Having just turned eighty a few weeks back, actor Christopher Plummer has been having quite a phenomenal year, and it isn’t over just yet.
Earlier this year, he provided his voice for two of the year’s most innovative animated films, Pixar’s Up and Shane Acker’s 9, and this month, he stars in two movies that couldn’t be any different – he plays Russian author Lev Nikolayevich (Leo) Tolstoy in Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station as well as the title character in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, the latest fantasy tale from Terry Gilliam, visionary filmmaker of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
When ComingSoon.net sat down with Mr. Plummer a few weeks back, it was mainly for The Last Station, which explores the relationship between Tolstoy and his wife Sofya, played by Helen Mirren, during the author’s last days. Their loving marriage has turned into a turbulent one, as it’s racked by the paranoia from Tolstoy constantly being surrounded by sycophants and yes men who believe his emotional wife isn’t a good influence for him to have around during his ailing days. Plummer and Mirren’s amazing scenes together as the Tolstoys have already gotten them a number of prestigious awards nominations including Golden Globes, Independent Spirits and Screen Actors Guilds, and some think this might finally get Plummer the Oscar nomination he’s been sorely deserving (and lacking) since he first started acting over 50 (!) years ago.
Regardless, we did try to cover a lot of ground, because who knows how many other chances we’ll have to talk to Mr. Plummer in the future?
ComingSoon.net: So I talked to Michael who’s just a really lovely man, just really, really nice.
Christopher Plummer: You liked Michael Hoffman?
CS: I did, I did like Michael Hoffman.
Plummer: That’s extraordinary.
CS: I know, you don’t meet many people like that.
Plummer: No, you don’t.
CS: The funniest thing was that I always imagined him to be British and it was really surprising that he wasn’t British.
Plummer: No, he’s from Idaho or something. A Rhodes scholar who comes from Idaho. It’s sort of weird, but he lives in England.
CS: Yeah, it is very strange, maybe it’s just because he did a Shakespeare movie “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that I assumed that.
Plummer: I loved “Restoration.” I thought “Restoration” was a fascinating movie, again, gorgeous sets which I think won the award for that year as the best setting.
CS: I didn’t realize that. So how did he approach you about doing “The Last Station”? Was it just simply sending you the script? Did he tell you anything about why he wanted you to do it?
Plummer: It was very simple. He sent me a script and I liked it. I thought, “How wonderful that you can humanize Tolstoy in the minds of people,” because a lot of people think Tolstoy is the great untouchable genius who wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” and all those long, long Russian novels. He must be terribly dry and remote. Well, that’s absolutely not true of course when you read his letters and find out that he was such an extraordinary human person and I thought the script captured that. Even though it concentrated on the marriage part of his vast life, it was a wise choice, then you could get two actors who are in a similar age group to play it with their experience. So, I thought, “Yeah, those are two terrific starring roles really.”
CS: Had he mentioned to you that he had read a lot of Chekhov and that was something that inspired him to write the script?
Plummer: Well, we all had read a lot of Chekhov and some of us have played a lot of Chekhov, so the atmosphere around the film was more Chekhovian than Tolstoyian of course because what do we know about Tolstoy? We do know about Chekhov because we played him so often, and he’s a playwright, not a novelist, but he wrote prose, but he also…
CS: We know him more from his plays.
Plummer: Yes, yes, and the atmosphere at that time in Russia always strikes us Westerners as Chekhovian rather than Tolstoy.
CS: What’s interesting is that, and we see a little bit of this in the movie, is that he had all these men with notebooks documenting everything he says and does, including people filming him, and yet we don’t really know that much about Tolstoy as a person.
Plummer: No, I was very surprised that there was so much sort of adulation, that he walked around like a rock star and people followed him and took down everything he said. It was absolutely amazing.
CS: So did you look at some of those films or did you read some of those diaries that either he wrote or were written by those around him?
Plummer: Yes, I did. I looked at some of those films, yeah, but there’s no sound. It actually wasn’t much help except that it was fascinating to look at him, but we all know what he looks like. I mean, it’s very easy; you can put a beard on yourself, you will look Tolstoyian in three seconds. You know… a long one.
