NPR

Christopher Plummer, A Legend In Spite of Himself

Renowned actor Christopher Plummer has graced the screen since television's earliest productions. He is best known for his performance as the Baron Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Plummer's memoir, In Spite of Myself, will be released next week.

The great grandson of a Canadian prime minister, Plummer tells how "this young bilingual wastrel, incurably romantic, spoiled rotten, tore himself away from the ski slopes to break into the big bad world of theatre, not from the streets up but from an Edwardian living room down."

He has made over 125 films since he began his professional career as a Shakespearian stage performer in the late 1940s, including more recent releases, Syriana, Inside Man and A Beautiful Mind.

This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 20, 2007.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting and Cable Magazine and tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. When you say Christopher Plummer, some people automatically think Captain Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music." But that's only one of about a hundred films Plummer has made. And he's just written about his life and career in a new memoir, which comes out next week. It's called "In Spite of Myself."

Christopher Plummer's recent films include "The Insider," "A Beautiful Mind," "Syriana," and "Insde Man." Next year, he'll star opposite Johnny Depp in a new Terry Gilliam film, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." In addition to his movie work, Plummer has enjoyed a long and successful career on stage. He's won two Tony awards and has performed with Britain's National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Terry spoke with Christopher Plummer in 2007.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Christopher Plummer, welcome to Fresh Air. It seems to me, in your life, you just keep getting better roles. You've been in a lot of interesting movies in the past few years.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor; Author, "In Spite of Myself"): Yes, yes, I have, which is great because once I had a character actor level, scripts started to improve as they came my way.

GROSS: Is there any movie that you see as like a turn point in the latter part of your career?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes, I think "The Insider" was. I mean, I spent my life on the stage, and I've done tons of film both in England, Europe, and here. But another level started to be reached after "The Insider," and the scripts that I was receiving are now much more intelligent, about an A level rather than a B plus.

GROSS: Oh, I'm glad that you mentioned "The Insider" because we just happen to have a clip from it.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, book clip.

GROSS: Yeah, and this film, for anyone who hasn't seen it. It's about - "The Insider" is played by Russell Crowe. He is a whistle blower who had worked as a scientist at a tobacco company. And he knows all the secrets about the poisonous additives and all that stuff. So he's talking to "60 Minutes" about it. But this is the very beginning of the story, in which your producer, Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, has been setting up an interview for you with an Islamic extremist. And at this point, you step in as Mike Wallace to actually ask the questions, and you want to create the roles, but, of course, the Islamic group wants to create the roles. So here's how the interview gets started.

(Soundbite of movie "The Insider")

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: He says you must not sit so close.

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): What? I can't conduct an interview from back there.

Unidentified Man #2: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: You must move back your chair.

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): Well, you tell him that, when I conduct an interview, I sit anywhere I damn please.

Unidentified Man #2: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: Well, there is no interview.

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): You, I'm talking to you.

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): Who the hell do you think I am? A 78-year-old assassin? Do you think I'm going to karate him to death with this notepad?

Unidentified Man #2: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): Are you interpreting what I'm saying? We're there.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): Good. Well, ask him if Arabic is his second language.

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's my guest, Christopher Plummer, in a scene from "The Insider." How did you get the part in "The Insider," which you say, you know, was a turning point in your film career.

Mr PLUMMER: Well, they sent me the script. I'm sure they sent it to others as well. But I got it, and I met Michael and Al, and I was in. It was just wonderful.

GROSS: And did you start watching a lot of "60 Minutes"? Did you meet Mike Wallace? Was that necessary?

Mr. PLUMMER: You know, I knew Mike Wallace. I knew Mike Wallace. And he'd interviewed me in the past. I also grew up with Mike Wallace. He was one of the early hardcore television personalities. And I've watched him continuously when I was in my 20s in the '50s, when he began, and it was always very exciting to watch that kind of television that was really probably what the medium was for, kind of exposed medium in which people got into the core, sometimes cruelly or not, of someone's persona. And Mike was an expert on that, as was John Freeman in England.

