Christopher Plummer on Dragon Tattoo, Beginners Luck and Laughing Off Oscar
One week removed from his 82nd birthday, Christopher Plummer is winding up what one could arguably call a career year. And it's been a long career -- more than half a century's worth of stage and screen roles comprising such milestones as The Sound of Music, The Man Who Would Be King, The Insider and The Last Station, the latter of which earned the Canadian legend his first-ever Academy Award nomination. But as the curtain closes on a memorable 2011 -- most notably his acclaimed stage adaptation Barrymore, his awards-worthy performance in Beginners and this week's blockbuster hopeful The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- you'd be hard-pressed to find a time when Plummer wasn't more beloved.
Of course Plummer has always been in demand, averaging around four roles per year since breaking in on stage and TV in the early 1950s. His ubiquity is itself among Plummer's most renowned attributes, culminating today in his role as Tattoo's Henrik Vanger; as the wealthy head of a secretive Swedish clan in search of his niece, Vanger enlists disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) to help crack the decades-old case. Meanwhile, Plummer continues to make the rounds on behalf of Beginners, the Mike Mills film co-starring Ewan McGregor as an adrift 30-something coming to grips with a dying father (Plummer) -- who is himself coming to grips with his late-life admission of homosexuality.
That role has found Plummer nominated for numerous awards this fall and has most observers predicting his eventual Oscar supremacy -- not that he takes any of that too seriously. First things first, he intimated last week in a conversation with Movieline.
How is everything going today?
Yesterday, too. It's fine -- I enjoy it, but one after the other...
I hear you.
And yesterday I started forgetting people's names. I certainly got kind of gaga. We did 51 people yesterday.
[Nods] Well, they were quick interviews. And then you start forgetting your friends' names. I was calling Rooney "David."
The resemblance is striking.
I'm totally gaga. I feel a little better today.
I'll go easy. I was actually going to ask if there's one thing about this film that you haven't been asked but wish you had -- or maybe something that came to you afterward?
I must say, they have been pretty general. Not bad, not bad. They didn't stick to just the one thing. If you do start opening it up or changing the subject, that could go on for hours. And you suddenly get terribly excited because you've changed the subject. The interview becomes something else altogether. But I'm happy with whatever you ask!
Has talking with David and the others over the last few days opened up any new perceptions about the film?
Yes, well, I've just seen the movie -- and I've seen it twice -- and I realize that it's much more emotional than the book. And I love the book -- I couldn't put it down. But the first book is much more emotional on the screen, I find. And because it's her, this sort of avenging angel has been invented for this story. She comes from another planet. It's just extraordinary what Rooney does, and what David has set her up to do, and how courageous. And that has stuck with me. It's a great cast, and I enjoyed working with all of them, but the girl really knocked me out.
What planet would you say she comes from? What are its life forms like -- what's the terrain?
It's a life form that would actually do us proud if it invaded. It certainly doesn't come from Pluto. [Laughs] I don't know where it would come from. I use the word very loosely -- planet -- but it's not of this Earth. And then suddenly, she is. And suddenly he shoots her in a very soft light -- a very surprising soft light, as she's looking at her computer. There's a such an innocence and beauty about the face that all of the sudden knocks you out. It surprises the hell out of you. And he uses that lighting on her so cleverly after some really harsh, rather unpleasant attitude. To see her transform? The audience wants to absolutely embrace her. She's got that -- the girl has got that. Herself. Rooney has got that. So I'm totally in love with that character now. She's seduced me! Evil bitch. [Laughs]
And you didn't even get a scene with her! Though I guess she's there in the room near the end.
No. She's in that [scene], and she was very much in the background. She stayed in character: She didn't speak very much, except for one night. We had a long conversation, which was a lot of fun. She's great fun. But she's shy. She's terribly well-brought-up. She's got such lovely manners, which is a relief nowadays in the young. But she's very reserved and very modest about her gifts. But by God, she burns up the screen in that character.
Is there anything you can tell a young actor in that situation -- one in which the spotlight is about to perhaps swallow them?
I wouldn't presume to give "advice." Maybe to some struggling young actor, I might have some advice -- like, "For Christ's sake, don't take yourself so seriously. Remember that you've got to have fun in this business; otherwise, get out -- fast." Because it can be rough. If you don't see the funny side of it, forget it. That's what I would give a youngster. I don't have to say anything to her. She's too intelligent. She's the type of person who might give up the entire profession tomorrow and be quite intelligent about it and quite revealing about it -- and then tackle something else equally well. But I don't think so; I think she's going to go on. And after a taste of all this -- after it all dies down, and after all the accolades -- I think she's going to be a serious actress. I don't have to say a word to her.
Speaking of having fun, I was struck by the camaraderie shared by you and David and Stellan earlier in today's press conferences. On a set like this one, where you're making such a serious film, does that heighten the imperative to lighten things up?
We had a great time. [Fincher] just continues that kind of spiel he does; he's very funny. And we all need it. After a very gloomy morning doing... Larsson... [Laughs] Doing Larsson!
That great Scandinavian master!