CS: Michael said that when you came on set you kind of just threw away the whole icon of being Tolstoy from the get-go.
Plummer: Oh yeah, absolutely, deadly important. I think that would not just go for Tolstoy but any icon and hugely famous creature of history. You must sort of immediately throw that aside and go try and capture the inner core that you imagine if you don’t know if yourself, of course.
CS: You’ve obviously played so many roles. Do you approach each one of them very differently or do you have very specific things you do to get into character whether you’re playing a real person or not?
Plummer: No, I just have fun. I’m at that stage where I have enough technique over the years. I don’t have to worry about that. If it’s Tolstoy then that’s number 310 I think. There’s a way of doing this character, there’s a way of doing that character. In the case of Tolstoy I had to rely totally on my instincts because there’s no frame of reference there other than what we know about what he thought. But, that’s not necessarily what’s in the script. So, one played the script as best one could and it was a joy to play it ’cause it was well written.
CS: What about Dame Helen? I think anyone who sees this movie is just blown away by the two of you on screen together, not just the nice moments, but just the range of emotion you two show together as a married couple. Had you worked with her before?
Plummer: No, I never have. I met her before and knew her a little bit and always had a crush on Helen. Anyway, she was great. I’ve loved her acting. I’ve seen her. I saw her in the Royal Shakespeare in the ’70s as Cressida and I’ve loved her ever since. So it was great to work with her. I know her husband Taylor (Hackford) and we just had a ball. I mean, it was one laugh a minute really. I mean, she’s a joy to work with, because she’s an old pro. She trusts herself and I trust myself and we just had fun and I think that’s what the Tolstoys must’ve done… when they were speaking.
CS: That comes across in both this movie and in “Parnassus,” where it’s really evident that you’re having fun while playing those characters. For some reason, I would think that when you’ve done any job as long as you’ve been acting, you’d eventually get tired of it, so what keeps you going?
Plummer: But everything is different. There’s a difference in every role you play. It’s a totally new life and it really starts from scratch again. You have to start from the beginning and find the way to grab the character and some takes longer than others, but it’s the joy of discovery that is all about our art. It is an art, acting, people forget it. It is just about the oldest profession in the world. Of course, I’m in it because of the theater mostly because I am a theater actor just like Helen is and that’s where you get the great roles and that’s our medium. So, it’s so nice when in a movie a literate script comes along and one that has lots of drama and rather theatrical as Tolstoy’s last days were actually.
CS: Absolutely. I’ve talked to a lot of younger actors who are very clear on their goals, but at this point in your career, do you still feel like you need to challenge yourself?
Plummer: Of course. I’ve got about six or seven or eight parts I want to play before I croak and all of them are huge.
CS: Can you share one of them?
Plummer: Well, yeah, I’d like to do “Volpone” for example, I’m dying to do “Volpone,” it’s a Ben Johnson outrageous comedy. I’m doing Prospero next summer in “The Tempest,” Shakespeare, so that’s taken care of. That means I’ve wrapped up all the great Shakespearian roles. Now I want to try and do the Jacobeans. Oh yeah, there’s Falstaff maybe. I haven’t done that.
CS: That surprises me that you haven’t had a chance to play Falstaff.
Plummer: It’s a big guy and it’s hard wearing those costumes.
CS: I can see that, yeah. I want to ask about the experience working with Terry Gilliam because obviously this movie is closer to theater than most movies. That movie, I have to imagine must have been completely insane working in that weird caravan, that environment with all those strange ideas.
Plummer: Terry is just crazed himself. I mean, it’s just wonderful. He’s wonderfully mad and has such a fabulous imagination. I think it’s great fun working with him. It drives you crazy, but in the nicest possible way. I’d work with him on anything. I’ve worked with him before so I knew what to expect.
CS: This is a great role, Dr. Parnassus.
