There is a massive doziness going on in Sam Neill’s new memoir, dozily titled Did I Ever Tell You This?; it’s written in the dozy key of 1.30am, not the dark, troubled night of the soul at 3am or at the high-alert chimes of midnight – 1.30am is less serious than that, a reflective hour to mull things over and look back on life without rancour or regret. He wrote it when he was sick. He had stage-three blood cancer. The cancer is now in remission. Good. Almost everything about him in his memoir reveals Neill as a hell of a nice guy, happiest outdoors in nature, a man with a gift for friendship who has never been willing to entertain a pretentious thought in his head. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to have much of any other kind of thought in his head.

All, or nearly all, is anecdotage. This happened and someone said something and then that happened. He likes fly fishing but when he catches a fish he always puts it back. “In 1985 I was sufficiently cashed up to commission Ian Athfield to design me a house.” King’s Cross in Sydney isn’t what it used to be and neither is Soho in London. The word “wine” appears 95 times, and the word “anyway” appears 38 times, most often at the beginning of sentences, as they oft do when someone picks up the thread of some tiresome anecdote: “Anyway …” Anyway, he knew John Clarke, who was very funny, and he knows Mel Gibson, who is also very funny “but we don’t agree on much”. He was married to Noriko for nearly 30 years: “She is a wonderful woman, and is the mother of my two fabulous daughters.” His formal paragraph about his ex-wife reads like a character reference on a CV.

About the first time the book springs to life is thanks to someone else. He quotes a line he thinks came from Barry Humphries when he was asked what gave him satisfaction later in life, and Humphries said, “All the First Eleven are dead.” What a brilliant line, but Neill adds of the Humphries aperçus, “I wouldn’t go that far.” No. Not his style. His style, his core belief, is self-deprecation. He tells this story against himself when someone said something and then that story against himself … Only once do any of these self-deprecations offer any real insight. He fancied a beautiful woman. He tried to chat her up. She tells him: “You are the slowest person I have ever met. The slowest. You talk slowly. You move slowly. You think slowly. You are just … slow.”

So slow, so dozy – but you can hear the woman’s voice in that line. Neill has a wonderful ear for speech. He tells a story about returning to County Down in Northern Ireland, where he grew up, and knocks on a farmhouse door. A woman opens it, looks at him, and says: “You are one of the Neill boys, so you are.” It hardly matters whether that line, or the line from the beautiful woman (“You are just … slow”) are verbatim; a character emerges, a scene is sketched. As the book continues, and Neill gets his childhood out of the way, it happens more and more. It usually only takes a few lines, like his description of going to meet one of his mentors, the theatre director Mervyn Thompson, near the end of his life, “living in a small, dark flat off Bealey Avenue … He was suffering from a terminal cancer of the face and he was hideously and cruelly deformed”.

Neill, the observer; Neill, the watcher; Neil, the actor, trying on other people’s lives. He writes of haystacking in Mid Canterbury during the university summer holidays, working alongside old hands (“hard swearing, hard drinking”) who were transformed when farmers’ wives would invite them into the kitchen for a nice hot cup of tea, and they’d “smoke with their tea, silently looking at the floor, but they’d ash their cigarettes on their trousers so as not to muck the place up. Uncle Hec in Hunt for the Wilderpeople owes a lot to these blokes”.

It behoves an actor working in Hollywood to bring gossip to a memoir, and Neill obliges, now and then, providing more neat little character sketches. Judy Davis, his co-star in My Brilliant Career, was hopelessly difficult; Harvey Keitel, his co-star in The Piano, was a horse’s arse. He withholds one name, when he lists 61 actresses he’s worked with (Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley, Rachel House, Anna Paquin, etc), and concludes, “Only one of them made it clear I wasn’t in her league.” He had dinner with Hugh Grant and asked him what he’d been working on. “Oh,” he said, “a complete piece of crap called Four Weddings and a Funeral. Disaster. Absolute and utter rubbish.” Again, it’s all about the voice: you can hear Grant (he sounds just like Charles from Four Weddings).

“Most of what I’ve written is about other people,” Neill writes. It isn’t really. Other people form the best writing in the book, but most of what he’s written is about himself. Self-deprecation is an old ruse: its aw-shucks, I-ain’t-nothin’-special manner disguises that its whole intent is to draw attention to the self, partly so others can rush to their defence. “I am shallow as a puddle,” Neill deprecates. The people who know him best will know it’s untrue. He has often brought a particular kind of intelligence, and a particular kind of artistry, to his acting. He quotes the great Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven) who tells Neill, “I think you are the world’s most underrated actor”. He seldom projects but he always convinces, blends in as a vague, forgettable and yet reliable presence in the landscape, with a very good understanding of awkward and confused – Michael Chamberlain in Evil Angels, the finger-chopping cuckold in The Piano, and even in his very first starring role, as Smith, the lead in Sleeping Dogs.

