TOM JACKSON WAS born on a small reserve called One Arrow in Saskatchewan. His roots are Cree and English. Currently living in Winnipeg, he’s inescapably in the fast lane.
I’m not just passing gossip about North Of 60’s huge sucess here. I’m sure most people have seen him in his role as the militant Dene Chief. Acting is just a small part of this amazing man. Tom and his wife are currently trying to set up some mobile soup kitchens in hometowns Winnipeg and Calgary.
His generosity, according to those who know him, is no “big man helping out the small people” scene. It is something that Jackson has always seen as part of his life. It began with his mother serving as an example. She was always helping out others. Jackson himself spent a few years on the street and stresses it was by choice.
He knows the life of a street person. Now he and his wife raise money for organizations working with the homeless in Winnipeg. The Huron Carol Christmas Concert sees Jackson and other musicians putting on a yearly gig. Exhibition monies go to food banks. The Salvation Army is the recipient of profits from Jackson’s cassettes.
Hold on, you say. Did I mention that in addition to acting, Tom Jackson is also a musician with a country beat? None of this new country-rock, but a pleasantly familiar no-bones-about-it, honest-to-good ness country sound.
I told Jackson I enjoyed the flavour of the album, it had a good mix. I felt there were some interesting surprises in it. He replied, “…my favourite parts of the album were in fact finding new ways of doing things.”
The name of this extraordinary album is No Regrets. Tom Jackson wrote all the songs on it and you can taste his life’s experiences.
The Nation: You just put out an album and most people down here didn’t know you are actually a singer; they know you for your acting. Are you looking to having a singing career as well?
Tom Jackson: I started out as a singer and I’ve been flirting with a singing career for 30 years. It’s actually what led me into the acting field. I had been playing for years and years and someplace one day, somebody asked me, Would you like to take a stab in acting? And I did, with a small amount of success at the time and I was sort of swayed into possibly making a living doing something else other than singing. Just as long as it was in the arts, it was fine with me.
At this point in time I think the record itself will dictate whether or not I will go into a renewed pursuit of a singing career.
What about the music; there’s basically a renaissance of native music, especially in Canada. You know there’s Larry Robinson, Vern Cheechoo, 7th Fire, Kashtin, Lawrence Martin’s coming up, Murray Porter and that. Are you going along this vein and looking at it being a good time for native music or native musicians?
No, it really has nothing to do with me, believe it or not. I actually recorded this album because I was approached by a record company. The record company itself may have had some inclining in that direction, but they haven’t indicated it to me.
But the reason I in fact did this album was because the record company just outright came to me and said, “Listen we’d like to record your tunes and we’ll give you a free hand in what you want to do; you just go ahead and do what you want to do.” Along with collaborating with Tim Thorny, who’s the producer on the project, he and I pretty much locked ourselves in a room and just formulated what kind of image we wanted to present for the entire album; and I’m not sure that we actually came up with a definition, but we did have a musical camaraderie that seems to come out in the end result.
Are you going to be touring with your album and if so, where?
Again, it’s one of those things that would be dictated by the sales of the album, if in fact we’re played in Quebec. I would absolutely be out there playing if in fact there was a demand for it. But I don’t think I’m in a position to go out and try to create the demand myself because I don’t have as strong a profile in that.
Were you always active in acting and singing as a kid?
I certainly was asa kid. I was surrounded by my aunts and uncles on the mother’s side; by people who were all singers and players. They all played various instruments and they were all singers. I remember the basic Saturday night jams happening at my place all the time and hanging around the stairwell with my ear to the wall listening to them playing and I don’t remember exactly when it was I got a guitar. I think it might have been around seven or something, but that’s a guess at best. I remember having a guitar for the most part of my life, sort of like being one of my limbs, you know.
So it’s been part of you fora long time now. What kind of business would you say the entertainment business is? A lot of people say it’s a hard life. Would you recommend it to native children, native kids who are reading this article?
I think anybody who wants to get involved in the business has to realize one thing, well, two things. First of all, it’s a very rewarding business from a couple of perspectives. For myself, I’ve discovered the business doesn’t generally have a race or a creed, it has a performance level and if you can perform you can be involved in the business.
I think it’s very important to realize that it takes a longtime. I mean you can get real lucky, but it takes a long time to build up a portfolio. I mean there’s the phrase, “Pay your dues.” Well, I don’t know exactly what “pay your dues” means. I know you have to be open to the fact that you may have to do other things in the industry to wait your turn, to get your shot, and when you get your shot, you’d better be ready to go because if you’re not there’s somebody standing right behind you.
So from that perspective it sounds hard. But it’s not if in fact you just understand what you have to do. And what you have to do is get out there and play your best every time because that time may be your shot. It may be your last shot if you don’t and it doesn’t matter what level you are. You can talk to performers who have the profile, who have the success and they know better than anybody else that they’re only as good as their last gig.
North Of 60 is I guess what you’re best known for and it’s a huge success. Did you expect it to be that successful when you started acting on it?
I would have to say that I had no idea how successful this show was going to be. We were all very optimistic and we liked the fact that this show was presenting a window into a native community, a kind of window nobody else had seen before or seen through.
The success of the show itself has certainly opened up a lot of eyes and/or opportunities and I believe for change within the native community, both from influences outside the community and the way the community has influenced itself. What I mean to say by that is that now, there’s a recognition that there is a culture and a talent and how it relates to this industry and that it’s worth going after. That native people have a contribution to make to the art you can see it. North Of 60 is proof of that.
I was actually going to ask if you felt North Of 60 had opened up a lot more opportunities in the acting field for native people.
I have to make the assumption that is true. I don’t know for sure because I’m working in it all the time so I can’t really tell what it’s like in the outside of that loop but I would make the assumption that it has.
And there’s one thing that we as performers have to recognize; that we have a responsibility to carry having been given this success. I think we have to try and do our parts to inspire younger performers. I’ve been in the business like I mentioned for 30 years. To me this is not new. The level of success and the variety and exposure is certainly new, but the business is not new to me. But there are a lot of young people out there who need guidance and need to be inspired to find another way, to find a level of success that’s acceptable to them.
How is it working with a largely native cast?
It’s an interesting comparison to working with a non-native cast in that a lot of the cast members have little experience as actors. At least they came in with little experience as actors, that’s for sure. They have much more experience after three years. Having said that, I think a lot of the actors brought a lot of their own life to the project. So what you’re seeing is you’re not necessarily seeing actors, you’re seeing real people. They have their own real life experiences to bring to the project.
Do they influence the direction of their own characters or the writing in any way?
I think that not only the actors themselves, but the people in the North who are consulted with, have a very strong influence in the way the writing goes. I don’t think anybody on this show would do anything they thought was detrimental to native people. They wouldn’t say it, they wouldn’t do it, they’d refuse to do it.
I don’t think the writers are the type of people, at least they have not proven to be the type of people, who would put them in a position that they would have to make a decision of that sort.
I have one last question and this is from the women in the office. Are you married, and if so, happily?
Yes on both accounts, thank you very much. But I’m very flattered by both questions.