Christo­pher Plum­mer has been act­ing for seven decades. He’s just warm­ing up

Newsweek - - News - BY ZACH SCHONFELD @zzzza­aaac­c­c­chhh

Christo­pher Plum­mer’s Lat­est Ca­reer

CHRISTO­PHER PLUM­MER IS talk­ing about play­ing Iago, and I am be­com­ing dis­tracted by a mon­key.

For­give me: There is a mag­nif­i­cent paint­ing in Plum­mer’s living room, an 18th-cen­tury portrait of a mis­chievous mon­key raid­ing a fruit plat­ter, and it’s on a wall just over his shoul­der. The ac­tor must be used to guest dis­trac­tion, be­cause my wan­der­ing gaze pro­duces a benev­o­lent chuckle.

Plum­mer’s house—a sprawl­ing, cen­tury-old for­mer barn hid­den in the rolling woods of south­west­ern Con­necti­cut—is a shrine to the an­i­mal king­dom, with crea­tures painted on walls, em­broi­dered on cush­ions and set within frames. Dogs clearly dom­i­nate. “I re­ally like them bet­ter than peo­ple,” Plum­mer con­fesses. “Also, I love to be loved. I need it. And dogs can give you that in two sec­onds.”

Hu­mans might not give it up so fast, but there’s plenty of ado­ra­tion go­ing around, thanks to a late-ca­reer re­nais­sance that makes the 88-year-old Plum­mer’s Sound of Mu­sic star­dom seem like a pre­lude from another cen­tury (which it was, come to think of it).

His lat­est film, the dys­func­tion­al­fam­ily com­edy Bound­aries, stars Vera Farmiga as a sin­gle mom with a trou­bled son. When her neg­li­gent, larger-thanlife, pot-deal­ing father (Plum­mer) is kicked out of his nurs­ing home, the trio road-trip cross-coun­try.

Charis­matic, quick-wit­ted, dev­il­ishly hand­some char­ac­ters are a sweet spot, per­haps be­cause this is the en­ergy Plum­mer ra­di­ates. When he comes out of the house to greet me, he looks un­fail­ingly dap­per in gray slacks and a plaid blazer. The ac­tor has lived here with his third wife, Bri­tish ac­tress Elaine Tay­lor, since the early 1980s. (He has a daugh­ter, ac­tress Amanda Plum­mer, from his first mar­riage to the late Tammy Grimes.)

His Bound­aries char­ac­ter is based on writer-direc­tor Shana Feste’s own father, a drug-deal­ing card­sharp. “He had a real taste for break­ing the law,” Feste says. “My col­lege was paid for in en­velopes of cash.” When a cast­ing direc­tor sug­gested Plum­mer, she thought, No way. “Christo­pher is a mas­ter of Shake­speare and so re­fined, and my father was, you know, in and out of prison and cov­ered in tat­toos and smoked weed all my life.”

But Plum­mer was in­trigued by the screen­play—“i thought, I’d love to play this dread­ful old man who never can find a bed to lie down on”—and brings an ir­re­sistibly naughty el­e­gance to the role. “Some of the most tal­ented ac­tors in the world you can look away from on screen,” says Feste. “You can’t look away from Christo­pher—even when he’s do­ing ab­so­lutely noth­ing.”

Plum­mer found in­spi­ra­tion in his own de­bauched past, back when he was a 1950s Broad­way ac­tor with a taste for booze and women. “There used to be a rule,” he tells me, “that you weren’t a man till you could go through a mati­nee of Ham­let pissed and hun­gover. Which we did!”

At the time, the Toronto-born ac­tor was a mas­ter of the clas­sics—henry V, Ham­let, Cyrano de Berg­erac, Mac­beth—and his bar buddy was Ja­son Ro­bards. “I un­der­stand you were a bit

of a drinker,” I say in po­lite un­der­state­ment. “Ev­ery­body was in the early ’50s,” Plum­mer re­torts. “Don’t shake your gory locks at me! That whole group— God, they were never with­out a vodka. It was great fun.”

Plum­mer is sup­posed to talk about Bound­aries. Trou­ble is, “I’ve for­got­ten the plot. I’ve for­got­ten what the hell my char­ac­ter does.” It was filmed two years ago; a lot has hap­pened since.

