New TV mini-series Old School sees antipodean legends Sam Neill and Bryan Brown reunite as a pair of ageing crooks. We talk to Neill ahead of its release.
When a heist backfires and Sydney detective Ted McCabe is injured in the shoot-out, he’s unaware that one of the gang will re-emerge in his life. Upon being released from prison, Lennie Cahill goes after his share of the money. And as the now-retired Ted feels he’s still got a case to solve, the pair team up to pursue their own versions of justice.
Seeing the often-brooding Sam Neill in Old School as a pensioner with a penchant for beige slacks, sensible pyjamas and hanging baskets is unnerving. Sure, we’ve seen him in a variety of roles, but he’s very convincing as someone a little bit more corrupt. (If you want more evidence, this September he stars in BBC series Peaky Blinders as a far more sinister policeman.)
Old School is a comforting, gentle kind of a comedy – even the names, Ted and Lennie, are non-threatening. Bryan Brown, as the latter, is a roguish ex-crim and the sort of mates who know about pensioner discounts at the strangest of places. These days, Lennie’s more concerned about the plight of his bowels, however.
With the unlikely buddies having a warmly cynical rapport, did Neill have any classic celluloid partnerships in mind? What about Grumpy Old Men? ‘No, but that’s a context I should have thought about; that’s a good model,’ he concedes. ‘They’re competitive people – they loathe each other, but are forced into a reluctant partnership. Still, they’re more alike than they would care to admit.’
Neill and Brown have starred together twice before – in New Zealand film Dean Spanley (2008) and also Dirty Deeds (2002). Even so, Neill insists Old School wasn’t a vehicle specifically for the pair.
‘This was conceived well before Bryan and I came on board,’ he says, ‘but it’s also fair to say that there was a lot of revision within the script to adapt to us.’
In previews, Neill is referred to as an Australian actor – much as people think fellow Kiwis Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson are – although he was born in New Zealand. ‘I don’t worry about that,’ he says. ‘I think if anyone wants to claim you, it’s flattering.’
It’s Neill’s feeling that Old School could lend itself to another series or two, but in the event that doesn’t happen, he won’t be twiddling his thumbs. As well as a busy acting schedule, he owns a farm with four acres back on home soil.
‘I kind of learn on the job,’ he says of getting his hands dirty. ‘I planted my first crop some 20 years ago and I now know a lot more than I did. What started as a hobby has now become much more important as far as I am concerned. And now I’ve just exported to Australia. It’s a big deal for me.’
In his homeland, Neill was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit back in 2006, and had the option when knighthoods were reintroduced in 2009 to take on a loftier title. He declined – and isn’t surprised that there is similar controversy in Australia.
‘It was contentious in New Zealand, but it was very surprising that it would happen in Australia, because I’ve always seen Australia as being much less tied to colonial things… I’d always thought that they’d obliterated that way of thinking a long time ago. Seemingly not.’
Old School, coming soon to www.itunes.apple.com.