In a long life spent almost entirely as an actor, Christopher Plummer has been many things, and played many more, but never a gay man.
Now, for a role in his latest film, Beginners, which has its world premiere tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival, Plummer, 80, has turned his trademark charms on the role of Hal, a 75-year-old father who decides at last to come out of the closet.
I gradually felt as if the part had been written for me.
“I've never played a part like that before, on screen or stage. It was fascinating,” he says, adding cheekily: “Who knows what will happen in my 80s?” (Plummer, whose daughter is the actress Amanda Plummer, lives with his third wife, Elaine Taylor, in Connecticut.)
Beginners tells the story of Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, simultaneously trying to deal with two bombshells from his elderly father – that he is gay, and that he is seriously ill – while trying to stay in love himself. The story resembles the real experience of Mike Mills, the film’s writer and director (last at TIFF with Thumbsucker in 2005), and his late father, who did reveal he was gay at 75 and had, as Mills puts it, “five very intense, brand-new years of being gay and being very free.”
Plummer, on the telephone from Stratford where he is finishing the last performances of an acclaimed run of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is in a jovial mood. He is enthusiastic about the experience of shooting the film – “I don’t think I’ve ever had as good a time playing a role, anywhere” – and though the film has yet to find a distributor, he feels that if “someone gets behind it who can push it, I really think it might have a little chance.”
At the outset, when Mills and Plummer confronted the delicate family dynamic, Plummer said he neither wanted to, nor could, play Mills’s father accurately, and Mills agreed he shouldn’t try.
“From the beginning, the goal was never to do any sort of mimicry of my father. But the film does have a whole historical channel to it. It does take a lot of dates and facts that are very real,” Mills says by phone from Los Angeles. “The way I keep describing it is that the verbs and the actions do come from things that happened between me and my father, but all the proper nouns have been erased.”
The part gradually grew around Plummer, who, Mills says, has a similarly philosophical outlook as his father, who was an art historian and museum director, and perhaps a bit of an actor too, given that he “played the role” of a straight man for most of his life. And Plummer quickly got past his nervousness about not doing the senior Mills justice – “that was Michael’s fault, after all – he wrote the damn thing,” Plummer says, chuckling.
“I gradually felt as if the part had been written for me,” he adds. “It wasn’t on some distant plane you tried to reach. It was very close.”
Plummer concedes that the trickiest thing to wrap his mind around was getting physical with the handsome Croatian actor Goran Visnjic (formerly of the cast of ER), who plays his younger lover.
“Having to kiss my boyfriend of the moment, who is of course as butch as they come – I think he was more nervous than I was. I felt that I was sort of an oldish hand at it by the time we’d finished our relationship,” Plummer recounts, laughing. “You can’t get away from it; you have to do it. So we did it, and closed our eyes, and it was alright.”
Part of what undoubtedly identified Plummer for the part is that he is entirely believable as an elderly playboy. Mills marvels at the way Plummer goes about life “with such panache and casualness,” and it’s clear that even at age 80, the revered Canadian actor remains a sex symbol of sorts to multiple generations. Asked about his ageless allure, he waxes almost Shakespearian: “If that is to be my fate, I welcome it.”
“Quite honestly, I don't feel any differently now than I did when I was 50,” he explains. “I've kept a good steady diet of wine and food over the years – but well-balanced food.”
In the midst of one of his busiest years in recent memory, Plummer needs all of that energy: After a gruelling schedule playing Prospero in Stratford all summer, he is already booked for a Toronto revival of the play Barrymore starting in January, which will also be filmed. Luckily, he finds leaping back and forth between film and stage “refreshing,” and thinks hard work has helped keep him young.
Sexual orientation aside, it’s clear that Plummer admires the vim with which his character, Hal, attacks life after age 75.
“I found it so touching and funny and charming and innocent,” Plummer says. “A man whose whole life has changed into the upper register of ecstasy since he’s discovered he can be free is very moving.”