For Sam Neill, working creates mental health. “I have had a few periods of my life where I’m not working and I feel that darkness close in,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in late 2019. “What are you between jobs? And if you think of yourself as an actor, and you’re not actually acting, you’re kind of no one.”
With the pandemic, that struggle took on a global scale when Universal shut down “Jurassic World: Dominion” a few weeks into production. Neill returned to his New Zealand vineyard, Two Paddocks, which sounds like a bucolic retreat — but sent the actor into a panic. “Right now, I’m in a terrible limbo,” he told a journalist. “My life in acting was always a counterbalance to my life on the farm. One was the palliative to the other.”
Around that time, he started playing the ukulele for Instagram.
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“Haven’t picked up a uke in years,” he told the camera, a sheepish grin on his face. “I thought of a song that might cheer me up, might cheer you up.” He proceeded with a sweet rendition of Randy Newman’s “Dayton, Ohio – 1903.” His tousled hair and the gentle timbre of his voice lent the impression of a fragile soul grasping for respite from his small corner of the world.
It worked. The post received hundreds of appreciative comments. Industry peers told him to stop, that he risked overexposure; Neill ignored them. He loaded his Instagram page with performances, poems, and snippets of life on the farm. Then he began posting playful short films to YouTube that he wrote and performed in with acting friends from other locations, sometimes editing the scenes together as if they were in the same room.
On Instagram, his smiling face became a doomscrolling antidote. The short films took his ambition even further. Dubbed “Cinema Quarantino” and posted to the Two Paddocks YouTube page, the videos merge a playful home video aesthetic with Neill’s unique screen presence. His first film is a surreal bit with Hugo Weaving and a rubber duckie, cut together to make it look like the “Matrix” actor suddenly appeared in Neill’s bathtub; in another, he goes on an ill-advised adventure to score weed with Oscar Kightley. In “Das Fone Hell,” he returns home from shopping to find Helena Bonham Carter, as his iPhone, haranguing him for leaving her behind.
In the best “Cinema Quarantino” installment to date, “Das Farmless,” Neill plays a wandering soul who happens upon a farmland cult run by actors Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown. In the space of two-and-a-half minutes, his script goes from a deadpan sex romp to an oddball comic thriller, and culminates with the actor transforming into a cat. Neill stabs at his own real-life predicament when he tells Ward, “I’m a performing artist,” and she snarks, “One of them non-essentials.”
In a recent interview, Neill said the shorts and social media posts became a kind of advocacy. “The idea was that there’d be no quality involved, but they’d make you laugh and cheer you up,” he told IndieWire over Zoom. “This is all all about keeping myself — and each other — lively and involved, doing something either useless or useful, depending on what you think of the result.”
Looking back on the experience, Neill was beaming in front of a window that looked on to a yawning green pasture. His dog, Chuff (a regular of Neill’s feeds), wandered in and out of the frame. A few hours earlier, Neill had posted another video to Instagram. “I was dancing with the cows this morning!” he said, chuckling over his bovine-inflected rendition of “Moon River” that he belted out while standing next to one of his bulls in a field. “The problem with lockdown is that it’s not only anxiety-inducing. It’s also very boring.”
Neill has roamed farm country in movies and searched for meaning in the wilderness for nearly 50 years. The backdrop followed him from his early days in New Zealand all the way through blockbusters like “Jurassic Park” and Taika Watiti’s 2016 “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” In his first leading role, the absorbing 1977 political thriller “Sleeping Dogs,” he tore through the forest as a man on the lam from dystopian government forces. It was New Zealand’s first feature-length production in decades.
“There wasn’t any industry there at all,” Neill said. “So the idea of having a career as an actor on a screen was absurd, unthinkable. It still strikes me as a small miracle of sorts.”
Even as his career took off in the early ’80s, Neill felt so out of sync with Hollywood that he felt inclined to plant his headquarters off the grid. “I realized very early on that much as I like working in the States, I didn’t want to live there or bring up a family there,” he said, recalling the decision to purchase the land that would eventually become his vineyard. (He was joined by “Sleeping Dogs” director Roger Donaldson, who opened an adjacent wine business named after that movie.)
Now, Neill maintains four vineyards in the region, specializing in pinot noir. “That means I have another life,” he said. “I have a rural life and I have a sort of film life as well. They formed a sort of balance for me.” His latest acting credit, “Rams,” addresses both sides of the equation.
Shot before the pandemic but released on VOD in the U.S. earlier this month, “Rams” is a remake of the 2016 Icelandic comedy of the same name. Neill and Michael Caton play estranged Australian siblings forced to find common ground after a disease spreads through their flocks of sheep and threatens their future. The movie looks as if it might have been shot in Neill’s backyard.
“New Zealand was such a rural place when I was young fellow, so a lot of this film is familiar to me,” he said. “I know these sort of people very well, these kind silent, rural guys.” He laughed and gestured toward the window. “In fact, there’s quite a few of them that live around here,” he said.
“Jurassic World: Dominion” rescued him once again when it resumed production over the summer and became the first big-budget studio production to complete its shooting schedule during the pandemic. The movie allowed Neill to reunite with Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern, his co-stars in the original 1993 “Jurassic Park.” That was the selling point for the actor in 2019, when director Colin Trevorrow cornered Neill about the opportunity at the Sitges Film Festival, where Neill received a lifetime achievement prize.
“Colin turned up and was very fulsome and charming about what he wanted to do,” Neill said. “The pitch was how much he valued the legacy cast, which I suppose is how we’re known. That was important to me, that we weren’t going to be sort of the cameo crew. We all had our own storylines.”
Their bond only deepened when “Jurassic World: Dominion” entered an ambitious production schedule in London that found the cast quarantined together for an extensive period. (The shoot allegedly inspired an upcoming Neflix comedy directed by Judd Apatow.) The project yielded more social media magic — including Neill and Goldblum stumbling through covers on a piano — and allowed Neill the final opportunity to escape the solipsism and dread of the last few months.
“We were all there for each other,” he said. “We had a built-in support system experiencing the same highs and lows and anxieties. The fears. The great sense of achievement where you’d get to the end of the week and you’d still be going. It was fun to be like, ‘I really liked that scene. Let’s have a drink!’ It was a special time.”
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Back at Two Paddocks, Neill has been mulling his next moves. “Jurassic World” aside, he’s reticent to pursue large commercial endeavors and rejects any efforts at stunt casting. “Often people send me projects where there’s really good roles for young people and then one old geezer role, because they want to put a name in there,” he said. “It has to be a story I haven’t heard before.”
He was working through Oscar screeners, and irked about what he perceived as dour movies dominating the conversation. “It’s just a little distressing to me that so many of them are depressing,” he said. “I think we all need a bit of cheering up at the moment.” He was considering more quarantine shorts, but there’s also a new crop that needs harvesting.
“I get a fantastic amount of enjoyment out of farming,” he said, “but if that was all I was doing, I’d be pretty bored.” Then again, he added, “I’ve done every kind of movie imaginable.” He laughed again and stared off. “Look, I’m keeping an open mind,” he said. “It does sound like I have a half-hearted commitment to the movies, but I’ve just got other stuff to do as well.”