Four decades since Christopher Plummer became an international movie star with his iconic star turn in Robert Wise’s Oscar winning classic "The Sound of Music", Christopher Plummer continues to dazzle audiences on stage and screen with a variety of fascinating and eclectic characters, including both Tolstoy and Dr Parnassus. In “The Last Station” (2009), he delivers a stirring portrayal of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy during his last tumultuous years, in which the author struggled to reconcile his vow of poverty with his enormous wealth.
Plummer earned nominations at the Golden Globes and the Independent Spirit Awards for best supporting actor. Plummer will next be seen in the Terry Gilliam’s mesmerizing "The Imaginarium of Dr Parnasssus", and in this exclusive interview with Paul Fischer, Plummer waxes lyrical about these two disparate films, the stage and yes, that 1965 classic he’d rather not talk about.
Question: It’s incredible to me that the older you get, the richer the roles are for you.
Plummer: On screen. Yes.
Question: On the screen, yes.
Plummer: On the stage, they’ve always been rich.
Question: They’ve always been rich on the stage. On the screen, when – when so many actors are complaining about the dearth of decent roles, you seem to be finding them.
Plummer: You’re absolutely right.
Question: How picky are you in what you decide to do as an actor?
Plummer: Well, I can be picky now, I think. I’ve made enough loot that I can sort of coast, but I don’t want to coast. I want to keep working. And as I get to my advanced age – the prospect of working is three times more attractive, because it keeps you from forgetting that you’re old. I used to pick because of the location, so if it’s the South of France, I don’t care how bad the script is but the Cote D’Azur – well, all right, for six weeks. The Italian Riviera. But that was in the ‘60s, when all those sort of were rather made like that. Everybody had four-hour lunches, and got back to the set, haven't even read the script. And it showed. Those great movie epics, that if I watch them now, I think, “God, they are so slow.” One of my favorite drinking buddies in those days was one of your countrymen, Rod Taylor.
Question: Now when you read this "Last Station" script, how familiar were you with Tolstoy’s life?
Plummer: Well, it isn’t an actual episode in Tolstoy’s life, I don't think. It mirrors what happened. But I thought that was great fun and half the battle to get me to play the part. I thought it was well-written and there was a chance to redeem him from a kind of universal view that he was dry. He wrote these long, heavy going – wonderful though they were, human novels. But was he fun? Did he have a lark every now and then? And yes, of course I grabbed that scene, where he behaves like a young idiot with Helen in the bedroom. And thought just, “Dammit, there must be some wonderful, childish stuff.” He did have to have a mite of the old twinkle about him. That was very attractive. So that was one scene that, as written, made me want to do the film.
Question: Is it important to you, at this particular stage, to do any kind of research on something like this or is it all on the page?
Plummer: Well, of course I’ve read him. We all read him as children, practically. It was almost compulsory to read Anna Karenina and War and Peace, but I did read the letters, which I thought were fascinating and very insightful. There wasn’t much I could glean from them in the performance of this movie, and there are no decent recordings of his voice so you can't imitate him. I just decided to instinctively have fun, and try to make a Tolstoy I thought Tolstoy should be.
Question: Tell me about working with Helen Mirren.
Plummer: That’s an absolute treat. I mean, I’ve known her before, but I’ve never worked with her, I’m always dying to work with her and it was the most fun I have had in a long, long time. I’ve nothing but love, and to enjoy ourselves in our theatrical way.
Question: And talking about theatrical – a performance of yours that I loved was Parnassus, which I saw in Toronto, an extraordinary film by Gilliam. Was he also enormously fun to play? I mean, was this a kind of great theatrical character, for you to tap into?
Plummer: Well, you know, I’ve played so many – I’ve played King Lear, so really, it’s just another theatrical role which, of course, I have to underplay. There was so much going on. I always tell Terry, there’s so much going on in your films, Terry, so many sub-plots, so many stories, so much scenery – and wonderful, wonderful effects to look that I can't do any acting. I’ve just got to underplay this whole person. And I’m glad I made that choice.
Question: Now you worked with Terry before on 12 Monkeys, But it was quite a while ago. How do you think he has evolved as a filmmaker?
Plummer: I thought Parnassus, most of it, was vintage Gilliam. I thought it was a simply beautiful film to look at , the other world that he created. There were some extraordinary effects in it. And bizarre, right up his alley. He had to actually lessen the number of people, and the number of plots, so it would be easier to follow, than some of his films, which get a bit busy.
Question: Do you want to try to return to the stage as often as you can?
Plummer: No, I’m going to be playing Prospero in "The Tempest" next summer. We’ll try it out, and maybe come to New York or London. I don't know, so I’m still cracking the great ones. So is Helen, by the way. Did you know that she just played Prospero?
Question: She played Prospero in The Tempest?
Plummer: Yes. [LAUGHTER] Yes. They call it Prospera.
Question: That’s so funny.
Plummer: And Julie Taymor did the direction.
Question: Directed it? Oh, that’ll be interesting.
Plummer: -- And so, God knows what that’s gonna look like. I thought, “What a terrible thing to do to me. I’m gonna have to wear a dress now.”
Question: So where does this boyish passion for acting come from, that you still seem to have at at this stage in your life?
Plummer: Oh, it’s the most fascinating job. I mean, it’s a vocation, a hobby, a job. It’s everything to me. I won't go as far as saying it’s a religion but I think it’s more fun than religion. It’s – romance, and escape. And I’ve been escaping all my life. I love it.
Question: When you look back at some of your early work, from the ‘60s and ‘70s do you cringe?
Plummer: No. No, I don't think I was that bad. [LAUGHTER] But you’re talking about the screen.
Plummer: I made my mark in the theater, in the mid-‘50s. And I continued to try and keep that standard going for the rest of my life. And I hope I have. Films are another matter. The theater is our medium, and the writers. Screen is the medium of a committee, largely so I'm not responsible for how things ended up.
Question: Do you find it increasingly frustrating when you’ve played this extraordinary array of rich characters on stage, and in some cases on screen, that The Sound of Music is still regarded as your most successful film, and the one that everyone talks about?
Plummer: Well, I suppose that’s the average, because the world has seen it so many times. And there’s a whole new generation every year, poor kids, that have to sit through it. [LAUGHTER] But It was a very well-made movie, and it’s a family movie and we haven't seen a family movie, I don't think, on that scale for ages. I don’t mind that. It just happened to be not my particular cup of tea.
Question: Yet you’ve remained friends with Julie all these years –
Plummer: Oh, yeah. Julie – it had nothing to do with the people involved. It was the subject matter I always found a bit saccharine.
Question: Yeah, singing nuns and Nazis are not really your cup of tea.
Plummer: No, not really. Unless the nuns are interesting, and kind of kinky. [LAUGHTER]
Question: What are your future plans now apart from The Tempest?
Plummer: I have about two or three more films to do, which are coming up. I don’t want to say what they are, because in this particular day and age, the dates change, and suddenly the money goes out then they disappear. But I’ve just made two films in California and one particular good one.
Question: Which one?
Plummer: Called Beginners. It is about a family and it’s a true story. Very cleverly-written by Michael Mills. And that’s a small film, but it’s a super little script. It’s touching and funny. And I hope that can generate some heat.