TV & Radio

‘There’s as much misogyny in a courtroom as anywhere else in society’: Sam Neill on new legal drama The Twelve and the ‘appalling’ treatment of Jacinda Ardern

Michael Fassbender is such an idiot,” sighs Sam Neill. “Honestly, he’s soooo slow. I’ve got these demon pullets [young hens] at the moment and they just rip the food right out of his mouth. Poor Michael Fassbender, he just stands there…”

To be clear, Neill isn’t talking about the actor with whom he shared a screen way back in 2007. No. It amuses him to name the animals on his farm and vineyard after his co-stars. Living on the 12-acre spread in New Zealand’s Central Otago region, he has a “lovely” cow called Helena Bonham Carter (with whom he acted in Sweet Revenge, 1998), a retired ram called Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, 1993) and a pig called Anjelica Huston (Family Picture, 1993). Michael Fassbender is his dozy cockerel. The German-Irish actor, who starred with Neill in Francois Ozon’s historical romance Angel, is the only celebrity reported to have taken offence, which makes hearing Neill bemoan the bird’s stupidity even funnier.

Speaking via videolink from Sydney (where he’s recording the audiobook of his autobiography, which will be published in March) Neill is such a delightfully digressive and dryly humorous conversationalist that I could listen to him shoot the (chicken) s*** all day. But we’re meant to be talking about the compelling new crime drama, The Twelve, in which he plays a shark-eyed barrister defending a controversial artist on trial for the murder of her teenage niece. It’s a story that extends multiple narrative tentacles beyond the courtroom into the lives of the jury members. Unlike Sidney Lumet’s classic jury drama 12 Angry Men, which was all shot in one room, we follow these diverse characters into their very different homes to see which of them will break the rules and google the case. In an era of social media-induced snap judgement and binary thinking, it’s a show that asks viewers to dig into the complicated jigsaw of experiences that forms our prejudices.

“It made me think about what an enormous responsibility jury service is, and how it affects the lives of the jurors,” mulls Neill. “I asked myself, if I were called up, would I try to get out of it? Say I’m too busy, too important? Or would my sense of social responsibility compel me to do it? Would I go, ‘I suppose someone’s gotta do it and it might as well be me.’ But you’d have to think: who am I to judge?”

At 75, with more than 70 films to his credit, Neill is “slightly surprised” that this is the first time he’s played a lawyer. Donning the wig and gown (“as an actor, there’s great scope for drama with a gown!”), he felt a slight pang of guilt over a road untravelled. He explains that, as a teenager, he was buttonholed by a famous barrister and told: “There’s only one career for you, my boy, and that’s at the bar!” Neill took the man’s advice because “making a career on the screen was far removed from my imagination at that time. There was almost no television being made in New Zealand. I made my first feature film [Sleeping Dogs] in 1977, before which no one had made a film in New Zealand for 18 years or something. The law seemed a “slightly more realistic option”. Neill was a childhood stammerer, who found speech unlocked when he was acting. The “performative” nature of legal advocacy appealed.

So Neill spent “a disastrous year” studying law at university. “I failed everything,” he admits. “Probably because I didn’t go to the lectures. I was too busy acting in plays, chasing girls… skills which turned out to be more useful to me in the long run!”

On screen, though, Neill’s intelligent gaze always seems to be interrogating the fictional worlds in which he finds himself. Working things out, like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. This allows him to ground absurd situations in convincing humanity, or to unsettle us by prying apart the smooth walls of reality. “You mean: I’ve been asked to play my share of crazies?” he chuckles. “Oh yes.”

If you want to see Neill “dial it up to 11”, look no further than his feverish turn as a cuckolded husband in Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 surreal divorce drama Possession. Initially labelled a “video nasty” in the UK because of the horrifying physical and psychological cruelty of the scenes between Neill and his on-screen wife Isabelle Adjani, the film is finally available to stream for the first time in years on Shudder, leading modern critics to hail it as “Marriage Story by way of HP Lovecraft”. But just the mention of it causes Neill to suck in a deep breath. “That was a very very… yeah. Eugh. It was a crazy motherf***ing surreal time, we were in Berlin in the height of the Cold War. It was bizarre.” Looking back he thinks Zulawski was “a genius, but crazed. He asked so much more of you than you could possibly give. He asked much more than a director should.”

