Show must go on for ‘slow-burn’ actor burning bright

Christopher Plummer
Christopher Plummer tells Robbie Collin about being the 11th-hour replacement for Kevin Spacey in ’All the Money in the World’

Awards season is 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 plays 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. Three or four days later, 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 teen 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 re-shoot all of Spacey’s 22 scenes with Plummer in nine days flat. Plummer happily agreed. “I admired Ridley’s daring,” he said. “He likes to take risks, and I do too.
“When I read it, it was clear to me it was a classic role. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.”
How much preparation did he 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. 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 added. 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.

For Plummer taking on the role came down to ethics: specifically the old actor’s maxim that the show must go on, not least for the sake of the hundreds of actors and crew whose work on the film would otherwise have gone to waste.

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.

He often finds himself reflecting that he is now 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 chuckled. – The Telegraph

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