The Golden Globes were abuzz this year with talk of the nominees’ efforts to get their parts right: the eight months Gary Oldman spent becoming Winston Churchill, for instance, or Daniel Day-Lewis learning to stitch a Balenciaga gown from scratch. Not so for Christopher Plummer, who was nominated for best supporting actor at the awards for playing the octogenarian oil tycoon J Paul Getty in All the Money in the World. When he was cast in the role, he just put down the telephone and packed his suitcase. And “three or four days later”, he wryly explains, he found himself on set. This isn’t how the 88-year-old veteran prefers to work. His career has been something of a lifelong slow burn: theatre in his mid-twenties, then popular stardom 10 years later, thanks to The Sound of Music, in which he played Captain von Trapp. Widespread critical acclaim followed only in his seventies thanks to a series of notable screen roles — in films like The Insider, A Beautiful Mind and Syriana — which captured a grandeur honed by years of stage Shakespeare. But in this unprecedented case, slow burn was no good. The story begins last October, when the original version of the film — a true-life thriller about the 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s teenage grandson — was all but complete, with 58-year-old Kevin Spacey in the role of Getty, beneath a mask of old-age make-up. But then allegations of sexual assault were made against Spacey, which director Ridley Scott realised had made the film untouchable six weeks before its US release. Scott’s solution was to reassemble the leading cast, including Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg, and reshoot all of Spacey’s 22 scenes with Plummer in nine days flat. Postponing a long-planned break on the east coast of Florida, Plummer happily agreed. “I admired Ridley’s daring,” he says. “He likes to take risks, and I do too.”
When he took the role, did he realise it would put him back on to the awards-season treadmill? “Oh yes,” he beams. “When I read it, it was clear to me that it was a classic role. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.” Fortunately, he didn’t have to. How much preparation did he actually manage to squeeze in? “Absolutely none at all,” he roars. But, of course, he’s downplaying it, and goes on to describe “cramming” the script. “Memorising the lines was quite a chore in that short space of time,” he says. “I found I was OK, because my training in the theatre has helped me retain my memory.” As for what he was able to dig up on Getty: “He was such a mysterious recluse, there’s very little on him. So even if I’d had all the time in the world, I wouldn’t have picked up anything much.” Even the voice proved elusive. “There’s very little of it to be heard — just some poor recordings in a monotone. So I had to use my imagination. But I think we ended up getting a pretty close approximation of the character — without wearing ridiculous prosthetics, or anything like that,” he adds. Take that, Kevin. Done and dusted in less than a fortnight or not, his performance as Getty is extraordinary: an icy, Lear-like character study, but with a sliver of humanity still twitching in its heart. Does he think his younger self — say, the dashing 35-year-old who appeared in The Sound of Music — could have carried it off at the same speed? “Oh God, you won’t bring that up!” he groans. The musical is not a personal favourite: in his memoirs, he refers to it as “S&M”. But could he have done it? “I’m not sure,” he muses. “I certainly would have baulked at it.” The reshoots took place in Rome and at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, which stood in for Getty’s Sutton Place estate. They added $10 million to the film’s original $40 million budget — although for Scott, the decision to replace Spacey was first and foremost a commercial one.
For Plummer, it came down to ethics: specifically that old actor’s maxim that the show must go on, not least for the sake of the hundreds of actors and crew members whose work on the film would otherwise have gone to waste. “It was quite clear I had to do it,” he says. “And don’t forget, in the theatre, this happens all the time.” This is, oddly, not the first time in his career that the Canadian actor has served as an emergency Plummer. He almost ended up playing the title role in the 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle. “God, that was funny!” he says. “Rex [Harrison] had a disagreement with either the director or the studio — I can’t remember what drove him to suddenly walk off the picture, but walk off he did.” At the time, Plummer had been staying with Harrison at the actor’s villa in Portofino, Italy, during both men’s serious drinking days, but only learnt that Harrison had left the film when he got home. “Then my agent called me and said, ‘How would you like to replace him?’ And I thought, ‘Jesus, what a long weekend that was’.” Plummer got the part. “And the minute Rex heard I was doing it, he said, ‘It’s OK, I’m coming back now’,” he laughs. “I got paid my full salary for doing absolutely b--- all.” Plummer was born in 1929, the great-grandson of the Canadian prime minister and railway baron John Abbot, but the evaporation of the family’s fortune and his parents’ divorce meant he was raised by his mother alone, who worked two jobs to make ends meet. “In those days divorce was a disgrace, and a lot of my mother’s friends turned their backs on her. It was awful, absolutely awful,” he says. “What I learnt from her, I don’t know. But I learnt a lot — and used it in lots of work.” That’s one reason he has kept returning to Shakespeare, a mainstay of his 60 years on stage. “The great roles have such wonderful opportunities to do anything you want with them,” he says. “You can use all sorts of personal things without the audience knowing where the hell it’s coming from.” These days, he often finds himself reflecting that he is in the middle of his own fifth act. “I thought I was going to vanish off the face of the earth in my fourth, but now I have more attention coming,” he chuckles. Working back, the third-act climax might have been the Sixties and Seventies, when he reconciled a string of splashy film roles — from John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King to The Return of the Pink Panther — with a sturdy stage career, including a spell in repertory at the National Theatre and a Tony Award-winning run in the title role of the musical Cyrano. That would put the start of act four in the late Nineties, with his casting in the Michael Mann drama The Insider. “It was a good movie and an important movie, and it gave me a leg up into another class altogether,” he says. “The scripts that I got to read, the parts that were offered to me, were of a much higher calibre, and have stayed the same since.” (He won his Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe just six years ago, all for Mike Mills’s Beginners — making him the oldest winner of a competitive Academy Award on the books.) As for the curtain, the thought doesn’t seem to trouble him. “I want to keep working in my fifth act, until I drop dead,” he says. “You know, things were coming to an end, and I thought ‘I suppose I’ve got to retire now,’ even though I didn’t want to. Then Ridley called me.” The show must go on, after all. Just try to stop it.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018