GROSS: Now, another film that you did in recent years was "Syriana," in which you're the head of the big law firm representing an oil company with interest in the Middle East. And they're looking at a power change in a small gulf country. And they want to - they want their own men in power so they can call the shots. So they're trying to help this young weaker prince who they think they can tell what to do. I want to play a scene in which you're talking with that prince.

(Soundbite of movie "Syriana")

Mr. PLUMMER (As Dean Whiting): Prince, is there anything that we can do for you?

Mr. KAYVAN NOVAK (As Arash): Americans are always happy to drill holes in other people's countries. I've heard of you, Mr. Whiting, the cat's paw of the Saudi princess.

Mr. PLUMMER (As Dean Whiting): I know your brother, the foreign minister. He's very bight. I know your father, too. He threw the second creepiest party I have ever been to in Washington. And as far as I can see, you could probably use a bit of a cat's paw yourself, second born son, so beaten down by his family he can't even tell me what he wants when he's asked straight out. A grown up baby who's afraid of his brother, and maybe he wants to be a king, maybe. Well, prince, are you a king? Can you tell me what you want?

GROSS: Well, Christopher Plummer, hearing your scenes from the "The Insider" and from "Syriana," I just started wondering, have you ever played someone in a movie who's sweet-tempered, sensitive, and shy?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes, of course I have. Of course, I have. I've made over a 125 movies, and I think, in them, you'll find some of them, sweet, darling, sensitive, and shy. Yeah, I have done a few of those parts, of course.

GROSS: But you seem in recent years to really have kind of specialized in those really like power, assertive roles, no one is going to push me around kind of roles.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes, I suppose, but those parts interest me. They're witty. They've got wonderful edge to them. And I think people think that I exude a sort of power, and so they keep casting me in these things.

GROSS: Well, we've got one more clip for you. And this one is inevitable. So, the movie that made you famous, "The Sound of Music," 1965, in which you are Captain Von Trapp, a widower who expects his children to behave as if they were in the military until you got a new governess, played by, of course, Julie Andrews. And this is the scene in which she comes through your door, you meet her for the first time, and you're trying to evaluate her and also give her directions on how to handle the kids.

(Soundbite of a clip from the movie "Sound Of Music")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): Ah, Fraulein...

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Maria, sir.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): Fraulein Maria. I don't know how much the nun at Abbey has told you...

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Not much.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): You are the 12th of the long line of governesses who have come to look after my children since their mother died. I trust that you would be an improvement over the last one. She stayed only two hours.

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): What's wrong with the children, sir?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): There was nothing wrong with the children, only the governesses. They were completely unable to maintain discipline. Without it, this house cannot be properly run. Will you please remember that, Fraulein?

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Yes, sir.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): Every morning, you will drill the children in their studies. I will not permit them to dream away their summer holidays. Each afternoon, they will march about the grounds, breathing deeply. Bedtime is to be strictly observed, no exceptions.

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Excuse me, sir. When do they play?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): You will see to it that they conduct themselves at all times with the upmost orderliness and decorum. I'm placing you in command.

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Yes, sir.

(Soundbite of whistle)

GROSS: Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews in a scene from "The Sound of Music." People have such strong feelings about that movie. They either love it, or they hate it, and they think it's really insipid. Where do you stand on this issue of our time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: I'm very fond of Julie. That's the nicest thing that came out of that film for me. We have a true and great friendship. She's an extraordinary woman, professional. I'm grateful to the film in many ways because it was such a success. It is not my favorite film, of course, because I do think it borders on mockishness.

But we did our damned best not to make it too mookish, and Robert Wise kept a very tight control on it, which was difficult enough, but the sound and the music is quite wonderful. The only two countries that really didn't like it were Austria, of course, and Germany. Austria was fed to the teeth of the fact that they'd seen so many documentary films about the Trapp family, that they had them up to here.

