Christopher Plummer on the greatest piece of direction he ever received

Christopher Plummer on the greatest piece of direction he ever received

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters that have defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Christopher Plummer started on the stage before transitioning into television and film and kicking off an on-camera career that has now passed the 60-year mark and features performances in projects ranging from The Sound Of Music to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Plummer’s most recent effort, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, can be seen on HBO throughout October. 

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013)—“John Marshall Harlan II”
The A.V. Club: What was your knowledge of the Muhammad Ali court case when you stepped into this project?

Christopher Plummer: Absolutely not at all. I had no idea, and I’m sure most people have no idea about this case. Only the privileged few. [Chuckles.] I don’t think the writer [Shawn Slovo] particularly knew about it at all, but she treated it beautifully. And I thought Harlan was an interesting character, because you get to know him as a staid old conservative, very bright and obviously well educated. He’d been to Oxford, and, as a Rhodes scholar he had all the credentials of a stern intellectual. And yet what an extraordinary, warm character he seemed in domestic life, and how different. It showed how vulnerable he was in order to listen to others. 

He wasn’t that conservatively branded. He was able to be flexible and listen. And in the process of listening, he was able to restore Muhammad Ali to his rightful place in life. So I thought, of all the characters in the piece, Harlan was the most interestingly dealt with. So I was thrilled to play it. And I don’t often get to play terribly warm creatures. [Hesitates.] Well, that’s not true. [Hal Fields of] Beginners was a very warm creature. But this is not necessarily what you expect from the Supreme Court. [Laughs.] So it was a pleasure to play him.

Waterloo (1970)—“ Arthur Wellesley, Duke Of Wellington”
The Insider (1999)—“Mike Wallace”
AVC: Harlan isn’t necessarily the most high profile of past Supreme Court justices. When you play a real-life figure, are you prone to doing a lot of research?

CP: Yeah! Of course, if the person is real. For instance, in The Insider, when I played Mike Wallace, I didn’t have to do a lot of research because I’d watched Mike Wallace on television when I was a kid [Laughs.], when he was the angry young man of television. So I knew all about him, and I could turn on the box and see him. Throughout every decade, there he was again, being cynical. In the end, he proved himself as a marvelous journalist. So that was easy, strangely enough, because our voices are in the same sort of tone. It wasn’t difficult to get his inflections, the way he spoke.

When I do kings and stuff—the Duke Of Wellington, for example—of course I read everything I possibly can. I don’t overdo it, because if you overdo the reading, you begin to get bored with a character. You have so many other opinions. You want to save something for yourself. [Laughs.] But normally it’s easy to pick up a book and read about a famous person. Not in the case of Harlan. I mean, there’s the stuff on the Internet, and that’s about it, because the book is so filled with legalese, which is not my favorite language! 

You want to avoid that. You get desperate to find something human to hold onto. There were a few pages about him, but there really isn’t a lot that I can say about him. The fact that he lived quite close to us in Connecticut, in Weston, is about as close as I’ll ever get to him! [Laughs.] 

Stage Struck (1958)—“Joe Sheridan”
AVC: In looking for your very first film role, it appears to have been that of Joe Sheridan in Stage Struck

CP: Good lord, you’ve got it, smack on! [Laughs.] 

AVC: Given that you had a theatrical background, how was it, transitioning into working in front of the camera?

CP: Well, it wasn’t that bad. I was surprised. I think some of the other films I made… I mean, Sidney [Lumet, the director] was a good guy to work with on one’s first film. I mean, incredible. He’d already made such a hit with 12 Angry Men, and he’d already come on with all the stage actors in New York. He knew how to treat them, speak to them, because of that You Are There documentary that he did for many years, which was wonderful. So he was a bright guy, and I loved working with him. And he treated it as a theater, meaning that he rehearsed all his movies before he shot them. So it was rather like doing another play!

But I soon caught on to the camera. It didn’t worry me. I knew that you could be just as big, larger than life, as you were in the theater, as long as you were truthful. [Laughs.] As long as you were believable, it didn’t matter if you shout and scream and yell and make a funny face at a close-up. If it was real, it was fine. It works. So the difference between the two mediums is not that great. The only thing that you have to remember is that it’s all coming—well, most of it—through the head and the mind and the face, not the body. 

