SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's 1942, the great actor John Barrymore prowls the stage of an empty Broadway theater to prepare for an audition to try to revive his first great performance, as Richard III. But that night, Barrymore also opens the traveling trunk of his overstuffed, fabulous and troubled life.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOVIE, "BARRYMORE")
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (as John Barrymore) I can add colors to the chameleon, change shapes with Proteus for advantages and set the murderous Machiavell to school. Can I do this and cannot get a crown? Tut, were it further off, I hahahaha, I pluck it down. Where's the nearest toilet, Frank?
SIMON: Christopher Plummer won the Tony for Best Actor for his performance of "The Lion of the Stage in Winter." And now, he has committed his performance to film. "Barrymore" directed by Erik Canuel, has opened in New York and Los Angeles. Christopher Plummer grew up in Montreal where he went to high school with Oscar Peterson and played the Stratford Festival with William Shatner.
And over the past 60 years, he's won Academy, BAFTA and SAG awards. His films include "Beginners," "The Insider," "Star Trek 6," and a certain musical made in Austria. He joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
PLUMMER: Thank you.
SIMON: You've be playing John Barrymore for 15 years now. Does a great actor, and you are certainly that, look at the life of Barrymore and utter something like there but for the grace of God go?
PLUMMER: Well, I first came in contact with Barrymore by reading Gene Fowler's book, "Good Night, Sweet Prince" when I was 14, and I thought, my God, this is fascinating. This guy's so handsome, good looking, striking, romantic, athletic. And he can speak this wonderful verse. I said, my God, he can do that and have all these girls and all that booze as well and still get up and be great. This is the profession for me.
SIMON: Let's try and gain your insights, if we could, into John Barrymore. Why does he want to play Richard III, a man he calls a lump of foul deformity, and I'll even chance repeating your line, Richard the turd?
PLUMMER: Yes. Well, it was the first time, as he says in the play, that he was taken really seriously as an actor. He'd been extremely good at light comedy and doing all the sort of contemporary parts of the time in plays that were not exactly masterpieces. And then he realized that he should try the classics. And he opened in Richard III and was absolutely acclaimed a different actor altogether.
So his desire to go back to his first triumph is a natural one.
SIMON: Now, I'm assuming you don't really drink during your performance, or am I wrong?
PLUMMER: No. No, I have never done that during my performance, no. Any performance. But I used to drink very heavily. I don't anymore. I can't. I'm not allowed to, but I can recall the sort of effervescence that one experiences while being drunk, and I'm very happy at what I do. So, I'm actually drunk with happiness without the booze.
SIMON: And why did Barrymore drink so much? You mentioned the effervescence, but obviously we see...
PLUMMER: Yes, it wasn't - he was quite a happy drunk for a while, I think. And then it became a sort of necessity. I think he couldn't bear Hollywood. He had this enormous distinction in both Richard III and in Hamlet, which he was the Hamlet of his time. There was absolutely no question about that.
In parenthesis, I wish to God I'd been able to see him as Hamlet. He was quite beautiful. And he was also extremely masculine. And there hadn't been a masculine Hamlet for quite a long time. So it was a bit of a shock. I think Shakespeare would've adored it. I think he drank because he was disappointed in what he was given in the film colony to do.
Actually, there is a story about his Mercutio in the Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer "Rome and Juliet," which was filmed in, I think, 1936.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ROMEO AND JULIET")
JOHN BARRYMORE: (As Mercutio) O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate-stone on the fore-finger of an alderman.
PLUMMER: He rolls his eyes rather a lot in the Queen Mab speech. And I asked Basil Rathbone, whom I knew, and Basil played Tybalt in that movie. And I said what's the matter with him in that close up? He said, well, he was absolutely tie-eyed with drink. And Reginald Denny and I, we had to hold him still on either - we had to stand by him and support him through the early part of that speech.
SIMON: Oh, goodness gracious.
PLUMMER: But he was able to get through it.
SIMON: Do you tell as many stories about being in Stratford with Bill Shatner as he tells about you?
PLUMMER: Oh, yeah. It was an extraordinary year. We all knew he was going to be a star when he went on for me. I thought I had syphilis, actually. And it wasn't syphilis, it was - because I was playing Henry V at the time and of course Henry V did have syphilis. And I thought, oh, God, wouldn't it be wonderful if it was syphilis. How accurate. How method of it all.
Anyway, I was carted off to the hospital and it was a kidney stone, which was quite painful enough, thank you. And Bill Shatner went on for me, as you know. And whatever I had done in the performance, he did the absolute opposite. If I had said a whole speech sitting down, he would do it standing up, or vice versa.
PLUMMER: So we knew the son of a bitch was going to be a great star one day. He was individual enough.
SIMON: It must've been satisfying for you to be in a film with him years later.
PLUMMER: Yes, it was. I mean, I thought that was one of my favorite, actually, "Star Trek." It was fun because it was so tongue-in-cheek. It was lovely and I loved the role of a Klingon without that horrible makeup that they put on most of them. I'd insisted that they just give me a tiny little pigtail and a patch over the eye and a bald head and that was it. And I think it worked. I looked like a sort of frustrated Moshe Dayan.
PLUMMER: But it was great. But to see all those guys, that cast. There's so many Canadians in it. I said, actually, are we taking over Hollywood?
SIMON: You have never really slowed down. You still get a lot of offers in your 80s, I gather.
PLUMMER: Yeah, I hope so. I need, I need to work. I think I'm actually busier now than I have been for a long time. And that's OK with me.
SIMON: When you say, I need to work, I'm assuming you're not talking financially, although that's welcome. But what do you mean by I need to work?
PLUMMER: Well, I need to pursue a profession that I love. And the fact that it is an extraordinary thing. You never stop learning how to act, both on screen and on the stage. I feel like I'm starting all over again. Every sort of decade I feel this, and that's very satisfying.
SIMON: May I ask, Mr. Plummer, after all these years, do you ever still sing "Edelweiss?"
PLUMMER: No. I - of course not.
PLUMMER: Are you mad?
SIMON: I had to ask. Christopher Plummer. He stars now in "Barrymore," the film opening in theaters this week. Thanks so much.
PLUMMER: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS")
PLUMMER: (Singing) ...and grow forever. Edelweiss, edelweiss, bless my homeland forever.
SIMON: Come on, everyone. You know the words. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.