managed to slam his steering hand painfully in the door of his own wheelhouse. And finally, perhaps as a nod to the great Hulot himself, Spall, while attempting to ride two bicycles simultaneously, managed a spectacular flying arse-up on the main street. While he deftly avoided going under a truck, he did manage to cause a traffic tailback that paralysed the entire town for about five minutes.

Tim has just finished a long Mike Leigh project, playing the painter Turner. Some directors demand more than others, and Spall looks like he has given not just his whole heart to this long job, but pretty much all of the rest of his innards as well. He’ll be magnificent. Might be worth putting a tenner on him getting something at Cannes.

I first met Spall about 15 years ago at Pinewood. I heard he was working on another job across the lot. Since I perhaps admire him more than any other actor I can think of, I plucked up my courage, strode over to his trailer and introduced myself. We’ve been friends ever since. He is enthusiastic around wine like myself, which helps. This is true of many actors. And like most actors I know, he’s smart.

As for me, increasingly I think perhaps my vineyards may turn out to be my life’s work. In my acting life, I live in the world of the imagination; in the vineyard I plant trees, and dry stone walls are now spreading around the place. I am content.

When I’m there, you hardly get a peep out of me. But when I do peep, allow me the right to an opinion as much as the next man. Even if I am… just an actor.


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