If you were about to meet Christopher Plummer for the first time, you might feel apprehensive. He is, after all, the two-time Tony winner once dubbed “the finest classical actor of North America” by The New York Times. He has made more than 100 films, working with the greatest actors of our time. On screen he can be intimidating, using a whistle to keep a band of Lederhosen-clad children in line. He can be iniquitous, trying to dispense with an adorable boy explorer by engineering his fall from a blimp. And he can be imperious. In his steely portrayal of legendary 60 Minutes newsman Mike Wallace, he is addressed by a young lawyer as “Mike” and swiftly corrects,
“Try ‘Mr. Wallace.’ ”
But when you meet the acclaimed thespian in the gravel driveway of his Weston estate and address him as “Mr. Plummer,” he gently says, “Please. Christopher.” He has come to escort you personally into his house, one of four in Connecticut he has called home since the 1950s. Once inside, he offers you a seat on the couch and then a cup of coffee, joking that if he makes it, you might not want to drink it. Immediately, you feel comfortable, as if you were paying a visit to a courtly Connecticut gentleman. But no, it’s Christopher Plummer, the movie star all right—the familiar profile, sly smile, the actor’s fit physique and brilliant eyes.
Further betraying his identity is the backdrop for your interview: a sofa table adorned with framed black-and-white photographs of costars Julie Andrews and Natalie Wood. Those frames, however, only flank the image of his off-screen costar, his wife of more than forty years, Elaine Taylor.
He apologizes for her absence and you settle in for what turns into an hour-long chat, asking first, “Why Weston?”
Born and raised in Canada (his great-grandfather was its first native-born prime minister), Plummer has worked or vacationed everywhere from Budapest to Marrakesh—his memoir, In Spite of Myself, reads like an international Zagat—but Plummer says one of the attractions of Connecticut was its proximity to Manhattan. When he was working in New York during the 1950s, theatre’s golden age, he wanted a spot in the country, and Connecticut reminded him of the English countryside. He adds that he didn’t want the “hysteria” of leaving town to get to the Hamptons, for which he says, “You really need a helicopter to go back and forth.” He laughs, “I’ll be damned if I buy a helicopter!”
The fifties was also the decade in which the actor began his affiliation with the Westport Country Playhouse. Its credits, which read like a Who’s Who of stage and screen stars, list Plummer as a costar in the 1954 production of Home Is the Hero. He fondly recalls the leadership of Playhouse and Theatre Guild founder Lawrence Langner, for whom a street is named in Weston. Plummer says the Playhouse productions during the Langner era were essentially tryouts for Broadway. “We always had a very elegant audience, black-tie for opening nights. Those days have sure gone,” he says with a chuckle. “Now they wear shorts and put their feet up!”
Plummer’s most recent appearance at the Playhouse was in September of 2010 as part of the Westport Public Library’s Malloy Lecture in the Arts. He performed Remembering Archie, combining the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish’s words with his own reflections on the poet. Plummer has also served on the Playhouse Advisory Board but shrugs, “I don’t know that I did much good. I simply don’t know enough about the current youngsters in the theatre. I’d have to go across the country to find out who they are in order to recommend them as artistic directors.”
As for the great Playhouse patrons Joanne Woodward and the late Paul Newman, Plummer says he has known them his entire “theatrical life” and has “great affection for them.” Of Newman, whom he first met in New York during the fifties, Plummer says, “He was extraordinary for what he did for charity. It was unselfish and generous…he just gave everything away.”
Thinking of life around these parts, one wonders what’s it like when local residents bump into Plummer? “They respect your privacy,” he says, acknowledging that this is another part of Connecticut’s charm. “There’s a sort of twinkle of recognition, but they’ve always been very laid-back.”
He says one of his favorite restaurants is The Schoolhouse at Cannondale: an actual schoolhouse built in 1872, restored one hundred years later by actress and vaudeville performer June Havoc when she created Cannondale Crossing in Wilton. Can he go there and not be accosted? “Oh, no, it’s just a family spot,” he says. “It’s fun, unpretentious.”
As for what else he likes to do in Connecticut, Plummer says he loves to play tennis. “I’ve played since I was five years old.” He acknowledges that he is slowly giving up the sport because of his knees. “I’d rather save them for my work.”
