There's a well-known stage maxim that actors should never work with children or animals. New Zealand actor Sam Neill is probably best known to audiences for his work with animatronic animals in Jurassic Park, but in Taiki Waikiki's indie hit Hunt for the Wilderpeople he breaks both rules, starring alongside 13-year-old Julian Dennison, who plays abandoned child Ricky Baker, and the dogs Tuss and Finn, who play Tupac and Zag respectively.
Neill, however, is utterly dismissive of the theory. “I’m always happy to work with both,” he says. “Julian is such a good kid, funny as hell and we had a great time. I don’t know what the origin of that rather silly phrase is to be honest. People can steal as many scenes as they want from me, I don’t care. It’s an absurdity for insecure actors I guess, and I’m not one of those, thank you.”
Neill's confidence is justified — the actor is possibly New Zealand's most famous celebrity export, having appeared in some of both Hollywood and the Anipodes' biggest hits including The Piano, The Hunt for Red October and, of course, The Jurassic Park series. Now, with The Hunt for The Wilderpeople he finds himself starring in a movie that holds the dual honours of being both the country's highest-grossing domestic movie ever, and holding a 100 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Neill has an idea as to why the film is so successful. “I think it’s a film that isn’t made for kids, but kids love it. It’s not made for any age group, but everyone seems to love it,” he asserts. “It’s firstly the humour, people like to be entertained, but also it has things that are touching and rather sad. People come up to me and say I laughed all the time but I cried five times as well. The odd hankie is always a plus.”
The seasoned actor insists however, that the movie wasn’t made with any determinedly populist agenda. “It wasn’t really made to be a comedy, it just happens to be funny. And it wasn’t made to make people cry, it’s not a sentimental film. I think it’s just a film that has heart and that’s the important thing to its success.”
The movie also subtly references other popular films — First Blood is both visually referenced and namechecked, Neill's character Hec is hard to watch without thinking of Crocodile Dundee, while the closing scene is an unashamed tribute to Thelma and Louise.
This could perhaps have also helped its success with audiences, though Neill claims he didn’t really notice the subtle nods himself.
“I wasn’t particularly aware of it, but I’m sure Taika was because nothing escapes his attention, so I think you’re right, I think he was referencing those things. He’s also referencing some old New Zealand films from the past, some of which I was in as a much younger man, which is quite strange.”
Neill’s young co-star Dennison, meanwhile, could well be on his way to becoming New Zealand’s next big star, and Neill is confident the youngster will handle the pressure. “He must be the most famous kid in New Zealand right now,” he concedes. “He’s very recognisable, which could be a bit of a burden, but I’m sure he’ll finish school and do all the other things kids should do. After that, I’m sure he’ll be snapped up and do whatever he wants to do. He’s an amazingly talented kid.”
Neill’s words are high praise indeed for the young actor — he’s worked with some of the biggest stars around, and although he deftly avoids naming names, Neill admits that this is one of the highlights of his job. “One of the great privileges of the work I do is working with so many marvellous actors. I always say they’re overcelebrated but underrated,” he says. “They tend to be a little bit more famous than they need to be, but at the same time people don’t really take them as seriously as they maybe should. Most actors I know are very intelligent people, thoughtful, funny people and that’s one of the greatest things in my life, working with some of the best actors around, and also some of the best directors. I guess that’s pretty self evident on my CV, and I’m really pleased about it.”
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in cinemas now.