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Sam Neill Awarded Honorary LittD
by New Zealand's University of Canterbury
Article from the University of Canterbury's Chronicle - 24/05/02

Dismantling stereotypes and trying new approaches

Sam Neill
Dr Sam Neill speaking at the graduation ceremony
On the morning of Wednesday, April 17, Associate Professor Howard McNaughton (English) presented actor Sam Neill for his honorary LittD. His speech follows.

"Chancellor, distinguished visitors, friends and colleagues of the University and graduands.

"Today, Canterbury - like most major universities - offers courses in film and screen culture, not just in the department dedicated to that field but extensively throughout the Faculty of Arts. In this, the University is recognising the importance of film not just as an art form but perhaps more importantly as a major force which shapes our cultural identity.

"Sam Neill and I entered this University within a year of each other, at a time when studying film was unthinkable, and the closest we got to studying drama was English I lectures in the Great Hall. Film was something only spoken of in the Students Association cafeteria - now known as the Dux de Lux - and virtually unrepresented in the University library, now recycled as Annie's Wine Bar. Going to a play meant a long journey into inland Canterbury to find that marvel of contemporary theatre architecture, the recently opened Ngaio Marsh Theatre.

"As a student at Canterbury, Sam worked with two remarkable theatre directors, each distinguished in a very different way, and each, we may conjecture, sending him very different messages about what it meant to be an actor. In Dame Ngaio Marsh's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I remember as the best of Ngaio's late productions, Sam encountered a director with a low tolerance of New Zealand English and an approach to performance arts that was strongly influenced by the Old Vic tradition, a style which she understood meticulously and applied astutely. In Mervyn Thompson's Marat/Sade, which was widely seen as the start of a new era for the University Drama Society, Sam found a director who could never be anything other than a wild man from Rununga and who fiercely promoted a regionalist voice in the theatre throughout his career, which also had a substantial impact on the future of New Zealand drama.

"Sam's way of dealing with this conflict of direction was simply by escaping to Wellington, although a lasting influence of these directors may perhaps be traced in the extraordinary versatility which many commentators have noted in his work. The chair of communication studies at a leading university has recently written that 'Neill's inflection reveals the most obvious example of an accent that can travel between Australia and New Zealand without being recognised [anywhere] as 'foreign'.

"Sam's later career is too well known to need detailing by me: The New Zealand Players, the National Film Unit and working with that remarkable director Paul Maunder, who was himself working at the interface between theatre and film.

"From an artistic and professional point of view, Sam's career to date constitutes an outstanding achievement. He has been honoured many times within the world of the arts and it is important that the University should similarly recognise a record of excellence in cultural production and creativity which has the capacity to touch and influence the lives of whole populations. But I want to draw attention to four aspects of his work that make it particularly appropriate that he be recognised in this way today.

"Although he has had a large number of high-profile commercial successes, Sam has also always shown a commitment to innovative, art-house, documentary and educational film. No-one would identify him with any one role, or even one type of role; his career has been a sustained exercise in dismantling stereotypes and constantly engaging with new approaches.

"Although he is a major figure in the international film industry, Sam has never relaxed his commitment to New Zealand and Australian film. Even as I was writing this oration, The Press carried a front page story that Sam was about to start work on a new New Zealand film, to be shot on the Coast, very close to Mervyn Thompson's Rununga.

"In the 1990s, Sam became known as the leading champion of the New Zealand environment on the screen, making the international film industry aware of the infinite photogenic potential of the South Island landscape. The commercial significance of this is obvious to us all, but we should also recognise that giving this kind of heightened visibility to the environment also brings a powerful force of conservation.

"I wish finally to return to the point with which I started, that film is now a major force which shapes our cultural identity. We can go further than that and suggest that an actor's roles may have the same kind of effect, that cultural identity and national myths may be shaped by influential performers. Precisely that has been argued by Dr Tara Brabazon, a prominent academic, who wrote in a book recently published by the University of New South Wales that 'Sam Neill occupies a central role in Australian [and New Zealand] cinema, and in the history of Australasian masculinity. He has moved through the multiple modes and "revivals", from the early "literary" films to a multicultural and feminist-inflected masculinity. . . . His heroes teeter on the edge of the acceptable masculine. . . he challenges the limits of blokedom.'

"Madam, I have the honour to present Nigel John Dermot Neill for the award of the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa)."

"Buggering about" and doing the crossword - Sam Neill

Sam Neill, LittD (honoris causa), gave the graduation speech at the morning ceremony on Wednesday, April 17.

"Well now, that's the thing, that's the catch with graduating . . . everybody gets to hear those other names of yours that no-one ever knew. Although I note that one person here's name was Aroha and of course that's something we could all do with a lot more of. I thought I was going to faint there, I had been sitting for so long, so if you want to get up and stretch you absolutely have my permission. C'mon, you know you want to.

"Should I wear my hat now? I am very pleased with it. I'm not sure if it should be worn like a golfer or sort of Sam Jackson gangster style. Could be a useful thing.

"Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, members of the Council, distinguished guests and graduates. Kia ora. I want to first of all thank Professor McNaughton for those kind words. I was very interested in that quote from the Australian academic. I haven't the slightest idea what she was talking about. But I have a suspicion that it was something kind, which is good. Perhaps we could clear up that masculine business later on . . . I am entirely confused by that.

"In fact, it is odd to hear yourself described in any terms at all. It is a peculiar sensation. I once, years after I left Canterbury, was curious as to why I could never get work on television. I thought it was something I would be all right at and I found myself in Auckland with the master file TV2 had in those days on every actor in New Zealand. I thought, well, I would look myself up, and I did.

"I found my page and there was a photo of myself and underneath it my talents were pithily described. It said: 'Could be all right in homosexual roles.' So you see I realised right then that my future as a actor in New Zealand might be a little limited because there weren't many homosexual roles on television and/or in the theatre in those days. And oddly today, even now Shortland Street is curiously skewed in favour of heterosexual roles. So I had to take my career and talents, such as they are, elsewhere.

"I want to acknowledge and congratulate all you graduates today, and goodness weren't there a lot of you? Yes indeed. I am very pleased to note it's all the arts graduates today. I want you to know that in my book there is no finer accomplishment than a degree in the arts. You know, engineering and science and medicine and all those things, of course they have their uses and we probably need them. But for sheer accomplishment and depth of education, all round usefulness and . . . just . . . panache, there is nothing that comes near a degree in the arts. Of course I include education, and these are all arts degrees. But there are one or two which suspiciously have become specialist, social work for instance. Because the great thing about an arts degree is its generality and I feel privileged to be given an honorary arts degree today in your presence on the same day as yourselves.

"You might ask what is the difference between an honorary degree and your degree? Well, you worked very hard for yours and I did no work at all. At least it didn't feel like work - if what I have done with my life is why I am being honoured today. And if I could wish one thing for all of you, it's that you find that one thing in life that doesn't feel like a grind, it doesn't feel like work but it feels like living and being alive and even having fun, in spite of the sweat and tears and hurdles and so on that you will come across.

"I carry a notebook wherever I go. And if I can give you a bit of advice, carry one of these. I carry it in my pocket. And whenever I have a new thought, an original idea, I just whip out the pocket book and I write it down. I don't have a palm pilot - I disdain the palm pilot because I predate computers - so I have this thing instead. If you were a person who had a lot of original ideas and a lot of new thoughts, it could be an expensive exercise. Imagine if you were Russell Crowe for example our best loved poet you know imagine how many of these things old Russ would go through when he's on a poetry job.

"But I am a bit more economical with these things and I have only got up to page 12 and I have had this book for 11 years. I was just looking in here to see if I had written anything profound which I could pass on to you today on your graduation, because that is traditional, that you talk to graduates and give them a bit of advice - but no, it looks like the page is absolutely blank. But I do have a quote about university. It is a half-remembered quote from the great Flan O'Brien who said something like this. The purpose of a university education is to teach a young man how to say hello in four languages and how to make a break of 45 in billiards even with a bad cue.

"Those are very wise words and a great comfort to me and probably to some of you whose degrees are characterised with the letter C rather than A or A+. I got one B- and I thought I was trying a bit hard, so cut it back and it was all Cs and C- after that. 'Hello' in four languages - I can manage English and French - that's two - I must have missed those other two lectures. Look, I am the first to admit that I was far from conscientious when I was here and I would like to give thanks to all my kind friends who actually went to those lectures and lent me the notes afterwards. Some of you will know what I am talking about.

"But I am profoundly grateful for the time I had here at the University because I actually think there is a lot of wisdom-getting. It was all the things I shouldn't have been doing that actually turned out to be the foundation of my career. It was all those things characterised as 'buggering about' that turned out to be really useful. Doing plays at the Ngaio Marsh Theatre, debating up in the common room, talking all that pretentious nonsense in the café, taking the afternoon off to watch movies down at the Square these are the things that have turned out to be what my life has become.

"Even learning to do The Press crossword. And that has turned out to be absolutely invaluable because what I do in my work is mostly sit around waiting for something to happen and if you can do the Christchurch crossword, there is no crossword in the world that would hold any fear for you at all. The New York Times, The Guardian, bring them on, there is no trouble at all.

"Mind you, there is a lot more to a university. Passing things and doing your assignments and all those things are very important - I don't want to get myself in trouble with the people behind me but it was here, because of that, that I turned from rather a dull boy to a man who became interested in things. It is true to say that academia has appropriated some of those things thought of as 'buggering about' - now that there is a department of film and theatre studies. We took up drama really because we saw it as a very efficient way of meeting girls. And vice versa. Now, because of this department, you can actually do a course, in order to do drama, to meet girls. How brilliant is that?!

"I am deeply gratified with this honour. I'm very happy with the hat. But at the end of the day this is your day and I want to congratulate you again and wish you all the brightest of futures."

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