The Performer: Christopher Plummer

On the joys of work and fine bourbon, the perils of retirement, and leadership lessons from the Bard.

Most actors would be happy to succeed in live theatre or in the movies. Christopher Plummer is revered in both art forms. Fresh off an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Last Station, he will return to his home province of Ontario to play Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Stratford Festival this summer. He spoke with Canadian Business editor Steve Maich.

Christopher Plummer’s greatest roles

Cyrano de Bergerac
Stratford, Ont., 1962

The Sound of Music

King Lear
New York, 2004

The Last Station

Which single attribute would you say has been the most instrumental to your personal success?
That’s a difficult question, because there’s more than one, of course. But I think the most valuable thing is enjoyment. I think joy is the primary requisite for someone in my profession, not only to succeed, but to last. If you have fun doing what you’re doing — and I have enormous fun doing my job — I think longevity is almost guaranteed.

I read once that you said work is the key to feeling young. Do you still believe that to be true?
Absolutely. Oh, God, yes! I mean, if I stopped now I’d go berserk with nothing to do except, obviously, things around the house, and tennis and stuff like that. There’s so much more I want to learn in my profession. It’s non-stop learning, you know. That’s what’s so wonderful about the arts — you can never be definitive in anything because it just goes on and on, and the more creative you are the less you really know.

Where does your energy come from?
Well, I don’t know. I came out of a school of acting that goes back to the golden age of Broadway — you know, the ’50s — and I think we all had a desperate sort of joie de vivre in those days that perhaps doesn’t exist too much now. I think we all had more fun back then, when we were drinking a lot. I think the energy of bourbon and scotch has kept me in good stead all my life! My mother came from the post — First World War era, and that generation had enormous energy, much more than, I think, parents now have. The people who lived through it, it gave them a kind of special guts, and a fight in their soul. I don’t see that energy in these present generations.

Do you feel like you’ve been able to hold on to that fight in your soul yourself?
Oh, yes, I got a lot from that period, you know, and hung on to it, because we weren’t all so blessed then. I mean, you had to work a little harder to get things. Things are made so easy for us now, there’s not much struggle.

What sorts of things in particular?
Well today, for instance, science has forged ahead and we have computers. We can get whatever we want now, and if I was a young person growing up, I would probably just waste away like a lot of the kids are today, sitting in front of their computers, not exercising, not really reading, not going to other countries, or to the theatre or the museums. Everyone is rather complacent now. You see, then we had to fight for things a bit more, and I think that was good for us.

Now, obviously when you have a schedule like yours, you’ve gotta stay healthy. How do to approach things like diet and exercise?
Well, you know, fortunately I’m married to an extraordinary cook. She cooks the most extraordinarily well-balance meals. She knows how to make it taste wonderful, and also keep you slim. That’s a gift, and I’m very grateful for that. Also I work out, I play tennis still, and I go to the gym. And my whole profession is on my feet so, you know, we’re always using our bodies somehow in our work; we’re not sitting at a desk.

You recently won rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for your role in the The Last Station, based on the life of Leo Tolstoy. How important is critical acclaim to you at this stage?
Well, the critics that I grew up with in the theatre, both in London and in New York, were a marvellous set of people, actually. I’m not talking about the average critic; I’m talking about the top critics, people like Brooks Atkinson and Walter Kerr, and Kenneth Tynan in England. The list is not long because they were exceptional; they knew their stuff. So if you got reviewed by them — which I was several times — and they ticked you off, you really respected their opinion because they really loved the theatre and were out to protect it from being mediocre, and I trusted those guys. There are not as many now. There are one or two that are still terrific that I read. And the bad ones you forget. I don’t read them!

Looking back, what are you most proud of?
Oh, God, I’m not proud of myself. I’m never really proud of what I do because I know I could always do better. I’m proud of other people, I’m proud of my daughter, who I think is a sensational actress, but if you caught me being proud of myself, wow, that would be embarrassing. And I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou when I say that;I really mean that. But when did I have the most fun? I suppose playing the great parts like Henry V when I was 26 and we went over to the Edinburgh Festival and it was a success, being in London in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, playing Becket, which won all the prizes. Those sorts of things.

Are there any moments in your career that stick out as not a lot of fun?
Oh, yes, some terrible films, for example, that one surely does for money — there are always those — and certain directors I’ve come across that I would rather not have, who don’t know anything about what they’re doing and so they start being fussy and over-intellectual and pretentious. I can’t stand that. I have lots of stories, funny stories, about terrible fights I’ve had with directors. It’s great fun. I love it.

Tell us something about how you like to prepare on the day of the show?
I tell you, I don’t talk about that very much because I think we should preserve what mystery we can in the business. We need to keep the acting profession protected from peering eyes. I don’t want the public to really know what I’m doing backstage before I come on. The world is shrunken, there’s so little mystery these days in anything.

Fair enough. You like the work to speak for itself. Do you think Shakespeare has anything to teach us still about things like leadership and success?
Oh, yes, I think so. You can learn an enormous amount from all the history plays of Shakespeare. Shakespeare gives you an extraordinary view on how to behave with success, how to be modest with it. For instance, let’s take Henry V. He is a young king about to win all the battles with a very small army. During the end of the play, he takes his success with grace and modesty, and I think there’s a huge lesson there.