”Do you have a mirror? Because I don’t trust you an inch.”
There’s a comedic lilt in Christopher Plummer’s voice as he teases the woman making up his hale countenance, here in the trompe l’oeil-foliage-adorned sunroom of his sprawling Connecticut home. But the pancake lady doesn’t seem to get the joke. Looking thrown, she proffers a tiny compact. ”Oh! That’s not big enough,” Plummer harrumphs. ”I’ve got a bigger mirror, for God’s sake.” He takes leonine strides to an enormous gilt-edged hunk of glass, looking so much younger than his 75 years that you have to wonder if there’s a Dorian Gray hidden somewhere on the other side of the reflection. He regards his face with eyelids narrowed. ”Oh, yeah. That’s all right.”
Plummer has been primping for stage work, screen roles, and photo shoots for some 60 years now, and he shows no sign of slowing. Lots of casual entertainment grazers know him only as The Sound of Music’s Captain von Trapp or as General Chang, the Klingon commander from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Bring up either of those roles with gushing enthusiasm and you’re likely to see his thoroughly patrician demeanor — product of a privileged, only-child upbringing in Montreal, as well as culture-vulture stints living in New York City, London, and the French countryside — collapse like a punctured soufflé. After all, this is a filet mignon kind of actor you’re dealing with, not a Happy Meal. Plummer had mastered just about every major Shakespearean role, on stages in all three Stratfords (Connecticut, Canada, and England), by the time he was 35. The Sound of Music’s freakish success sent him off sideways from that noble territory, and it took a lot to right himself. ”On the screen,” he says matter-of-factly, ”I never had the luck I’ve had in the theater.”
Plummer soldiered on through a decent number of good roles and many more awful ones after von Trapp. (Exhibit A: He actually played a character named Shitty in a 1990 John Boorman misfire called Where the Heart Is.) Along the way, he found great happiness with his third wife, Elaine Regina Taylor, whom he married circa 1970. (Plummer and his first wife, Tammy Grimes, divorced in 1960 after a four-year marriage; they had one daughter, fellow thespian Amanda.) And ever since his Tony award-winning performance in 1997’s Barrymore, Plummer has been on a character-man renaissance streak. Michael Mann tapped him to play Mike Wallace in The Insider. Ron Howard cast him as the psychiatrist in A Beautiful Mind, and Oliver Stone made him Aristotle in Alexander. We sat down with him at length on a recent October afternoon to discuss one of his latest, most promising acting adventures, Terrence Malick’s The New World (a retelling of the Pocahontas tale due in December), as well as his stage roots. So let’s start, in the words of the immortal musical that will hound him to his grave, at the very beginning.