GROSS: You know, in your movies, you have such good dictions, such proper diction in some of your roles. I always thought you were from England. You're from Canada. Is the diction a result of theater training? Is it a class thing? Is it…

Mr. PLUMMER: No, it's a deal with my family, who spoke well. I mean, we speak well in Canada, as well as they do in the Great Britain, may I remind you. And my family were educated, well read, and they spoke beautiful English. So I really got a lot from them. And, of course, theater training continued to make it better.

GROSS: Now, you were a member of two very famous British theater groups, the National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company. What years were you in England?

Mr. PLUMMER: I lived in England from 1961, right through and to almost the mid '70s. So about 15 years, yeah.

GROSS: OK. So, I mean, you worked in a period when the method became very popular in the United States.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah.

GROSS: But you were also doing classical theater.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes.

GROSS: So you were in classical theater and movies in which a lot of the actors were into the method. Did you find yourself going back and forth between more of a classical approach and more of a method approach to acting?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, I think both. I think that one helped the other. I was so glad that - I'm so glad I was Canadian in a way because a Canadian can take the best of the British and the best of the American school. And we're rather good at that. We're kind of chameleons in that respect. That's why there's so many good Canadian comics and mimics, terrific. So that was valuable to use the method and use the classical technique together at the same time. It was very exciting.

GROSS: How would you describe the main difference between the two approaches?

Mr. PLUMMER: The method in itself has been, I think, heavily misunderstood. I've always thought that. The method is really there for an actor who is in trouble and who can't wrestle up an emotion that is trying to gather or the author requires him to get. So he uses sense memory and things that the method suggests you use, some personal experience in his primary family or some tragedy to - he uses that to infuse the lines that he's having trouble with. But if you're an actor, for God sake, the whole reason for being an actor is that you have an imagination, an intelligence, and some sort of instinct of your own, and you don't need to follow the method.

BIANCULLI: Christopher Plummer speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with actor Christopher Plummer. His memoir, "In Spite of Myself," comes out next week.

GROSS: Early in your screen career, you were actually on television. And you did a lot of the early TV shows.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah, golden. The golden age of television, yes, in New York.

GROSS: Like, General Electric Theater and Kraft Theater.

Mr. PLUMMER: All of them. I did them all. Yeah.

GROSS: And a lot of those were live, or all of them were live?

Mr. PLUMMER: All of them were live. Tape didn't come in until the late '50s, I don't think.

GROSS: Do you have really good stories about doing live drama on television in the '50s?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, yeah. I can't remember the name of the show. But Martin Manulis was the producer and director. And we were doing, this time, mirroring the story of "The Crown Prince," Rudolf of Hapsburg, and his suicide attempt with Maria Vetsera, his lover. And the setting was in the hunting lodge, and on the night of the show, live, of course, Viveca Lindfors was such a beautiful Swedish actress, and she was playing Maria Vetsera, and I had an immense crush on her.

And the night came before I was supposed to make my entrance into the hunting lodge, and she is waiting for me. And the poor thing had to wait and wait because off stage, I couldn't see anything. It was all black. So finally, I saw a light at the end of this sort of long black hole. And I thought, Oh, thank God. At last, I can find an entrance and make my entrance. So I sort of bent down and came out of it. But the audience must have been very startled to see Crown Prince Rudolph with all his metals coming out through the fire place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, what did you do to cover it up, anything?

Mr. PLUMMER: I don't know. We just valiantly went over the hearth. But her face was something extraordinary. She didn't dream I was going to come through that thing.

GROSS: That sounds like such a nightmare, though. It's like live TV, and you can't find the entrance to the stage.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, it was awful, but the cameraman was so great in those days because if you were - I was on a long soap opera once, and like so - it was so bad, I can't remember its name and refuse to remember its name. But they were so great. There were only four of them, you know, four cameras. And then, we never knew our lines. So when we forgot a line, we'd wink at the camera, and then the camera man would then go and shoot a vase or something on a table or a grand piano while we quickly looked at the script and then nodded, and then he came back, and we finished the scene. That happened all the time. But it was beautiful. They mastered it so smoothly. These cameramen, they were heroes.

