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Sam Neill Q&A: “Happiness is the feeling you get when you get something done”

The New Zealand actor on global politics, his earliest memory, and life on his farm.

Sam Neill was born in 1947 in Omagh in Northern Ireland, and moved with his parents to New Zealand when he was seven. He made his acting debut in the 1977 New Zealand film “Sleeping Dogs”. Since then, he has starred in major Hollywood films, including “Jurassic Park”, as well as British TV shows such as “Peaky Blinders” and the BBC miniseries “And Then There Were None”.

What’s your earliest memory?

My earliest memory is serious whooping cough aged two or three in a little room in the upper floor of a little house on the rocks off the coast in County Durham.

Who were your heroes?

My older brother. He persists in that role to this day. He’s an academic. He’s always taught English. His sidebar interests are in Jacobean literature and contemporary African literature. He was always interested in drama and music, which eventually became my interests as well.

What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

I just put down Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. It’s a remarkable read. I haven’t read a single line there that I think would be fictitious. It’s a book for our time.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?

I’m very encouraged by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She is fierce and compassionate. What she is not, and what we’ve had for far too long in New Zealand politics, as well as politics everywhere, is male, pale and stale. The world has been run far too long by dull white men of a certain age.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

I know a little about a lot of things. I’m like a plank of wood, I’m rather thick.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

The Victorians get a bad rep. Prudish, people say. I don’t know how they bred so well, if they’re so prim and proper. They had inquisitive minds. They were inventing types of science!

What TV show could you not live without?

I’m a bit of a political junkie. Though in many ways it can be deeply depressing, current politics is as good an entertainment as we can wish for. In Australia, it is an ongoing soap opera. In America, the problem is that there it matters so much. And Brexit is so compelling to read about and follow.

Who would paint your portrait?

Could you ask David Hockney if he’d like to volunteer?

What’s your theme tune?

Anything with a ukulele. I enjoy a tune by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra called the “The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas”. If you want a cheer up, I recommend that.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I actually read it the other day. One sentence that really struck me: Happiness is the feeling you get when you get something done. It could be any number of things. Happiness is getting the dishes not just washed, but dried and got away. I do know when I have five things not done, my mind is in a state of disarray. It’s a pretty simple formula. And it works.

What’s currently bugging you?

I’m addicted to Twitter, but I’m not sure if it’s healthy or a good thing.

What single thing would make your life better?

If the world was run by more sensible people. People with more brain and know-how.

When were you happiest?

I think, probably, a couple of a days ago. I had achieved a couple of jobs around the farm. I felt pretty good about that. I shepherded the sheep by myself. I have an electric bike. I hung a couple of pictures and they look good.

In another life, what job would you have chosen?

I didn’t really choose my job. I wouldn’t choose my job. I’d just wait until one turns up. I think an architect: I enjoy mid twentieth century modernist architecture.

Are we all doomed?

I certainly hope not. Hopefully those with fingers on triggers are surrounded by sensible people.

Sam Neill’s latest film, “Sweet Country”, is out now in UK cinemas.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game