John Hadley Payne, better known as legendary Australian actor Jack Thompson, is a true cinema icon in every sense of the word. He has starred in an array of local classics including Man from Snowy River, Breaker Morant, The Club, and Burke & Wills; literally just to name a few.
He also made history as the nation’s first male nude model in the now defunct Cleo magazine. Since the 1990s, he’s been in demand appearing alongside huge Hollywood stars on multiple international films such as Broken Arrow (1996), Excess Baggage (1997), Original Sin (2001), and two Star Wars prequels.
Having perfected playing authority figures, in new film ‘Don’t Tell’, Jack plays Bob Myers. His role is seriously intense, as you would expect for court room jurisdiction in a sexual abuse case of an 11 year old child at an extremely prestigious school. Brought to light by the now young woman taking on the Church and others involved and based around actual transcripts from the groundbreaking trial, the Royal Commission was adjusted from this outcome.
‘Don’t Tell’, on face value, may not appeal to a mass audience due to heavy subject matter but the story evolves into an exciting court room drama told in a far less formulaic manner with an ensemble also including Rachel Griffiths, Jacqueline Mackenzie, and Aden Young.
A seriously courageous breakout performance from Sara West is emotionally rich, switching moods effortlessly. She is amazingly solid when silently sitting to perfect monologue delivery. Valuing my time with iconic Jack, we spoke about his pride doing ‘Don’t Tell’ which I agree is a remarkable attention-grabbing debut film from director Tori Garrett. We also talk Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood and old mate Russell Crowe.
Do you ever get called John?
Jack Thompson – At boarding school, there were four John’s there. One of them was a girl spelled Jon, so I was called Jack to distinguish me. I was adopted by the Thompson family at age 8 and went from Jack Payne to Thompson. My adopted father, every now and then, used to refer to me as Johnny if he wanted to tell me something, but not since.
You’re like this familiar face, a person of joy. People will say it’s a Jack Thompson movie if you’re involved. What brought you to accept the role in ‘Don’t Tell’?
JT – (The) script originally, as it’s written with great courage through the prose about real life. I’m attracted to true stories. You don’t have to imagine how it happened, it happened so you imagine how you can bring your acting skills to become it, this role is a gift. To play the barrister then working from an original court transcript to win the case is brilliant. The story is not about villains here. People do wrong, no question there. Royal commissions have come to understand that it isn’t always about villains, it can be a trusted member of the family or a school teacher as it is in this case. Sara West, who plays the victim Lyndal, has created one of the best pieces of work I have experienced in the last several years on any production I’ve been involved in. She brings a wonderful fine line of anger, courage and fall apart vulnerability. As a result of this story, what came out of this was the change of Royal Commission as we know it, fighting for justice.
Such a strong story, it might be hard for audience appeal. Why should audiences go see ‘Don’t Tell’?
JT – It’s not a film about child abuse or the detail, it is a trial dealing with sexual abuse looking at how it comes to happen remaining a story of courage for this young woman who wins. Audiences at screenings come out uplifted after going through various other emotions. People have said it’s educational and should be shown in schools. I agree, especially if we can encourage people who are victims to come out to tell their tale. ‘Don’t Tell’ premiered at Newport Beach Film Festival winning the audience award. They didn’t love it as a dark tale of abuse, they loved it as a movie. Cinematography, music and brilliant ensemble cast with a vindicated finale.
Do you still have to audition? You play a lot of authority figures, do pick them or is it a natural fit?
JT – You always have to in a particular way. Every producer, director, if they are smart, will have three or four people lined up for a role. But mostly no, I don’t audition and this script was brought to me. My large unmistakable tones of the voice help me get those roles. As I approach 80, the body is not the same but the voice fortunately gets better.
Do you allocate certain months of the year to act or take projects as they come?
JT – As they arrive, I don’t allocate to budget. If you have something that you would like me to play, I’ll read it then if my time permits and interest allows, I’ll do it. If I see a young independent filmmaker is making a movie, I want to contribute because that’s how we make our great Australian film industry happen. Always happy to accept, even a cameo.
You have worked on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, with Clint Eastwood. What sort of a director is he?
JT – Wonderful man to work with and the catering is fantastic (laughs). Clint never says ‘action’ or ‘cut’. Being an actor himself, he knows scenes. He works with little microphones speaking directly to the crew with few fords, the actors get a little rehearsal of moves then he looks at the cast involved and calmly says, ‘when you’re ready’. Not all directors but some allow the scene to go on a little after the last line because of a reaction or extra dialogue but Clint basically stays with it a few extra seconds and says, ‘ well I don’t think we can use any more of that!’. He finishes under schedule, under budget and flys home early on Friday night.
Kirk Douglas recently turned 100, did you share a beer with him during Man from Snowy River?
JT – Kirk (was) described by his wife Anne as a furniture wrestler. He came around to our shed ending up on the floor because he was comfortable with his arm around a leg of a chair talking away holding the chair tight as if he was going to toss it. He’s energetic or enthusiastic about everything, even saying g’day. He would go real close to me with a loud, ‘G’ooooood Day’! I saw him after his stroke doing a one-man show in Los Angeles, incredible, I salute Kirk.
What advice would you give a young actor about this difficult industry to break into?
JT – So you can act, great! But you have to love doing, present yourself with as many opportunities as you can. Whether it be amateur theatre or independent film, whatever it may be as you’re not going on that golden escalator straight to the top. Find yourself a day job to provide while you go around to auditions. It is essential if wishing to act abroad, working on an American accent is essential. One truly interesting thing is there are dialect coaches in LA teaching young American actors how to have an Australian accent so they will be more successful.
Russell Crowe is a fantastic guy always speaking dearly of you when we talk. Have you seen his new film, ‘The Mummy’?
JT – Ahhh Russell, I am glad he gives you time because he is a true gentleman and top bloke. No haven’t seen ‘The Mummy’, I’ve seen ‘The Daddy’ (laughs).
Shane A. Bassett