Plummer: Yes, it was and I’m thrilled he asked me to do it. I think it’s vintage Gilliam that movie. I think it’s Terry at his best, particularly in the visuals. It’s such an interesting story and it’s a wonderful story. There’s a sort of poignancy about it too which creeps in which is nice.
CS: Absolutely. It’s been quite a banner year for you since you also had voice roles in two really wonderful animated movies, “Up” and “9.” When you were doing the voices on those, did Peter and Shane Acker describe everything your character was seeing or did you just read the lines as they were and then found out later what was going on?
Plummer: Well, no, I think they’re discovering it as they go along because there’s many sessions where you change all the dialogue. Suddenly it feels, “Oh, it’s not going in the right direction,” then they’ll rerecord. So, I think that inventing and half-drawing while they’re taking from you in some instances–that’s why there’s always a camera on you when you’re doing the voices, so they can capture something of what you do with your hands. No, that was fun, but it’s quite dry because you don’t know anything about the movie. You haven’t seen it at all.
CS: Right, and you don’t have any other actors to bounce off of.
Plummer: No, no, you do it by yourself. But when I saw it, I must say I was astounded. I thought it was a marvelous little movie. It took me completely aback.
CS: As an actor, you do movies like this one you have all your sets and costumes around you planned, then you have movies like those where you don’t have any idea what the final product might be like.
Plummer: That’s the nature of animation. You really aren’t in on it and they haven’t discovered it themselves until it’s all over and they spend the next two years in the editing room.
CS: Have you been approached to do any kind of motion capture or performance capture type stuff yet?
Plummer: What is that?
CS: Performance capture, that’s the thing that Robert Zemeckis has been doing with movies like “The Christmas Carol” where the actors perform the parts and they capture their movements and facial expressions, which they use as basis to create the animation out of that.
Plummer: Oh yes, you mean rather like “Beowulf.”
CS: Yeah, exactly like “Beowulf.”
Plummer: I’m not crazy about that I must say. I think wearing all that body muscle stuff that “Beowulf” had to go–‘d rather have my own body up there on the screen.
CS: It’s such a different way of doing animation but they also are capturing more of your original movements and using them.
Plummer: Yeah, it’s interesting, but I would rather have an honest to God animation… a drawing.
CS: So now that you have this and “Parnassus” and these two animated movies, have you shot any other movies for next year?
Plummer: Yeah, I’ve made two already in California. They’ll be coming out. I’m making one, after that I’m going back to the theater and I’ll make some more movies. It’ll just go on. I’ve got about three or four coming out. I don’t want to talk about them because, let’s see what happens.
CS: You’re staying very busy.
Plummer: I’m constantly busy.
Plummer: I love this profession. I’ve had more fun in it than any. I’ve had great rewards from it. I’m just crazy about it. It’s a great profession you know.
CS: It’s great to see so many good actors getting even better roles as they get older.
Plummer: On the screen. You see, we’re talking about a profession that the screen is only one part of it. There’s radio, there’s the theater. The theater is where all the great roles are.
CS: But you’re doing everything. You stay in theater, you stay in film.
Plummer: I think that’s the way to do it. Variety is the spice of life. I mean, it’d be boring just to be a movie actor.
CS: So if you had to give advice to a younger actor, would that be the way to go?
Plummer: No, I’d just say have as much fun as you possibly can and that you have to love it more than anything else in the world to be able to stick to it and if you don’t… get the hell out ’cause it’ll only hurt you. Rejection is a hard thing to take. I mean, you gotta learn it when you’re young. You gotta learn how to take it and surmount it and go on.
CS: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to say about “The Last Station?”
Plummer: No, I just hope they will love it. I think people do because they identify with that marriage crisis.
CS: Michael was saying that all the executives, as soon as they saw the movie, were all talking about their own marriages.
Plummer: (Laughs) I know.
The Last Station will (re)open in New York and L.A. on January 15. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is now playing in New York and L.A. and will expand into more cities on January 8. You can read our interview with Terry Gilliam here and watch for our video interview with Michael Hoffman coming up soon.