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Christopher Plummer’s route to the Oscars the stuff of legend

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World
Christopher Plummer
Ridley Scott’s film, All the Money in the World, was pretty much a wrap when the filmmaker approached Christopher Plummer to replace Kevin Spacey and reshoot all the J. Paul Getty scenes in just nine days.

With his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for All The Money In The World, Christopher Plummer becomes the oldest acting nominee ever, at age 88.

He already held the record as the oldest Oscar winner in a competitive category, which he won at age 82 for his performance in Beginners.

Plummer has won Tonys, an Oscar, a BAFTA, a SAG, and a few Emmys over the course of his 60-plus year career (not to mention a Vancouver Film Critics Circle award, in 2012 for Beginners) but some people will always associate the Toronto-born actor with Captain von Trapp from The Sound of Music, a fact that rankles him and that I’m careful not to bring up during our interview at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I much prefer roles based in reality,” he says. “If you can sprinkle them with a certain amount of accuracy it’s more fun.”

Earlier in this holiday season viewers saw Plummer as not-quite-reality-based Ebenezer Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas; in All The Money in the World, released Christmas Day, he played a miser of a different sort: J. Paul Getty, the world’s richest man at the time his teenaged grandson was kidnapped and ransomed. Getty, who famously installed a pay phone in his mansion, refused to pay.

By now, Plummer’s last-minute replacement of Kevin Spacey is the stuff of legend: Ridley Scott’s film was pretty much a wrap when the sexual assault allegations against Spacey surfaced. The Getty character commands an awful lot of screen time, but Scott approached Plummer with the mad idea that they reshoot all the Getty scenes in just nine days. In November. In time for a Christmas Day opening. It was a challenge that would intimidate most 20-somethings, never mind a man pushing 90.

“You think I’m in my 80s? How strange,” Plummer says, his eyes twinkling. He launches into a story about being at airport security and reading the sign permitting people 70 and over to keep their shoes on. Plummer started to apologize to the TSA agent and tell him his age when “he interrupted me and said ‘yeah, I know, you don’t have to take your shoes off’ and I thought ‘son of a bitch, how awful!’”

“My 80s... It doesn’t feel like it. You can hide behind more youthful people, which I try to do all the time. I don’t feel 80, and I think because I’m in the theatre and the film business, it just keeps you young.”

Plummer started off in the theatre, headlining for London’s National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company before making Stage Struck with Sidney Lumet in 1958. “I didn’t think I was very good in it and I didn’t think the film was very good, even though Sidney is a wonderful director,” Plummer says. “But I thought ‘the money is awfully attractive’ because I was working very hard in the theatre – all the time on Broadway, I never stopped right through the ’50s – and then suddenly I thought ‘that’s good, I’ll go and be a movie actor for a while’.”

The actor doesn’t have much artistic praise for the movies he made in the 1960s. “Most of them were awful,” he says. “There were a few wonderful ones but you could count them on one hand. The rest of them were terrible.” He blames the excess of money floating around the movie business at the time, and wine-soaked three-hour lunches: “We came back to go on shooting and couldn’t remember anybody or who the hell we were, so we’d go home. If you go see those movies now, you think ‘my God, they’re so slow, get on with it,’ and of course we were all drunk!”

But Plummer survived both the excesses of the decade and the scathing reviews, a fact that he credits to his continuous work in the theatre. “I think it’s probably because of the theatre reputation … I’ve stuck it out since I was 18 professionally and I think that has something to do with it.”

Classical theatrical roles gave Plummer a concrete foundation for any movie role that came his way, eliminating a lot of the self-doubt from which actors suffer. “If you’ve been lucky enough or foolhardy enough to play the great roles like Lear, Iago,” (Plummer has played both), “you don’t come across another great character with any awe at all: you’ve played the greatest that playwrights ever wrote, you can’t get better than that. So you have a rather distinct snobbish attitude,” he laughs, before qualifying, “That’s not entirely true because I have great respect for a well-written character whether it’s classical or not. But it helps us get over our youthful awe of these people, to have played then in the theatre.”

He favoured roles based on real characters starting with Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1975’s The Day That Shook The World and Rudyard Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King. Plummer earned some of his best reviews as journalist Mike Wallace in The Insider, played Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station and portrayed exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II in 2017’s The Exception, though of that role he confesses “there was no point going mad with research, I just wanted to wear all those hundred uniforms that he owned!”

I can’t resist asking him about a film in which he wore an entirely different kind of costume, 1978’s The Silent Partner (directed by West Vancouver’s Daryl Duke), in which he plays a crooked Santa Claus trying to recoup stolen money from bank teller Elliott Gould. Plummer remembers it perfectly: they shot scenes at Eaton’s on Yonge street in Toronto, and it was Elaine – Plummer’s wife of 47 years – who suggested that the character should come at the end dressed as a woman after repeatedly appearing as Santa. “It made sense because his big thing was he hated women, he wanted to become one,” he muses. “So they bought me a Chanel suit, sling-back shoes, and I ran up the escalator and got shot from behind.... Great theatrical depth, I loved that.”

Forty years later he is nominated for another movie centred on crime, money and greed, a film in which he dominates, entertains and infuriates. Judi Dench won a Best Supporting Actress award for a mere eight minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love; is it so far-fetched that Plummer might win another Best Supporting Actor award for nine days of work? 

The actor is just thankful for the longevity of a career well-lived. “They all came one after the other. Famous actual living or dead creatures just kind of fell into my lap, it’s interesting. And I’m very grateful for it.”

If you hurry, you can still see All The Money in the World in theatres.

The 90th Academy Awards airs March 4.