horsin' around

Inside Sam Neill’s Life on the Farm: Horny Rams, Duck Sons, and Murderous Ferrets

Sam Neill. Photo: @TwoPaddocks/Twitter

Dante would have fun playing around with Twitter in one of his Hell circles, but, surprisingly, among the petty feuds and pettier political meltdowns, there might be some good on the social-media platform after all: And we have veteran actor Sam Neill to thank. Because over the past few years, the Jurassic Park star has been broadcasting some quality, wholesome content from his gorgeous New Zealand farm for us to fawn over, with his never-ending parade of cute animal pals always ready for their close-ups. (Most of whom, in another fun twist, are named after celebrities.) Whether you’re more of a pig-video or a sheep-selfie person, Neill’s Twitter is a good-pastoral-vibes-only type of place, so leave your city slicker attitude at the door, okay?

This week, Neill was nice enough to indulge Vulture with a chat about his life on the farm and how it feels that his animals are now bona fide social-media icons. Among the pigs, sheep, ducks, rams, and chickens, Neill has plenty of anecdotes, and only one them involves death-by-boning.

I want to know all about your farm! How long have you lived there and where exactly is it located? And do you get to live there most of the year?
I’d say I get to live there, in Central Otago, New Zealand, about half of the year. I always spend time in Sydney, but I’m at the farm as much as I can be. I’ve got four little vineyards and the farm is the heart of it. My chickens, sheep, goats — the whole menagerie is there. [Laughs.] A couple of them have become unwitting media stars. I used to do a blog on my wine label’s website about farm life and what was going on there. But I got kind of bored of that. Same with Facebook, too. It got really tiresome. I enjoy Twitter because it’s really instant. It’s one thing doing a blog post, but with Twitter and Instagram, you get immediate feedback from people. You know what people are enjoying. I’ve worked out that what I enjoy and what I find funny is what people enjoy, too.

I have to say, like many people on Twitter, there’s a lot to be angry about in the world at the moment. There’s a lot of be anxious about. I used to do a lot more angry posts. But there are enough angry voices as it is! What’s amusing me today? It’s mostly my duck. I really don’t know why people have reacted so strongly to the farm, but it’s definitely a nice thing to have happen.

It seems like an idyllic place, especially when I look at your photos from my tiny New York apartment.
I just love being there, puttering around. I do work there occasionally. It’s not just playing with ducks. But I do have my diversions there. I love to name as many of my animals as possible after my friends. It doesn’t always end well. Meryl Streep was killed by a ferret recently. I found her as a pile of feathers one day.

Oh, jeez. Have you had any other animal demises lately?
Hugo Weaving was another unfortunate end, but he died happy. He was a ram. He was doing what rams do — he fell off the back of a female sheep. We found him with his feet up in the air the next day. They’re very, very, busy boys, those rams. It’s a little-known fact that the most prodigious mammal on the planet is a ram. Rams can service, shall we say, up to 80 females in a day. There’s no other male animal on the planet that has that capability. He went the distance and died on the job.

You famously also name a lot of your animals after celebrities as “insurance policies,” so you won’t be enticed to eat them. But have you ever named an animal after an enemy and then … eaten it?
What a vicious idea, coming from someone from New York! [Laughs.]

How many animals are roaming around at any given time?
I’ll have to think about that. They all serve productive functions. As cute as they are, they’re not decorative. The sheep are used as lawnmowers. The pigs make manure. I believe at the last count I had 25 sheep, about a dozen chickens, a few goats, three pigs, and one duck. Although I got a few new duck friends arriving soon! I’m very keen on native birds, so I’ve planted a lot of native shrubs and trees to entice them to fly to the area and keep predators at bay. They’re all outdoor animals, I should also note. I don’t encourage them to come inside my house.

Do these animals generally get along with each other? Are there any unlikely friendships or feuds among them?
A friend of mine had an older horse that she brought to the farm a while ago. Down the road from the farm, a wild sheep turned up out of the blue about a year ago. It hadn’t been shorn in years! A friend asked if I could look after it, so I said yes. We put the sheep next to the horse, and they’ve become absolutely inseparable. They’re two old men. They’re never more than ten yards apart. They nuzzle each other all day. The horse doesn’t like other horses — through the years, he would fight with them all. But he took to the sheep immediately and they completely love each other. When it rains, the sheep goes under the horse and he stays dry that way.

There’s been some aggro behavior on the farm these past few weeks. I have two male pigs, Angelica and Taika Waititi, who have been fighting for the female pig, Imogen Poots. Taika has another girlfriend down the road, but his job is to, uh, have conjugal responsibilities with Imogen. But Angelica has had his way with Imogen illegally before and has made many other attempts to see her. He’s broken down several fences to see her and has been in contention with Taika, who’s twice his size. They’ve come to blows a lot. Angelica finally lost out and has a lot of scars on his face now.

I want to bring up some specific animals of yours. I’m fascinated how Charlie the duck thinks you’re his dad. How did he waddle his way into your life?
I bought three Muscovy ducks a few years ago, and Charlie Pickering was always the friendliest of them. One of my employees was driving too fast into the farm one day and flattened Charlie’s two friends. They died. Poor Charlie was left on his own after that. There’s something about that duck! He loves being in my company and I love hanging around with him, too. I have a small lake on the farm, and in the summer I like to swim laps, and he likes to swim laps with me. Or rather, I shouldn’t say “he.” I always thought Charlie was a male, and then she laid eggs one day. That was quite a surprise, but then some wild ducks came and destroyed the eggs. That was probably disappointing for Charlie.

We’re getting new friends for Charlie in the next few weeks, so we’ll see how that goes. If they don’t bond, Charlie is No. 1 for me, and they’ll be returned. I really like Muscovy ducks; they’re really sociable. I tried having Indian Runner ducks, but they would always run away. I had to sell them. What’s the point of having an animal if they don’t like you?

Has Charlie had any other daring flights since her ice capade from last month?
Not yet. I remember Charlie flying five years ago and she’s never been flying since. It took me so much by surprise. Two flights in one day! She likes to hang out by my front door, too.

How often do you do yoga with The Pig?
I love hanging out with The Pig. He comes to life beside me, but he respects my space if I just want to kick back, relax, and read a book next to him. I took a few selfies of me recently reading Fire and Fury, and he was in the background looking shocked that I was reading it. [Laughs.] I’ll admit the yoga isn’t a daily occurrence.

Has Helena Bonham Carter the cow had any more calves?
Yes, she has! She’s recently been shamelessly flirting with Jimmy Nesbitt, my bull. She’s competing for his favors with another female cow. She’s been at it for days now. I avert my eyes.

How does a cow flirt?
Nuzzling and sniffing backsides. Helena is a piece of work in the love department, I’ll tell you. The real Helena writes me an email once in a while, and I fill her in with what’s going on with her cow. But I try to avoid telling the more graphic details.

Are any of your celeb friends overly invested in their animal counterparts?
Imogen Poots is very invested. She’s filming something two miles down the road from me right now, so she’s anxious to finally meet her pig.

If you could be reincarnated as one of your farm animals, what would you be and why?
All of the animals generally live long, happy, and fruitful lives. If attention is one thing to go by, I’d be one of my rams. They have, at any one time, 30 or 40 girlfriends who just adore them. To be well loved in life is as much as one can hope for, isn’t it?

Sam Neill on a Life Surrounded by Horny Rams and Aggro Pigs