Christopher Plummer relishes a good death scene.
He has a haunting one in his latest film, “The Last Station,” in which he plays seminal Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Plummer perfectly captures the labored breaths of a dying person, the falling in and out of consciousness, and even offers a little smile of peace within himself as the writer of “War and Peace” bids adieu to the world.
“They are all different,” he says of death scenes. “I have died with my eyes open, which is more interesting than dying with your eyes shut. I can’t remember how I died as Tolstoy, but I have done Cyrano de Bergerac on stage and I died with my eyes opened. I think that’s marvelous, because in the theater the lights hold to your open eyes and it’s kind of marvelously frightening for a second. Cyrano dies happy because he’s found love, so there is an ecstasy to his death.”
But death is only the beginning these days for Plummer, whose career continues to evolve, decades after his most famous role as the regally sexy Capt. Von Trapp in the 1965 musical “The Sound of Music.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Christopher Plummer: An article about Christopher Plummer in Wednesday’s Calendar section said the actor had won an Emmy Award, for the miniseries “The Moneychangers.” That award is one of two Emmys won by Plummer. The second came in 1994 for his voice-over work as the narrator of “Madeline.” —
Trim and still breathtakingly handsome just shy of his 80th birthday, Plummer is all old-school charm and puckish sense of humor this Saturday morning at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He’s in town from Connecticut, where he lives with his third wife, Elaine, for the L.A. premieres of “The Last Station” and Terry Gilliam’s latest fantasy, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.”
Though the actor has won two Tonys (“Cyrano,” “Barrymore”) and an Emmy for the miniseries “The Moneychangers,” Plummer has never won a major film award. But that may change with “The Last Station,” which opens Friday. On Tuesday, the film earned five Spirit Award nominations, including a supporting actor nod for Plummer, fueling the Oscar buzz surrounding his performance.
Plummer, whose well-received autobiography “In Spite of Myself” was published last year, seems surprised he’s in such demand these days. Besides his acting roles, Plummer also did voice-over work this year in two animated films, playing mad genius explorer Charles Muntz in Pixar’s blockbuster hit “Up” and No. 1 in the apocalyptic “9.”
He’s also about to start a new film, “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, that is based on the filmmaker’s life.
“Ewan McGregor plays Mike Mills,” says Plummer, nursing an espresso. “I play his father, who waits until he’s about 79 to come out of the closet.”
Plummer erupts into a hearty laugh. “I thought this is a great change for me,” he says. “It’s charmingly written. He’s dying of cancer, but there is a lot of spirit and fun and humor because he dies happily, because he’s found someone that he loves.”
Despite Plummer’s recent successes, Gilliam believes the actor has gotten less full of himself as he’s aged.
“The years have worn him down very pleasantly,” says Gilliam. “I think he’s gotten a bit cuddlier as he has gotten older.”
Tolstoy’s last year
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman, the romantically lyrical “The Last Station” explores the final year in the life of Tolstoy and his relationship with his wife of 48 years, Sofya (Helen Mirren). Sofya finds herself locked in a ruthless battle with Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who is the defender of the writer’s legacy and believes that the great man should sign over the copyrights to his books to the Russian people.
“It just struck me it was such a remarkably good idea to cast somebody who was the same age as Tolstoy was at the time,” says Hoffman.
“If you cast a younger actor, they would spend time showing you or convincing you they are 80. So with Chris you get somebody who is 79 and so full of life and full of energy. His sexuality is so alive, and he is spending his time on screen just doing what Tolstoy was doing, being an energetic man in the late years of his life.”
Hoffman says Plummer “comes in with very clear emotions of what he wants to do, and then he’s really willing to change and experiment. He is really a movie star. The first couple of days of rehearsal, he kept saying, ‘How does anyone play an icon?’ I said, ‘Chris, you are an icon.’ ”
Plummer, though, is still pondering the question -- “How do you play a genius? It’s impossible. And how do you write a script about a genius? Since you can’t play a genius, you play absolutely the opposite, and that’s what I tried to do with Michael’s encouragement.”
A shared impishness
In the scene in which he meets his new private secretary (James McAvoy), “Tolstoy is so disarming,” says Plummer. “There is no ego. He has not an inkling of who he is. I imagine in life he had great authority as a person, a natural authority. But he didn’t have to push it. Playing great people or greatly fascinating historical figures, the way to do it is to play against it.”
Though Plummer knew Mirren, this marks the first time they have worked together. They share a similar impish side. “She has a great naughty sense of humor,” he says.
In Gilliam’s “Parnassus,” Plummer plays the title role: a traveling magician who invites audiences to step through his magic mirror and enter a fantasy world of limitless imagination and sometimes nightmares.
But Parnassus’ magic comes with a heavy price. Centuries earlier he had made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits) -- he would get immortality if he allowed the devil to take his daughter (Lily Cole) on her 16th birthday.
The late Heath Ledger was playing the role of a mysterious, charming outsider who casts a spell over the daughter when the actor died in January of last year. The role was completed by Ledger’s good friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.
“He was such a sweet guy,” says Plummer of Ledger. “He was adorable, a guy with immense charm. He had everything to live for, so all that nonsense in the press was disgusting. Here was an actor who was not great yet but had such an enormous range at his command, you know the potential for greatness was very close.”
“Parnassus” is the second time Plummer has worked with Gilliam. They previously teamed on 1995’s “12 Monkeys.” And his daughter, Amanda Plummer, was also featured in Gilliam’s “The Fisher King” (1991).
“He is quite wonderful,” Gilliam says of Christopher Plummer. “He brings such dignity and brilliance to everything he does. Watching him work is just a joy. I sort of plop in a place on set and then off he goes and does the scene.”
After he finishes “Beginners,” Plummer plans to return to the stage as Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
“I will do it at the Stratford festival in Ontario, and if it works we’ll be doing it in New York and London. And after Prospero, then what? Usually after Prospero everyone retires. But I ain’t going to retire!”