Sam Neill might be the face of Jurassic Park, but he’s not particularly obsessed with it. Speaking to the actor on the occasion of the latest film, Jurassic World Dominion, he reveals that he’s only seen the original film maybe four times, all of which were when it came out in 1993. In fact, he was walking around a mall recently and couldn’t quite place the oddly familiar music he heard playing over the speakers. That music was John Williams’ theme to Jurassic Park.
In 1993, Neill first appeared on screen as paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant. Grant was summoned by park owner John Hammond in order to get Grant’s expert seal of approval on the park. However, in the end, that expertise was better suited to keeping many characters alive. He returned again in 2001’s Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston, and now, over 20 years after that film, he’s back.
Neill appears along with original co-stars Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in this month’s Jurassic World Dominion, the sixth and “final” film of the “Jurassic Era,” according to the marketing. For the first time ever, all of the stars of the original franchise and the new franchise meet up, something fans have been craving since the release of the 2015 hit Jurassic World.
Speaking with Gizmodo over video chat, Neill talked about his trepidations in returning to the franchise, what has kept it relevant all these years, his recollections of the troubled third film, and why people love Alan Grant, as well as that famous seatbelt theory.
Germain Lussier, Gizmodo: So you’ve been in three Jurassic Park films over three different decades with three different directors. How has your perception of Alan Grant changed in that time and what did you learn about him from each of those experiences?
Sam Neill: I don’t think he’s changed at all. He’s just older and grumpier now. But I don’t think people do change very much over the years, and I’m just more familiar with him now than I was. And I enjoyed being back in his company. It’s interesting. You don’t get many chances to play one character over 30 years. That’s pretty strange, isn’t it? But I think it’s true for all three of those legacy characters, [myself], Laura, and Jeff. Jeff’s character is still really annoying and won’t shut up, and Alan finds him infuriating. He’s still hopelessly in love with Ellie. So things haven’t changed that much. They’re just older and not much wiser.
Gizmodo: Now, I assume when you signed on to make the original film in early 1990, you obviously thought that it was going to be good. Steven Spielberg directing. Big effects film. But did you or anyone making it ever think it could endure as it has?
Neill: No, not at all. I mean, Steven was going on to make Schindler’s List, which, of course, is a masterpiece. But that was a serious film with serious purpose. We were making popular culture. But isn’t it strange how sometimes things that are made for popular consumption persist? You know, if you think, going back to my day, progressive rock — prog rock — took itself very seriously for a while. No one remembers it anymore. And that was made with serious intent. Whereas I don’t know, a song like “Be My Baby,” it can never perish. And there’s something about that first Jurassic, it popped it because it broke new ground and people went into the cinema and went, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’ I don’t know. It was just something that sort of hit a chord at the time and it’s become curiously ageless. I’m not sure if I can completely explain why that is.
Gizmodo: I think you just did. Now, in preparation for this one, I’m rewatching all the films and while I didn’t really have a strong memory of the third one, when I rewatched it, I found it rather fun. In researching it, I read there were a lot of changes happening during that production. So what are your recollections of Jurassic Park III and how confident were you in that film when it came out?
Neill: I enjoyed making it. Joe Johnston was wonderful to work with. Alessandro [Nivola], who plays my number two in the film, he and I got on real well. Bill Macy and Téa Leoni didn’t seem that happy making it, but I had a really good time making it and I actually think it’s a very undervalued film and really worth having a look at again. It finishes rather abruptly, but for all its difficulties — because it became inevitable that we would start shooting on the first of November or whatever it was, and they kept changing the script — we were flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time. But for all that I think it works real good and that there’s some really good stuff in it.
Gizmodo: I completely agree. Now, one of the films you’re obviously not in is the 2015 film that kind of relaunched the franchise. And what I like about that film is it’s Jon Hammond’s dream finally comes true. The park finally exists. How do you think Alan Grant felt about that? And did that come at all in your performance with this film?
Neill: I think Alan Grant would have thoroughly disapproved [laughs]. And, you know, every prediction that he ever would have made came true in that. But he couldn’t have quite foreseen a woman bitten in half by a sea creature and an air creature because she’s on the cell phone a little too much. But no, I think his attitude to Pratt’s character [in Dominion] is ambivalent at best because Pratt has worked at this place and furthermore has actually trained dinosaurs, which Alan Grant would also think wasn’t really such a great idea. But, you know, given his empathy with dinosaurs, they do have quite, quite a bit in common. We didn’t probably quite make enough of that. But I think it’s an interesting dynamic.
Gizmodo: Yeah, no, absolutely. Now, do you remember how you first heard about this film? Who called you? Who mentioned it to you? And were you automatically in? Did you have to be convinced?