DARK and THE LIGHT
It does seem the obvious choice. That work recently included flying to a frigid Stockholm to shoot The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the American adaptation of the first in the late Stieg Larsson’s international smash trilogy. He nabbed the key role of Henrik Vanger, the tycoon who hires journalist Mikael Blomkvist, played by Daniel Craig, to investigate the disappearance of Vanger’s great-niece. Plummer says he loved playing Vanger because “he’s the only nice guy in the whole story and I usually play evil guys.” (One recalls the withering expressions of his characters in Syriana, The Insider and Inside Man and can only agree with his claim.) It was Craig’s brutal rendering of Bond that beat the cheekiness out of the 007 franchise; and he played one tough hombre in this summer’s Cowboys and Aliens. “He’s a pro and great fun. Lovely sense of humor,” says Plummer.
As for that girl with the tattoo, played by newcomer Rooney Mara (Erica from The Social Network), Plummer calls her “refreshing as hell. She’s so young-looking and untouched, that it’s doubly effective when she gets into a Mohawk hairdo and motorcycles off.”
And to Plummer’s mind, their director David Fincher should have won the Oscar for The Social Network. “I thought that was such an important film…here was something that was unattractive and now and real and worrisome, and it was so well done.”
Dragon Tattoo, set for release around Christmas, seems set to be a blockbuster. Plummer dismisses the term, saying, “I think it’ll be a wonderfully sensational movie…I don’t see how it cannot be with Fincher’s taste.” But, he explains, the director is “not out to make a blockbuster…he’s out to make a cracking good movie.”
ROLES of a LIFETIME
Plummer earned cracking good reviews for Beginners, in which he played Hal, a man who comes out of the closet at age seventy-five and exuberantly embraces the lifestyle. It actually wasn’t the first time he played a gay man. “No, just the first who was so blatantly honest about it,” he says.
When urged, Plummer confirms the story of director Mike Mills’s unusual method of getting Plummer and Ewan McGregor (who plays his son) to bond: a skinny jeans shopping spree. “Absolutely true!” Plummer explains that when the director offered to pay, Plummer and McGregor charged up a storm at Neiman-Marcus. “We had a ball laughing and choosing stuff we would never buy just to send them a big, whacking bill…I think it was a clever ruse because Ewan and I immediately hit it off.”
And the role of Hal turned out to be one of his favorite screen roles. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis said the performers in Beginners were charming, particularly “Mr. Plummer, with his killer eyes (still seducing after all these years) and a voice that echoes in your ears.”
There’s that persistent buzz of an Oscar nomination for Plummer, who gracefully demurs, saying, “I don’t talk about that. If it comes, it comes.”
Plummer received a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2010 for his portrayal of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, playing opposite Helen Mirren. He predicted he would lose to Christoph Waltz for his portrayal of a sadistic Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he was right.
“How can that be your first Oscar nomination? ”
“I don’t know.…” He chuckles.
“Does it matter?”
“No, it doesn’t matter a damn. It’s very nice to be nominated….We’re not in the business to win awards.”
Yet he has. Two Emmys: in 1977 for Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers and in 1994 for narrating the children’s classic Madeline. His first Tony came in 1974 for Cyrano. In 1997 he took on the role of legendary actor John Barrymore (the performance inspired caricaturist Al Hirschfeld to proclaim, “He’s a much better Barrymore than Barrymore. Barrymore was so hammy!”)—and won his second Tony.
If you were discussing the trophies while sitting in Christopher Plummer’s home, you’d naturally scan the room for them. “Where do you keep them?”
“You want proof?” he teases.
“Don’t some actors keep them in the bathroom?”
“Oh, they’re all over the joint,” he says.
“But not in the bathroom…?”
“I don’t think so…they might have climbed themselves in, I don’t know…,” he laughs heartily.
ACROSS the BOARDS
Such banter flows naturally for someone who has spent his life in the theater, where not only the play, but improvisation’s the thing. Plummer laments the stage being underappreciated by the current generation of American actors. “Television is the trap because every young actor wants to become a star instantly without doing any of the work or preparation that it takes to be a proper star. And they do become famous and they say, ‘You see? I was right!’ And that lasts for five minutes of fame because they haven’t got the training to go back and sustain it.” He says the theatre is also invaluable because it teaches actors about great writing and great literature.
Plummer himself is the author of a 648-page tome, In Spite of Myself: A Memoir.
“Oh God, you had the guts to get through that? It’s longer than the Bible!”
