R.H. Thomson reflects on career, Great War project

As he prepares to be feted by Canada’s performer union this weekend, veteran actor R. H. Thomson admits his decades-long career has been “a roller coaster” ride.

TORONTO — As he prepares to be feted by Canada’s performer union this weekend, veteran actor R. H. Thomson admits his decades-long career has been “a roller coaster” ride.

“It’s had its long climbs, it has its disastrous turns, it has frightening falls,” the stage and screen star — who’s also a director, playwright and arts activist — said in a recent telephone interview.

“It is a slow build and we’ve certainly hit the bumps and we’ve certainly had great times. But it continues to be a grind — especially in the film world — to create a broad-based, strong presence on the film screens of Canada. That is a steep hill.”

Thomson said the same battle has always existed in television but at least the CRTC has been there to demand networks present Canadian content.

“That gets strong or weak depending on the era,” added the Richmond Hill, Ont., native, who also questioned whether Canadian networks would air homegrown content if they weren’t mandated to do so.

“So it’s a perpetual uphill climb to keep Canadian stories on the shelf, so to speak. We’re not saying people have to watch them; we’re saying if someone wants to watch a story about what’s in Saskatchewan or downtown Toronto or St. John’s, they should have the opportunity.”

Thomson is this year’s recipient of the annual Award of Excellence from the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists.

Being recognized by his peers is “totally unexpected and a total honour,” said the Toronto resident, who won a Genie Award for his supporting role in the 1982 film If You Could See What I Hear” and a Gemini for starring in the ’88 TV movie Glory Enough for All.

The ACTRA honour, which he’ll receive Saturday at the union’s awards gala in the city, “recognizes an actor with a substantial career who has also made important industry contributions.”

Thomson certainly fills that criteria, with a long list of varied projects spanning film, television and theatre. Besides the Genie and Gemini honours, he’s also won a Dora Mavor Moore Award (for a leading role in Hand to Hand) and is a member of the Order of Canada.

An alum of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and the National Theatre School, Thomson lived and worked in the U.K., New York and Los Angeles earlier in his career.

“And then the voices inside me said, ‘Go back,”’ he said. “Because I think the work that I really wanted to do, and the community that I really wanted to contribute to, was the creative community in Canada — that we were building something hopefully unique and hopefully from the ground-up.”

On stage, Thomson has tackled several classics and written and performed his own solo show, The Lost Boys, which is based on letters written home by his great-uncles who fought in the First World War.

A TV adaptation of the story earned him his second Gemini and led to his installation Vigile 1914-1918 Vigil, which commemorated Canadians who lost their lives in the Great War.

Thomson will again commemorate soldiers who died in the war through his ambitious not-for-profit project The World Remembers.

Marking the centenary of the First World War, the charitable initiative will display the names of the battle’s more than nine million fallen soldiers through live, multilingual and multimedia installations that will be synched around the world by Canadian-built software.

Thomson said the project stems from stories he’s heard from descendants of soldiers. The goal is to encourage “people to reflect” and to engage younger generations.

“My generation, we are the grandchildren of those who returned from the First World War,” he said. “So when we were very small, we remember the old men without arms and legs and with strange disfigurations on their faces. We remember those old men on the benches.

“But the generations below me don’t have that, so I feel as a grandchild of those who returned … it’s my generation’s obligation to do something like this before it passes from living memory entirely.”

Thomson has been travelling around Europe to pitch the project at governments, schools, museums and other organizations in all 29 participating First World War countries.

He said he and project partner Martin Conboy decided to include all First World War nations after hearing from members of the military that: “When soldiers are dead beneath the ground they’re equals.”

“They had mothers that grieved for them, they had families that lost them, therefore if they are remembered together . . . you speak to the loss of the war, and that’s the purpose.”

Project organizers plan to ask participants for a small contribution and then give them the software that will allow them to show the fallen soldiers’ names as they’re streamed live online. The names can then be displayed on the participants’ ends in various ways, including wall projections.

Each name will be displayed for one minute in the 100th year after the soldier’s death — on the exact year, month, hour and minute they died.

Thomson himself will have ancestors’ names displayed through the project — those of his seven great-uncles who were killed in the war.

Thomson said the project has the official support of the Canadian government and Veterans Affairs Canada.

Details can be found at www.theworldremembers.ca.

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