Neill: Oh, no, I wasn’t automatically. I was getting rumours from my agent that Universal was talking about this, and they wanted me and Jeff and Laura to be in it, but I didn’t really want to be in something where I’d just be playing a cameo. That was not really interesting to me. But I went to Sitges to a film festival there and I met [co-writer and director] Colin Trevorrow there. He took me out to lunch. We had a long lunch, quite a lot of paella and a bottle or two of [indistinguishable] and yeah, and I was well persuaded by the end of that. So that was about October before we started shooting. We were supposed to start in February, I think. It ended up being more like May, June, of the next year, 2020. So it’s been quite a long time in gestation when you think about it.
Gizmodo: So what in that conversation kind of really sold you? Was it Colin? A story beat in particular? Was it getting the band back together? Was there anything in particular that stood out that really kind of put you in?
Neill: Well, mostly his great and abiding affection for those characters and how he wanted them to be completely integrated into the Jurassic World world. And so that persuaded me. And also the idea of hanging out with Jeff and Laura again which, of course, is an attractive one in itself.
Gizmodo: Obviously. Now the first Jurassic Park drastically changed visual effects, and, well, filmmaking as we know it. But that’s only gotten better every single year since then. So, production-wise, what was the biggest difference between this film and the previous two that you did?
Neill: Actually, curiously enough, not a lot. I mean, we have big animatronic dinosaurs on all these films and it is way better to act with something that munches you and is scary and is three-dimensional rather than being against a green screen and looking at a stick with a tennis ball on it. And yeah, this was very carefully constructed. The whole of Biosyn was built. We had something like 120 different sets. It was filmed between three countries: Canada, Malta, and Britain. They went to a lot of trouble with this and I think it pays off. It doesn’t have that sort of slightly unearthly feel that a green screen computer-generated film has. It’s real and tactile. And that makes a difference.
Gizmodo: Oh, absolutely. Now, in this movie Grant spends a good amount of time with Ellie and then some time with the big group of both casts. How does how did the shoot change when you were shooting those group scenes? Was there different energy on set when both casts come together?
Neill: To be honest, we don’t come together a lot. It’s really towards the end of the film that these crowds are united. But I was very pleased to be alongside that other lot. Bryce and Chris and so on. I mean, it’s their franchise, not ours. And they were very welcoming and warm and curiously respectful [laugh]. I don’t think it was necessary, but they kept saying, ‘It’s such an honour to be with you’ which took me completely by surprise. I don’t know why they’d say that.
Gizmodo: That’s really nice. I think I understand. I saw the first film on opening day when it came out in 1993. And to this day, when I watch it, when the helicopter comes into the island, I weep. With you being in the movie, can you still have that kind of emotional experience or is there a detachment there?
Neill: Well, I’ve probably only seen the film two or three, maybe four times, and that would have been in 1993. So it’s not something… [laughs]. Matter of fact, I was walking through a shopping centre the other day, a big shopping mall, and there was this music playing. And I thought “That’s kind of familiar music.” And the person I was with said “Do you recognise this music?” I said, “It seems familiar.” And they said, “You’re so silly, this is the theme for Jurassic Park, for goodness sake.” Oh, yeah, you’re right. You’re right.
Gizmodo: That’s amazing. There you go. Now, this is so nerdy, I don’t even know if you’ll remember it. But in the first film, the scene when the helicopter goes down, Grant can’t find the buckle, so he takes the two female ends and ties them together. It wasn’t until the internet that people realised that foreshadows what happens in the rest of the movie, where life finds a way where females can kind of come together to make something new. Was that actually intended? And if so, do you remember Spielberg saying anything about that?
Neill: I don’t think it had any great metaphorical sense [laughs]. No, I don’t think it was meant that way. It was just about Alan Grant hates technology. He hates computers. He hates anything to do with the modern world and the seatbelt, which you’d think it’d be relatively straightforward. But I’ve been on helicopters going, ‘Where the hell is the other bit of this?’ [Pause] That’s interesting. This is the sort of thing that happens on the Internet. “There’s two female parts.” That’s hilarious.
Gizmodo: Yeah. Because the female dinosaurs end up being able to breed later in the movie.
Neill: But also I never quite understood that this is the female end and that’s the male end, you know? It’s sort of a plumbing thing, isn’t it?
Neill: Why do pipes and things have to be given sexes? [Laughs].
Gizmodo: You’re absolutely right. It’s not the most PC way to say it, but, you know, the easiest way to do it. I’m running out of time here and I could talk to you all day. But stepping back, as you said, you’ve played this character for almost 30 years. What is it about Alan Grant that has made people fall in love with him over the years?
Sam Neill: Well, that is a question that I, of all people, would never be able to answer. You’d have to ask someone else. I don’t see anything particularly loveable about Alan Grant. I like him because I sort of empathise with his… he has no idea what to do with children, ends up having to look after children, is always a little bit out of his depth with seatbelts as well as he is with children. He’s not an action hero. He’s never been an action hero. He’s just an ordinary guy who has to… he’s got a hat. But that doesn’t make you an action hero. He’s just an ordinary guy who’s trying to survive, really. And maybe that’s what people like. That they don’t see him as being the gung-ho guy, he’s just one of us.
Sam Neill returns as Alan Grant in Jurassic World Dominion, out June 10.
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