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Christopher Plummer: After 81 Years, A 'Beginner'

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Christopher Plummer: After 81 Years, A 'Beginner'


Christopher Plummer: After 81 Years, A 'Beginner'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Christopher Plummer has been acting for more than half a century. He is 81. He's appeared in more than a hundred movies. And no matter what he does, no matter how good he is - and he's often very good - he may always be remembered as a certain Austrian navy captain named von Trapp.

Well, Christopher Plummer's latest role is extremely memorable. The film is called "Beginners," written and directed by Mike Mills. Plummer plays Hal, a retired museum director who comes out as gay after the death of his wife of 45 years. Hal finds a younger boyfriend. He throws parties. He goes to gay dance clubs. It's all very confusing for his adult son, Oliver, who's played by Ewan McGregor.

Here, after a night out, Hal calls Oliver.

(Soundbite of movie, "Beginners")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): (as Hal) Oliver?

Mr. EWAN McGREGOR (Actor): (as Oliver) Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) I'm not sorry I woke you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) I went to Akbar tonight.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. McGREGOR: (as Oliver) You did?

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) Yeah. You know, they have some wonderfully loud music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) What kind of music is that?

Mr. McGREGOR: (as Oliver) Probably house music.

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) Yup. House music.

Mr. McGREGOR: (as Oliver) Yeah.

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) OK. House music.

SIEGEL: Christopher Plummer's character being informed...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: his son that the music at the club was called house music.

Christopher Plummer, welcome to the program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: It was a fun part, playing that Hal?

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, I adored the part, and I thought it was so well written and so unsentimental and brave and funny and witty and free. Totally free. I mean, of course, he was so relieved to be able to come out of the closet in such a happy way because he was so fond of his latest boyfriend. I just adored the way it was tackled. It was tackled with such humanity and sweetness and fun.

SIEGEL: This character that you play is based on Mike Mills' own father, who I gather...


SIEGEL: ...came out as gay after a long marriage.


SIEGEL: When you played the part then, do you feel you have to ask the director, again, how do you want me to do this? Am I like your father, or is that something for you to decide?

Mr. PLUMMER: No. When I first - when I realized that it was a true story, and that Mike - it was his father, I thought, oh, God, this is going to be awful because, of course, he's going to be at me every five seconds. And when I brought this up with Michael, he said, are you kidding? He said, I don't want you to imitate my father. Even if you could, he's dead. How could you imitate him? Be you and do what you want.

SIEGEL: Now, I want to ask you about recent parts for you in the movies. In the past 10 years or so, since playing Mike Wallace in "The Insider" and uttering those immortal lines: I don't want to spend the rest of my career wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Then in "A Beautiful Mind," you seemed to have gotten a lot more and a lot better film parts...


SIEGEL: ...than - what happened? Did you start looking for different things, or did they see different...


SIEGEL: ...virtues in you?

Mr. PLUMMER: What I think - because I think - it was really after - you're right. "The Insider" is when things happened because "The Insider" was a hot movie and an important movie, and it was upgraded from the movies I had been doing. You see, I loved the theater, and I stayed in the theater most of my life, and I was a bit snobbish about it. I made a lot of movies through the '60s, '70s, but pretty awful, but then, most of the movies in the '60s and early '70s were pretty awful. So I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: So the quality wasn't always there, unfortunately, and - but the money was. And I was grateful to them for that because I could afford to then do what I wanted to do in the theater.

SIEGEL: So films were a way of supporting the habit of that...

SIEGEL: That's right. But I happened to be sort of leading man-looking. And then, finally, I was dissipated enough in my 40s to look like a character actor, and that's what - when everything began to change. And I enjoyed being a character actor because, of course, the roles were so much more interesting. It started with John Huston's film "The Man Who Would Be King," which is a very good film, and certainly after "The Insider." And now I'm getting nice lovely scripts like "Beginners."

SIEGEL: A part for, let's say, a man of some years, your parts now will be a certain kind of character role. You're not going to get cast as a middle-age man anymore.

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, I'm determined to. I still look OK.


Mr. PLUMMER: I mean...

SIEGEL: I wasn't expecting (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: I'm in good shape. I could play 60...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: ...with ease.

SIEGEL: What is the experience like when you finish filming something, put it away, and then you go to a screening room sometime later and you see what it actually looks like all cut together?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes. Well, either you - two reactions, either you want to slit your throat...

SIEGEL: Oh, yeah?

Mr. PLUMMER: ...naturally, or you are amazed at what you never dreamed it would like that. For instance, when I did "Up," I did a voice in "Up." I played the bad guy, and you never know what they're going to look like. We didn't see any of the material. It hadn't been done yet. So I recorded the performance. And when I went to see it, I thought, my God, what an absolutely marvelous movie this is. I mean, it really is human. It has everything in it. And that's the sort of thing that surprises you, and that's the pleasant one when you can't dream of what it's going to look like, and there it is, much more thrilling than you ever dreamed it would be.

SIEGEL: My editor and producer joked before the interview began about whether or not we can interview Christopher Plummer without mentioning "The Sound of Music" at all, so...

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, I guess, you can't.

SIEGEL: I guess, we can't. There, we failed right there.

Mr. PLUMMER: Right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Where does it stand? Where does it figure in - when you think back on your career, the biggest bill payer of them all or a wonderful experience? I remember a famous line attributed to you that you referred to it as the sound of mucus throughout making the film.

Mr. PLUMMER: Well - yeah, that's - I think we all (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: ...(unintelligible). Yeah. You know, in my book, I call it S&M, an abbreviated version.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: But, you know, I'm grateful for it because it certainly was famous and put me in the public eye, and I could then help fill a theater full of people when I was doing the great works.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: It's just that because there were so many nuns around, and everything had a sort of air of - I don't know - holier than about it, I was determined to play Peck's bad boy...

SIEGEL: Yes. He was...

Mr. PLUMMER: ...and be the naughty fellow. Well, it needed somebody naughty to keep it away from mawkish sentimentality.

SIEGEL: At its time, it was the biggest box office success...

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...ever (unintelligible).

Mr. PLUMMER: And they don't make sort of family pictures like that anymore. But it just follows you around a little bit, and people get slightly annoying when they go on and on about it. Mothers come up to me in the street, oh, my children just, oh, gosh, they just never stop watching "The Sound of Music." It's just so wonderful. And I say when the hell are they going to grow up, for Christ's sake?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, Christopher Plummer, thank you very much. Congratulations on "Beginners." And thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, thank you so much.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Sound of Music")

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Captain Von Trapp) (Singing) Bloom and grow forever. Edelweiss, edelweiss, bless my homeland forever.

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