TORONTO (CP) _ It should come as no surprise to anyone who took in Justin Trudeau’s stirring eulogy at his father’s funeral seven years ago that the aspiring Liberal MP knows how to play to an audience.
And now he has a starring role playing Talbot Papineau, a French-Canadian First World War hero, in Brian McKenna’s powerful new CBC docudrama "The Great War," airing this Sunday and Monday nights at 8 p.m. ET.
"This is certainly my large-scale acting debut, continuance and end," Trudeau, the eldest son of late prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, says with a laugh in a telephone interview from Montreal.
He insists, in fact, that it was not a yearning to flex his acting chops that attracted him to the role in the five-hour docudrama that features 150 descendants of First World War soldiers re-enacting battle scenes.
Instead, on the 90th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, it was a desire to make sure Canadians never forget the multitudes of soldiers who died fighting in the war, many of them while still in their teens. Sixty-thousand Canadians perished on the battlefield during the First World War, leaving a terrible toll on an entire generation.
"The impact that it had on families _ I know my
great-grandmother was always affected by the loss of her brother in
that way," says the 35-year-old Trudeau, referring to a great-uncle
who died during the First World War.
"The idea of losing a brother is unnatural, as I well know, but to have it happen on the scale that it did during the Great War to so many families right across this country … I was very, very pleased to be able to be part of a project to draw our memories back to that."
The opportunity to play the Military Cross-winning Papineau, who died a hero at the Battle of Passchendaele in Ypres, one of the deadliest conflicts of the war for Canada, was also something that attracted Trudeau to the project.
"The choice of this particular role wasn’t so much about me being able to try my hand at acting, it was much more about me being able to get into the character of this tremendous historical figure and bringing attention to Talbot Papineau’s life," says Trudeau, who is not a descendant of Papineau.
The epic battle re-enactments in "The Great War" were filmed in rural Quebec with the 150 descendants. The young volunteers lived in an encampment, were trained as soldiers and marched into the trenches to relive the battles their ancestors fought.
"The stars of the documentary are without question the descendants and their stories, and that is the moving part," says Trudeau.
His decision to take part in the docudrama came as a bit of a surprise to Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Gregoire, his mother, Margaret Trudeau, and his brother, Sasha.
"They were a little skeptical at first, as were many people _ you know: ‘Jeez, Justin Trudeau’s doing what?’ " he recalls. "But the quality of the project and the importance of the project rapidly made it fit and made them understand."
Trudeau recently announced that he’s going to seek the Liberal nomination in a Montreal-area riding now held by the Bloc Quebecois.
But other than acknowledging he’s been "very, very busy" over the past few weeks, Trudeau was adamant that he would not discuss his political aspirations while promoting "The Great War."
"My entire focus on being part of this project was to draw attention to this project, and it wouldn’t be doing right by the project if I was to talk about my own politics," he said. "If I’m a little bit of a novelty factor that gets a few more people to tune in, then I will absolutely have achieved what I think we all wanted for this, which was to draw the kind of attention that needed to be on such a tremendous documentary."
As for an acting future? Trudeau says he’s not interested, and wouldn’t be remotely tempted if a big-time Hollywood director _ Quentin Tarantino, say _ came knocking.
"No, that’s not very me," he says with a chuckle. "I don’t know how many characters out there I would identify with to the same degree as I identified with Talbot Papineau."