The actor Christopher Plummer, 85, and the director Atom Egoyan, 55, have been friends since 1994, when Egoyan fannishly knocked on Plummer's stage door after a Broadway performance of No Man's Land. They've made two films together, Ararat (2002) and the new drama Remember, which opens Friday. For years they've exchanged fine chocolates (Egoyan's wife, the actress Arsinee Khanjian, is a fiend for them); dined out (the pickerel in Sault Ste. Marie, where much of Remember was shot, made them swoon); and swapped tales (a delicious storyteller, Plummer knows precisely how to build to a punchline and then slip it in sideways.)
But at this moment, discussing the actor/director relationship over cappuccinos during September's Toronto International Film Festival, Egoyan looks gobsmacked. He's never heard this story, because Plummer has never told it before. To anyone.
Plummer: "I have had, in the theatre, the experience of drying. Completely forgetting my lines. It's an eerie but pleasant feeling, as if all your nerves have relaxed. As if someone has given you an extraordinary massage, and you are totally at ease."
Egoyan: "This is remarkable. I'm stunned."
Plummer: "I've never talked about it, because I thought no one would hire me again. It was in my one-man show, which I'd written [A Word or Two]. The prompter started to yell at me. I didn't know who he was. I couldn't understand him. Then suddenly, mercifully, I got enough blood going to bring back my brain, and I proceeded. It's insanely scary when you think about it afterward, though."
The fact that Plummer has never told this story is one thing. It's quite another that it never came up while the pair were shooting Remember, because Plummer's character, a widower named Zev, lives his life in that state: He suffers from dementia. Armed with a gun and handwritten instructions from Max (Martin Landau), a fellow resident at his care home, Zev embarks on a last, harrowing undertaking – to find and kill a vicious former Auschwitz guard living in the United States. At any moment, Zev can become untethered from himself, which ratchets up the poignancy and suspense.
Egoyan: "You were channelling it! Your narcotic restfulness. That sense of being lost."
Plummer: "Everything that happens to Zev is in the present."
Egoyan: "There's no subtext to work with. That's very difficult to pull off."
Plummer: "It's all happening now. I'm used to playing roles that drive the script. This is the first where I had to let the script drive me."
The script, by Benjamin August, came to Plummer from producer Robert Lantos, another old friend (they made the TV series Counterstrike together, and when Lantos won a best picture Genie 25 years ago, Plummer presented it to him). Lantos is the son of Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust survivors: His father escaped from a labour camp; his mother, armed with fake papers, was sheltered by Christians in Budapest, where Lantos later was born. He's made films on the era before – The Statement, Sunshine, Fugitive Pieces. But when Lantos read August's script, "I couldn't put it down," he says in a separate interview. "I didn't expect a page-turner."
All three men felt a sense of urgency: The generation that saw the Second World War is disappearing. If they waited even a few years, Remember would morph from a contemporary story to a period piece. As well, subsequent generations are forgetting the horror – Lantos cites the recent example of NDP candidate Alex Johnstone, a Hamilton school trustee who admitted that she'd never heard of Auschwitz.
Plummer: "I didn't want anyone else to direct this. I needed Atom. I'm a coward. I need someone who I think respects and trusts me. Which I feel for him. And we have fun. When you do something as grave as this, you need to laugh when the camera stops."
Egoyan: "We had that remarkable moment early on Ararat."
Egoyan: "After the first take, I said, 'That was great, let's try it again.' Most actors want to. Chris doesn't, because he knows what he's doing. He said, 'Did you like what I did, was it right? So why do it again?' "
Plummer: "He said, 'For insurance.'"
Egoyan: "And he said, 'I suspect you have insurance on this film.' He knew that wasn't the kind of insurance I meant. But I said yes. He said, 'So if there's a technical problem at the lab, they'll pay for me to do it again.'"
Plummer [still chuckling]: "'So let's move on.'"
Egoyan: "He was absolutely right. In the editing room, you often end up using the first take."
Plummer: "I must admit, I don't do that all the time. I do ask, 'Please, for God's sake, let me try that again.' But it's dangerous, because every take you do, no matter how fresh you want to make it, gets more mechanical. And that's a no-no. You should be a stranger to the camera, always. Right?"
Plummer: "Particularly in this role. I knew if I slipped into sentimentality, Atom would pull me out. Many directors mistake sentimentality for something else. He won't."
Egoyan: "There's also a mordant humour in the piece, which we share. We wanted it to have an unexpected lightness."
Plummer: "The older one gets, the more important a sense of humor becomes."
Plummer and Egoyan did weather one short disagreement on Remember. For a scene in which Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) pushes Zev onto a sofa, Egoyan wanted to use a stuntman. Plummer refused.
Egoyan: "I tried to sneak a stunt person in, and Chris was livid. He signed a pact with him to promise not to do it."
Plummer: "You can act falling backward. That's easy. Though I didn't want to interfere with his livelihood."
Egoyan: "He did end up working: He dragged me away from the set, at Chris's instruction."
Plummer: "I would have paid heavily to get rid of Atom that day."
By this point, it's obvious why these two click – they share a seriousness of purpose, which they regularly puncture with banter. When Egoyan wanders into a mini-monologue about the after-effects of trauma ("Part of us wants to learn from it; part wants to obliterate it") and then stops himself – "I sound so pretentious sometimes!" – Plummer replies dryly, "Thank God you didn't bring that onto the set with you." Both guffaw for several seconds.
Plummer: "But we're all two people, aren't we? There's the one we choose to hide, and the other we face the world with. That creature you've invented. If there's any warning in this film, it's that people should be aware that we're capable of being two people, and to watch out for it."
Egoyan: "Honestly, we never had these conversations when we were shooting. We talked about Italian restaurants."
Plummer: "And girls."
Egoyan: "I do want to say one serious thing. This man is the greatest stage and screen actor that Canada has ever produced. He's a wonderful, warm person, but he's also a rare, precious artist, and every moment with him is a great privilege. I'm so thankful that he's still at the peak of his form."
Plummer: "You see why I can't resist him. But the older I get, the more I let my real self emerge. You must, or you can't live with yourself. I would never have told that story about drying onstage, even a year ago. But I had to let it out. You have to let out all your secrets before you die."