Sam Neill talks Captain Cook adventure
We caught up with Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, The Piano) to discuss his upcoming show on BLAZE (channel 162), Captain Cook’s Pacific with Sam Neill, and he had plenty of interesting stories to tell about his epic adventures ️⛵️.
The actor dedicated a year away from his acting career to film the seafaring documentary where he travelled across the Pacific to Australia, New Zealand and Polynesian islands with plenty of rich culture and history that he wanted to immerse himself in first-hand. Below he speaks about his reasons for going on the voyage and how important it was for him, being a New Zealander, to be part of this expedition.
What was the most exciting place you visited on your voyage and why?
SAM: Well I’ve always wanted to go to the Aleutian Islands, and Cook landed on this particular island when he was trying to find the northwest passage, so that was really exciting to go there, and one of the bleakest places I've ever been to on the planet. It's amazing to go to places where there are no people; extraordinary. It was a real privilege making this documentary, it took a year off and on – at sea, on land, in the air, chugging around the Pacific and talking to all sorts of people, meeting all kinds of lovely characters, so it was a real privilege for me and an enormous pleasure. I came away very gratified, and also very humbled. I think the cultures are utterly fascinating – it was a great time.
Having grown up as a New Zealand native from a very young age, how important was it to you to lead this epic exploration of the Pacific?
SAM: My great grandfather arrived rather like Cook did in 1860, and it must’ve been a bit like going to the moon, because people didn’t expect to ever go home again. That sea voyage that we made to New Zealand has left a lasting impression on me. I was travelling in a similar way to Cook, although it was a little bit different because we felt we were returning to New Zealand. My father was in the British Army but he was a New Zealander, so it was more of a return than immigration if you like.
What resonated with you most during your travels?
SAM: It’s all about the people really, I’m really interested in Cook, and there are people who have strong feelings against Cook. With Cook, it’s not just what he did but what he represents, and I understand that fully, but I also have a great deal of admiration for Cook, and I think being an explorer in the Pacific in 1769 would have been about the most exciting thing you could do on the planet. I completely understand how people view him differently in different parts of the world. The first thing to understand is that Cook didn’t discover anything, and that’s what we were taught at school. If you rock up to a place and there are already people on the beach then clearly someone has discovered it before you. The people that did discover these places, the Polynesian people in particular, these extraordinary explorers who navigated and discovered a third of the planet in effect, that Polynesian achievement is probably what resonated with me the most.
We asked Sam about one of Freesat’s extended family members, Tungia Baker, who acted alongside him in The Piano
SAM: I just adored her, you know, she was just a wonderful woman. She told me a story in the course ofthis and it really struck me and I kept thinking about it while we were making the series. She said she went to Tahiti, and they were approaching an island on a canoe, and they started singing in their canoe Waiata (“song” in Maori) and the people on the beach that they’d never met before started responding. She said the hairs went up on the back of her neck. They were meeting Tahitians, and these people [Maoris and Tahitians] had been separated by something like 800 years, and they were singing that song together, and [Tungia] said that was the most moving thing that ever happened to her. I kept thinking about her, actually, when we were in Tahiti for this documentary.
What was the most interesting fact you discovered about Cook?
SAM: What puzzles me about Cook is actually Mrs. Cook, who, poor thing, hardly ever saw her husband, and had a number of children, none of whom survived her. She’s a real puzzle, his diaries don’t exist because she probably burned them, and he kept wanting to leave! As soon as he got back to England, he’d put his hand up and say ‘We really need to get back there again’ and ‘there’s so much more to be found’. Mrs. Cook troubles me, because she did have one portrait of him, and that survives and it’s in the museum in Wellington, but I’d like to know more about her, she’s a puzzle.
Is it true you met some people along the way who claim they are descendants of people who actually cooked Cook?
SAM: Yes there are a couple of people who claim that to be true, but apparently there are quite a number of people in Hawaii that make that distinction. There’s no question that part of him was actually Cooked – it's a complicated question because cannibalism, which was quite common in the Pacific, wasn’t really so much about giving added protein as much as a very complex set of beliefs, probably not one we should get into right now! One of the things that was often common was that you were absorbing the mana (Maori for “power”) of the person that you were consuming. I’m not entirely clear what the motives were of those people, but a lot of Cook’s body was actually reclaimed in the following days. It’s a sad and sorry business on all sides, and I found it very distressing to be at that place. I personally can’t really celebrate the murder of anyone, whatever your feelings about that person are, but it happened, and it was certainly worth examining.
You took a year off from acting to make this seafaring documentary. Can you share what that was like and what you learned personally?
SAM: It was a full year out with no acting, no great loss really (laughs). It was great to take a year off acting actually, but I’ve always been interested in documentary, and I’ve made a number of them in the past but this was six hours, and we would go away for two or three weeks at a time and then we’d come home again and then go somewhere new, and every time it was completely thrilling to get away.
You own a vineyard, Two Paddocks in Gibbston. How does your Pinot Noir compare to the Marlborough Sounds?
SAM: I have four little vineyards in Central Otago, when it comes to wine I always think comparisons are odious! Central Otago Pinos are very distinctive, and I like to think mine are absolutely unique.
Do you have any other upcoming projects in the pipeline we can look forward to?
SAM: Hopefully I'll be in England in a matter of weeks, and we’re getting back into the new Jurassic World film!
Watch Captain Cook’s Pacific with Sam Neill on Blaze on Freesat Channel 162 every Monday at 8.30pm. Don’t forget to sign up to our newsletter so you never miss the latest telly scoops.