It’s not too often you get to interview a living legend, but sitting across from Christopher Plummer in a hotel room in New York City a few weeks ago, I was smiling like a kid on Christmas. That’s because before I understood what a movie was, I had already seen his work, as I grew up watching The Sound of Music with my family every holiday season. And while most eighty year olds might slow down, Plummer has delivered some of his best work these past few years. If you haven’t seen Mike Mills‘ Beginners, Michael Hoffman‘s The Last Station, Terry Gilliam‘s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus or Pixar’s Up (he voices Charles Muntz), I strongly suggest checking them out. I’ll be shocked if Plummer doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar for Beginners.
The reason I got to speak with this great actor is for David Fincher‘s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Plummer plays Henrik Vanger, a wealthy old man who’s been haunted by the disappearance of his beloved niece for the past forty years. As most of you know, Dragon Tattoo is the first in Stieg Larson’s Millennium trilogy and it centers on a disgraced journalist (Daniel Craig) who’s hired by Vanger to investigate the mysterious disappearance. Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant young hacker who teams up with Craig. During the interview, Plummer talked about the last few years, acting in films and in the theater, working with Fincher, voicing Charles Muntz in Up, how he almost played Prospero in Michael Powell‘s unrealized adaptation of The Tempest, and a lot more. Hit the jump to read or listen to the interview.
As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get he interview: you can either click here to listen to the audio or the complete transcript is below.
Finally, click here if you missed the press conference with David Fincher, Rooney Mara, and Daniel Craig, here’s my exclusive interview with screenwriter Steven Zaillian, and here’s my exclusive interview with Fincher. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is now playing.
Collider: What have the last two days like been like for you?
Christopher Plummer: Sheer torture! [laughs]
Is doing press something that you really enjoy or is it something that when the movie is really good it is that much easier to talk about?
Plummer: Well, no, not always because if the movie is terrible you can have fun. You can joke about it and have a ball. The movie is already sort of established as a kind of extraordinary piece of work even though it hasn’t opened yet to the public. It is harder because you can’t go against it and you can’t be interesting. You have to go with the flow. Although one is very happy to be in it, it is sort of hard to talk about it. It is hard to talk about successful. It is much easier to talk about failure. [laughs]
That make a lot of sense. You’ve been in the business for a very long time, but it does seem like the last year or two have been extremely good as far as the roles. Someone touched on this in the press conference downstairs, but can you talk about these amazing great roles that you have been doing these past few years and the critical success with them?
Plummer: The amazing roles take place both in theater and movies. Everybody forgets that the theater exists. For the past year or so I’ve played the great roles like Prospero, Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, and all of those wonderful old plays. They are great roles and they have all been received marvelously, thank god. Now the scripts that I have gotten for movies are of high quality and are all in demand, have heart, passionate, emotional, and well written. I’m thrilled. It has all happening since I turned 80 practically. [laughs]
This year you have had two fantastic movie roles with Beginners, which is universally loved and has gotten nominations, and also in this year you are fantastic in this. Can you talk about this one great year?
Plummer: I am terrifically spoiled. That is all. I didn’t expect two such extraordinary films, and particularly films, to be of the quality that I fortunately got with Beginners and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It is an embarrassment of riches. That is all I can say.
How has the way that you prepare for a role changed over the years or has it not changed since you first got into the business? What are the short cuts that you have learned that you can maybe pass on?
Plummer: Oh, well, no. How you prepare for a role is entirely your business in my point of view. There is little enough mystery anymore left in the world in the part of our profession, which should be clouded in mystery because it isn’t in the public. You don’t want the magician to show his tricks or how he did them do you? So I do think that is a very private thing that we actors should protect ourselves from. It gets easier as you get older. That I can honestly say. Not the challenges necessarily, but the way in which you get ready because your technique has improved over the year and you now, as you said yourself, you perhaps know how to be more economical than perhaps you used to be when you tried to work perhaps too hard. Now it is cooler and it is on a much easier level. So you can tackle great roles knowing that you have a mastery of technique and that you have a terrific voice, that you know how to use it, and that you know how to change it to suit the characters that you play. It is a lot easier.
How is it for you preparing for a movie role versus a theater role? Is that any different?
Plummer: Well, first of all, it is very different because the theater roles are written by the great masters. I mean, the greatest literature that you can possibly know are the theater roles like King Lear, Hamlet, and all of those great roles. So all you do is you dive into these unchallenged roles and see how far you can get, what kind of accolades you can get, and how good you can be in them. In movie roles, you can actually improve them by knowing a lot about your own stage technique, which helps a great deal in the cinema and how you can project inner humor even though the particular dialogue is not necessarily funny, but you can infuse it with humor. I think both David Fincher and I worked along that line for the old man in Tattoo. I put in some humor that wasn’t necessarily in the book because Swedes have a great sense of humor and that dark sense of humor that they possess. So I thought that the old man must easily have enough humor to have charmed all of those business associates over the years. So we put that in. So I think there is more…because film roles aren’t written the writing is not the top thing in cinema. The less said the better actually on screen, and the more said the better on the theater. So it is the opposite. So, actually, one can help the other.
Can you talk about working with Mr. Fincher? What had you heard about his techniques and the way that he directs prior to getting on set and what surprised maybe about the way that he directs?
Plummer: Well, it didn’t surprise me that he was a smashing director because I had seen his other movies and each one was different. He is extremely versatile obviously as a director. I knew that right away and I thought that was wonderful because he uses a different technique for every movie that he does. He doesn’t have a signature, you know? There is always the director that must have a signature rather like old Alfred Hitchcock, who had a signature to all of his movies. You knew, “Oh that has got to be a Hitchcock because of that shot. That is one of his favorite shots.” Fincher is of the kind that I really admire, who is anonymous in the sense that, as in The Social Network, you are not aware that that is being directed at all.