Lock Up Your Daughters! (1969)—“Lord Foppington”
CP: Oh, I loved that character! God, I still want to play him. And I could, because he’s so disguised, with all the makeup he wears and all the wigs. Even though I’m in my 80s, it wouldn’t matter. [Laughs.] I’m dying to do one more go at him, to do the whole play of The Relapse. We just stuck a few scenes into the movie. 

It was a terrible movie, except that I met my wife there, Elaine [Taylor]. She was Susannah York’s maid! And I fell for her, hook, line, and sinker. We made the film in Ireland with a wonderful cast. It wasn’t their fault the film didn’t go well. But, yeah, I think that was a perfect example of being hammy, over the top, and yet getting away with it, because the character’s so outrageous. 

AVC: Well, with a name like Lord Foppington—

CP: Boom, you’re there! [Laughs.] 

Starcrash (1978)—“The Emperor”
CP: [Breathlessly.] Starcrash. Oh, my God. There are two things I can say about that: One, give me Rome any day. I’ll do porno in Rome, as long as I can get to Rome. [Laughs.] Getting to Rome was the greatest thing that happened in that for me. I think it was only about three days in Rome on that one. It was all shot at once. And the girl… What’s her name? Munro?

AVC: Caroline Munro.

CP: Caroline Munro. She was something incredible to look at. That was a great pleasure, too. But beyond those two things… I mean, how can you play the Emperor Of The Universe? What a wonderful part to play. [Laughs.] It puts God in a very dicey moment, doesn’t it? He’s very insecure, God, when the Emperor’s around. 



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Dragnet (1987)—“Rev. Jonathan Whirley”
CP: Oh! Yes, it’s extraordinary, that film. People still talk about it. There was a long gap where nobody mentioned it at all, and now it pops up. I get stopped by people who say, “You’re Reverend Whirley!” [Laughs.] It’s wonderful! [Growling.] “Are you out of your mind?” Why has it suddenly reverted to being popular again in so many people’s memories?

AVC: Probably a combination of constant cable airings and easy availability for online streaming.

CP: Ah, that’s probably why, yeah. Well, I enjoyed playing that part, because he was such an absolute asshole. [Laughs.] I just loved it. And I liked Tom [Hanks] and Dan Aykroyd very much. And Elizabeth Ashley!

AVC: I talked to Dabney Coleman about the film as well, and he talked about how much he loved his lisp. 

CP: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah, Dabney was wonderful. I loved Dabney, too! That was good fun. 

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)—“Chang”
CP: Again good fun! It was absolutely revolutionary to me that… I never knew that Klingon was actually a language and had been registered in Washington as a language. They’re terribly serious about pronunciations and stuff. There was an expert on Klingon on the set! I was like, “Are they really serious about this?” So I cut my Klingon down as much as I could, because I couldn’t… [Offers a serious of guttural coughs and hacks before breaking into laughter.] I couldn’t gargle like they could!

I also persuaded the director, Nicholas Meyer, who I liked very much, that I didn’t have to put that awful brow on. That phony-looking thing, oh my God. I said, “No, I want mine to be just one little hint of it!” So they let me do that, but there was a great fuss about, “Oh, the sacrilege of changing it!” So I ended up looking like Moshe Dayan, with the patch. [Laughs.] But, no, I was happy with it, and it was great fun, and quite a funny script!

The Tempest (2010)—“Prospero,” executive producer
CP: [Starts to laugh.] I never know what that means, to executive-produce. I haven’t seen the film, actually. It is just the stage play filmed, but with a few little more cinematic urges in there, I think. There wasn’t enough time or money to do it as a film, but… The Tempest is a movie, actually, as written. [Shakespeare] wrote a screenplay when he wrote that. It could be done in any fanciful way. Helen Mirren can play Prospero. There’s hundreds of different ways of doing it. But I was a little disappointed that it was too much of a filmed stage piece. It worked terrifically onstage, though. And some of it works in the movie… well, I say it works, but as I said, I haven’t seen it. I’m sure some of it does. Just not all of it.

