An hour into afternoon tea with Christopher Plummer at a swank Toronto hotel, the conversation paused just long enough for him to ask, "Have you got enough? I don't want to stop you …"
I registered this as a considerate signal that our time together had come to an end. He was probably talked out, on a tight schedule, or both.
"Because we could go next door, maybe," Plummer proposed before I could answer. He was referring to the less populated hotel bar adjacent to the lounge where the tables around us had started to fill. "I get terribly self-conscious. Let's go. Do you want a drink? Let's go have a drink."
A group of middle-aged women had spotted the handsomely weathered thespian. But he was an easy target with his platinum hair and hint of mustache, dressed in a pullover sweater and tweed blazer - equal parts bookish and rakish.
As we made our way out, one of them gushed, "We love you, Mr. Plummer!"
He graciously played along (this must have made their year). Then, the veteran actor, who happened to turn 81 the previous day, conceded to me sotto voce that he still gets plenty of attention from this particular demographic of dames.
It was hardly a revelation. For some, he will forever be The Sound of Music's Captain von Trapp; for others, King Lear. Onscreen, he's played a Klingon, Leo Tolstoy and every villain, father figure and artiste in between. If he so desired, Plummer could do bicep curls with his various award statues: two Tonys, two Emmys and a Genie.
Even if he's not exactly a magnet for Justin Bieber-crazed tweens, he's got mojo to spare, as was evident earlier in the day when he treated a select audience of journalists to two short snippets from Barrymore, the one-man play he first performed in Stratford and then on Broadway 14 years ago.
How does the man keep doing it? I was eager to get to the heart of his unwavering, everlasting charm.
It didn't take long, and he didn't have to try hard.
He had just polished off a few finger sandwiches and proceeded to order scones (insisting I have one to relieve him of any guilt). So there he was, this near-regal presence, spreading lemon curd on the flaky biscuit only to realize that it was ending up everywhere - the tablecloth, his pullover, the upholstered banquette - except his mouth.
"It's unbelievable," he said, assessing the crumb-tastrophe. "I need to have a bath!"
He was being dramatic, but it was an endearing moment seemingly without the slightest premeditation.
It was also an altogether different Plummer than the one who will appear onstage at Toronto's Elgin Theatre this Thursday, portraying the late acting legend John Barrymore (actress Drew Barrymore's grandfather). That Plummer must balance the character's inner demons and self-doubt with the artistic stamina required to perform Shakespeare monologues as someone else (in the play, Barrymore rehearses for his performances of Richard III and Hamlet).
The studio set, located on the Elgin's fourth floor, was a simulacrum of what the audience will see: a dusty wooden plank floor, costumes hanging on a rolling rack, a table with a basket of apples on it, old books and, the pièce de résistance, a throne that looks like it arrived in Toronto via Hogwarts. Barrymore's foil comes in the form of Frank (played by John Plumpis), the studio manager who resides offstage, feeding him lines while encouraging the actor to confront some deeply personal issues.
In the scene we saw, they yell at each other like an old married couple. But here's what struck me: the nearly seamless melding of Plummer and Barrymore. Who was I really watching?