Christopher Plummer talks fighting Nazis, growing old, and the Oscars controversy
In Remember, Christopher Plummer squares off against some familiar adversaries: Nazis. The 86-year-old Oscar winner has an incredible acting resume that includes two Tony Award wins, but he’s best known to generations of movie fans for his role as Captain Von Trapp, the stern Austrian widower who not only falls for Fraulein Maria in The Sound of Music, but stands up to the Nazis who have seized control of his country in 1938.
Plummer wasn’t always a fan of The Sound of Music, in part because he felt Von Trapp was a paper-thin character. But in Remember, a drama directed by Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), Plummer is in virtually every scene. He plays Zev Gutman, a Holocaust survivor suffering from dementia. When his wife dies, he and his friend, Max (Martin Landau), a fellow Auschwitz survivor who now uses a wheelchair, put a plan in motion that they’ve plotted for years: to track down the Nazi guard who killed both their families in the camps and has been living in America under an assumed name since the end of the war. Max has done all the homework — there are four possible suspects — and he’s given Zev written instructions on how to find their man… and kill him.
Zev is not an ideal assassin. Because of his dementia, he forgets important details. Fortunately, he always has Max’s handwritten instructions in his pocket, so whenever he’s lost, he can get back on track. (Think Guy Pearce in Memento…) In an exclusive clip (above) from the film, which opens in theaters on March 11, Zev confronts an old German played by Bruno Ganz (Downfall). Is he the man who killed Zev’s family in the camps? Is Zev capable of of making that decision?
Remember premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, and Plummer gives a powerful performance as a determined man fighting old age and the skeletons that still lurk in the deepest recesses of his mind. He spoke to EW about the role, growing old but feeling young, and the controversy swirling around this year’s Oscars.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Zev is a great character, a Holocaust survivor suffering from dementia on a mission of revenge. When you first read the script, what was your reaction?
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: I’d never done anything like that before — such a subtle character — and I wanted to do it immediately. That was the first reaction. It was something different, and I love being different in everything I do. I don’t like being the same guy all the time. So I jumped at that.
There are a few cutaway scenes with Martin Landau on the phone and Zev’s family worrying about him after he goes missing. But otherwise, you are in every scene.
Yes, it was very difficult. [Zev] can’t drive a movie. He has to be driven by the movie. That’s always difficult. So much interior stuff going on. But I must say, Atom was terrific. He was a great help. He’s a friend, so I wasn’t as nervous playing it as I would’ve been with a complete strange director. And Atom is a bit of psychoanalyst [laughs] in his time off, so he was very useful.
A psychoanalyst? How so?
Well, I think every really good director is — and should be actually. But he’s particularly good at it because he’s very sensitive and he doesn’t make you lose confidence or push you. He restores confidence, and I needed that for that strange role. It’s such an interior performance. You have to look inward all the time. And he is a prisoner and a victim of time and place and whatever is going on around him. He is the victim. He is not the perpetrator or the driver; he doesn’t take control. And especially because he has a short case of Alzheimer’s coming along.
This type of acting feels like the antithesis of stage acting.
I imagine you have to really trust the director to capture—
Right — that you’re not going to go overboard. He’s got to watch you like a hawk. That’s why I was so grateful to Atom. I said, “For Christ’s sake, if ever I look like I’m acting, please, jump down my throat.” He was very good about that.
You won an Oscar for Beginners. Did you feel a change in your career after that?
Not hugely. Yes of course, you feel it. Because there’s suddenly a huge amount of journalistic attention you’re getting. The class of scripts that I was reading had already begun to come in, actually after I played Mike Wallace in The Insider. That’s when everything suddenly changed. I was getting offers of more quality than I had before. So that kept me rolling very comfortable, and then suddenly the award came, which was a surprise to me but very nice, and it just continued and it multiplied. Of course, you can just ask for more money and not be embarrassed. It’s a wonderful prize for that reason, but it wasn’t hugely different then what was already happening.
You mentioned The Insider, which leads me to something I wanted to ask you about. I feel like there was a time in your career just as you were enjoying every possible success on the stage, where Hollywood didn’t quite know how to capture that same magic for you. I don’t know if it was the roles or what. But I wanted to ask you when that changed — was there a moment where you felt things finally click for you?
It was after sort of shedding my cape as a leading actor, in quotes: playing leading parts, or romantic leads, and then a lot of Nazis. Then suddenly, I hit my 40s and there came along John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, and the part of Kipling, which was an adorable part. I enjoyed playing it absolutely thoroughly. That was my first change into a character actor, and the minute you become a character actor, everything changes because all the scripts are so much more fun. Some of the best written parts in every project are the character roles, so suddenly I shed my bloody boring leading-man type roles and enjoyed myself thoroughly in a new career.
