Like his aptly named first film, Plummer’s career began, and has thrived, on the stage. While he has starred in 175 movies and many TV shows, his finest works are the classical roles he’s performed in Stratford, on Broadway, in London and Austria. Along with his awards, he was given the Order of Canada and the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Plummer has returned to the spotlight again with two completely opposite characters: as an aged widower who shocks and delights his only son when he comes out as a gay man in last year’s release, Beginners (out on DVD), and as the venerable Henrik Vanger in David Fincher’s American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
What was the challenge with Beginners, where you play a gay man who comes out at the age of 75?
Oh, you know, there was absolutely no challenge at all. I’m not saying that as a smug remark, but [writer-director] Mike Mills just put me completely at ease. I thought at the beginning it was going to be difficult because the character was based on his real father. He said, “For God’s sake, you didn’t know my father. Just play the part as well as you can.” Together, we reinvented his father for the movie.
You have an enormous body of work. Is there a role or a project that particularly stands out?
For many years I didn’t particularly like going to see my movies. But, I think the Mike Wallace part in The Insider—Michael Mann’s terrific 1999 film on the tobacco scandal—was one I liked. The Insider happened when I sort of reinvented myself on the stage with Barrymore [landing Plummer his second Tony Award as Best Actor], and so the movie scripts got more distinguished as the years went on.
Your Tony Award-winning solo performance as John Barrymore was recently filmed for a movie version. Was that difficult?
Very different, strangely. A very good director, a French-Canadian guy, Erik Canuel, brought huge imagination. It’s fairly cinematic in a strange way, and much more emotional than the play. The play got one laugh after another. The movie, because of the camera’s closeness, has so many more emotional moments, moments that I didn’t even know I was doing. He [Canuel] did a wonderful job.
How did you find the role of Henrik Vanger in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
I’m a great fan of [director] David Fincher. No one can get atmosphere like he can. He always manages to hit the right atmosphere for every film he does. It’s extraordinary.
Fincher’s known as the man of 100 takes for each scene. Was that true for you?
With David, we never did hit 100, thank God. But he did do several. But it’s not always us; he’s retaking angles, he’s retaking lighting. So it’s not always the actors. The takes were never repeat, repeat, repeat. It was always a new discovery.
Who would play you in the film of your life?
Colin Farrell, because he’s desperate and he can play anything.
What has been your biggest disappointment?
Not being a concert pianist.
Which living person do you most admire, and why?
My wife of 40 years, because she’s beautiful, as wise as Solomon and a Cordon Bleu cook, to boot.
Have you ever thought of retiring?
Of all people, actors should not retire. First of all, we cannot afford to retire. I think actors spend a good deal of money—and I’ve always seen to that! Also, I think retirement is the next thing to death. If you don’t have a hobby or you’re not working, I mean, what is life for? I love the theatre and the movies and the arts and I’ve had a whole life in it. Why would I give it up?
Born: Dec. 13, 1929, Toronto. Raised in Senneville, QC.
Big Break: Broadway debut in The Starcross Story, January 1954.
Most notable for: Detesting his role in 1965’s The Sound of Music, which he says was “like flogging a dead horse.” Besides playing Captain von Trapp, he’s played a Klingon general, Leo Tolstoy and every villain, father figure and artiste in between. Along the way, he’s won two Tonys, two Emmys and a Genie and is rumoured to be on track for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his recent role in Beginners.
Most celebrated films: Murder by Decree, The Insider, The Silent Partner, The Man Who Would Be King, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Dolores Claiborne and his latest, which may well be his most high-profile yet, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (left).
Marriages/children: Divorced twice, currently married to Elaine Taylor. One child—daughter Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction), from his first marriage.