More significantly, after a decade of plugging away in hits and misses at home, the wider film world suddenly knew who he was.
“Hollywood takes a lot of notice of what happens at the Cannes Film Festival,” the now 79-year-old says from his farm near Coffs Harbour.
He headed from France to Los Angeles, where he was offered a couple of roles. “They weren’t offering huge money or anything, but it was good money, better money than I’d ever been paid in Australia, and that was a temptation. But I felt I really needed to come back to Australia, because of how early we were in the renaissance of the film industry. I felt, ‘now is the time to press on and take advantage of it’.”
He’s never regretted that decision – and nor did it hurt his career, which has included plenty of work in America since. But nor does he judge the younger generation of Australian actors who try their luck in Hollywood (or did, before COVID-19) at the first opportunity.
“I would too if I were in their position,” he says. “We have film schools now, an industry that is recognised as one of the most important English-speaking industries in the world, and they have an opportunity to take advantage of that.”
In fact, that’s precisely why he came back, “in the hope that we would create such a situation in which they were wanted because they were Australian filmmakers”.
Australia has been so successful at creating a talent pool esteemed around the world that it can be hard for some younger members of the industry to appreciate just how low the base was when Thompson started out. “We were the first wave,” he says. “There had been nothing, and we worked hard to establish something.”
Now, of course the industry that was so hard won is on its knees. Thompson made two films last year – the domestic comedy Never Too Late, with Jacki Weaver, James Cromwell and Dennis Waterman, and High Ground, an Indigenous story that debuted to great acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival in February. But what happens to them in the near future is anyone’s guess.
“We’re in a very different world right now,” he says. “I don’t know when we’re going to be allowed to go back to theatres and we won’t be travelling internationally for the next four or five years, I imagine.”
What happens to Thompson is similarly up in the air. He receives dialysis three times a week, a fact that hasn’t stopped him working and, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t have done so. But actors over 70 could find it hard to land roles in the post-COVID-19 world, because they will likely be deemed uninsurable.
“People might say at my age I should be retired, but I enjoy filmmaking so much, it’s so much a part of my life. It’s a great joy to me, there’s still so much in the pipeline and I’m still interested.”
More broadly, Thompson fears for the fate of the industry he did so much to help establish as an international force.
The federal government is expected to soon map out a new framework for the film and television industry as it grapples with a landscape vastly different from the one in which the Australian New Wave emerged in the early 1970s. On the table are a range of options that include everything from extending Australian content quotas to the streaming services to abolishing them entirely – a situation that would amount to an effective reset to the 1960s.
“I can remember all the battles to make those quotas happen in the first place,” says Thompson. “Without them you’re not telling your own stories, you’re being subjected to other people’s views of life and you’re not seeing your own. Without them, you diminish the sense of your own worth – and if you do that, you become subject to other people’s whims and fancies.
“There’s no question in my mind that an Australian film industry has to have such safeguards, it has to have the support of governments,” he adds. “It’s not going to be viable otherwise.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.