Over the past 60 years, the acclaimed Montreal-born actor has appeared in hundreds of films and television shows, won a slew of awards for his stage work, and poked fun at his own iconic portrayal of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, which he refers to as S&M. Plummer’s most recent projects are too numerous to list, but include voicing the villain in Up, playing the lead in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, writing a bestselling memoir, and playing Tolstoy in The Last Station, for which he received his first Oscar nomination earlier this year. He is currently appearing in The Tempest at Stratford.
Q: Many critics consider you the finest classical actor in North America—
A: [Laughs] I don’t know why they stop at North America. What’s wrong with my English acting? I played the classics in England for years.
Q: On the day of a performance, do you have a particular routine?
A: I like to get to the theatre a little early so I can go through the play, but that’s simply to exercise one’s memory, which, particularly at my age, 80, is important.
Q: Is your memory still sharp?
A: Touch wood, I haven’t had any scares yet. Acting helps a great deal because you have to memorize everything, it keeps the brain alive. I hope.
Q: Reviewers are ecstatic about your performance of Prospero in The Tempest. What does it feel like when a performance is going well?
A: Marvellous, because you know the audience is on your side, will do anything to encourage you along your way. I always say the audience is your real partner, and the other actors come after that.
Q: What do you do when the audience isn’t so responsive?
A: You don’t give them your C performance, you try to give them your A performance, and press on. And you have to enjoy it, because otherwise the audience has won.
Q: You’ve said you were “avoiding Prospero like the plague” because, among other things, it’s a very difficult part. Why is it so difficult?
A: Prospero is a sort of figurehead in a funny way: for a long time, at the end of the first half, he’s not present on the stage. And one has to find, in the middle of the piece, some sort of motivation for his sudden depressed feelings—it comes out of left field. That’s the playwright’s fault, I think. Believe it or not, I’m actually criticizing Mr. Shakespeare! The emotional line is not clear, and there’s an emptiness for Prospero, who’s just sitting in his dressing room waiting to go on.
Q: What are you doing in that time period?
A: Trying to stay awake! Trying to keep the energy going, which subsides rather markedly while you sit there waiting for the end of the first act. But you can’t do anything else, because then you’d really lose concentration.
Q: Why do you think people are surprised by the comic touch you bring to the part?
A: There’s millions of chances to get unexpected laughs in The Tempest. But the Prosperos I’ve seen over the years have made the mistake of playing him like a dry old professor, or a deacon who wears great big robes and pontificates. Even Gielgud played it rather intellectually, kind of distant. The thing I desperately tried to do was to find the humanity in Prospero. It’s a play about magic, and the disillusion of magic, and he is an extraordinary creature but he is also a human being.
Q: On opening weekend, the audience went crazy. How do you come back down to earth afterwards?
A: I’ve been at it forever, it seems, so it doesn’t really take me too far up to the sky now. When I was young, the euphoria was truly extraordinary, and in those days, we drank ourselves down. We hit the bar, kind of anaesthetizing ourselves. We don’t drink so much these days, and I miss it dreadfully, the laughter, the naughtiness of the mid-century. It was such fun. Everybody takes themselves soooo seriously now.
Q: You’ve been in a lot of movies recently with actors known as bad boys: Russell Crowe, Colin Farrell. Do they remind you of yourself?
A: A little bit, yes. But I didn’t take my badness quite as far as they did, to world-renown. I kept it rather local, and I’m terribly depressed about that. I’d love to have been just as famously bad as Russell and Colin.
Q: They don’t really behave any worse than you did?
A: No, they’re not bad at all, they just have wonderful rebellious natures, which I love. It’s so necessary for an artist to be a rebel, and to want to be unique, original.
Q: And carousing was expected of actors in the fifties, but now it’s portrayed as a sign of emotional trouble.