Alex Witchel in the The New York Times Book Review, became enthused about it: “A finely observed, deeply felt (and deeply dishy) time-traveling escape worthy of a long stormy weekend.”
The rollicking, candid memoir details everything from sexual awakenings to those of the hungover variety. He writes about a seemingly endless cast of fetching females, including a naughty nanny and two previous wives. But when Plummer comes to the passage about the late Natalie Wood…
“You wax wistful.”
“Oh yeah,” Plummer says. “Everybody waxes wistful on Natalie Wood.”
The framed picture in his home captures Wood, dark hair swept over one eye, looking intently at the camera—the shot was taken by the late actor Roddy McDowall.
“Was she the one who got away?”
“You could say that,” he laughs. “I was crazy about her—we were terrific friends, but I had a solid crush on Natalie. Orson Welles said it best: ‘One is always a little in love with Natalie.’”
A “good old friend…an extraordinary lady” is Dame Julie Andrews. In his memoir, Plummer describes her spirit on the set of The Sound of Music: “Her optimism, delicious humour and selfless nature were always on parade. It was as if she’d been hired not just to act, sing and carry the entire film, but to keep everyone’s spirits up as well. She did.” This, despite his own self-described “unconscionable” behavior: food and schnapps binges that required his Tyrolean costumes to be let out, an on-set tantrum, and his general disdain for his character, as the part was originally written (a “cardboard figure.”) His nicknames for the 1965 Best Picture Oscar winner included “S&M” and “Sound of Mucus.” (“We all had nicknames for it. I wasn’t the only one!” he protests). But Plummer recalls attending a children’s Easter party in Connecticut several years ago, where the hostess insisted on playing the film. He describes having a “sudden surge of pride” that he had been part of it.
“Was that the moment when you recognized it as a good movie?”
“No, no, of course I knew it was a good movie, a terrifically well-made movie…I tried to give it some edge…both on screen,” and, he adds, “in the publicity.” And of the fans he might have upset with his earlier criticism, he says, “You can’t get up there and spoil their fun.”
Indeed, he joined in the fun in October of 2010, as the cast reunited on The Oprah Winfrey Show for the movie’s forty-fifth anniversary. “I was dreading it but thought, No, I better go, because I loved the kids. I’m glad I did because it really was a very warm session.” And boisterous. Charmian Carr (Liesl) was not sixteen going on seventeen, but twenty-one when they filmed. When Oprah asks her what she learned from Plummer, Carr says, “I learned how to drink!” And to a few ooh’s from the Oprah audience, Carr confesses to having had a “huge crush” on the actor who played her formidable father.
Plummer admits to being an errant father to real-life daughter Amanda Plummer (her mother is first wife Tammy Grimes). A Tony winner herself, Amanda (who memorably played Honey Bunny in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) is currently
making movies in Japan. “She’s totally original…always doing something strange.” And what is their relationship like now? “When we talk, it’s as if she hasn’t left the room…she’s like a pal.”
But the woman who is “his life” is Elaine.
“Who dat?” he says playfully.
When he met the young actress and dancer Elaine Taylor in Ireland on the set of, coincidentally, Lock Up Your Daughters in the late sixties, “to say I was hopelessly smitten would be the understatement of my life,” he writes. Taylor gave up her career to devote herself to him, something Plummer finds “extraordinary and masochistic all at the same time.” During their courtship, however, she told him she would only see him again if he cut down on the booze. “I still boozed—we both did,” he says, “but not to the extent that I was. Oh yes, she laid down the law about a few things, and I’m very grateful.”
How do they stay together? “I don’t know! It’s just incredible.” He cites having “enormous things in common…it’s never boring because an argument can arise out of anything…so we have some pretty stormy scenes, thank God!” He says they live their separate lives in the sense that they go about their business all day long and get together for dinner. Those dinners are home cooked by Elaine, a Cordon Bleu-trained gourmet. “I think if we weren’t speaking, I’d still turn up at dinner time.”
It’s getting on lunch time and you don’t want to keep Christopher Plummer much longer, although he seems to be in no particular rush. One last question then. Having lived through the golden age of theatre in the fifties, swinging London in the sixties, the seventies (which he professes not to remember) and the last three decades, which brought him rich roles on stage and screen, which era is his favorite?
“It is now…because it surprises me to know that I’m sort of in demand, still, at this exalted age. Whether it’s the fact that all the older actors are dying off and I’m the only one left—that could be true—but I love what I’m doing now.”