GROSS: You've performed Shakespeare. As a young man, you performed Shakespeare, as an older man most recently as King Lear on Broadway. Does Shakespeare read differently to you now than it did when you where younger? Are there things you see in it now that you didn't then, or interpretations that are different?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, of course there are, but the poet himself remains as magical and as extraordinary and as simple and as human as he did when I was young. Because that's what strikes you right away is the humanity of the plays when you're - and the simplicity of them when you're a young person. That's why he's head and shoulders above all the other writers that wrote at his time particularly, because they are much more florid and grandiloquent.

And Shakespeare is so extraordinary simple. And that stays with you always. Of course, as you grow older, and you have some experience of life, you see more in to the depths of each character, King Lear for instance, which is an extraordinary play. It is so very modern in its dysfunctional family and all of the trappings of power that are disappearing from them is so modern, it's so human. You need to be much older to understand the depths of a part like that.

GROSS: I never think of Shakespeare as being simple.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, yes. I mean, oh no, come on. When he picks the great moment, the key moments in plays, his language becomes terribly simple, you notice now.

GROSS: Give me an example.

Mr. PLUMMER: Well. Nothing could be simpler than the rest of silence. That's as modern a statement is there ever was.

GROSS: You said that you used to drink a lot.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes!

GROSS: And that's a very enthusiastic yes. Was this mostly like in the 1950s and '60s?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah, that was the good drinking era. And the '60s sort of became more of a drug era. And then the '70s were so boring, I can't remember them. But the '50s was a very communicative era. Everybody loved their drink. New York was wide open, so was Montreal. In fact, Montreal stayed open 24 hours a day. There wasn't a joint in town that closed. I used to, you know, commute shuttle back from both. It was a glorious time.

And we were - all us young actors, my friends, Jason Robards, were all big drinkers. Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, all of us were good, hard-fisted drinkers. And our intention was that we should be if were to be called men. We must drink as much as we can. And if we can still get through Hamlet the next day without a hitch, that made you a man, my son. You weren't worth anything unless you could. You do the test of time.

GROSS: Is it harder to do "Hamlet" with a hangover?

Mr. PLUMMER: Terrible. It's just a nightmare. And I have done it when I had a hangover. It was very fast, though. We did it very fast. We got off very quickly. It was no longer a three and half hour, four hour play. It was something like two hours.

GROSS: What would you do to make yourself feel better before having to "Hamlet" or any kind of heavy lifting with a hangover?

Mr. PLUMMER: Ferna Branca was my favorite pick me up. Ferna Branc laced with a little creme de monte. It goes down like silk, and boy, does it wake you up. And if you have another one, you have two or three Ferna Brancas, you're drunk again. So just stick to one, and you'll be OK.

GROSS: And you wouldn't forget your lines with that.

Mr. PLUMMER: No, somehow, "Hamlet" remained intact in my memory. And so, it was a such a glorious played that I wouldn't insult it by forgetting it.

GROSS: Are there any roles you'd still particularly like to play? There are a lot of roles you don't know about because they haven't been written yet. But is there any particular thing you have your sights on?

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, I hope somebody actually does write some role that really is a wonderful role. There aren't many, it's an al sompt (ph) time now. And as Nathan Lane said so succinctly, I don't do al sompt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: But yeah, there's tons of stuff I want to play. I want to play some Chekhov. And yes, I want to do things like "Prospero." I want to do "Volpone." I've got tons of parts that I want to play before I croak.

GROSS: Well, Christopher Plummer, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. PLUMMER: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Christopher Plummer, speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. The actor has written a memoir entitled "In Spite of Myself," to be publish next week. I'm David Bianculli, and this is Fresh Air. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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