In early Novem­ber, he re­ceived an un­usual call. Ri­d­ley Scott needed a speedy re­place­ment for a dis­graced Kevin Spacey, who had played the bil­lion­aire J. Paul Getty in his al­readyshot his­tor­i­cal thriller All the Money in the World. Scott flew in from Lon­don to con­vince Plum­mer, his orig­i­nal choice for the miserly oil baron; his tal­ent for cap­tur­ing his­toric fig­ures is undis­puted, and he was the right age. (The stu­dio pushed for a hot­ter name—a 57-year-old Spacey, who re­quired lay­ers of aging pros­thet­ics.) But Plum­mer was wary. It seemed an im­pos­si­ble task, given the film was to be re­leased in De­cem­ber. “I thought, Je­sus. This sounds...christ,” he says. “And then I thought, Wait a minute. This is kind of ex­cit­ing.”

The ac­tor also has a way with un­sa­vory men, as well as a the­ory about play­ing them. “When you get a sleazy char­ac­ter—like Iago, who was the arch evil of all the char­ac­ters in lit­er­a­ture—you’ve got to find a way to make him as charm­ing as you pos­si­bly can,” says the ac­tor, who played Iago op­po­site James Earl Jones’s Moor in the 1982 Broad­way pro­duc­tion of Othello, for which Plum­mer re­ceived a Tony nom­i­na­tion (he’s been nom­i­nated seven times and won twice). “Same with that unattrac­tive crea­ture Getty.”

Long story short, Plum­mer was in front of the cam­era mere weeks af­ter his talk with Scott, for nine days of fran­tic, last-minute reshoots that cost $10 mil­lion. All the Money in the World was re­leased weeks af­ter that, amid the me­dia cir­cus of Spacey’s re­moval. Soon af­ter, Plum­mer learned he had re­ceived the high­est ac­co­lades for his per­for­mance. “Nine days’ work, and I get an Os­car nom­i­na­tion! A Golden Globe [nom­i­na­tion]! I mean, what?”

So this was a sur­prise? “Oh Je­sus, yes,” says Plum­mer. “I thought, Thank God I re­mem­bered my lines!”

He’d known Spacey over the years, but “Oooh”—an audi­ble shud­der—“i didn’t know any­thing about that,” he says, al­lud­ing cau­tiously to the al­le­ga­tions that Spacey sex­u­ally ex­ploited or as­saulted nu­mer­ous un­der­age men.

Plum­mer is, to put it bluntly, the rare fa­mous male whose ca­reer has ben­e­fited from the “We­in­stein ef­fect.” He is also en­thu­si­as­ti­cally sup­port­ive of the pub­lic reckoning that has fol­lowed. “I think it’s great—of course I do,” he says. “The peo­ple who have [per­pe­trated ha­rass­ment] are just dis­gust­ing. I’m not a prude by any man­ner of means, but they must be so in­se­cure. Why would a good-look­ing man like Char­lie Rose, for ex­am­ple— why would he have to go through that to be a suc­cess­ful lover, for Christ’s sake? I think it’s fan­tas­tic that the girls are now feel­ing free to come for­ward.”

Hav­ing worked in en­ter­tain­ment longer than Spacey has been alive, Plum­mer rec­og­nizes how he has ben­e­fited from the old sys­tem of ex­clu­sion, par­tic­u­larly on the stage. “I played all the great parts in the the­atre,” he says. “Now, the women are go­ing to play all the male parts—in Shake­speare, for ex­am­ple.” He chuck­les. “I’m glad I played them al­ready, be­fore the women came to town!”

plum­mer ex­presses an­noy­ance just once dur­ing our morn­ing together. “God, this whole fuck­ing in­ter­view is go­ing to be about The Sound of Mu­sic!” (Then he chuck­les just lightly enough to re­as­sure me I won’t be ban­ished into the woods of Con­necti­cut.)

I had per­haps gone on about it too long. Plum­mer played Cap­tain von Trapp in the beloved 1965 mu­si­cal. The role re­mains his most fa­mous, though far from his best work. He has been known to re­fer to it as “The Sound of Mu­cus,” or “S&M.”

“It’s just .... It lingers,” Plum­mer says by way of ex­pla­na­tion. “Once you were given that von Trapp im­age, then all the scripts came with the same kind of up­tight son-of-a-bitches, and they were so dull and boring. I couldn’t wait to be a char­ac­ter ac­tor! So boring, be­ing a lead­ing ac­tor, God.”

He and co-star Julie An­drews (with whom he main­tains a close friend­ship) had no clue the film would be­come as mono­lithic as it did, and he ad­mits he mis­be­haved on set in Aus­tria. “I was so ar­ro­gant. I was young. I just loathed von Trapp [the part]. [Direc­tor] Bob Wise—i don’t know how he stood me, ex­cept he al­ways said that I gave him the idea of not be­ing too sen­ti­men­tal.”

