The people behind Terry Fox's heritage minute

Jay Huumonen, who played Fox, had no prior acting experience

On Sept. 16, Historica Canada released a Heritage Minute depicting the journey of Terry Fox. Maclean’s caught up with Jay Huumonen, the man who acted as Fox, and Grant Harvey, the director of the film. A 37-year-old in Duncan, B.C., Huumonen had no prior acting experience. Like Fox, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma as a teenager.

Q: Can you describe the moment you were asked to play Terry?
A: I was at my parents’ place and got a phone call. What a surprise. All of a sudden, boom, I was going to be an actor to honour Terry Fox. Why would I turn it down? I was a little bit nervous but not really. What an opportunity after basically having the same life as him and going through the same experience as him. It was a meant-to-be kind of thing.

Q: What did you know about Terry before being part of the film?
A: Everything. I studied him my whole life. He was my spiritual mentor who gave me my life force. I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 16, so I was in the children’s hospital and would watch the little ones go. They would quit, but I knew I had to keep going. I owned a pair of Terry’s commemorative Adidas shoes. Most people collect them, but I wore them because Terry wouldn’t want them sitting on a shelf. Those are my ninja sneakers.

Q: What was it like wearing a prosthetic leg like Terry’s?
A: Clench-skip-skip. Clench-skip-skip. It took a lot of dedication and muscle control. My dad helped me train with it in a parking lot, but on the day of the shoot, I wore it for 12 hours straight. It was just a raw steel post, with no cushions inside the socket. I had blisters and a lot of pain in my muscles. It was nice to get it off. Afterwards, I spent a lot of time using just forearm crutches, then eventually put my regular leg back on. It’s cushioned and has a flex foot. The modern ones are made of carbon fibre with lots of flexibility.

Q: If the Heritage Minutes weren’t restricted to 60 seconds, how long would you have liked the film to be?
A: Half an hour or so. It could’ve been even longer to tell Terry’s story.

Q: What will this role mean for you in the future?
A: I’ll be speaking at some Terry Fox Runs this weekend and will bring the leg to talk to kids at schools. I have a dream of running the Malahat (a famous strip of highway on Vancouver Island). It’s about 30 km long through the mountains. I would do it to raise money for both cancer and wildlife. I’m 37 and I’m still here, and I have to have a dream. That’s what Terry taught me. Without him, I wouldn’t have survived.

Grant Harvey has directed two Heritage Minutes in the past—Nursing Sisters and Winnipeg Falcons. He also directs documentaries and works on TV shows including Orphan Black.

Q: How was this Heritage Minute different from the others you have directed?
A: They’re all kind of my babies. The other two are shared moments in Canadian history that would probably otherwise never have been told, but I feel like this is a minute that will make people feel something. It will make people go out to the Terry Fox Runs and maybe go on journeys of their own. It’s a very important minute.

Q: If the Heritage Minutes weren’t restricted to 60 seconds, how long would you have liked the film to be?
A: I feel like the time worked in our favour. His story is so well-told and documented [there are two full-length movies: 1983’s The Terry Fox Story, which can be seen here, and 2005’s Terry], but the cool thing about the Minutes is that you end up having to boil something down to its essence. It’s almost like a movie trailer. Doing a proper movie about him would be pretty great, though. It would be great to show what it was like to be with his brother and friend in that van.

Q: Did you ever cry in the making of the Minute?
A: Production is a funny thing. It’s chaotic and stressful, but you get those moments on set when all the logistics run well. I definitely got misty-eyed watching him run by the van. Everyone had an emotional moment. That’s why making films is addictive. That’s the crack of it. I get goosebumps just talking about it.