A: Yes. And remember, I was bad before drugs became fashionable. Drugs made everyone introspective and kind of selfish, they take you away from reaching out to people. In the fifties, drinking, we were much more friendly and open. I’m sure I was a terrible bore, but I thought I was being frightfully friendly.
Q: At 80, a lot of people give up things: big houses, work, sometimes driving. Is there anything you’ve given up?
A: No, not yet. I certainly don’t want to retire—that is death to me. And I still enjoy driving, rather. Of course, flying, which used to be such fun, is a terrible bore now, unless you are lucky enough to have a time-share in a private plane. Which I don’t.
Q: But aren’t you flying first class, with people kowtowing to you?
A: Oh yes, I’m spoiled, people do meet me and take me through the lines so I don’t have to wait as long, but it’s still miserable.
Q: Are there any roles you’d like to revisit that you can’t play because of your age?
A: It’s such a shame that the electronic media have taught us to look upon age as a sort of yardstick for what to do or what not to do, because of course in the old days people were playing Hamlet until they were 70—and probably playing him better than they did in their twenties. I could be a terrific Hamlet now, because I know so much more about the theatre, I’ve done so much and could bring that in.
Q: Which Shakespearean characters are left to play?
A: I’ve played all the greatest of the Bard’s, with the exception of Othello. And I know that one would get lynched over here playing Othello, which is a shame, because I’d love to take a crack at it. I might want to do Shylock, too.
Q: What about Falstaff?
A: I’m not sure about him. It’s very sweaty standing around in those big costumes with padded tummies. The comfort level is not terribly intriguing.
Q: Your co-star in The Last Station, Helen Mirren, is playing Prospero in Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest. Are there any female parts you’d like to play?
A: A very tacky, old Cleopatra! No, wait: the nurse in Romeo and Juliet! I think that is my dream, to play the nurse.
Q: Seriously, if asked to play the nurse, would you?
A: It depends who was playing the other parts, but if they were exciting actors? Yes, damn well I’d do it.
Q: You’ve been extremely busy over the past few years. Do you ever relax?
A: It’s a wonderful place to escape to, the theatre. I feel perhaps more relaxed there than I do in life. And strangely enough, I have just the same energy I always did, and I’m awfully ambitious still, I haven’t lost any of that.
Q: Because Prospero is often a career-capping role, you’ve said you intend to do something very quickly afterwards, to prove you’re not making an exit. So what’s next?
A: I’ve been offered the part of Salvador Dali, on film, and I’m dying to do it if they can raise the money. The more outrageous the part, the better I like it. Actually, I’m in a bit of a panic at the moment, there are several great comic characters I’d like to try. It’s got to be comic, I just want to get laughs from now on.
Q: Is it easier to get laughs than to make people cry?
A: I think it is easier, despite the famous line that dying is easy but comedy is terrifically hard. Making people cry is out of your hands. You can’t come into a performance with the intention of making people cry, because then you’re dead. Pathos is something totally inexplicable; you can’t play pathos, you have to own it. To simplify: if somebody cries a lot of real tears on the stage, it’s not going to be terribly moving. If you don’t cry, then the audience has a chance to cry.
Q: Would you consider doing something on TV? Like, say, an HBO series?
A: HBO is interesting. But a series? No, it just chains you down, you end your life in a series. I’d rather end my life in action, on the stage.
Q: Just keel over while doing a play?
A: Absolutely! It’s the way to go. I want to be very present at my own death, I want to know every second of it, every subtle change. It’ll be fascinating.
Q: Do you think people mellow with age?
A: Yes, I think they do, though I’m not sure about me. I think I have entered a sort of second childhood: I’m kind of giddy, having a good time. I don’t want to mellow too much, that would be rather dull.
Q: But aren’t you easier to work with now?
A: Oh, I’m a lot easier to work with. I’m a pushover, a sweetheart when it comes to my fellow players. I used to be a monster.
Q: What changed?
A: In that respect, I suppose I have mellowed. It was just too exhausting to go on being a prick.