'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Christopher Plummer ('All the Money in the World')

The legendary actor of stage and screen, who made his film debut 60 years ago and, at 88, is still going strong, reflects on why he long felt that being angry and drunk were musts for an actor, why he has conflicted feelings about 'The Sound of Music' and what it was like reshooting all of Kevin Spacey's scenes in nine days for Ridley Scott.
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"I love this profession, I really do," says the legendary stage and screen actor Christopher Plummer as we sit down at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast. "It has never been anything but great fun to me — never, even under the worst, most boring, awful circumstances. Actually, that's even funnier — if you learn to laugh at those moments, you can really build up a good laugh for the whole of your life."

Plummer, 88, is best known for playing Captain Von Trapp opposite Julie Andrews' Maria in Robert Wise's classic 1965 musical The Sound of Music. His other big-screen credits, over the course of 60 years in film, include Sidney Lumet's Stage Struck, Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire, Robert Mulligan's Inside Daisy Clover, John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King, Bob Clark's Murder by Decree, Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992), Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995), Michael Mann's The Insider (1999), Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001), Terrence Malick's The New World, Pete Docter's Up, Michael Hoffman's The Last Station (2009), for which he received his first Oscar nomination at 81, Mike Mills' Beginners (2010), for which he won his first Oscar, becoming, at 82, the oldest person ever to win a competitive acting Oscar, and David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

But never has Plummer experienced anything quite like what he did on his latest project, Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World. Indeed, Plummer, at Scott's desperate request, went to work on the film, as J. Paul Getty, after it had already been completed with Kevin Spacey in that part. Spacey had just become engulfed in a sexual misconduct scandal, jeopardizing the movie's future, and Scott didn't want to take any chances. In just nine days, Plummer and Scott re-filmed all of Spacey's work and, for his efforts, Plummer received a best supporting actor Golden Globe Award nomination. He might well receive a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, too, on Jan. 23.

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Plummer, who was born into a privileged family in Quebec, initially pursued a career as a pianist, but grew lonely and gravitated toward acting instead. Rave reviews of his stage work in high school convinced him to make acting his profession, and his ultimate goal was to be a great man of the theater. He did so, largely through his interpretations of the great Shakespearean roles, which, he says, were fueled by anger and alcohol, which he and many of his contemporaries considered essential ingredients for a great performance. Eventually, he began appearing on live television, too, and then in the movies, to which he had been unsuccessfully recruited by the likes of David O. Selznick, but ultimately was convinced to go by Sidney Lumet. "I always felt more at home onstage because I've had such a long stage career," he reflects, noting that his early screen work was "a little bit theatrical" for his tastes. "But now, no, I'm pretty much relaxed in front of a camera. I feel free. It's actually freed me now. So they're equal."

The Sound of Music is what Plummer will be remembered for forever, but the actor signed up for it only reluctantly, since its script had been sitting around for eight years prior to Wise's decision to make it and, in Plummer's estimation, "wasn't very good." He explains, "I wanted to do it because I was going to do a musical on Broadway about Cyrano de Bergerac, and I wanted the feeling of doing a musical. I had never done one in my life." The film was shot mostly in Austria, where Plummer, who had to be on camera for only 11 days spread throughout the shoot, ate and boozed heavily and ultimately got so fat that his costumes had to be remade. ("Robert Wise said, 'You look like Orson Welles,'" he recalls with a laugh.) While making the film, Plummer wasn't confident in his singing ("Most of it is sung by someone else. … I couldn't sustain a long note like Julie") and wasn't thrilled with being surrounded by child actors (their schooling requirements interrupted the schedule), and he insists he had "no idea" that the work would become so beloved. More than 50 years later, despite occasional disparaging references to "The Sound of Mucus" or "S&M," he acknowledges that he "had a good time" and continues to adore Andrews.

It wasn't for another decade, however, that Plummer became the actor he wanted to be. "I didn't really begin to enjoy the real depth of the screen until I did John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King," he notes. "I was no longer a leading man; I was a kind of supporting actor, a character actor, and the minute I became a character actor, the parts grew much more interesting." He adds, "It was wonderful. You could be free. You could change your appearance and do all sorts of things, which I continue to do to this bloody day." Plummer, as he grew older, shined in films such as The Insider, which many expected would bring him his first Oscar nom, and The Last Station, which ultimately did. A year after The Last Station, at 82, he won the best supporting actor Oscar for Beginners. "It wasn't the greatest part I've ever played or anything like that," he says, "but Mike [Mills] was so easy to work with."

Only someone with Plummer's vast experience could have stepped into All the Money in the World on such short notice and knocked a complex part out of the park. "I admired Kevin," Plummer says. "I thought he was a terrific actor — I watched him in many, many of his films." He adds, "I never worked with him, and of course all of this suddenly happened, and, by God — I can't discuss that. … I was just sort of devastated." Plummer says he never imagined that anyone would reshoot work of Spacey's that was already in the can — and then, "The phone rang, and I said, 'What a weird offer that is!'" He says, with a laugh, that he told Scott, "I would love to work with you — even if it's just over the weekend!" (Scott offered to show Plummer the footage of Spacey's performance to give him a sense of what he was aiming for, but Plummer declined, insisting that he wanted to come up with his own interpretation.)

And, with that, Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg returned to reshoot their scenes, this time with Plummer, who says Scott knew what he wanted and moved rapidly: "I don't think we ever did more than two takes." As for Plummer's own part, he confesses, "I didn't think it was going to be quite that large a part when I said, 'Yes,'" but he emphasizes that the volume of dialogue wasn't his greatest challenge. "The hardest thing was to try to give him [Getty] a little humanity." In the view of many critics, and certainly in the eyes of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which determines the Golden Globe nominations, Plummer succeeded. "I was practically getting on the plane [to go home after he wrapped in November]," he says with a belly laugh, "and I'd already been nominated!"