Usually, when Christopher Plummer appears in a movie, the audience knows to expect a heavy that will narrow his ice blue eyes at a subject and diminish him or her with a withering glare (think Mike Wallace in The Insider or Detective John Mackey grilling Dolores Claiborne.)
But director Mike Mills intuited that there was more to the 82-year-old actor when he asked him to star in his latest film, Beginners.
“Christopher is irreverent and funny and rascally,” he said. “He is very pro-jubilance.”
This may sound strange considering that Plummer plays Hal, a 75-year-old father who comes out of the closet after a 44-year marriage and soon after, dies of cancer. But Plummer never saw the role as a downer. Hal, who is loosely based on Mills’ own father, is the kind of guy who wolfed down shots in his hospital bed and called his son in the middle of the night to tell him how much he enjoyed the techno music at a gay bar.
“It was an ecstatic role and so different from all the old men who you see dying in these slow sentimental roles,” said Plummer via telephone from New York. “Hal dies without sentimentality. There is great hope in this story. His own death and coming out of the closet forces everyone to begin again.”
Plummer, a great stage actor who has played nearly every Shakespearean figure, has always been allergic to sentimentality. This, of course, is odd considering he starred in one the schmaltziest movies ever made— The Sound of Music. It’s an experience he would rather forget.
The desperately stiff Capt. Von Trapp, who was forced to say such wretched lines as, “Fraulein Maria, did I or did I not say that bedtime is to be strictly observed in this household?” was a frustrating role for Plummer.
“We were all trapped,” he said. “I think the writer had Rochester in mind from Jane Eyre but he got stuck somewhere. I don’t think anything could help it, and as a film, once you were in it you were in prison.”
It took decades to escape the typecasting that The Sound of Music wrought. With Beginners, which also stars Ewan McGregor, it seems Plummer has come full circle.
“I had an absolute ball,” he said. “It was one of the most relaxed roles I have ever played on the screen.”
The fact that Hal is gay and Plummer is a well-documented heterosexual did not seem to phase him. Besides, he said, the movie is not so much about being gay as it is about being true to yourself. Through his father’s disclosure and his subsequent lust for life, McGregor’s Oliver is able to try a hand at his own relationship with an equally scared “beginner” played by French actress Mélanie Laurent ( Inglourious Basterds).
“We were all trapped,” he said about The Sound of Music.
Although Plummer comes to every set prepared with his take on a character, he would rather not discuss how he arrives at it. Acting, he said, is acting.
“It’s a mystery and it should remain a mystery,” he said. “There is too little mystery today. Everything is wide open and exposed and there is no privacy. If you take the mystery out of magic or tricks, what is the fun?”
Because of Mills’ autobiographical relationship to the material, Plummer feared that in playing the director’s “father” reality could infringe upon the film.
“I thought, ‘I am going to have to play the father and [Mills] would never leave me alone,” he said.
But Mills said that his biggest fear was that the film would turn into a self-pitying mush of memories about him and his father.
“I wanted to tell a story and reach out to people and so I said to Christopher, ‘You need to make it real and your own,’” Mills said. “Hal is a great collaboration between my dad, my memories of him, and Christopher’s take on him.”
Now in the later years of his own life, Plummer has never worked more. His old snobby disdain for Hollywood has all but disappeared. And as he looks back on his eventful life, he has no regrets, despite an arrogance in his youth (believing that theater is the "senior profession," for example) that likely kept him from becoming a major leading man.
“I don’t regret anything that I have done in my life,” he said. “I have had a ball. And I think if we have regrets about things we have done, we should shut up about them.”
He does not believe in retirement. And he is at a stage in his life now where he can instigate projects. One that he has always wanted to do and which fell apart was Volpone, the 17th-century Ben Jonson black comedy about greed and ambition.
“It’s a hilariously funny play and I would love to do a big broad comedy yet,” he said noting that he had convinced the British director Jonathan Miller to stage Volpone in 2002, only to have Miller back out at the last minute and do King Lear instead. “But if Jonathan doesn’t do it I will get someone else.”
Time, after all, seems to be on Plummer’s side.
Lorenza Muñoz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who recently completed her first novel, The Weight of Flight. For 14 years she was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times covering politics, crime, entertainment, and business. Lorenza is currently an adjunct professor of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.