Still, Mu­sic brought on more films. He was 35 at the time, a Broad­way mas­ter ini­tially un­com­fort­able in front of cam­eras. Ten years later, he re­ceived the most mem­o­rable di­rec­to­rial ad­vice of his ca­reer, from John Hus­ton, who di­rected 1975’s The Man Who Would Be King. Plum­mer played the author Rud­yard Ki­pling, the film’s

“There used to be a rule that you weren’t a man till you could go through a mati­nee of +LJPOHW pissed and hun­gover. Which we did!”

nar­ra­tor. At one point, he dis­cov­ers the sev­ered head of a char­ac­ter (played by Sean Con­nery). “I’m talk­ing to the head,” says Plum­mer, “and I have a line. It was full of emo­tion. I couldn’t say it right.” Hus­ton, whom he im­i­tates now with a grav­elly croak, said, “‘Chris! Just take…the mu­sic…out of your voice!’”

It was a break­through mo­ment, teach­ing Plum­mer to avoid mawk­ish over­e­mot­ing, and he’s been un­der­play­ing the hell out of ev­ery role he’s been given since. Given his plummy voice, re­gal looks and time­less de­meanor, that meant a cou­ple of decades of play­ing a lot of his­toric dead guys: Ki­pling, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and Arthur Welles­ley, the first Duke of Wellington. Plum­mer’s fil­mog­ra­phy be­came a sur­vey course in en­act­ing his­tory.

And then, just be­fore his 70th birthday, the re­nais­sance be­gan. It was the year he con­trib­uted a daz­zling per­for­mance as news­man Mike Wal­lace in Michael Mann’s whistle­blower drama The In­sider. Roles in A Beau­ti­ful Mind and Spike Lee’s In­side Man, among other films, fol­lowed. He re­ceived his first Os­car nom­i­na­tion in 2010 for play­ing Leo Tol­stoy in The Last Sta­tion.

To any floun­der­ing artist who feels like a fail­ure at 30, con­sider this con­fir­ma­tion: Youth is over­rated. Or per­haps youth is eter­nal, if you can sum­mon the vi­tal­ity and where­withal and un­known dev­ilry to re­main cre­atively vi­brant at 88. “I don’t feel old, to start with,” Plum­mer says. “You’re sort of branded old sud­denly.”

It was dis­ori­ent­ing, for in­stance, when, at 82, he be­came the old­est ac­tor ever to win the Academy Award for best sup­port­ing ac­tor. “I thought, Oh God. I bet­ter be­have!”

That prize was for Be­gin­ners (2011), an in­ven­tive ro­mance co-star­ring Ewan Mcgre­gor. Plum­mer plays his older gay father, who de­cides to come out—and find a boyfriend—af­ter his wife’s death. Plum­mer’s per­for­mance is the pho­toneg­a­tive of his ornery J. Paul Getty, so full of ten­der­ness and zeal and—yes—un­ex­tin­guished sex­u­al­ity. And though he never be­fore had oc­ca­sion to por­tray a queer ro­mance on­screen, “I felt ex­tremely nat­u­ral in it,” he says. “There was no angst or nerves or any­thing.”

There are no plans to re­tire. “When you’re a great age—and they all keep re­mind­ing me how old I am—it’s the healthy thing to do. You’ve got to keep work­ing,” he says. “Some friends of mine [have re­tired], and they’re just ab­so­lutely ru­ined as peo­ple. Aw­ful.” Plum­mer later adds, “I’m go­ing to drop dead on the stage, I hope.”

In a strange way, Be­gin­ners is the film that best epit­o­mizes this phase of Plum­mer’s ca­reer: Although his char­ac­ter has can­cer, it’s also about self-re­newal late in life. Play­ing ten­nis and prac­tic­ing pi­ano keeps him young, says the ac­tor, who has a per­for­mance com­ing up with the Toronto Sym­phony, called Christo­pher Plum­mer’s Sym­phonic Shake­speare (he re­cites). And he’s in talks to play another “fa­mous real man.” (Too early to say who.)

Ev­ery decade seems to bring a Plum­mer resur­gence. “It’s a new ca­reer. It’s ter­rific!” he laughs. “Maybe [in my] 90s I’ll turn into a woman and play all the great parts again!”

CAP­TAIN CHARISMA Clock­wise from top: With Lewis Mac­dougall in Bound­aries; win­ning his Os­car for Be­gin­ners; and with An­drews in Mu­sic, a ɿlm he’s called “The Sound of Mu­cus” and “S&M”—“I just loathed” von Trapp.

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