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Christopher Plummer Rocks Tolstoy's Beard in The Last Station

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Veteran actor Christopher Plummer has been in our global consciousness since he played Captain Von Trapp in 1965 Best Picture winner The Sound of Music. Since then, in addition to near-constant work in the theatre, he has played Rudyard Kipling, King Herod, Sherlock Holmes, and Mike Wallace, in addition to a seminal role in Twelve Monkeys and countless narration gigs. (That voice!)

The Last Station: Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy

 

2009 may have been the busiest year of Plummer's later film career, with lead roles in both The Last Station and Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in addition to his voice work in both Pixar’s smash hit Up and Tim Burton’s sleeper 9. With The Last Station, Plummer tackles another iconic character: the Russian author—and charismatic leader of an anarchist movement—Leo Tolstoy. In writer/director Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of the historical novel by Jay Parini of the same name, Tolstoy is at the end of his long and tumultuous life, and his relationship with his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) is strained by his friendship with the manipulative Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). For dramatic effect, the situation is keenly observed through the eyes of a young disciple, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), who is simultaneously inspired and perhaps disillusioned—or at least confused—by some of his mentor’s actions.

The film plays like a Chekhovian drama, complete with Russian estates, forbidding landscapes, big ideas, and grand pronouncements. It’s a delight to see so many fine actors in an ensemble piece (rounded out by Kerry Condon and Anne-Marie Duff), one with the lofty goal of summing up an astounding life at the point that it’s winding down into history.

When Tribeca Film talked with Plummer at a roundtable last month, it was a little overwhelming to be in the presence of such an icon in his own right. At 82, Plummer is still bright, vital and easily amused, with a distinct twinkle in his blue, blue eyes. Enjoy!

Was The Last Station an irresistible project for you?

Christopher Plummer: It was the script. It was wise to pick the last moments of [Tolstoy and his wife Sofya’s] lives together as the most humanizing moments, [moments] of agony and joy and passion. So I thought, yes, that’s great. People will perhaps go away thinking that Tolstoy isn’t the dry old socks that a lot of people think he is because he’s so remote to us.

How did you prepare for a role like this? Did you feel burdened by his larger-than-life—

CP: No, not at all, because I’ve played much larger than life creatures than Tolstoy.  What I did feel is that I had to do it simply, instinctively, because there’s really so little research. And when I say there is little research, I don’t mean that there hasn’t been reams of stuff written about him—his letters are the most inciting, enlightening things, I think, and I’ve read [some of] them. And that helped in understanding the humanity of the man, on the private side.

The Last Station: Leo and Sofya Tolstoy

How much rehearsal did you have with Helen Mirren? The two of you have such a dynamic give and take.

CP: We hardly rehearsed at all, because we didn’t have any time. [But] that was all easy and fun. Again, I use the word fun, because Helen and I have been in the business long enough to know that if you don’t have fun doing it, then you’d better get the hell out!

You’ve had so many amazing leading ladies in your career. How does Helen Mirren compare?

CP: Well, first of all, she’s one of the sexiest leading ladies I’ve ever had! Helen is extraordinary. She’s lasted through thick and thin, like some of us have, and she’s just so young in spirit and incredibly vital and funny and naughty and rich in talent—I could go on forever. I think she’s a marvelous actress. And such a fun human being—we just rolled around on the floor laughing most of the time. It was great fun to work with her, and so easy. [The Last Station is] is a sort of love story of a wonderful, dysfunctional marriage.

What have been some of the turning points in your acting career?

CP: I’ve been very lucky, I’ve never been out of work [knocks on the table] since I was a kid. Just amazing luck. But I suppose that on the screen things did change for me after I played Mike Wallace, not because it was such a huge, substantial role, but more it was just a fascinating role. It was an important movie, in a funny way. And the scripts that were sent to me got better, suddenly.

Was there a moment of clarity when you just knew you had nailed it, that you could be Tolstoy?

CP: Oh, no, you never know if you nailed it. You try every day to get more unassuming. It’s almost impossible to play a genius, because everyone else has to tell the audience that you ARE a genius. You can’t possibly say that yourself—you’d be booed off the screen. So you try to make him as unassuming and humble as possible, because the authority is already there.

It was easy to fairly look like Tolstoy, because he was such an outrageously different looking creature anyway. When I played Rudyard Kipling, that was quite easy too, because I all I had to do was put on this HUGE mustache! And immediately, anyone could look like Rudyard Kipling. So that was the performance—I didn’t have to work at all. [grins]

Read the whole article at Tribeca Film.com.

The Last Station opens on Friday, January 15, at the Paris and Angelika theaters in New York, and at the Landmark in LA. Find tickets. See the release dates for other cities as it expands.