OSCARS: Christopher Plummer — 'Beginners'

In a feature film career spanning more than half a century (starting with Stage Struck in 1958), Christopher Plummer has played heroic roles from Roman general Commodus to Sherlock Holmes and, most memorably, Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Yet the 81-year-old Canadian was never satisfied being the leading man, preferring the challenge of darker character parts — think Detective Mackey in Dolores Claiborne in 1995. For all the respect and acclaim he’s earned for such a diverse filmography, though, Plummer has received precisely one Oscar nomination: a supporting nod for The Last Station in 2010.

Plummer is in the running for his first Oscar again, for a different kind of heroic role, in Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical second feature Beginners. He plays Hal, who at 75 reveals his hidden homosexuality to his grown son Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Feisty, upbeat and — sorry, captain — coming off as very much a leading man, Plummer entertained an enthusiastic audience in Hollywood following a recent screening of Beginners. Deadline Awards Columnist Pete Hammond was there to guide the conversation. Here are some highlights.

On his unpredictable choices in roles
I’ve always tried to be as versatile as I possibly could, because to play the same kind of creature all the time — in fact to be a movie star — must be terribly boring because you’re always playing yourself, really. I went into this business because I thought what a wonderful way to hide, and disguise myself, and play as many different kind of creatures as you can. That, to me, is what acting and the theatre and the movies is all about.

On other actors who’ve followed a similar path
I’ll never forget, Gregory Peck, who was one of the nicest people I’ve known of the old guard Hollywood, he did that film for [David O.] Selznick, Lust In The Dust they called it, [actually Duel In The Sun]. His fans wrote him, bombarded him, with terrible insulting letters because he played the bad guy. And he wasn’t used to doing that, he was always playing himself, always the good guy, the hero. And he played a real villain in that and it almost killed him.

On Beginners
I found it a touching little film, and funny, and I had the most wonderful fun making it. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed making a film so much as this. Maybe I should always play gay people.

On working with a young director like Mills
I adored working for Michael. He’s only done, I think, two features, and you would think he was an old veteran of 200 films. He was so secure. I mean maybe inside he was dying, but he never showed it.

On working with McGregor
He’s extraordinary isn’t he? I mean he’s more anonymous on the screen than anybody I’ve ever known. He’s extraordinary. It really isn’t acting at all. He’s listening and reacting and he does it so beautifully. I love him. He’s a great guy; he’s got a great sense of humor.

On the challenge of playing a character inspired by the director’s father
I was terribly nervous. I thought, “Oh God, he’s going to be so picayune about everything because I’m doing his father. So I don’t think I’m going to enjoy this very much.” And then I met Michael and he said “For God sake, just do anything you want. I don’t care. You couldn’t possibly have known my father and he was dead … so do what you want and that’s fine.” And that was the nicest bit of direction I’ve ever had in my life. Because he had written such a witty little script, it was very easy.

On what he looks for in a director
Just what Mike Mills turned out to be actually. He just left you alone. The best directors are the ones who know if they cast right, their job is almost over. John Huston said that to me [on The Man Who Would Be King in 1975]: “My job is over, yours has just begun.”

On how his acting changed after he reached his 40s
By that time if you’ve worked hard and done your prep, all the time in the theatres, you amass a certain amount of technique that you trust and you don’t have to worry about. You know your voice can do certain things, you know your body can do certain things, or not, as the case may be, and your choices are much easier to make. I think it’s more fun as you get older. In my case it is.

On directors he’d like to work with
I would love to work with [Martin] Scorsese. I almost did twice but something happened. … And [Steven] Spielberg of course. Who doesn’t want to work with these guys?

On a favorite director he has just worked with, on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher is an extraordinary director. And bless his heart, a wonderful sense of humor, thank God! Because he does do lot of takes. If you do a lot of takes and you have no humor, you want to kill that director. And in his case, he’s terribly funny and easy to tease. You can say, “What’s this David? Is this 25 or 30?” and he’ll play along. He’ll have fun. A fabulous director. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who on the screen captures the atmosphere of the story more quickly or more deftly than he does. He’s always been wonderful.

On still waiting for his first Oscar
The only thing I can think of is Charlie Chaplin was 82 when he got his first Academy Award and he said, “Can you believe it? Can you believe it?”

  1. Thanks for this summation of the conversation. Plummer of course is one of the great actors of the world and I consider myself blessed to have seen his Cyrano and Iago and Barrymore, as well as him in Pinter, on stage.

    A brief anecdote: when filming The Insider in the Fall of 1998, I had finished reading most of the relevant articles and transcripts and books, including Mike Wallace’s memoir. I was curious how Plummer would do him and before my own time to work, drove down to Orange County to watch him film a 60 minutes segment. What was readily apparent is that, unlike Wallace – who was an actor who found a workable persona and then stayed with it for ife – Plummer became him with ease, and then shifted to his latest venture.

    He is the type of actor who would have been at ease at the Globe with Shakespeare 400 years ago. Award or not – and I certainly expect him to be on stage next week – he has been, and remains, a winning actor.

    1. He is the classic stage actor in that for most of his life he did film work to pay the bills which allowed him to do the SERIOUS work of acting on stage. So I don’t think Oscars means as much to him as it does others because at least up here in Canada he is considered our greatest actor, due solely to his stage credits.

  2. Nice story. My favorite Plummer is the little-seen Canadian flick “The Silent Partner” with Elliot Gould. OMG, Plummer is the villain of villains in that one. Amazing work.

  3. Don’t forget some of his funnest and over the top roles, like Chang from Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country or Reverend Jonathan Whirley in 1987′s Dragnet and Atahualpa in Royal Hunt of the Sun, a personal favorite.

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