We’re more used to seeing Sam Neill in acclaimed film and television drama roles than fronting documentary series.
Some of the most recognisable of those dramatic roles include his debut as Alisdair Stewart in The Piano, or his blockbuster turn as Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. Or for those who either weren’t born, or somehow happened to let Spielberg’s dinosaurs slip them by, you may know him as Irish Major Chester Campbell in the BBC’s Peaky Blinders.
But in setting off in the wake of famed British explorer Captain James Cook to mark the 250th anniversary of the first of Cook’s three great voyages, Neill thought 'this would be a great thing to do, if only for a selfish one of I really want to go to these places'.
However, this 'wasn't just a travelogue', Neill was 'on a more complex mission than that'.
In the wake of Captain Cook
In the wake of Captain Cook
I sat down with the actor-turned-winemaker-now-documentarian to discuss the new series Captain Cook’s Pacific with Sam Neill and find out more about why he took a full year out of his acting schedule, sparing no expense in the making of it.
Before each episode, the passionate New Zealander starts with an acknowledgement: he’s not a navigator, sailor or expert. But he is 'vitally interested'.
'I wanted to go into this with a certain amount of humility, and that’s why I do that disclaimer at the beginning. I don’t pretend to be an expert about anything but I am curious and I really needed to know about a lot of these things.'
'For me it’s about drilling down into history and into myself.'
On these three voyages, Cook and his crew would become the first Europeans to set eyes and feet on many Pacific islands, for good and for bad. And the memory lives on today.
Statues of Cook stand proudly in the Pacific as far north as Anchorage in Alaska with another also in Sydney, Australia. Meanwhile, scathing graffiti adorns walls and monuments across Polynesian islands.
Neill is pragmatic about Cook’s legacy, harking back to history classes spent looking at maps coated by the sprawling pink of the British Empire.
'Every New Zealander has gone through some kind of awakening. We see history very differently now in New Zealand than when I was at school.'
As the first big acting export from the Antipodean island nation, Sam Neill is a roving global ambassador for New Zealand, and with his disarming charm, deep interest and surprising knowledge he is perhaps best placed to represent and interrogate the complicated social history of the South Pacific.
While not originally known as a comedy actor, Neill clearly carries the same comedic flare that New Zealand has become famous for, of late. And gladly, while being sensitive to the subject matter, the series allows Neill ample space to play.
There’s also the same affable warmth that Neill radiates on his Twitter, be it with his many farm animals or the human celebrities they’re named after. This can be seen throughout the series, from the wonderfully emotive moment where a personal friend gives him his first tattoo, or when greeting those he meets with a hongi, the traditional Maori greeting.
Visiting the places that Cook landed including Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, Alaska, Vancouver Island and Cook’s final resting place of Hawaii, each episode doesn’t just tell the story of the voyages and encounters from the European explorers’ perspective. This is also the story of those islanders that were already present, their experiences and how the events that unfolded affected their families centuries later.
Neill knew that some of the interviews would be tough, but he wasn’t prepared for the great depth of feeling for Cook, 'That surprised me' he says.
And while the story of Cook is not clear cut the owner of the story today is also not that clear. It’s everyone’s story. We all have a stake in it.
'It affected me deeply. And I say at some point in the series this is a personal voyage for me because a great deal of my family, my grandchildren are Moari. This is my family’s story as well. My family are both colonisers and colonised. Odd isn’t it?'
And finally, what about the news that Neill will be reprising his role as the aforementioned Dr Grant in the as-yet-untitled Jurassic World 3? 'Dr Alan Grant is either in a dementia wing, or he’s dead, or he’s moved on to astrophysics, or he’s just doing what he does best which is digging.'
Well, it seems he’s certainly not dead - the question was asked a couple of weeks before director Colin Trevorrow confirmed Neill would return alongside original cast members Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum - it seems Dr Grant probably is still digging away.
And let’s all hope Sam Neill keeps on finding more stories he’s vitally interested in too.