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Christopher Plummer talks about Leo Tolstoy, and Heath Ledger

Susan King
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Christopher Plummer has barely taken a breather since the publication in 2008 of his autobiography, "In Spite of Myself." The charming 80-year-old Canadian-born actor was in four movies last year — three of which have received Oscar attention:

He has the title role in Terry Gilliam's surreal fantasy "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" (which earned art direction and costume design nominations); he was the voice of Charles Muntz, the maniacal explorer with a pack load of talking dogs in Disney-Pixar's "Up," nominated for best picture and animated feature; and he played the octogenarian Russian author Leo Tolstoy in "The Last Station," for which the academy bestowed a supporting actor nomination. That film, written and directed by Michael Hoffman, takes place in 1910, the traumatic final year in the life of the "War and Peace" novelist. Helen Mirren plays his forceful wife, Sofya, who desperately tries to thwart her husband from signing over the rights to his books to the Russian people.

Plummer chatted about his banner year recently over a double espresso at the venerable Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills.

———

Question: Did you shoot "The Last Station" in Russia?

Answer: We shot it outside of East Berlin in the countryside, which looks a bit Russian. We were going to go to Tolstoy's house in Russia, but it's not terribly cinematic. It really almost looks like it's on its last legs. It's sort of a hut.

———

Q. Despite being an aristocrat and the most famous novelist in Russia during his lifetime, Tolstoy eschewed his trappings of wealth and privilege.

A. He lived a very modest life on purpose. He was the early socialist of his time. He had 70 some servants and he would insist on eating with them at the table — except at parties where he had them all dressed in livery! But in normal life, he refused to think he was a count. He believed everybody was equal. He was a marvelous character and such a maverick of his time — way ahead of everybody. So human.

———

Q. Tolstoy's relationship with his wife was so complex and tumultuous. Did she really get to see Tolstoy on his death bed?

A. I guess she was a tough customer too. In real life, he wouldn't allow her (into his room). She was barred from the door at the end. But in the movie we had to have some sort of closure.

———

Q. You have played several real people, including John Barrymore, for which you won the Tony Award, Mike Wallace in "The Insider" and now Tolstoy. How do you approach that?

A. I read what I could on Tolstoy. I have read his books, but not all of them. They take forever. I think I'm still finishing them! I also watched him in the documentaries. But you never hear him speak, so I gave him a natural sort of low deep tone. Once you have established the persona, then you can become yourself (as the character). Once you do that, like I did with Mike Wallace, then you are free to do what you want.

———

Q. After your "Parnassus" co-star Heath Ledger died, Terry Gilliam cast his friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play his character in the fantasy sequences.

A. I tell you, when I saw the movie for the first time, we were all on tenterhooks wondering how they would meld Heath into these other characters. Johnny Depp was so subtle the way he turned the character into himself. There was an hommage to Heath, and then he very politely and subtly took over. That was lovely.


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