It may be easy to typecast Canadian actor Eric Peterson as a grumpy, old Prairie boy.
After all he’s probably best known for his role as Oscar Leroy, who loved to call everyone “jackass” on the TV series-turned-film Corner Gas.
However, Peterson is also known for playing Canadian heroes and rebellious types such as Upper Canada Rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie, First World War flying ace Billy Bishop and even his fictional character, left-wing lawyer Leon Robinovitch from the late-‘80s, early-‘90s TV series Street Legal.
As of late, Peterson, 69, has taken on the role of another Prairie rebel in the Porte Parole docu-drama Seeds, which comes to the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Feb. 6.
In the production, Peterson plays Percy Schmeiser, the Saskatchewan farmer who famously fought biotech giant Monsanto in a case of seed patent rights.
When asked if he considers Schmeiser a hero, Peterson says, “He’s in that same classification…
“He’s a force. I don’t know if I’d like to go up against Percy. We live in a world of experts, and Percy belies that. He doesn’t feel that things have to be left to experts or authorities.
“When you look at Canadians, we are resistors. Look at Riel. When we don’t agree with the status quo, we want to change it. I would put Percy in that category. (However), to many he is not a hero. His stubbornness and courage took things as far as they did.”
In Seeds, Montreal writer Annabel Soutar of Porte Parole, along with director Chris Abraham of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre, tell of the David vs. Goliath story; how in a four-year court case, Monsanto successfully sued Schmeiser for patent infringement when they found their genetically modified plant cells (Roundup Ready Canola) in Schmeiser’s fields.
Schmeiser contested, saying the contaminated seeds had landed in his fields accidently, perhaps by a passing truck or blown in by the wind.
Peterson says all of this has been an education, one he feels the audience will also learn from.
In preparing for Seeds, Peterson not only had to dig deep into the court case, but also had to get to know the people behind the headlines. And even though he is from the Prairies, born in Indian Head, Sask., Peterson doesn’t share the same farming roots as Schmeiser.
“I wasn’t a farm kid. I spent time on farms and would help at harvest time. But if there’s any theatrical or film part involving a Prairie boy, I get first crack,” he laughed.
In the play, Peterson plays Schmeiser at 72 years old, while Schmeiser’s wife, Louise, who has just as big of a part to play, is 73.
“I’ve never met the man or Louise, but he has never failed to include her as a seed saver or developer. She is as much a part of the struggle as he is,” said Peterson.
“The stress and human toil that was put on them is insurmountable and it’s still going on.”
However, Peterson did speak with Schmeiser’s son and daughter, who saw the play along with some of Schmeiser’s grandchildren in Calgary.
“It’s been moving for me. In doing docu-drama, you sometimes forget that this is a real person. I don’t look like him or sound like him but I admire him. He is a man of tremendous bravery and determination to stand up because of moral outrage and bringing to light on how patent law and farmers’ rights affect us all.”
Peterson attributes Soutar for taking all the information and tying it into a cohesive and unbiased package.
Sifting through court trial transcripts, interviews with Schmeiser, Monsanto representatives, and with farmers, academics, lawyers and scientists from all across Canada, Seeds leads the audience through a suspenseful labyrinth of legal conflicts around patent rights, scientific showdowns about GM food, and property clashes between farmers and the biotechnology industry.
Soutar also has a physical presence in the play.
“This is the part of the play that is not verbatim. Annabel is the interlocker with the audience. There’s a lot of information to sift through from law, farming and genetics, and she is the narrator that guides us through as well as the agent within this thing. This is not polemic. We don’t condemn Monsanto.”
Instead, Soutar has acted as a journalist, stood back and heard what everyone has to say on the issue, added Peterson.
“This is in an age where we are all yelling the answers to each other… Annabel has become a hero to me. She gives the audience an opportunity to make up its own mind. We all eat food. It’s something we can identify with. It’s about us.”
Peterson has also relished the face-to-face feedback from audiences, having taken the play from the large city centres to smaller communities around Canada.
“This is the strength of theatre and live performance,” he said. “It’s so interesting to hear the conversations from audiences. They are so thoughtful and have curiosity to find out more about how we should be handling new technology and the ramifications of it.
“For me that thoughtfulness reassures me that we’re not all nuts.”
And although he is enjoying his current foray on stage, Peterson is not ruling out any future roles on screen, or revisiting that gas station in Dog River. He has an image to uphold, after all.
“I would certainly return to TV if it was just up to me,” he said. “My great joke is that if you are past 45 or 50 years old, you’re not offered a part, but more of a disease. Roles for old people, and that rings true more for females, are few and far between.
“We live in a culture where they want to scare the pants off us all the time, so of course I’m old and grumpy… You can come hear me say jackass for free.”
Seeds takes the stage at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Saturday, Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. Part of the Performing Arts Centre’s theatre series, tickets are $40/adult, $37/senior, $35/student, with discounts for subscription holders and members.
Visit or contact the Ticket Seller box office at the centre (250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.)