JACK Thompson is no stranger to the limelight. He is a much-loved, successful Australian actor.
But being on stage in front of a crowd with only his harmonica in hand is something completely alien to the 70-year-old.
Thompson, along with musician friends Normie Rowe and Kevin Borich, will step onto the stage at the Byron Bay Bluesfest as part of the Jack Thompson and the Original Sinners band.
“This will be our first performance as a group. I've played with both Normie and Kevin separately, but not like this,” Thompson said from his Coffs Harbour home.
“I've been playing the blues harmonica for 30 years or more. It all started out at the bush stock camps when I was about 15. The harmonica was something you could carry in your pocket and I'd fiddle around with it at night and ask other people how to play things.
“But I never imagined that I'd one day be on stage with it,” he said with a laugh.
“So I'm pretty sure I'm more nervous than Normie or Kevin, who are both fantastic musicians.”
Thompson is well-known to audiences as an outstanding actor, and his movie credits include: Sunday Too Far Away, Breaker Morant, The Man From Snowy River, The Sum of Us, Mao's Last Dancer, Australia and The Assassination of Richard Nixon. He has appeared on television in: My Brother Jack, South Pacific, McLeod's Daughters, The Last Frontier, and Waterfront, along with many others.
“I once met Mick Granger – harmonica player in Nashville,” Thompson says, “and I asked him if he'd teach me some of those licks on the harmonica. He said he'd love to and so I learnt a few more tricks.
“But this performance (at Bluesfest) is a result of my 70th birthday celebration where a few people put together a birthday tribute concert at The Basement venue in Sydney.
“It was a benefit for the Jack Thompson Foundation and I, along with others, was there playing the blues.
“Ten days later a friend passed away and at the memorial service wake in Bondi we told stories and played music to celebrate his life. I happened to be playing blues with Normie and one of the Bluesfest organisers was there and he asked if we would come up to Bluesfest.
“Next thing I know we're all rehearsing and have two sessions to perform on Friday and Saturday at this year's event.
“It all happened so fast.”
Thompson said it had been suggested that they continue with more festival performances.
“But we all have other commitments,” he said. “I have films to do – a documentary, a short film and a feature film. But it will be absolute fun to perform together – especially for me,” he chuckled. “We'll be playing some blues numbers – some of Kevin's and some of Normie's.”
Thompson, who says the harmonica is very much like the saxophone in that it is close to the human voice, said at the end of the day he was still an actor.
“The harmonica is an intimate instrument and I love to belt out a tune,” he said.
“But when you're playing music and interacting with others it's a real conversation – you're communicating an expression and sharing that with other musicians and the audience.
“Music is such a big part of our lives – everywhere in the world.
“I remember being in Ireland 20 years ago in a pub in Galway and the people just come in to play some music – whether it's a fiddle, tin whistle, accordion, guitar – doesn't matter what instrument, they all came in just to play along.
“But I very much like acting. I don't think I'll give up my day job just yet.”
Thompson says he'd pretty much like to see all the acts lined up for this year's Bluesfest.
“There is so many amazing and well-known musi- cians in the line-up for Bluesfest this year. More than you would get in a whole year of one-off concerts.
“So I feel extremely privileged to be on the same bill.”
Thompson said the documentary film he is working on is about an orphanage established in Cambodia 20 years ago, while the short film is based on a bush “yarn” of RM Williams. The feature film, Around The Block, is set in Redfern in Sydney and is an Australian love-adventure story.
“I've seen the ups and downs (in the Australian film industry) and we've grown remarkably,” he said.
“I didn't plan on being an actor, I actually completed a science degree and was also involved with the Hayes Gordon Ensemble Theatre. I had been on stage in school plays from about the age of six.
“I don't know what I love about acting, but I'm a big believer in doing ‘whatever makes you dance'.”
When asked if there are were any roles he still wanted to play, Thompson replied he's been waiting a number of years to play King Lear.
“I told Baz Luhrmann many years ago that I really liked his Romeo and Juliet and that Lear was a great play,” he said.
“Baz told me I wasn't old enough for the role of Lear at the time, but I think I may have reached that golden age about now.
“So maybe it's time to put it to him again.”
Thompson has many passions in his life and one in particular has been to help indigenous Australians.
“The Jack Thompson Foundation was set up three years ago to teach indigenous Australians the skills to enable them to build their own houses from materials and resources available.
“It just made sense to me to teach them the skills needed to build in their communities,” he said.
“It's also an opportunity to improve their skill base and go on to further those skills in construction of they desire.”
“I've spent thousands getting it off the ground and have had wonderful donors, along with the support of the Federal government.”
Assisting indigenous Australians to create shelter appropriate to their community needs is the aim of the Jack Thompson Foundation through access to relevant training programs.
“I believe in reaching out to help others, and through this program we are not only providing buildings and shelter but giving people the skills to continue on,” Thompson said.
“Everyone needs a hand at some point and I'm happy to be involved.”
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.