After that, we all need to joke and kill ourselves laughing. "All right! Let's do 30 takes just for fun!" And he responds to that, because we're all, hopefully, pros. We're like doctors after a very serious operation -- we have to joke about it in kind of a black way just to keep our sanity. And also warm ourselves up from the freezing Scandinavian cold.
The film does look cold.
It's beautifully cold. It's wonderfully cold. Did David say anything to you about making the music sound like ice?
That was a lovely line. I only saw it recently, and I thought the score was extraordinary! I thought the sound underneath the film was some of the best background music and noises I've ever heard on a film, and it was so right -- that terrible, endless, relentless pulse under every single scene that keeps you uneasy and on the edge of your seat. I didn't feel that it was two hours and 37 minutes. And he said, "Yes, we talked about keeping it cold -- keeping the music cold, like freezing ice. What does ice sound like musically?" I said, "Whales?" He said, "No." [Laughs]
The original book is fairly polarizing. You don't get a lot of people who say, "Yeah, you know, the Larsson's all right." Some people hate the novel. What would you say to those readers in the hopes of them giving this film a chance?
Well, I mean, first of all, you can't just tell people to go to something. There are a lot of people, particularly in America, who will be very offended. All the evangelists? It's not their kind of movie. But if I had to defend it -- and I certainly don't have to defend it; it's a marvelous movie -- I would tell them that it's a very important movie in the sense that it makes clear how disgusting violence toward women is, and that an avenging angel must come along and do something about it. We all must do something about it. There's nothing cheap about the movie. The horrific scenes are laid down honestly as scenes of violence, and that's it. He has enormous taste as a director. He doesn't sensationalize them in any way. They're documented -- boom. And then he does the very clever thing of taking you away in the middle of a horrific rape scene, shows you something else, and then comes back. He doesn't stay with it like some violent, hungry director might want to do. He gives you a rest from it, and then sort of prepares you for another onslaught. I thought the way he handled that was in absolutely great taste. And some people ask, "Well, what's 'great taste'?" And I go, "Bugger off." [Laughs]
But there will be people who can't take that sort of violence, and there will be those who will walk out. But there will be lots more who want to see it, because everyone has morbid curiosity of that kind. And what they will then see is a story of the two leads and their relationship and this extraordinary creature from outer Earth who has invaded us in an honest and very heartbreaking way. Follow her line, and she'll take you through in a very lovely way.
In both this film and Beginners, your characters are seen in advanced stages of infirmity -- oxygen tubes, wheelchairs and direct confrontations with mortality. What, if anything, rubs off on you when you see yourself as those characters onscreen?
First of all, I always try to get a part in which I don't die. Or where I'm not ill. And then people say, "Well, he's over 80, for Christ's sake. He must be half-dead!"
Happy belated birthday, by the way.
Maybe stop playing Tolstoy?
That's right! Another death! Jesus Christ. No -- I tried to make Hal [Plummer's character in Beginners] happy. I really tried to make him so grateful and happy that he would come out of the closet and was now free to love this guy, and he could tell the world and there was nothing to be ashamed of. I thought that was a nice way to go to your death-- to die happy and grateful. There's nothing morbid about it. And what's beautiful about Michael Mills's script is that there's absolutely nothing sentimental about it. There is no self-pity whatsoever. So that helped enormously to begin with. And the other one? [Dragon Tattoo's Henrik Vanger] doesn't die, though I guess he does, because he ain't in the second or third version. But you don't see him die. At least you didn't see him die!
Maybe he lives just long enough to have his answer.
Yes. Swedes actually live a long time -- if they don't commit suicide early on.
Of course. Now I'm going to put you on the spot, but what do you think is your most underrated performance or film?
God. [Pauses] I don't know. It's so much easier to talk about somebody else's performances rather than one's own. I don't think I deserve to be overrated for a lot of films, so underrated is kind of a comfortable sort of slot to find yourself in. I think a little bit more credit could have been given to Mike Wallace in The Insider, but I think that was a matter of categories. Somebody came in whose performance went from Day One until the end of the movie -- they never left the camera -- and yet they call themselves a Supporting Actor. [Laughs] I don't understand some of those categories. Quite clearly that was a Best Actor nomination, and I think my slot was then pushed to the right and sent flying. I only have fun talking about it because I think it's hysterical, and the guy was a friend of mine.
And now you're back in the awards mix -- congratulations on your recent nominations, by the way.
How seriously do you take it all today?
I don't take it seriously at all. You can't. It's terribly nice to be rewarded. Everybody asks, "What's your reaction?" Well, of course my reaction is, "It's lovely! It's great to be recognized -- by your peers, particularly. It's lovely." But the nominations really are the honor. Somebody's got to win, but I don't know. You don't go around thinking, "Oh my God!" Like if you're 16 and making your professional debut in a film, you don't say, "Well, of course this is going to be an Oscar-worthy performance." If we thought about that, then we would never get anything done. [Laughs] It would be a preoccupation that would drive us to suicide! Back to Stockholm again!
Some people finance their own awards campaigns, as though that's all they're in it for.
[Sighs] No, sir. I'm too cynical -- and old -- to let that worry me anymore. It's just very nice.
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