In his long and fruitful career, Christopher Plummer has played kings, priests, detectives, writers, politicians, scholars, and all sorts of beginners. Almost 60 years ago he made his debut in Sidney Lumet’s Stage Struck, a film and performance he doesn’t hold in very high regard—and he will tell you that he wishes everyone would forget his performance as Captain Von Trapp in the immortal Sound of Music, which he’s on record as calling “sentimental and gooey.” But he’s proud of many of his other roles, from his Oscar-winning performance as a recently out father in Mike Mills’s Beginners, to his latest role as the last kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, in The Exception. Throughout David Leveaux’s film, Plummer vibrantly spikes the stern image many have of the kaiser with humor and an inimitable, casual nonchalance.
I met Plummer last September during the Toronto International Film Festival and had the pleasure of listening to the actor’s electrifyingly deep-toned voice as he spoke about The Exception’s historical representation, staying youthful and excited about new projects, the luscious power of the theater, and his memories of working with some of the titans of film and theater.
After so many years in this industry, how do you approach each new role? Is it at all possible to become and stay excited about new projects?
There are still challenges for me even after so many years in the business. What makes me interested in new things is usually the nature of the writing. It helps you a lot and shows you the way. I’m very quick to recognize the main features of the character that should be portrayed and I immediately choose a certain way to do it. But I surely don’t spend hours and hours extensively preparing for a part. What still attracts me is also the very nature of the part, whether it’s well written or not.
Many actors, though they probably wouldn’t admit it, act according to a certain style or method they’ve developed over the years. Would you say you’re an actor of method or style?
Style is a very important word here. Some of the wonderful actors that taught me had a particular style. But I actually think it varies from role to role. It very much depends on the particularities of a certain character I’m about to personify. Knowing little details helps to establish a style of the piece. To do that, one needs to answer a few simple questions: who the character was, where he lived, who did he meet, and so on. These are quite basic and they come quickly. There’s no secret method about it really. A method is only useful when you’re in trouble and your imagination fails you. Only then do you wonder: “What am I going to do with it now? I can’t really figure it out!” Then what I’d do is personalize, to go back to my imagination and then come back with something new, halfway through what I’m doing. That’s the only time I’m using a kind of method. My method.
An Academy Award-winning method. Has it helped you when you decided to move from music and theater to film?
Yes. I grew up in Montreal, so not very close to the most important centers of the film business at the time. In the 1940s, I was influenced by Jean Renoir’s beautiful French films, and the great actors from the Comédie-Française, like Pierre Brasseur. In time, I got to understand their eloquence and strength as actors, and I wanted to be like them. I think I can easily admit that I understood art because of them. Of course, both in theater and the movies, it’s extremely important what roles you’re offered. But some time ago I started noticing that it’s the biggest challenge if you can turn mediocre roles into something to remember. That’s the fun of it and the point one should reach.
Certainly everyone is allowed to make mistakes. I debuted on the big screen in 1958 in Sidney Lumet’s Stage Struck with Henry Fonda. Well, the film wasn’t very good and I wasn’t either. But at the time it seemed like a decent idea, to turn to the movies. The money was certainly more attractive. In the beginning, I just wanted “go and be” a movie actor for a while, but I don’t think I was any good. In the 1960s, when I was working more, many terrible films were made. But there was so much money pumped into the business that it didn’t even matter that much. For instance, so much money was spent on catering and wine that the crew could afford to have three-hour-long lunches, during which we’d drink so much that you’d return afterward to set and not recognize anybody. In that case, everyone would just go home. No wonder the productions dragged on. That’s something absolutely unimaginable nowadays.
Some things have changed in the business since you first started your career. But how has your vision of the cinema changed?
I tend to think about it more and more often. I remember times spent in New York City, the golden days of Broadway. I really love musicals. It seemed like everything was happening during that time. Many European companies were on the scene, and I got to meet Tennessee Williams and work with Elia Kazan—true visionaries of contemporary tragedy. I got to know all these famous actors and directors. It felt like that was my time. These days, I frequently go back to the 1940s and 1950s, especially when I watch old movies on TCM, by Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, John Ford, films with Marlon Brando, whom I adore. These old pictures, they all had their own pace, were witty and simply wonderful. In my view, cinema nowadays is all about pace. Frank Capra’s movies weren’t fast, but they made the audiences sit on the edge of their chairs. They used stillness well, knew how to revere silence. In today’s cinema, there’s no more place for silence, I don’t think.
But you don’t seem to be a person fond of stillness and silence, especially having begun your career as a concert pianist.
That’s quite right. [laughs] I studied to become a concert pianist, but then I just got interested in the theater early on. I loved music more than anything else. But then I realized that there’s so much work and consistency involved that, given my other interests, I simply wouldn’t be able to make it. I knew I was quite good at mimicking anyone. One day someone suggested I should try and find work as an actor. I even took an extra course in acting at the university, but that was it. I have no other formal training. But once I started—boom!—I was lost. And then I got really lucky. I had no idea if I showed promise, but suddenly I found myself in a different world and loved it.