Photography by Curtis Comeau
As a neurosurgeon, Dr. Patrick Drake performs life-saving operations every day. But as the actor who plays him on General Hospital, Jason Thompson, who’s originally from St. Albert, is engaged in a procedure that might be nearly as difficult as invasive brain surgery: Saving the daytime soap opera. Granted, the patient has shown a pulse of late, with ratings up on a year-over-year basis for most of the remaining daytime soaps, but the long-term trends aren’t in its favour.
The rise of the multi-channel universe, the growing assortment of reality programs (which offer the same insights into scandalous behaviour as soap operas at a fraction of their cost) and the increasing number of women in the workplace (the daytime soap opera’s traditional audience) have all contributed to the format’s dismal diagnosis. In some cases, as with daytime mainstays One Life to Live and All My Children, which were cancelled by ABC in 2012 and 2011 respectively, it’s been fatal.
Even with his embarrassingly good looks, 36-year-old Thompson can’t save the format himself. But if it’s to survive, it will be because of people like him, the next generation of daytime actors who are using social media to reach out to their fans in a way that wasn’t possible when he joined the show in 2005. Thompson has more than 47,000 Twitter followers, and he interacts with them often on a daily basis about the show, their lives and the intersection of the two. “It definitely opens the door to a lot of communication, which is cool. You hear the good and you hear the bad – if they like you, if they hate you – but that’s all part of it. At the end of the day, it’s the passionate fan that you love, whether it’s a hockey team or a television show. Passion shows that you care about something, which I really dig, because I’m a fan of things too.”
Sometimes, he says, that line can get a little too fine. “Don’t get me wrong – there’s moments that I feel like throwing my phone over the balcony somewhat because of it, but at the end of the day the fans are the whole reason why I have a job and why General Hospital is still on the air. I owe a lot to the people that support me.” If daytime television is to endure in the age of social media, it will be because of that attitude, and that willingness to engage with fans in a way that other actors on other shows can’t, don’t or won’t.
Still, as befits someone who plays a doctor on television, Thompson is cool and dispassionate about the prospects of his patient. Yes, General Hospital recently celebrated its golden anniversary, but Thompson knows that it’s probably unreasonable to expect it to last for another half-century. “The game has changed, for sure. General Hospital had its 50th anniversary [in April], and 50 years is a long time for anything, let alone a television show.”
While he understands his role won’t last forever, he’s genuinely passionate about the craft of acting and it shows, given that he was nominated for a Daytime Entertainment Emmy Award in 2011 and again in 2012 as best supporting actor, and in 2013 as best actor. He’s obviously talented, but how did a kid who grew up in St. Albert end up playing the role of Dr. Patrick Drake, or “Dr. Hottie” as his fans call him? Like so many good Edmonton stories, this one begins at Earls Tin Palace, where Thompson was working as a waiter in the early 1990s. One day, during an otherwise unremarkable lunch shift, he happened to catch the attention of Mode Models owner Kelly Streit and, less than two years later, that attention had been turned into a regular spot on runways in Italy and Germany.
Thompson enjoyed the exposure and the experience that modelling afforded him, not to mention the visas he got in the process, but he didn’t think it was going to be what he’d do for the rest of his life. “In the back of my mind acting was what I always wanted to do,” he says. “I just had to figure out how to get down here.” Here, of course, means Hollywood, and by the age of 21 he was living there full-time. He wasn’t an overnight success, though. “I got down here and got into class right away and just kind of kept working at it,” he says. “After a couple of years of doing other things – a couple of pilots, this and that – and another couple of years of not doing anything at all, General Hospital was just like another audition.” It wasn’t one that he was particularly well-prepared for, either. “I’d honestly never watched it,” he says. “I knew about soap operas and General Hospital, but I wasn’t a fan. My parents didn’t even watch it.”
As it turned out, that didn’t really matter. Thompson got the part – executive producer (and daytime television legend) Jill Farren Phelps told him at the time that it was “a kick-ass audition – and in the seven-plus years he’s played the role of Dr. Patrick Drake, he says he’s fallen in love with the unique pleasures of daytime television. “It’s a different kind of situation to be able to play a character for this long. Most shows don’t last that long. And because we shoot all year, with a couple of weeks off here and there, he’s kind of always with me. You’re living a second life to a certain extent.” People living double lives is, of course, a fairly familiar trope when it comes to daytime television, along with serial infidelities, Christ-like resurrections from the dead and the occasional bout of amnesia.
And that’s not the only double life Thompson leads. For as long as he’s been building his career as an actor, he’s also been working with longtime friends Sal Di Maio and Blair McFarlane to build two of Edmonton’s most popular nightlife destinations, Red Star and Halo/The Bower along with the restaurant, MRKT. And while their partnership is an unqualified success, Thompson says it all started when he and McFarlane, who’s better known these days as DJ Junior Brown, shared in a taste of failure. “We both repeated Grade 2,” he says. “I don’t know if he tells anyone else that, but it’s the honest truth. I remember it like it was yesterday. ‘Everybody, congratulations, you’re going to Grade 3 – except for Blair and Jason.’ We walked out of class and I looked at him and went, ‘hey, you want to be best friends?’ And he said ‘cool, let’s do it.'”
They’ve been friends ever since, something that hasn’t changed as Thompson’s star has continued to rise. “Blair and Sal and I still talk almost daily,” he says. “They’re still my best friends. Some of it’s business, and some of it’s pleasure, but we all still get along like we’re 14 or 15 years old.” Over the last couple of years, those regular conversations tended to focus on reinventing Halo, the nightclub that they started over a decade ago. “Me and Sal would be on the go, taking pictures with our iPhones and texting them over to Jason and asking him what he thought about a colour or different light fixtures or a piece of furniture,” McFarlane says.
The product of those conversations is The Bower, a stunning new club that’s part hunting lodge, part French salon, and all class. And while Thompson appreciates the acclaim he’s received for his acting work, he’s just as pleased whenever he gets positive feedback on one of his three Edmonton establishments. “It’s so cool to have something in Edmonton that people respond to,” he says. “I’m very proud of that – I couldn’t be more proud. If someone tells me ‘I love your bar; I love Blair and Sal. I’ve had so many great nights there,’ I’m just as proud of that, if not more, than the GH thing.” And for all the attention that he gets for the “GH thing,” McFarlane says that his old friend is still the same guy he met back in Grade 1. “As much as he’s in L.A., living the Hollywood lifestyle, he’s still the same guy. He hasn’t changed.”
What’s next for Jason Thompson? While the relaunch of Halo as The Bower has been a hit with Edmontonians, he says he’s already looking for the next thing to work on. “We’re constantly looking at projects,” he says. “It’s not just the acting thing. There’s always another building, or a bar we want to open up.”
The acting thing, meanwhile, continues to revolve around his role as Dr. Patrick Drake on General Hospital. But while he says he loves playing that role, he’s also prepared – and preparing – for the day when he won’t.
“Definitely, I want to spread my wings and do other things,” he says. “I’ve done a couple of other TV shows over the last couple months, there are a couple of film projects that I’m working on and I’m still auditioning as much as I can. You never really get in the business to play one character, and as an artist you want to do other things, whether it’s play music or do a play – I did a play for three months last year. Doing other things is what really feeds the beast.” And while he’s content to continue riding that beast, he’s prepared for the day when he’s forced to find a new mount.
“I really hope that GH is on for another five, 10 years,” Thompson says. “Whether I’m a part of it or not, we’ll have to wait and see.”