Before he became one of Australia’s best-loved actors, Jack Thompson had already been many things. At the age of 15, he became a jackaroo in the Northern Territory, working on the remote cattle station of Elkedra. There, he says, he observed a life that no longer exists. At camp, he was the only white person among the adult Alyawarra men.
It was fine preparation for his cinematic work in the 1970s and early 80s when he became an icon of the Australian New Wave, taking leading and supporting roles in classics including Sunday Too Far Away (1975), The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Breaker Morant (1980) and The Man From Snowy River (1982).
It also made him an obvious choice to record a voiceover for Our Country, a 40-screen, 360-degree celebration of Australia’s natural landscape and wildlife by Australian Geographic, in partnership with Tourism Australia. Curated by Karina Holden, and now open in Brisbane, it collates the work of 25 cinematographers who spent a combined 100,000 hours in the field.
Now 82, Thompson lives in northern New South Wales. He spoke to Guardian Australia in good humour – and with that distinctive voice intact.
Tell us about Our Country.
Well, it really is the most extraordinary cinematic event. It reminds you of where we actually live; what we are actually a part of. I think all of us live our lives in rooms, in houses or offices or whatever. But we are also living in this huge environment that is our heritage and our responsibility.
Do you spend much time travelling locally? It’s not hard to imagine you as a grey nomad in a camper.
Ha ha ha. A very grey nomad! I don’t travel much because I’m on hemodialysis [for kidney disease] three days a week. Although I’ve been able to make a couple of movies on dialysis, and the wonderful purple truck in Alice Springs provided dialysis for me when we shot High Ground. I would travel a lot more if I could.
Your drinking days must be behind you, then. What’s the drink you have when you’re not having a drink?
Ha ha ha ha! The name of it [Clayton’s, a non-alcoholic beverage] passed into the dictionary, because it was mentioned in parliament – someone said “this is a Clayton’s parliament”. It’s there in the Macquarie!
Our Country is a celebration of the beauty of the Australian environment. Fire and flood and drought are ingrained into Australian mythology, not least by Dorothea MacKellar’s poem. Where were you at the time of the black summer fires?
I was here in eastern NSW, on the coast. I remember it clearly. Where I was, the fires didn’t do any damage at all. But I was appalled. It was devastating. I think that it certainly brought the environment to the attention of people in a very different way. It was something that was no longer talked about just as a cause – it’s where our friends have houses and farms.
Wake In Fright was your first film role of note, which was not commercially successful at the time. How has it felt to see that film become so celebrated decades after its release?
Oh, it’s wonderful. When it was first released [in 1971] it ran for seven days in Sydney and 10 days in Melbourne, and people left the theatre in droves saying, “That is not Australia! This is not who we are!” And of course, since then realised it is who we are – not entirely who we are, but part of who we are.
It was also Chips Rafferty’s last role. He was an icon of Australian masculinity before you assumed that mantle in the 1970s.
He certainly was. He was also the token Australian in some American films – if you wanted an Australian, you got Chips Rafferty; that’s what an Australian looked like.
Speaking of masculinity: you are one of the few blonde men in history to get away with a moustache, during a time when the mo ruled – Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh, John Newcombe, the Solo Man. Is it time to bring back the ’tache?
Ha ha ha! Well, I had a fine ’tache in line with those other chaps you mention in Bruce Beresford’s film The Club. At the time, Tom Hafey was coaching Collingwood and training the actors for the movie. It was pretty tough going. I was as fit as I was ever going to be playing Laurie. It’s a wonderful piece of David Williamson’s writing, too. Every scene is an argument!
It was International Women’s Day last week and my partner insisted I ask you about your contribution to Australian feminism by posing for Cleo as Australia’s first male centrefold in 1972. How does that feel to look back on?
I think that was fantastic. It was very effective. There had already been a male centrefold in Cosmopolitan in the US [Burt Reynolds], and then Cleo decided to emulate that. At the time, when they tried to open Hair at the old Metro in Sydney, there were picket lines to stop people buying tickets because of the nudity on stage. And nudity isn’t a big issue for me.
What were your impressions of Ita Buttrose back then?
She was very pleasant and very persuasive. I didn’t need persuading, though.
You acted in an old favourite of mine, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence . What are your memories of working with David Bowie, at the apex of his fame?
He was wonderful to work with. I remember after a rehearsal session he said to Tom Conti and me: “You two are the actors; I’m not. If you see anything you think I’m not doing, or should be doing, please don’t hesitate to tell me, I’d be very grateful.” He was an intelligent and very modest man.
Two directors you worked with on multiple occasions, who also have a lot to say about Australia, were Bruce Beresford and Baz Luhrmann. How different are their approaches to filmmaking?
Very different. Bruce is more traditionally focused on the making of the film and the editing of it. Baz is from the next generation; he’s working mostly with video. You don’t have to wait for dailies or rushes any more, you can just play it back! But it’s quite exciting working with Baz, I loved it.
Any final words on Australia, who we are and where we’re going?
Let’s do the right thing and give a big yes on the referendum. I think that’s our responsibility as Australians.
First published in the Guardian, 13 March 2023