Happy Town 1.04 - Sam Neill
Episode 1.04 'Slight of Hand' - Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill) © ABC

Actor Sam Neill splits his time between starring in movies, such as the popular Jurassic Park, My Brilliant Career and The Piano, and doing TV, playing the title role in the miniseries Merlin, for which he received an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination.

He’s currently starring as Merritt Grieves in the new ABC drama/thriller Happy Town, about a series of mysterious kidnappings that have plagued the small town of Haplin, Minnesota, by the elusive ‘Magic Man.’

Grieves is an outsider who came to Haplin to open a film memorabilia store named The House of Ushers and, with his charming demeanor, to woe the town’s widows, who reside at the Meadows Boarding House with him. But there is also something vaguely sinister about Merritt Grieves; does he have something to hide? I asked him at the press day for the series.

Can you talk about what it was about this particular script that made you want to do it?

Happy Town 1.04 - Geoff Stults, Sam Neil and Robert Wisdom
Epsode 1.04 'Slight of Hand' - Geoff Stults, Sam Neil and Robert Wisdom © ABC

Our producers, Josh Appelbaum and Scott Rosenberg, talk about Stephen King and Twin Peaks, but let’s think about the precursors for those people. Life didn’t start there. And for me, I’m older than that. And I’m thinking of Thornton Wilder with Alfred Hitchcock. This is a very big tapestry that’s being sewn here, and some of those threads are dark, and I like those dark threads. I love stories about communities.

This is a story which has many characters, and some very interesting characters, and I think I play one of them. And it was that character, first of all, that attracted me. Also, I thought this was very original stuff I was reading. And when you’re an actor you pray for originality, and I think that’s what we’ve got.

The first season is called a limited series – it’s only eight episodes.

Happy Town - Sam Neill
Happy Town - Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill) © ABC

It’s interesting people talk about whether this terminates after eight hours, and it certainly is self-contained, but I think really what we’ve done is set down a fantastic platform for this tapestry that will only get more and more elaborate and more and more intricate and fascinating.

I’m very much looking forward to an enlightened ABC bringing us back because we had such a great time doing it. I loved it.

Can you talk about creating your character of Merritt Grieves? He’s so different from most characters on TV. He’s got this old-world charm. What’s it like to dress up as him and be him?

Happy Town 1.03 - Sam Neill
Episode 1.03 'Polly Wants a Crack at Her' - Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill) © ABC

Scott and Josh went about the show in a very different way than I’ve ever worked before. That’s to say they deliberately withheld information from us, and so we weren’t allowed to know what happens next. And we certainly weren’t allowed to know who the Magic Man was. That was absolutely a lock-down secret.

In addition to that, they withheld information about our past to an extent. And I, in common with one or two other people, have made (my character) up to an extent. I don’t think my guy is from Manchester at all. He comes to this town and sets up a movie-memorabilia shop in a place where no one is interested in the movies, let alone memorabilia. This is kind of an unlikely thing to do.

He obviously loves old movies and loves old actors. There are actors from the black-and-white days that he admires and has synthesized some of those things into his own persona. And so I had in the back of my mind people like James Mason and some of those more saturnine English actors that people who watch black-and-white movie know.

Is your character a good guy or a bad guy?

Happy Town 1.03 - Sam Neill
Episode 1.03 'Polly Wants a Crack at Her' - Sam Neill © ABC

None of us quite knew whether we were bad guys or good guys. So we had to leave things a little ambivalent.

I think there’s a terrible truth about that, in that like most people walking through their lives, we don’t know what’s going to happen next, in the same way that these people do. So that’s a novel way of approaching stuff.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.