From writer/director Taika Waititi, the funny, charming and heartbreaking Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of defiant city kid named Ricky (Julian Dennison), who gets the opportunity for a fresh start in the New Zealand countryside. But he is not with his new foster family for long before tragedy strikes that threatens to ship Ricky to another home, so both he and the cantankerous Hec (Sam Neill) go on the run in the bush, sparking a national manhunt, as they both learn from and about each other, along the way.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Sam Neill talked about why this project appealed to him, the toughest day on set, his most fun scene, why this unlikely duo of characters forms a kinship, what he looks for in a project, balancing film and TV work, and why he’s taking a bit of a break until September.
Collider: This film has been described as a hybrid of the Disney animated feature Up and Rambo, which seems fitting. When you read this, what was it about the story and character that appealed to you?
SAM NEILL: I wasn’t sure if the character appealed to me, at all. It’s certainly not the sort of character I’ve played before, so I was putting myself out on a limb a bit. But really, what appealed to me is that I’m familiar with [writer/director Taika Waititi’s] stuff. He always makes me laugh, even if it’s dark material, and I think there is dark material that runs through this. There’s a sad core, which is about grief and abandonment and loss, which gives the film dimension. That’s why I always insist it’s not a comedy. I certainly never felt I was in a comedy. I was in something that was much more substantial than a comedy.
Was filming as much of an adventure as the story itself, or was it much easier than it looks like it might have been?
NEILL: Well, we had a very low budget, so we weren’t overwhelmed with creature comforts. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a small film. It’s a modest film on a modest budget, but big budgets don’t necessarily give you big films. I’ve seen a couple of trailers in the last couple of weeks, for some upcoming blockbusters, and I’ve thought, “Oh, my god, they’ve thrown a lot of money at that, and I don’t want to go near it.”
What was the most fun day that you had on set, and what was the most challenging day?
NEILL: There’s a death, early on in the film, and poor old Hec is wrecked with grief. That was a tough day for me, I think. Probably the most fun I had on any given day, and every day was fun, to some degree or another, was when I had a fight with those ridiculous bounty hunters. That was just hilarious. There’s a guy called Cohen Holloway, who’s the main hunter, who screams like a schoolgirl, all the way through it. He was terrified of poor old Hec. If you watch carefully, you’ll see my shoulders heaving with laughter.
There are so many beautiful moments in this, with so much humor and tragedy.
NEILL: That’s part of Taika’s genius. With the funeral scene, it’s the worst day of anyone’s life, and simultaneously, there’s that ridiculous sermon, which is almost word for word from a funeral that Taika went to. That is based on fact.
These two characters – Hec and Ricky – are much more alike than either of them initially realize. Do you think that they each see a bit of themselves in the other, or can at least identify with why the other is the way that he is?
NEILL: Yes. They’re marginalized people. No one wants them. They’re also both anti-authoritarian, and I think that’s one of the things that people really enjoy about the film. They’re both damaged, and that’s part of the poignancy of the film.
It’s such an interesting dynamic because we don’t often get to see the relationship between two characters with such an age difference, who aren’t father and son. They can treat each other a little more honestly than if they were actually related. Was it fun to get to explore that and to have a little bit more freedom in that relationship?
NEILL: Yeah. It was a bit like me and Julian [Dennison], in the sense that it was a curious meeting of minds. They’re both 12-year-olds, in a sense, and I’m a bit of a 12-year-old myself, really. I keep meaning to turn into a grown up, but it’s never really happened.
This film, on the surface, could feel very foreign to American audiences, but when you watch it, the themes and the humanity of it are really very universally relatable. Why do you think this film could be appealing for American audiences?
NEILL: I think its humor and its heart. We all understand the human predicament. There’s nothing sweet about either of this characters, but you do come to be fond of them, and that’s lovely.
At this point in your career, what do you look for in a project and a role? Does it start with the script for you, or is who you’re going to be working with even more important?
NEILL: Of course. And I don’t really read things, unless it comes with an offer. There’s nothing worse than reading something and thinking, “I love this,” and then you find out that Tilda Swinton is playing it already. You never really know who you’re going to be acting with, but that doesn’t really matter. 99% of the actors I’ve worked with, and they number in the thousands, I’ve liked. I like actors. I like their insecurities, their humor and their intelligence. I like being around actors. Imagine not liking actors. Actors are easy to like. They are generally sociable, thoughtful people. On a movie, you do get a lot of time to hang around with people, so it’s just as well, if you do like that. And Julian and I got along really well. He makes me laugh, all day. I could only be grateful for that.
You do a fair amount of TV, where you get to spend more time exploring a character, and films, where you can just go from character to character. Do you have a preference for one over the other, or do you like a balance of the two?
NEILL: On a film, you have to come with a ready made guy, and he’s gotta be there from scene one. For instance, on this BBC job I did, Peaky Blinders, it was a very complex part that I had twelve hours to explore. He was a very, very sad and unpleasant man.
Are you currently working on something now, or do you have any idea what you’re going to be doing next?
NEILL: I’m not going to do anything until September, or something like that.
Did you just want to take a break?
NEILL: Yeah, actually, I had to withdraw from a project because I have some overdue minor surgery that my doctor says we can’t postpone anymore. So, I’m going to get myself readjusted, and I’ll be back at work in September.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is out in theaters on June 24th.