AVC: Is there a Shakespeare role out there you’ve yet to play that you’d still like to tackle? Unless you think that revealing it would jinx it.

CP: [Laughs.] No… well, there’s always Falstaff, of course. But it’s awful hot in that costume and beard! You start to get worried about that as you grow older. There are a couple of the large parts that I’d like to play. 

I’ll tell you, what I’d love to play is Volpone [in Ben Jonson’s play of the same name]. I was going to do it with Jonathan Miller, and then he said, “Why don’t you do King Lear instead? I’m not crazy about doing Volpone. Besides, you’d better do Lear now, because you’ve still got your energy. You should do it, and I’ll direct.” And I said, “Well, okay, but I was hoping to do a wild comedy with you.” He said, “Oh, but King Lear is one of the funniest plays ever written!” I said, “What’s the matter with you?” [Laughs.] So I did it, and it worked, thank God. 

AVC: Was it jarring when you realized that you were old enough to play Lear?

CP: No. Because I still could do it. I still had the strength to do it. I was… 70-something. It was in 2002, so whatever the hell that makes me. Most people play it when they’re 50, even 40! So I was just glad to have the strength to do it in my 70s.

The Return Of The Pink Panther (1975)—“Sir Charles Litton”
CP: Just working with Peter Sellers was such fun. He had greatness as a comic. He really did. And he behaved very well on The Return Of The Pink Panther because he’d become quite broke. He’d been throwing money around. He’d been very famous suddenly, and… [Hesitates.] Some people can’t handle success. They’ve got to go and do all the expected things, like buy a yacht, have a pretty bird in a bikini on the end of their arm. They think like that. It’s extraordinary to think that that is the measure of success. But he did exactly that. He fell into all the traps! He had a ball, but he spent all his money, and there was no looking back. He had to go back to work. So The Return Of… was Peter really working hard, and it was the first time that we really heard that crazy, loony French accent. He’d really perfected it by that time. It was a great pleasure working with him.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)—“Rudyard Kipling”
CP: Oh, I loved working with John Huston! What a great director. I simply loved it. I was worried about one thing, and I went to him about it. I said, “I tried so hard to get this line…” It was such an emotional line at the end, when he’s lost all control. He can’t control his character any longer, and he shows it. But there was one line… I can’t even remember what it was anymore, but it was about Carnehan, and I was having trouble with it. And John never directed, so this was the only thing he ever said to me. He said, “Just take the music out of your voice, Chris.” What an extraordinary piece of direction. Because if you just say nothing, the camera does it for you. It’s extraordinary. And it’s the only direction he ever gave me. In a later discussion, he said, “I’ve done my job, Chris. I’ve cast the play. And because I’ve cast it, I trust you. My job’s over. It’s yours now.” And that’s absolutely right. 

So I had a wonderful time, and I made good friends with both Sean [Connery] and Michael [Caine]. But I thought the music was awful. John Huston had already got the composer, a man called Joseph from England who wrote the most wonderful score. He did a sort of Indian sitar music for India, and for the British a fife and drum. And that was light as a feather, and it went absolutely right with the wit and whimsy of Rudyard Kipling. But the studio came in and hired Maurice Jarre simply because he was a hot composer, and he wrote an epic score of such weight and heaviness. I think that if John Huston’s boy had done it, it would’ve been a really great film. 

The Sound Of Music (1965)—“Captain Von Trapp”
CP: [Sees the publicist at the door.] Ah, there’s the Ghost Of Christmas Past…

AVC: In that case, I’m obliged to close by asking you about The Sound Of Music

CP: [Sighs.]

AVC: —and I’ll include that you sighed. Is there even anything left to be said?

CP: Nothing! [Laughs.] Nothing except that, you know, I really do think it’s a very good picture. It’s beautifully done. The music sounded great because Irwin Kostal made the arrangements so beautifully put together for the film. And Julie [Andrews] was wonderful to work with. [It’s] become a great film. It’s just not my cup of tea. It was very difficult—very difficult—to play. To get rid of any hint of a sense of humor was hard stuff! We were walking on eggshells. But I do hope there was a twinkle sometimes. 

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