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Sam Neill in ''Jurassic Park''

Sam Neill in ”Jurassic Park” — The New Zealand actor plays the leading paleontologist in Spielberg’s film

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Sam Neill may spend most of Jurassic Park shifting from wide-eyed wonder to wide-eyed terror as paleontologist Alan Grant, but privately the New Zealander with newfound star status considers Jurassic a terrific comedy. ”The death of the lawyer is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on film,” he says, collapsing with laughter. ”Another is when an arm lands on Laura Dern’s shoulder and she thinks to her relief it’s Sam Jackson, but, of course, the arm is dismembered. It’s absolutely a riot! I’m a sucker for it.”

Neill, 45, used to be known for his sensitive portrayals of sensitive guys — the thinking-woman’s sex symbol. In 1979’s My Brilliant Career, he was the well-mannered rancher who romanced Judy Davis. In 1991’s Until the End of the World, he was the doggedly loyal husband to wandering wife Solveig Dommartin. But America apparently doesn’t know all sides of Sam Neill yet.

”I think I’m about to do some things that will surprise even myself,” he says. Whether Neill means larger Hollywood-scale heroics to please the Spielbergian boy within or yet more intensely precise portraits of the male psyche, he isn’t saying. For the moment he’s content to circle the globe — Cannes, Tokyo, Los Angeles, London — promoting the two landmark films of his bifurcated career: Jurassic Park and The Piano. The latter is fellow New Zealander Jane Campion’s gothic romance, already a Palme d’Or-winning hit at the Cannes Film Festival and sure to be an Oscar contender once it opens stateside in November. ”It’s a good double act to have,” he smiles, ”this commercial success and this critical success.”

For the past 15 years, the Sydney-based actor has created characters who are simultaneously heroic and ordinary, decent and venal. His résumé ranges from the very small (Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs, his 1977 debut) to the very commercial (John McTiernan’s 1990 all-male ensemble, The Hunt for Red October — ”I mainly remember standing next to Sean Connery and saying, ‘Aye, aye, sir”’). And when he’s not saving kids from the jaws of T. rex, he’s a husband-struggling along with wife Anjelica Huston to raise an autistic child (in this year’s ABC miniseries Family Pictures), or trying to reach imperiled wife Nicole Kidman (in the 1989 nautical thriller Dead Calm), or defending wife Meryl Streep against a media assault (in 1988’s A Cry in the Dark), or, in The Piano, simmering with sexual rage as his mute frontier wife, Holly Hunter, develops a closer intimacy with rough-hewn neighbor Harvey Keitel than he can ever hope for.

All this time he has balanced the Australian and American film worlds quite well, but now he and his wife of four years, Noriko Watanabe, are weighing a move to L.A. with their three children. It would be the second time Neill has left the antipodes for the sake of his career. When he was in his early 30s and working on the Sydney stage, James Mason called him up one day. ”It was just after My Brilliant Career,” recalls Neill, who perfectly mimics Mason’s patrician drawl: ”’I like what you do,’ he said. ‘I’m sending you a plane ticket. You can stay with me and my wife and work over in this part of the world.”’ Neill lived in London for the next seven years, had a son with actress Lisa Harrow (The Last Days of Chez Nous), and starred on TV in the seductive British series Reilly: Ace of Spies, among other things. ”James gave me confidence in my own work,” he says. ”He brought a sense of complexity to parts. He was prepared to show the darker sides of light characters and vice versa.”

Already Neill’s Jurassic fame makes it hard for him to walk down the street undisturbed. But the actor says all he wants are good roles: ”The career can take care of itself.” And while he admits to being ”slightly peeved” that many Jurassic reviews praised the dinosaurs at the expense of the actors — ”We’re not talking about slouches here” — the roles are definitely changing in the post-Jurassic universe. ”There’s been a distinct improvement in the quality of scripts coming through my letter box,” he says, delighted to have landed a guest spot on The Simpsons next season. ”I’m playing a cat burglar,” he enthuses. ”I’ve made it. This is the high point of my career. I’m really chuffed!”

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