Has acting become easier — for lack of a better word — for you now than it was 50 years ago?
It gets easier. Not so many things distract you. And as one who’s been at it for such a long time, it’s a profession I love. I don’t shed blood over it, like some actors who are so intense and they’re so worried. All that’s gone. I did that for awhile when I was young but then I soon got over it. And what made me get over it was the fact that I’ve done so much theater in my life. And the theater drives it right out of you. It makes you tough, it really does. I’m glad I balanced both, film and theater, all through my life, because it’s very necessary.
The 1950s — when you were first doing theater — witnessed an amazing explosion of acting talent. And then the 70s had a second wave of actors that redefined the craft. Currently, however, I feel like the United States isn’t doing the best job of finding new talent. Any thoughts on this?
But I think it’s not just the United States. I think it’s all over. The audiences have changed. The minute the old guard of audience died out, where they were brought up on the theater, when I was doing Broadway plays in the ’50s, they were real cognoscenti of theater. They knew their theater backwards. Don’t forget, in the ’50s, in the U.S., we were working with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams — enormously talented playwrights. That meant something in the entertainment world. So it was to me the leading part of our profession and has been for 2,000 years. But suddenly audiences changed as more immigrants came into this country, and I noticed the change right away in 1965 when suddenly they weren’t laughing at funny things. And of course, it wasn’t their fault. They were of other languages, and they didn’t understand the subtleties and the quick ripostes that the playwrights were fashioning. So it wasn’t their fault, and hence the musical took over, because you don’t have to think in musicals. You just sit there and let the music waft over you. And that was a huge thing. Now, there’s a big problem with the kids who should be going to the theater and not just looking at their computers. And it’s the parents’ fault for not encouraging that. And it’s the ticket prices that are so high. It’s just awful. Everything tries to block the progression of great art. It’s such a fight to keep it restored and an act of service. And also, our native playwrights are not as exciting and as extraordinary as they used to be. There are a couple, of course, but language has been ignored, and that’s a shame.
I’m 42, but when people ask, I almost blurt out 31 for some reason. Not because I want to lie. But part of me still honestly thinks I’m that age, just for a split second. Is there an age in your head that pops in there when people ask?
Does that ever happen to you?
Constantly. It’s stupid, but I feel like you do: I feel 31. I feel 50 — and I’m 86. [Getting old] doesn’t worry me at all. I feel 50 and I feel terribly handsome and good looking… and then I look in the mirror and say, “Oh, sh–.”
Oh, sh–, take that mirror down.
Yes, let’s cover all the mirrors.
Everyone’s talking about the Oscars right now, but the conversation is more about who wasn’t nominated than who was nominated. Any thoughts on how many people are pushing for the Academy to become a more diverse group?
I’m old, but I’m experienced, and I think I know what’s good and what isn’t. But I think the average age [of the Academy voter] is too old. We must have some young people on that board, younger people who know what it is to be young in this particular world. The cognoscenti who vote, they might be very talented and distinguished people, but they should be a mix. And that’s all I can say, because I don’t presume to criticize my peers. They also gave me my award [laughs], so I need to be grateful. But I do think we need a mix. That’s only natural, I think. I think the average age is what: 50 or 60? We need a few 40s.
Can I look forward to seeing you on the stage again?
Yes, I do it all the time. I’m going back to Ottawa to do my own sort of show, which is Shakespeare With Music, and all of the composers who have been inspired by Shakespeare plays, for instance Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, and on and on and on. And a friend of mine who is a marvelous conductor and violinist has a group of about 10-12 musicians, and I do scenes from a certain play and then they play a composer’s music. It’s a very interesting evening, because you do a huge variety of stuff, and I know them all by heart because I’ve played them. So I’m going to do a performance and perhaps put it on film for PBS in July. Then I do my own one-man show, A Word or Two, which I just did two seasons ago in Los Angeles, and I might bring it to New York next winter.
I saw one other movie project in the works: The Kaiser’s Last Kiss.
We just finished making it in Brussels. I get a chance to play the Kaiser [Wilhelm], which is a wonderful role, because by the time he was exiled in Holland [after World War I], he had mellowed a great deal. So you saw some of the warmth inside, the kind of vulnerability that he had, which was very rarely seen by the public, but it’s there. It’s an interesting study in an older man who was an absolute ruler.
You can’t get away from these Germans, can you?
[Laughs] No, I can’t.