“I shouldn’t tell you this,” grins Sam Neill, as he and his pup Chuff escort ET Canada through a gate to his Instafamous cows at the sprawling headquarters of his Two Paddocks vineyards in New Zealand’s Central Otago. “It sounds too eccentric, but I come play my ukulele here and a couple wander over and listen, but I’d really like mass adoration … I want cattle groupies.”
It’s Thursday afternoon and Neill has returned from a Two Paddocks event in Queenstown, a scenic 65-minute drive away, to discuss farm life and his new film, “Rams”. But eager to roam the picture-perfect property, restless Chuff interrupts by lurking around the tasting room’s entrance, until Neill concedes, prompting a tour.
His cows stand in a row facing the 73-year-old actor as he nears, almost as if they heard his wish for a cattle audience. He introduces Helena Bonham Carter. “Whenever she has another calf, Helena [the actress] wants to know,” Neill shares.
Then there’s the “ginga” named after red-haired comedian Rhys Darby, plus white beauty Graham Norton. “Graham’s a handsome fella. Aren’t you beautiful?” Neill coos.
SINGING TO CATTLE . Fair to say the most fervent followers of my singing career are my cows – #HelenaBonhamCarter( white face ) is easily my #1 fan . As you see . This is a clip from ‘Sam Neill- Live from the Apricot Paddock’ . They’ve prebooked for my Vegas shows. pic.twitter.com/D3k4Cfk8u6
— Sam Neill (@TwoPaddocks) February 9, 2021
It’s could easily be a scene from “Rams”, the trailer for which opens with Neill’s character lovingly addressing his animals. The film follows estranged brothers who must band together when disaster strikes their neighbouring flocks. Directed by Jeremy Sims and co-starring Michael Caton and Miranda Richardson, the film was adapted from an Icelandic movie.
“We shot it two years ago and it was supposed to come out as the pandemic hit, but the plug got pulled,” Neill says.
Neill worked long days on the Western Australia shoot, but feels the gruelilng efforts were worth it given the feel-good film comes amid often-dreary pandemic times.
“It was really hard work – I’m in every scene. Miranda was visiting Kauri forests or surfing while I was doing six-day weeks! It was harsh and unusual punishment, but worth it because I’m really pleased with the film. It’s touching and complex.”
“Rams” merged Neill’s two great loves — acting and farm life. “They both keep me sane. If I was stuck on the farm, I’d be barking, but if I had no life other than film/television, I’d feel deprived, if not depraved. I like that balance between [acting] and growing things, looking after animals – although the animals look after me. We depend on each other. Sometimes I go to the paddock and the cows gather around and just hang with me.”
Such moments are precious following the often-isolating times of 2020. After Rams, Neill completed upcoming alien series, “Invasion”, and was set to kick off “Jurassic World: Dominion” when the pandemic intervened, leading him to Australia for lockdown.
Amid deepening despair, he occupied himself with social media posts, performing songs like “Uptown Funk” or filming short movies with friends like Carter for his “Cinema Quarantino” series. While the videos brought joy to viewers, they ultimately helped Neill through trying times. “The busier I got, the less gloomy I got, so I found it strangely exhilarating.”
“I wasn’t looking for impact,” he adds about his posts’ popularity. “But if I had a message, it was asking people the same thing I was asking myself — to stay calm and know these things will pass.”
“I have mixed feelings about all this,” he continues after a lengthy pause. “Because I feel freakishly lucky. I live in a country that’s virtually COVID-free, I’ve had work and I have my health and dog. So, it’s all very well for me to say, ‘Be calm and know it’ll be alright.’ But if making a fool of myself makes people feel better, I plan to continue.”
Neill’s posts continued after commencing “Jurassic World: Dominion”, which reunited him with Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern, 27 years after they starred in “Jurassic Park”.
“Those are friendships where you might not see each other for 10 years, but pick up where you left off.”
The trio shacked up with 700-plus crew and cast at a U.K. hotel, where Neill and Goldblum filmed musical performances during downtime.
“We became a very close-knit team. We all had something to offer – some of us are funny, some are sweet and some tell great stories. And, most of us like a drink … but not to excess.”
Some might find it challenging not to drink excessively while owning the vineyard Neill retreated to once “Jurassic” wrapped. Winemaking’s in the genes for the Ireland-born, New Zealand-raised star, whose great-grandfather started in wine and spirits in Dunedin in 1861.
“I’m the fourth generation, but the first to grow wine,” he says, observing sunflowers while leading us through vines at Red Bank Vineyard and Farm, the HQ of Two Paddocks and home to Neill and his animals. “It runs in the blood.”
Neill planted his first grapes at The First Paddock in Queenstown’s famed Gibbston Valley wine region in 1993 and now has four vineyards throughout Otago, producing 8,000 cases annually. “While I’ve never been terribly ambitious about my work as an actor –—it’s miraculous I’m still in work — I am ambitious about wine.”
The Emmy-nominated actor proudly describes his property as an “oasis of organics,” which he recently opened up for summers tours. He’s also looking into partnering with a business in the quaint local town of Clyde for tourist packages.
His wine’s meanwhile produced at the Central Otago Wine Company in the nearby fruit and wine region of Cromwell, then distributed to countries including Canada and online at www.twopaddocks.com. The label’s specialty is pinot noir, which delectably reflects the dark fruits of Central Otago, like black plums and cherries.
“There’s cherry orchards up there,” Neill points out as we stroll under a row of pear trees, along a field of saffron, through an orchard of peaches, plums and apricots, and into a glasshouse of tomatoes. “Try these little orange tomatoes,” he offers, plucking one fresh from the vine and delighting in its juicy sweetness.
Neill’s produce is popular with his pig, Angelica, who greets us with a face smothered in fermented apricots. “Look at you,” Neill exclaims. “You’ve let yourself down! Where’s your waistline?”
Along with pigs, rams (one named after Goldblum) and cows, Neill also loves his 30-odd chickens. One named Kate Winslet recently welcomed babies.
“The names just come to me. She’s very motherly,” Neill mulls about the qualities Kate the chicken shares with Kate the actress. “There’s also a ginger one who hangs around my house and that’s Bryce Dallas Howard. I’ll look up and suddenly there’s two little eyes looking at me.”
There’s some other little eyes Neill finds peering back at him these days – the six grandchildren, who love to visit, including “completely gorgeous” identical twin girls.
“Grandchildren have been a great boon to my life because they’re so fun and it’s all care and no responsibility. That’s the best thing with children. Responsibilities? Not so much. Teenage years? Glad they’re over!”
Between grandfather fun, animals and winemaking, Neill continues acting. To his surprise, 2021 marks his 50th year in showbiz, having debuted on New Zealand television in 1971, before making his mark on films like “Sleeping Dogs”, “The Piano”, “Jurassic Park” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”.
Impressively, 50 years on, Neill — who also stars in upcoming “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” — still spawns “thirst trip” headlines. And, judging by his joyful reaction to finding out mid-interview that New Zealand media personality Hilary Barry has described him as “hot,” he welcomes such fondness.
“Did you hear that?” Neill asks after reading Barry’s quote aloud. “Did you register that?”
“You are hot,” a staffer promptly responds.
Clearly, such adoration will suffice until Neill grooms his famous cows into “cattle groupies.”