With a slow shake of his head, Neill recalls Zulawski insisting that he *actually* slap Adjani across the face. “I said: ‘Look, Andrzej, I have to say no. I can’t do that. You can’t ask me to do that. I have never raised a hand to another human being and I have to say no. Please don’t ask me to. I’m not going to do it.’ Then Adjani came up to me. She said: ‘Sam you have to do this. You must.’ I said: ‘Please, Isabel do not ask me’. She said: ‘You must do it.’ So I had to do it. I have to say it was the most distressing thing I’ve ever had to do on film. And there were casualties. Isabelle famously had a breakdown at the end of it.”

Interviewed in 2016, Adjani said: “Possession is only the type of film you can do when you are young. [Zulawski] is a director that makes you sink into his world of darkness and his demons. It is okay when you are young, because you are excited to go there. His movies are very special, but they totally focus on women, as if they are lilies. It was quite an amazing film to do, but I got bruised, inside out. It was exciting to do. I don’t think any other actress ever did two films with him.”

Critics tend to argue that Possession is either misogynistic, or about misogyny. I’d argue it’s both. More than 40 years on, The Twelve finds Neill’s character still operating in a sexist culture. As his client prepares to stand in the dock, she begins to apply her usual, dark red shade of lipstick and he offers her a softer, paler, more “innocent” shade.

“That’s troubling, isn’t it,” nods Neill. “Women are judged differently. There’s as much misogyny in a courtroom as there is anywhere else in society. As we know, it’s everywhere and that’s been put into focus very sharply here in New Zealand this year.” He’s referring to the resignation of his country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. “She says it’s nothing to do with the abuse and misogyny she’s had to put up with. But I’m sure it was. She was treated absolutely appallingly. In a way that wouldn’t have happened if she were male. It’s sad. Sad but true.” 

Although Neill dedicated his lockdown to sparking joy on social media (making funny videos with his pigs and his A-list pals, playing the ukulele) he still says he gets sent the “most terrible shit” in response. He blames: “These people in their soiled underwear in their basements. Anonymity brings out the worst in people. Abuse is so normalised online and it’s so much worse if you’re female. Horrible.”

Shoulders sagging under the injustice of it, Neill suddenly looks his age for the first time in our call. “I get grumpier as I get older,” he says, “like my dad, regrettably. He used to say, ‘What is this rubbish?’ when I was playing the Beatles. Well. I was listening to some K-Pop this morning and thinking: ‘This is just terrible!’ Just Awful! You see them do what they do and it’s kind of extraordinary but it leaves me completely cold. I’m sorry, girls!”

But – although he is “very content” on his farm – Neill has no plans to quit acting. “The idea of giving up my day job?” he baulks. “Intolerable! I love acting. It’s really good for me to keep walking onto new sets with young actors and all that stimulation. New words, new ideas, there’s nothing like it. I never want to give that up. The idea of retirement, of having to play golf, fills me with untold dread.”

The idea of retirement, of having to play golf, fills me with untold dread

Sam Neill

That said, he admits that recording the audiobook has “shredded” his voice. He’s looking forward to going back to the farm where it turns out Michael Fassbender (the cockerel) has been busier than appearances suggest. Neill got a text that morning to say one of his hens has just produced seven chicks. It makes sense of an issue that had been troubling Neill. “It’s my job to let the chickens out in the morning and shut them up at night. But this chicken just wouldn’t go to bed and she drove me absolutely crazy. I told her, ‘You can’t be out there in the trees! I need to put you to bed so you’re safe! So the stoats and the weasels won’t get you!’ Now I realise she was out there sitting on those eggs!”

Since he’s named so many creatures after his colleagues I wonder if any of them have returned the favour. But he laments there are no non-human Sam Neills out there. So I tell him I’m going to add a few more hens to my own flock in the spring. Would he like me to name one after him? “Yes!” he enthuses. “That would be nice, thank you.” What breed would he like me to get? There’s a long pause. Then. “An Orpington. A Buff Orpington.”

‘The Twelve’ is released in full on ITVX on Thursday 16 February

Man of the law: Sam Neill in new legal drama ‘The Twelve’

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