Plumbing a long and distinguished career

Interview / Christopher Plummer

It was an obsessive shoot, because Michael Mann, who is a marvelous director, is really a perfectionist about filmmaking," says Christopher Plummer of the current critically acclaimed film "The Insider."

The film, now in theaters, depicts TV network CBS suppressing a tobacco industry whistleblower's interview with "60 Minutes." "Michael is intense, and it was never relaxing," Mr. Plummer says. "But then, the subject matter was not relaxing. So it was a very good thing that he brought that tension every day to the set, which made you get in there quickly and do the scene properly.... We rehearsed quite considerably because Russell Crowe and myself had to get the voices of both Jeffrey Wigand and Mike Wallace down pretty pat. So we needed rehearsal for that."

Clearly enthusiastic about "The Insider," Plummer is now working on an equally intense TV miniseries, "Nuremberg," in his native Montreal. Based on Joseph Persico's exhaustively researched book "Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial," the series is "documentary in feeling and truer to events than Stanley Kramer's film," he says, referring to "Judgment at Nuremberg," released in 1961.

The series will be screened on Turner Network Television next spring. Max von Sydow plays Samuel Rosenman, President Roosevelt's speechwriter and confidant, with Alec Baldwin as Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor. Plummer plays Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, the de facto chief British prosecutor. "We've had wonderful actors come and play cameos.... The longest part is [Nazi official Hermann] Gring, played by Brian Cox ["For Love of the Game," "Rushmore"] wonderfully, because he looks exactly like Gring."

Deeply tanned, dressed in a lightweight blazer and white slacks, Plummer immediately puts an interviewer at ease and talks with self-deprecating humor about his life and career.

His first love is really music. "At one very brash moment [as a youth], I thought of becoming a concert pianist. But there's too much work involved. I wouldn't possibly have the discipline.... I'm a fan of music and I work at acting."

Plummer's first role was at age 15 as Darcy in a high school production of "Pride and Prejudice." Then, at 17, he played Posthumus, in a modern-dress version of "Cymbeline," directed by the legendary Russian Theodore Komisarjevsky.

He did radio work in French and English in Montreal, working with such future stars as William Shatner. An international career beckoned and in 1953 he made his Broadway debut in "The Star Crossed Story," directed by Eva Le Gallienne.

Plummer was elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in New York in 1986 and is the recipient of many awards, including Tonys in 1974 for "Cyrano" and 1997 for "Barrymore." But he says he doesn't prefer any one medium over another. "I like them all [TV, film, and theater] and I do them all. The theater has the best language, and therefore I opt for the theater when it comes to the greatest works of literature....

"The theater is my home possibly more than the screen, although I really have done more than 80 films. I don't know how I've had the time to do all these parts," he says, laughing heartily.

"I come from a school of character actors that wants to be different," he adds, "so I'm an enigma to Hollywood. They never understand me wanting to disguise myself. They want you to be the same person in every film you make. I find that unbelievably boring. Hence, I'm not a superstar."

He returns to Stratford-upon-Avon next September as King Lear, to be directed by Sir Peter Hall. Will his daughter, Amanda, play Cordelia? "No, I think she'd make an excellent Fool. She wants to do it. I hope it will happen."

He has worked with many great actors of this century and describes Sir John Gielgud as "probably the greatest actor and man I've worked with." Lord Olivier, he says, in order "to keep his position unchallenged, resorted to all kinds of tricks of upstaging.... He had a killer instinct, and God bless him because it worked."

Among the younger actors, he "adored working with Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh" in the film "Dolores Claiborne." He loves Nicolas Cage both as a person and as a performer. "He has a real edge. He's always taking risks. It's difficult for these young stars; they don't have a chance to fail."

For six years, he has been working on his memoirs. "My publisher [Alfred Knopf] is so patient," he says. "I've never kept a diary, but I remember so many things that it's awfully hard to narrow them. Youth is really everyone's best story.... So I've tried to tell stories about the people who have influenced my life. That's the interesting part: generous people I've learned from."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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