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