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Christopher Plummer in Toronto last month

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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."

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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.

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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?

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"I think there's a lot of poignancy. We worked a little bit in that direction, changing it very slightly. [Barrymore's]collapse is more devastating and effective," he said of this revival of the show, during tea. While playwright William Luce's script remains largely unchanged, when the curtain closes on March 9, the production will undergo additional tweaks before being filmed and edited as a theatrical/cinematic hybrid. At that point, it will have more layers than the Inception storyline: a movie adapted from a play based on the final year in the life of one revered actor as played by another revered actor who just so happens to have portrayed many similar roles.

I knew from In Spite of Myself, Plummer's memoir from 2008, that he worshipped the bad boy Barrymore. "He was the ideal creature," said Plummer, who was born in Toronto but grew up outside Montreal. "His story, his glamorous life, appealed to me enormously, and I think that's what made me want to be an actor. He was a bad boy who was also frighteningly talented.

"I tried to sort of emulate him in life," he continued, polishing off his scone. "I mean, I used him as a model. I stayed up as late as I could. And it didn't take me long to fall in love with booze."

He hastened to add that his passion for potent potables saved him from some of the other poisons that blight Hollywood. "The drug thing didn't [come along]until the sixties. In the fifties, it was all booze, God bless it. And it was friendly."

I welcomed him to order a drink with his pot of English Breakfast but he was set on being a good boy. "Well, you can have one, darling. I'm going to wait until cocktail time because I'm older now."

He's not the only one. The original Barrymore team was reunited for this 30-performance limited run: Three-time Tony-winning director Gene Saks is now 89. "He listens to me," Saks says of Plummer. "We have the same mental approach in life."

Plummer believes that age has allowed him to overcome all the "uncertainties" inherent in the job. "I've mastered a certain part of my career that I know I needn't worry about any more. Even if I'm terrible, I know how to command an audience. So that part is smashing," he explained, adding that the original production of Barrymore (for which Plummer won a best-actor Tony) was what caught director Michael Mann's attention and lead to his portrayal of newsman Mike Wallace in the Oscar-nominated film The Insider. Subsequently, he noted, "quality scripts came my way much more than they had before."

The scripts keep coming and the latest may be the most high-profile yet. Plummer is playing the mysterious Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger in David Fincher's American film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, also starring Daniel Craig. Plummer celebrated the holidays at home in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Elaine Taylor, then headed to Los Angeles to shoot some scenes for the film, returning to Toronto last week to complete rehearsals for Barrymore.

"I thought it [would be]wonderful to do this hot series of books which I rattled through in about 10 minutes," he said.

He's plugging into popular culture in other ways, too. "We got bored so we went onto the YouTube," he said, referring to what has since become the Barrymore team's favourite activity between rehearsals. In addition to finding clips of Barrymore, they searched Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Henry Irving, Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Edwin Booth - all actors in their prime over a century ago. "You give a name out and boom! ... My next request is the Sermon on the Mount. That's what I want to hear."

I wanted to know if he watched himself on YouTube (there are more than 2,000 clips). "No, it would be boring," he scoffed. He took more pleasure in discussing how relearning the lines for Barrymore required little effort, in part, he said, because he had the best form of help. "My wife makes a very good prompter. I worked on it very hard beforehand. I was determined to get that out of the way."

The couple has been together since 1970, which is impressive even without factoring in the fact that his two previous marriages ended in divorce. "It's terrific. Particularly in our profession where everything is over in a flash," he said. (Plummer has one daughter, actress Amanda Plummer, from his first marriage.)

Their secret: "The incredible resilience and patience on the part of my lady to give me such a long rope."

Not too long, right? "She pulls it in rather dramatically at times," he replied.

Cut to the server asking if anyone would like some dessert pastries.

"No darling, good God, not after the scones!" said Plummer before pointing to his water glass. "I wouldn't mind more of this but without the lime - no vegetables."

Two observations from that moment: His blanket use of "darling" suggests an old Hollywood tick more than flirtatiousness (the no-nonsense server was more befitting of a simple "Ms."), and Plummer does not seem to realize that limes are fruits.

Now he was being comedic without the slightest premeditation.

Does he ever think about what his life might have been like if he hadn't pursued acting?

"I wanted to be a pianist," he said. "Now I play by ear. I don't work at it. But I could furnish you a harmony that is exactly in the right direction … It was too much hard work and much too lonely a life. And all along, I had the image of Jack Barrymore - he wouldn't [have done]that."

But Barrymore, as Plummer recalls, had a reputation for doing other "wonderful things." He describes how the actor often invited friends to perform songs with him during intermissions.

Don't expect him to follow suit when the play opens. "You think I'm going to allow another person onstage?" Plummer exclaimed.

Finally, his ego made a rare appearance.

Plummer laughed at the thought and repeated it, as if it were an epithet: "Will not share the stage."

But he will happily share a plate of scones (washed down, shortly thereafter, with a crisp glass of white wine).

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