You have worked with scarcely a letup in films, television, and theatre for
decades. What was it about Beginners that spoke to you, that made you want to be part of it?
Christopher Plummer: Well, first of all, it was something totally different; a character that I hadn’t played before.
Q: Although, you had played a gay man in [the 1980 telefilm] The Shadow Box.
CP: Yes, though it’s different for Hal [in Beginners]; he’s known about it, but he’s kept it within himself. He’s kept it private.
I like portraying diverse people, and always have; I try to be as versatile as I can on the screen, and on stage. I thought, here’s a fascinating character – and what an absolutely enchanting take on his coming clean at that old age of his, in his 70s; not old to me, but, old to most people. I thought, what a funny, charming, and touching way of depicting his discoveries and his realizations.
Of course, when I spoke with the author and director, Michael, then I realized that it was a true story from his own family. At first that kind of threw me a little bit; I thought, oh-oh, he’s going to be so loyal to his father that I can do nothing but disappoint. But, as it turned out, he was fantastic about it; he said, “No, don’t try to imitate my father.” I said, “I can’t; I didn’t know him.” [laughs]
He was very broad-minded, and very free-thinking about his own Dad. He had adored him, but he wasn’t rigid about my being close to his character at all. So there was a great deal of freedom involved in the playing of Hal.
Q: How else did the writer/director gain your trust? Through his letter to you?
CP: I liked him enormously from the start. He’s witty, a cultured man and extremely well-mannered – in this day and age, a very rare quality. Michael is comforting and comfortable to work with, and I think he’s going to be a wonderful dramatic director. Maybe that letter did seal it but I think that it was the story and the way it was written…
…and the fact that Ewan McGregor was on board. I admire Ewan as one of the rare actors of our time who underplays – he is, on the screen – and I wanted to work with him. He’s a pro, and it was extremely easy working together.
Q: Did Hal’s story – and Mike Mills’ real-life father’s comparable story – remind you of friends or colleagues who’d had a similar life epiphany and came out?
CP: No. One knows so many gay people, but Hal’s story appealed to my imagination; I don’t think any of us have known a lot of people who do that. To suddenly break out with all that honesty is quite extraordinary, at that age.
Q: Was it liberating for you to play out his self-liberation?
CP: It was nothing but fun! It was a joy, because he was having such joy himself.
Q: You’ve portrayed any number of real-life people over the years, and an even greater number of fictional characters. This character splits the difference – being based on, though not exactly being, Mike’s father – how did you split the difference between realty and dramatic license?
CP: A couple of times, I asked Michael questions about his father just to see into how Hal might have reacted. But I didn’t have to do that much, because it was all in the script; it was right there on the page.
Q: What approach did you and Mike work out overall – did he encourage you to take a lot of leeway, including during filming?
CP: I come prepared with a performance. We seemed to hit it off, so we didn’t have to go into long discussions. It was a lovely process, the whole experience.
Based on the script, I knew how to play it. My process of work is, I wouldn’t want to turn up on a set without knowing how I’m going to play the whole piece. I have it orchestrated in my mind, and if the director doesn’t agree with some of it, then we thrash it out. I always bring my performance with me.
Q: What about preparing with Ewan – did you do anything on the order of cooking dinner together? Did he ask you for anything like that?
CP: No. [laughs] No. I’ve been in the business for almost 70 years. That sort of thing would drive me out of the profession. Ewan doesn’t burden his fellow artists with his problems, and neither do I. There’s so little mystery left in the world anyway, and particularly in our profession – which is built on mystery…I just don’t go around boring people with how I prepare. It’s my business.
Q: One scene that is so affecting is the scene of Hal alone at the club. You’re
not even relating to the other actors, because Hal isn’t; he has the trepidation of being there alone, as the oldest person there, yet he’s enjoying taking it all in for the first time.
CP: Oh, yes. It’s a terribly touching scene, and it was one of the scenes that made me want to play the part.
Q: Given that this was an independent film, did you bring your own outfits to the set?
CP: Yes, I did bring some of my own clothes that I thought might be suitable for Hal. The wardrobe people were wonderful; I know they weren’t working for much money. None of us were, but we all had the same love and faith in the project.
Q: The old adage of not working with animals or children didn’t apply on this movie. Cosmo, the Jack Russell terrier playing Arthur, is a real scene-stealer –
CP: I made sure that I stole the scene.
Q: You wrested it right back from him.
CP: Absolutely. [laughs] He was great.
Q: You are a longtime dog owner and champion of them. Have you and your wife ever owned a Jack Russell, and if not has Cosmo spurred you to consider one?
CP: No, and no; they’re far too aggressive, feisty, and intelligent for me.
Q: Were you at the Toronto Film Festival for the world premiere of Beginners?
CP: Yes, but I had to leave in the middle of it because I was playing Prospero in The Tempest up at Stratford [Ontario, onstage], and I had to go back for a performance. But I’d seen the movie before.
Q: What do you feel that Mike has gotten across, emotionally and aesthetically, which will hopefully impact audiences seeing the movie?
CP: I don’t see how they can not like the movie; it’s very human. I should think it’ll work very well with audiences.
Q: Did playing Hal inspire you to take any chances that you hadn’t previously?
CP: Oh, but I live my life like that anyway.
Q: Taking chances?
CP: I hope so. Yeah.