You do feel like you are in the room.
Plummer: Yeah. There are no tricks. The camera actually stays forever on the two kids in the beginning and they talk and talk away and it hasn’t moved. He trusts his technique and his style for each movie. That was the style that he picked for that particular movie with The Social Network, which is totally different from Tattoo. Here is another one where he masterminds and you are aware that at the right time he seamlessly takes you away from horror and then brings you back into it giving you a little relaxation away from it in order to hit you harder when you come back. It is an extraordinary piece of work. How you handle that kind of disgusting horror and the violence towards women, which we know exists every day – how do you handle it without making it look cheap or like another sort of horror film? And he does that and he handles it with enormous taste because he never sensationalizes it. He just lays it out and says, “There it is. That is it. Look at it. That is what we are after and now you can forget about it because we are going to go along with the story.”
Mr. Fincher is known for doing many takes. As an actor, is it something that you appreciate being able to play it, as you talked about it downstairs a little bit in the press conference, in different colors and in different shades? How was it like for you doing 30 or 40 takes of something?
Plummer: He didn’t do that all of the time, thank god. [laughs] No, he does it when he feels that it is necessary. Also, there is the time element too. He knows that he has you for a short period of time because I was doing something in the theater and they were very nice and rearranged his schedule so that I could do this movie, which I was very flattered about. So I didn’t have all that time. So, of course, when I hit the snow of Sweden he knew that and said, “Alright. We better get 30 takes because this is the last time that I am going to see Plummer for a long time.” On the other hand, they are all different and they all mean something. As I said downstairs in the press conference, each take is a new thing and a new idea. It is not like a director who doesn’t know what he is doing and just does one take after another so that he can work it out in the editing room later.
One of my favorite films from the past few years is Pixar’s UP.
Plummer: Oh, yes. That is a lovely film.
It is fantastic. You obviously voiced Charles Muntz. Do you mind talking about making that film and voicing that character?
Plummer: I don’t think there is much to talk about because it is an animated movie. I just had fun creating this sort of voice and this creature in the studio. I had no idea how it was going to turn out and nobody had. Then when I saw it I thought, “Well, god. This is extraordinary! It has got everything! It is an animated film with everything in it. It has great heart, great imagination, and a whirlwind of favorite things in the world all wrapped up in one picture.” I thought it was amazing.
Pixar is known for having people come back in and do the character a few times as they figure it out and adjust the storyboards. Did you do a lot of voice recording on that one or was it maybe just one or two times?
Plummer: It depended and varied. They actually threw out the whole beginning of Charles Muntz’s character and then rewrote it. So we had to do it all over again in a different way, but it worked and I could see why when I saw the movie and why they had done this. You have no way of knowing when you are in the studio because there is nobody around. There is no cast and it is just you and the directors.
There is a video game that just came out, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and a lot of people are buzzing about it and I know that you voiced one of the characters. Have you played a lot of video games or maybe family members have?
Plummer: No. I don’t have a bunch of kids around the house, thank god. I don’t play those games, but I think maybe I will now that I am starting to do the voices. But, no, that is something that is totally foreign to me.
When people meet you on the street at a Starbucks or at a restaurant, what are the one or two films that they always want to talk to you about and they just get excited to want to talk to you about?
Plummer: Normally I don’t talk to a lot of people at a restaurant. I try to go straight for my table and I never go to Starbucks anymore. I don’t like their coffee. It is too bitter. I suppose they always want to talk about The Sound of Music because that is the family picture of all time and it still goes on. That is one of them and there are others. Sometimes when they bring them up I am relieved that it isn’t The Sound of Music all of the time because there are certain people that see only one kind of movie. I don’t understand it and you want to say, “Excuse me, haven’t you seen other films as well? Is it only The Sound of Music that you have seen? Why do you talk about that?” For instance, I have made way over a hundred motion pictures – take your pick. But they are not interested. They only want that one film. It is sort of amazing. It is the same people that drove Clark Gable crazy when he did Gone with the Wind. They all wanted to talk about Gone with the Wind. What about all of the rest of the stuff that he had done? You know what I mean?
I one hundred percent do. I think if I were to see you on the street I would bring up General Chang of Star Trek VI.
Plummer: I would much rather talk about that! [laughs]
Or, for example, Charles Muntz from UP. I’m definitely curious, what is your guilty pleasure film?
Plummer: Is that what you call it? I don’t think I feel guilty about anything. Do you mean something that I can watch over and over again?
Yes, a film like that.
Plummer: One of the ones that I can watch all over again are the Frank Capra movies. I can watch them over and over again. The Court Jester strangely enough, which I think is one of the best Danny Kaye movies. It is so well written by that Vaudeville team that wrote it. That is very funny. The great French movies of the 40s like La Grande Illusion, which is one of my favorite films of all time directed by Jean Renoir. There are many that I can watch over and over again.
I have to wrap with you, but do you have a favorite director that you have had over the years or are there too many directors that you admire to put one as a favorite?
Plummer: There are too many directors that I admire. David Fincher is certainly one of the greats that I have ever worked with and hopefully I will work with him again. I regret not having worked with Michael Powell, whom I thought was a wonderful fresh innovator of film when he existed in the 40s and 50s. He asked me to do The Tempest actually with him and play Caliban with James Mason as Prospero. But he never got the money raised and then he of course died very soon after that. I’m sorry about that because he was a great filmmaker.