Roger Donaldson’s 1977 film was based on the novel Smith’s Dream by CK Stead. Stead writes in his memoir You Have A Lot To Lose that Neill “was on the brink of giving up acting”. This is not entirely correct. Neill had never considered acting as a career – he was employed as a documentary maker at the National Film Unit – and was “dazed” when Donaldson asked him to play Smith. The casting belonged to the film’s ethos of starting from scratch. In 1977, the New Zealand film industry lacked an actual industry. Everything was experiment and novelty. Neill writes of the cinéma vérité scene in Sleeping Dogs “of sprinting like hell down a crowded lunchtime Queen St, trying to go as fast as I could and not knock old ladies over”.

He played opposite that practised old ham Ian Mune in his film debut. Mune’s death scene in Sleeping Dogs is an unintended comedy classic. CK Stead’s description is correct: “Ian had written a very long death for himself, which involved an exceedingly protracted downhill roll; and in the first few days of public screenings it was said Roger was still busy cutting some of the scene’s embarrassing scenes.” All of Mune’s performance in Sleeping Dogs was of a piece with his moreish attitude to acting. Neill’s approach was lessish. He saw Smith as “a man who vacillates … is quiet and passive aggressive.” He writes, “Mune likes to tell the story that initially he found me frustrating. I didn’t seem to be doing anything.” The dailies arrived after 10 days (!) from the US. “Mune apparently looked at me on the screen and realised I actually was doing something. It just wasn’t obvious, but it was clear enough on film. The character had an inner life. That story pleases me; I knew a little bit, at least.”

A slow, dozy inner life … A real happiness radiates from Neill’s portrait of himself as a young suburban hippie shacked up with his girlfriend in Eastbourne, smoking dope and blasting masterpieces (The Yes Album by Yes, Holland by the Beach Boys – he had fantastic taste) on the stereo, and hanging with friends on that pretty stretch of coast. He mentions Daryl Watt. I interviewed Watt for my book Cover Story: 100 Beautiful, Strange and Franky Incredible New Zealand LP Covers, to talk about the cover he designed for the 1977 album Taking It All In Stride by Mark Williams. He photographed Williams sitting on cane furniture on the tennis courts at Days Bay, Eastbourne, with a group of people dressed in colonial whites in the background. The cane was from Neill’s house and Neill was one of the colonials in the background. Watt said, “It was late afternoon, the last of the sun was coming onto the tennis court. Afterwards we all would have gone to the Eastbourne Tavern or to Eastbourne’s only restaurant, owned by a mad Hungarian. Or gone to Sam’s house … It was a fun time. A lot of fun.”

Neill writes of that fun time with nostalgia and affection in a blissful our-house-is-a-very-very-very-nice-house way. There’s a similarly woozy feel in an amazing chapter about his decision to live in a remote village in Bali in 1979. He just hung out, wore a sarong, ate goat satay, in a two-month idyll. It’s really interesting. When he travelled back to civilisation, it was to fame and Hollywood and all the rest of his life as a Kiwi icon. Not much of it is very interesting to read about. On acting: “I’m not sure how much thought I’ve given it, really, over the years.” But acting is physical as much as it’s mental. In that same lackadaisical chapter he does that thing again, of illustrating someone or something in just a few insightful strokes, and writes, “I sometimes ask people if there’s something particular that they bring to every role that would be universal to their career. Meryl Streep had an interesting answer. She claimed that she made a point of tripping at some stage in a film. I told her that I like to make sure that I do a 360-degree turn … We were talking about these little things on the Jurassic World Dominion set one day. Chris Pratt sat up and said that every time he leaves by a door he looks back into the room. I must always remember that when confronted by a door in the future. It’s a simple thing that conveys a tremendous amount.”  

And then the book returns to its vacuums of anecdotage and self-deprecation. His opinions read like Letters to the Editor. Muldoon was bad. So are Trump, semiautomatic weapons, and Disneyland. After saying it gives him pleasure that Māori and Māori culture are central to the New Zealand identity, he harrumphs, “I loathe the idea of ‘race’. Culture is one thing and culture is everything. But ‘race’ to me is just a notion, and a pretty crap notion at that.” What?

A smugness creeps in and takes hold. He plays ukulele with Jeff Goldblum. “Jimmy Barnes calls me every couple of days to see how things are.” He obscures any true sense of his character with story and blather and charm. But some kind of essence of Sam Neill, that discreet presence somewhere in the background, is captured in his writings set in Eastbourne and the village of Peliatan. Someone gentle and with a deep curiosity, but also remote, an outsider, a hippie in the actual sense – in search of peace, a place to rest, the death of the ego. He writes that he recently returned on a family holiday to Ubud, in Bali, and took an afternoon off to try to find Peliatan. He found it. He also found a man who had been head of the household where he lived all those years ago, who had taught Neill about Balinese culture, “and was happy to indulge my endless curiosity”. Overjoyed, he tells the man how much his time in Peliatan had meant to him. The man said he had no memory of ever meeting him.

Did I Ever Tell You This? by Sam Neill (Text, $55) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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