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08.30.10

Christopher Plummer on Sex, Booze, and Dogs

From the Stratford Festival, where he's starring in The Tempest, the acting legend clears up a few myths for Lloyd Grove—from his supposed hatred for The Sound of Music to whether he still drinks before going on stage.

In his dissolute youth, when he was a lustful lush, Christopher Plummer had sex at a party with his leading lady while chatting up her husband—or so he wrote in his memoir.

But surely that story can’t be true, can it?

“Yes, it’s absolutely true. Why would I make that up?” Plummer says with a laugh. “I always found him a dull creature anyway.”

Despite his past reputation for behaving like a rake, Plummer must have had enormous self-discipline. “Yes!” he agrees, “God, you had to, if you drank so much. You have to counteract it with something.”

At 80, Plummer has lost none of his appetite for adventure, even if he’s cut down on his drinking and has been married to the same woman—his third wife, the actress Elaine Taylor—for four decades. One of the world’s most celebrated actors, he’s lost none of his zest for work: As he talks by phone from the Stratford Festival in his native Canada, he’s preparing to go on stage as Prospero in The Tempest—a three-month run that ends Sept. 12.

“I’m going on tonight,” he tells me, in the middle of a discussion about My Dog Tulip, an animated film, opening Wednesday, in which he voices the human protagonist and narrator. “I usually come in early and go through the play. We don’t do it every night, it’s in repertory, so there are, like, three nights off—a long time to be away from it. So I generally walk around alone and go through the piece.”

Does he limber up with yoga?

“No,” Plummer answers. “I used to drink heavily before the show. I’ve given that up, and I think that was a bad idea.” Is he a teetotaler? “No, I drink wine now. I can’t get food down without wine.”

Plummer voices the late British writer J.R. Ackerley in the animated adaptation of Ackerley’s classic novel of man and man’s best friend. But this is no sappy, cutesy confection concocted for kids.

“Thank God it isn’t,” Plummer says. “It’s not sentimental or cloying at all, and that’s why I like it so much. It has a sense of humor. I’d never read Ackerley, so I was delighted with this new look at dogs—a very realistic one that doesn’t spare us at all. I love it for its truthful, down-and-dirty look at dogs. I’m crazy about dogs. If there is one criticism I have, I think there is one dump too many.”

Indeed, Ackerley—who wrote My Dog Tulip in 1956, about his 14-year-long “ideal friendship” with an Alsatian bitch named Queenie—had a decidedly unromantic view of earthly existence, having been wounded in combat as an officer in World War I and later living in London’s gay demimonde as a staffer for the BBC. The film, which features hand-drawn, computer-assisted animation reminiscent of the style of New Yorker cartoons, is at once clinical and lyrical, like Ackerley’s writing. And, yes, as Plummer suggests, it pays close attention to biological processes and substances that probably aren’t fit for dinner-table discussion.

It also features one of the last performances Lynn Redgrave gave before dying, at 67, of breast cancer in May. My Dog Tulip is dedicated to Redgrave, who voices Ackerley’s sister Nancy.

“I was a great friend of Lynn’s,” Plummer says, “and I’m just devastated that she’s left us, because she was a super, super lady and super actress—one of the nicest actresses I’ve ever known. She was fighting so hard to survive, and she lost the battle.”

As for Plummer, whose brief first marriage, to actress Tammy Grimes, produced actress Amanda Plummer, he has survived and thrived. “I’m the same as I’ve always been. I just have as much fun and as much excitement as I’ve always had,” he says. “I don’t feel very different from when I was 50. If you want me to say I break down every night and have to be carried off, that would be a lie.”

Plummer—who, in a terrible miscarriage of justice, has never won an Oscar, but has received many theater awards, including two Tonys—says he doesn’t get nervous before a live performance. “No, I get excited. That’s a different kind of nerves,” he says. “The nerves I get have never been negative nerves; they have always been energized into the performance.”

There have been moments on stage when he has been so transported that he’s even been able to ignore the pain of a broken ankle, a dislocated knee, or the passing of a kidney stone.

