Enter Stage Right
Christopher Plummer, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor last year for his role in Beginners, presented at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony (proudly sporting his Order of Canada pin). One of the most gifted actors of all time, he is the oldest actor ever to win an Oscar. Plummer was also Zoomer magazine’s summer 2010 cover star. Read the full story below.
Cement floors are hell on the body. When the actor Christopher Plummer walks into the small lounge for our interview, he moves slowly, carefully. The leather club chairs are eschewed for a more upright, straight-backed one, and he gingerly lowers himself into it and smiles. “It’s my back,” he explains. “The stage here is cement, which is tough on actors. A lot of modern stages are padded.
At 80 years of age, this star of stage and screen is in high demand, and for characters that don’t relegate him to elderly sages or grumpy old men. Indeed, his roles are as compelling and groundbreaking as any he played in his youth.
Wearing his signature scarf and sipping a cup of coffee, he is excited to be back here. In 2008, he starred in the production of Caesar and Cleopatra. In 2002, he headlined King Lear, eventually taking the production to New York’s legendary Lincoln Center. In fact, Plummer’s history with Stratford goes back to 1956 when he appeared in Henry V and he has performed at the venue off and on ever since.
Which brings up his decision to play Prospero at this point in his career. “It’s expected in a way. You know, toward the end of your life you’re going to play Prospero. Everybody thinks of it as a sort of farewell to the stage,” he admits. “Well, it’s not farewell as far as I’m concerned. I hope to keep working for the next 10 or 20 years.”
His autobiography, In Spite of Myself, was published two years ago to positive reviews — a response that thrilled Plummer. “It blew my mind,” he confesses modestly. “People thought it was a good history of the theatre as well. I never wanted it to be a ‘me, me, me’ book, which it wasn’t.” A portion of the Stratford chapters were excerpted in this magazine in 2008 and described quite a raucous place, brimming with booze, women and mad antics that belie the calm atmosphere of this bucolic town. One wonders if this mayhem still exists behind backstage doors.
Of course, a lot has happened since the ’60s and, indeed, in the two years since the publication of his memoir. In 1965, the enormous success of The Sound of Music catapulted Plummer to superstardom. Decades and many film, stage and television roles later, he made a small film, The Last Station, released in 2009, which brought him several award nominations, including his first-ever Academy Award nomination this year. He says it was nice to get the nomination but admits he was surprised it was for that film. “Although I thought the movie was a very good little movie, but it was a sort of gentle movie, except for a few theatrical flare-ups between Helen and myself, and I didn’t expect it.”
Helen, of course, is Oscar-winning, Dame and, at 64, frequent member of various world’s sexiest women lists, Helen Mirren. They’ve been friends for years but The Last Station was their first time working together. “I think that that’s the honour, you know, the five top performances and so on. To be among them is honour enough. Somebody’s got to win, but we can’t be compared to each other. The subject matter and the roles are so different. So I was thrilled.”
Thrill aside, once it became clear that his performance was gathering momentum, Plummer found himself in the throes of award season, posing on the red carpet and attending special luncheons and photo calls. “It’s a shame in a way that awards have to be taken so seriously and blown out of all proportion because, while it’s nice to receive them, particularly when it’s your own peers that are voting, it’s not what we are in it for,” he explains. “We’re here to do some extraordinary work, if we can, and one has spent one’s whole life doing that without any kind of Oscar nod. So, I just think that awards are just for business, really, they’re business awards.”
Plummer knows the business inside and out. He has spent his career moving shrewdly and seamlessly between film and stage roles. For an actor of his magnitude and gravitas, performing Shakespeare is a given, but I wonder how difficult it is to choose a screenplay that doesn’t come with the pedigree of The Tempest. “First of all, it has to have some quality. Or, if it doesn’t, it has to have money,” he grins boyishly. “So you’re either doing the money picture or you’re going to do the quality picture. And both are terrific because the money picture makes you able to afford to go back and do the theatre, and the quality picture keeps you in the minds of good filmmakers.”
He is not one to complain or coddle his injuries, telling me that, around 25 years ago, doctors told him he needed a knee replacement, but he just kept going and has been fine eversince. Which brings up his next point: actors are athletes, and this requires dedication to the physical self. “People think it’s all done with mirrors. We have to do some strangely difficult work,” he explains, adding that The Tempest requires cast members to fly through the air with the help of wires, and others need to call on their dance and acrobatic backgrounds. “You play a great play like The Tempest, it’s long — two-and- a-half hours. You’ve walked round and round. You’ve walked, oh God, several, several miles.” And all on that cement floor.Back pain aside, Plummer insists it is his work that has helped his endurance. “It does damage but it also keeps you young,” he explains. “Keeps you alive and your body in tune.”
And then there’s the mind. “[The theatre] is a great challenge for memory,” he says of its need for pages upon pages of memorization. “That’s the most important thing you have in life. This is a wonderful exercise to keep it alive.”
And having a wife, Elaine Taylor, whom he married in 1970, with a Cordon Bleu cooking background has its advantages. “Another thing that kept me going was a proper diet. It’s vitally important,” he says. “My wife has great instincts. She knows just what to put in.”
He has also called retirement “death.” “I love working because it keeps you alive,” he says. “I can’t think of anything worse than retirement and I feel so sorry for people who retire at an early age. Their lives are over, they really are. All they do is play golf and watch television. Unless they have some extraordinary resources and they want to do a second career.”
Fortunately, Plummer’s chosen path allows him to constantly reinvent and challenge himself, staving off any feelings of boredom. “I always say that it’s sad that most people are not happy with what they’re doing, that they spend their lives and can’t wait to get out of their job and retire. I can’t wait for my next job in my profession.”
Up next for Plummer is a film role as a 70-year-old widower who comes out to his son, played by Ewan McGregor, after his wife dies. It is the first time Plummer has played a gay character. “I was thrilled to play it, and it was very well written.” It also marks the first time he performs a kissing scene with a man, the Croatian actor Goran Visnjic, who rose to fame as the resident heartthrob on ER after George Clooney departed.
If you read his autobiography, one thing is perfectly clear, Plummer has a way with the ladies, so kissing a man must have been, at the very least, unusual if not uncomfortable. He nods, admitting that both he and Visnjic, stood on set grunting about it.
“I’m not going to kiss, I’m not going to kiss and all that nonsense,” he laughs. “There were no naked love scenes but there’s great tension in it.” The film, Beginners, is based on a memoir and is still finding distribution. He is also in negotiations for two other films, but those remain under wraps. Plummer also admits to the possibility of taking The Tempest to New York as he did with Lear. In other words, he’s booked until 2012.