“Once you’re on stage you forget about all that stuff. It’s amazing,” he tells me. “It’s like an anesthesia takes over. The responsibility of doing your job in front of a thousand people takes your mind off your troubles.”

Plummer was born into a distinguished and powerful family—his great-grandfather was Canada’s first native-born prime minister—but his parents divorced when he was a boy and his father vanished, leaving him to his own devices while his mother held down various jobs. Before finding his true calling at age 16, he’d aspired to be a concert pianist, and as a teenager, he saw Rachmaninoff perform.

“I studied classical, I loved jazz,” he says. “I wanted very much to be a pianist at one time. Then I thought, oh Christ, that’s much too hard work, and a terribly lonely life. I chose a more gregarious profession.” He adds that he admired the late legendary Arthur Rubinstein as much for his “social life” as for his pianism. “He was a ladies’ man down to the last second,” Plummer says. “He had an amazing prowess.”

Does Plummer still tickle the ivories?

“Yeah. When I’ve had a few.”

Speaking of The Sound of Music—as in the 1965 blockbuster that raised Plummer’s profile as Captain Georg von Trapp, opposite Julie Andrews—he mocked it for years afterward, alternately calling it “the sound of mucus” and “S&M.”

“It’s not my cup of tea, that’s all, and somebody had to be cynical,” Plummer says of the role that gave him his big break in Hollywood. “Of course I don’t loathe it. It’s a really good movie of its kind. I think it’s Julie’s best picture—she’s wonderful in it…I remember Robert Wise [the director] would say, ‘If it’s too sentimental, I always look over at Chris Plummer to see if he’s scowling, and if he is, I know it’s a little bit mawkish.’”

Plummer, who lives in Weston, Connecticut, a gilded enclave of green estates 45 miles northeast of Manhattan, is fiercely proud of being Canadian, especially when his nationality is disrespected. “When I was in England for the first time, way back at the Royal Shakespeare Company, they interviewed me at the BBC in Birmingham,” he recounts. “And this terribly pompous chap asked his first question, ‘You’re Canadian, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘I am.’ And he said, ‘Isn’t it funny. As far as the profession is concerned, we only think of Raymond Massey and then stop.’ I was so angry and humiliated, I didn’t know what to say.”

Plummer actually went home and compiled a list of famous Canadians, which included Walter Pidgeon, Mack Sennett, Louis B. Mayer (a Polish Jew who lived for a time in New Brunswick before immigrating to the United States)—and would now include so many pop-culture icons (everyone from Lorne Michaels to Marshall McLuhan to Plummer himself) that Americans might legitimately feel threatened by Canadian cultural imperialism.

Plummer laughs at the notion. “When I come back to Canada, there’s hardly anyone here in this country,” he says. “They’re all in our profession in the U.S. There’s only 26 people here anyway.”

After he finishes his run with The Tempest, Plummer is off to the Toronto Film Festival to help promote his next movie, Beginners, in which he plays a gay man 10 years younger than his off-screen age. “It’s a charming, very touching little script,” he says, “and if it’s pushed well, I think it might have a chance at the awards.” Then, Plummer adds, “I’m going to do a film in New York, but I’m not going to tell you what it is yet. Until the ink is dry on the paper, I don’t believe in talking, but it’s supposed to start shortly, and it’s a good script.”

I tell Plummer that, despite his past reputation for behaving like a rake, he must have had enormous self-discipline.

“Yes!” he agrees, “God, you had to, if you drank so much. You have to counteract it with something, and I guess discipline was the mark. I used to be late, and it was really Katharine Cornell [who hired him to understudy Tyrone Power in the 1953 production of The Dark Is Light Enough] who sobered me up about being on time, after the experience of turning up too late and almost being fired by Miss Cornell. I owe her a lifetime of thanks, because I was never late again.”

Does Plummer have any advice for Lindsay Lohan?

“No,” he cackles. “I’ve given up advising Lindsay Lohan.”

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Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.